A History of Brewing and Drinking in Buffalo

By Stepehen R. Powell

Chapter III

Was Buffalo the Saloon Capitol of the World?


By the 1860’s the industrial revolution was in its prime, untaxed by the federal government. Rockefeller, Morgan, and Vanderbuilt, among other "tycoons", had developed new fundamental business concepts which dramatically changed the way Americans did business. The development and implementation of "the corporation" was the key to all this change. No longer could the "little guy" operate on his own. No "one" could compete against the co-operatives and companies which had emerged as the strongest faction in American business at the time. Individual brewers responded by forming co-operatives and corporations which consisted of the resources of many business men acting as one. In order for companies to stay competitive, corporations started doing more and more of their own "total manufacturing" of products. As an example, a brewery that had once only brewed its own beer now started brewing and kegging, in addition to making the kegs themselves. Some even bought the trains used to transport the finished product. Combined, all these innovations served to slowly drive out the smaller, individually-owned businesses. Smaller businesses couldn’t buy things at the low prices the big guys could, and in turn could not sell their product at a competitive price. One by one they fell to this trend, which was closely linked to the development of technologies like rail and refrigeration as well as the biggie, electricity.

While this change in industry was taking place, Buffalo’s saloon industry experienced a boom of its own, starting with the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. It was going full tilt by the 1860s.

Almost all of the beer and liquor produced in America in the nineteenth century was consumed in the taverns and saloons. Although they were privately owned, saloons were seen as "public institutions" by society. The brewers did not let this fact go unnoticed and most of them saw saloons as money machines. Brewers figured that, since they made the beer that was consumed in hotels and saloons, why not buy them. That way they could control what beer was sold in them. The result was that many brewers across the country became saloon owners. The tavern was a family-oriented establishment, functioning chiefly as a community meeting place where people ate meals and held meetings not unlike the pub’s that exists in Ireland today. The saloons, however, were a different story. Catering to men only, these were not places where women or children were welcome (except in a laborers capacity; cleaning up or cooking). Saloons were often the site of gambling, drunkenness, and prostitution, among other undesirable activities. It was the saloon that gained a bad reputation over the years.

Tom McCormick’s Ganson House down along Buffalo’s waterfront (Courtesy BECHS)

A Bar on Every Corner

From time to time some Buffalo residents have boasted that once the city had one of the highest per capita number of bars and taverns of any city in the world. "A bar on every corner," some would say. Many of the local breweries in order to deal with the competition, bought or financed many of the corner bars that served their beer. This contributed to the great number of corner establishments in Buffalo. In fact, Buffalo’s largest brewery of the time, Lang's, owned 80 of them.1 This arrangement allowed the brewery to "give" beer to the saloon and to control where and whose beer was sold.

In fact, the stories of a bar on every street corner in Buffalo were very close to being true. There were some 500 taverns and gaming houses in Buffalo by 1850, according to the Ladies Temperance Union.2 This made a ratio of one saloon for every eighty-four residents (including women and children). This disproportionately large number of taverns also meant that crime and disorderliness was sure to be a big issue. The Temperance activists weren’t imagining the social troubles caused by excessive indulgence; according to the Buffalo Daily Courier of January 7, 1856 there were: " 2,243 arrests for the year, 1,792 of which " are chargeable to drunkenness and disorderly conduct," some 106 more than the city's first police chief, Samuel W. Bangall, had attributed to liquor in 1854." 3

By 1893 there were 2,512 saloons, 150 hotels, 129 stores, and 97 boarding houses where one could buy beer.4 According to The Christian Homestead Association there were 75 brothels, and over 120 saloons in the old canal district alone.5 This meant there was one saloon for every 100 people in the city.

Dating back to the pioneer days in America, the tavern keeper was a respected man in town. It was he who was host to out-of-town visitors and regular townfolk alike. Because of this, tavern keepers served as links to the outside world.

A Profile of a Tavern Keeper: Anthony J. McGowan

It was not uncommon for the tavern keeper to become involved in local politics in the late nineteenth century. Often they were elected and occupied the position of aldermen or other higher posts, demonstrating the tremendous influence they possessed.

The following is the story of a man named Anthony J. McGowan who came to Buffalo from County Clare, Ireland and became a tavern keeper. The Buffalo Anthony J. McGowan encountered when he arrived at the Exchange Street railroad station was one of greatness and promise, but to many others it would be one of poverty, despair, and corruption. By the 1890's the wild days of the canal district in Buffalo were fading, but the city still had lots of saloons. Here is an excerpt from his autobiography:

The life history of A.J. McGowan. Born on the 14th of March- 1869- of Irish parents, at a little town called Grey Grove in the parish of Kilmihil County Clare Ireland.

Immigrated from that dear little country at the age of sixteen years and one month. and set sail for my adopted country on the good ship named the City of Chicago on the 19th day of May-1886-arrived at the harbor of NY several days later and was taken into old Castle Garden and remained there for a few hours until a friend called and took me out of there, and what a relief… He was in the liquor business in Brooklyn and naturally the first thing he done was take me in to a restaurant for a good dinner on the N. end of the Brooklyn Bridge... So we arrived at his place of business and stayed there for about one hour... he took me back to the saloon with him. He kept introducing me to all his customers as they came in... Near here (Buffalo) is where life started after a few days in NY I decided to make the trip to Buffalo, the grandest city in the world and after a few days I arrived at the old Erie Rail Road at Exchange and Michigan St. and was met at the station by a policeman named John Pyne who was known by all the tuff characters from Buffalo to San Francisco and he took me to my brothers home at Fulton and Chicago St. and after 2 weeks rest I applied for a job to Mr. Cunningham as a scooper better known now as grain forwarding.


…I appealed to Mr. Kennedy for a job who at that time had charge of all the freight coming into the Port of Buffalo. Worked at that line for a few months and things started to get quiet on the water front and one afternoon we were sitting on a tow board at the end of the in Bound freight house and in a general conversation he asked me how I'd like a job bartending. I said anything would be better than what we were doing at the present time. With the result I started the next morning tending bar at-19-Main St. which at that time was one of the most prominent parts of Buffalo. He paid his men every Saturday about-5-o'clock and when he finished paying them he got up to the bar and said I was the greatest man that ever got behind his bar and raised my pay-2-dollars and said if I stayed with him the he would put me on the police force and saying this in the presence of all those men made me a king in their eyes.

Later, Anthony J. McGowan was to become the manager of James Kennedy's Seabreaze Hotel on "The Island" off the foot of Main St. In 1897, he opened his own tavern at 206 Elk Street near the corner of Smith St. Mr. McGowan quickly became involved in local politics, becoming Democratic General Committeeman in the First Ward shortly after his arrival Buffalo. His rise into local politics continued in 1908, when he was appointed to the Department of Markets by then Mayor J.N. Adam and served as assistant superintendent in charge of the Elk Street market for 31 years. He later worked in the same capacity at the Black Rock Market after the Elk St. market closed in 1939. McGowan’s life in Buffalo shows us a personal side of one of Buffalo’s most diverse industries. Taverns crossed many social barriers of the time and also served to form a bond among working class men.

The Boss Saloon System

The United States of the mid-to-late nineteenth century saw the development of the first so called "mega-corporations." The coal, railroad, and oil industries were on a steep growth curve, the coal industry using up workers as if they were disposable. For each job available in the mines, there were ten men waiting in line for the next opening.

Many of these new industrial giants were exploiting the working class, thus creating a fundamental change in the way the public viewed them. Many workers adopted Socialistic, Communist, and Anarchist ideals and applied their beliefs toward their working situations. They began to organize into unions, which became very effective in getting the workers the compensation they deserved. For many, working conditions were poor and the hours long. Unions fought and succeeded in improving them. Soon there was a union for just about every industry, including cigar makers, horse team drivers (Teamsters), and of course, brewery workers.

By the late nineteenth century many, big business owners had extended their grasp of power via the many saloons that operated across town. Many of these men commanded companies that employed thousands, most of whom were laborers. The saloon was where most of the workers went to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Saloons were the breadbasket for these workers. Knowing that there was nowhere else for them to go, some powerful business men invested in saloons or developed symbiotic relationships with them. These relationships became known as the "Boss Saloon System" or "Company Store System."

In the late nineteenth century there was a particularly well-known proponent of this system named William J. Conners. Conners was a major power figure on the Buffalo waterfront. He had some five thousand men in his employ, mostly as laborers. Conners was also alleged to have many of his employees under the "company store" system--a man working for Conners on the docks, for example, would receive his pay (or part of it) for work at the docks via a local saloon (which Conners would also own). Since he owned both places he could deduct the worker’s bar bill from his pay. In addition the saloon/flophouse owner could also work out deals to have the workers rent deducted by this system as well. Many of the workers of the time had no other place to stay other than one of these hotels or flophouses. All too often the result was that the worker got little or none of his pay because he drank it or owed it for food or rent.

Trouble over the saloon system and their involvement with big business became evident in 1884. The Buffalo Express of May 3rd charged some of the inhabitants of the Canal Street section of Buffalo with incitement to riot, and of advocating the murder of Mayor Scoville. The Express charged that the instigators were certain saloon keepers who directed the resident laborers for political as well as business reasons. On May 22nd an ordinance was passed which required 115 saloons in the Canal Street vicinity to close at seven o'clock in the evening. 6

Another protestation was that some of the pay was in "chips" which could be cashed only in the saloon owned by the boss. Pay was about $1.40 for ten hours. The saloon system was charged chiefly against "Finky" Conners. The men desired pay by the hour at the rate of twenty-five cents.8

In 1899 unions further drove home how oppressive the "boss saloon" system was to the workers.

All was well until 1899 in the first week of May the dock men threatened a strike that would tie up all the lake business. The threatened strike centered about the grain shovelers, or scoopers, who had not been able to meet their demands. The scoopers demanded the end of the "boss system.".". This system required the workers to receive part of their pay in "chips," or tokens, which could be redeemed only in the saloon of the boss. Moreover, the scoopers demanded more pay and the end of the contract system as conducted by James Kennedy and W.J. Conners.9

The unions often displayed their power by staging marches. On May 5, 1899 the Shovelers Local No. 51 went out on strike. The response of the employer was, as usual, to bring in strikebreakers to put down the "rebellion". This time, though, the approach didn’t work. In fact, the strikebreakers themselves, either through intimidation or money, joined the ones they were hired to disperse.

The unions also had the support of some members of the church. One such supporter was local Catholic Bishop Quigley, who made the strikers feel that they had the moral right to go out on strike. On May 9,1899 Quigley and his strikers, twenty-five hundred strong, went on a march against poor working conditions and the saloon system. They went to St. Bridget's Hall on Louisiana Street and upon arrival the group made a line and the men removed their hats in honor of the Bishop who passed before them. During this meeting another church activist leader, Father Cronin, "stigmatized the saloon system as slavery." 10 By May 15th the two parties came to an agreement that would reform the old "saloon system."."... Included in it was the condition that "No bar bills or other accounts were to be deducted from the men's pay, no boss or paymaster could be interested in a saloon."11 This, unfortunately, didn’t mean a thing to employers like Conners, who upon resolution of the strike refused to take the workers back, sparking further action by the strikers. The fight continued into July of that year when Bishop Quigley accused fourteen bosses of engaging in the saloon business. At one point, the situation was so touchy that James Kennedy, saloon owner and local politician, had to fire his own brother, Thomas, to protect his image after it was made public that Thomas was engaged in the saloon system.

By the 1880s, Buffalo’s brewery workers had begun to unionize. The Brewer's Union, No. 7 was formed and went on to be affiliated with the national union and known as No. 4 in 1886. The next year the maltsters became unionized as Local No. 59. In 1891, the brewers and maltsters combined their unions and became known collectively as No. 59. Other tradesmen of the brewing industry also became unionized. The Beer Barrel Cooper's Union formed Local No. 93, and the Beer Driver’s Helpers and Stablemen's Union.12 These groups survived until Buffalo’s brewing industry went dormant in 1972.

The saloon system played an important part in the local industrial economy of the times. Interestingly enough, the "system" worked for many by providing a surrogate family for the homeless, and a place for transient workers to live and eat.

Original Photos Used in this book are courtesy of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society




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