BUFFALO, N.Y. -- For several years, teams of University at
Buffalo archaeologists from the Buffalo Archaeological Survey have
conducted digs in downtown Buffalo along what was the Erie Canal.
The artifacts they've found, when considered together, help
describe how Buffalonians lived and worked from the early 1800s
This summer, they're conducting a "public outreach dig" under
the Skyway and invite the community to come down on Aug. 18 and 22,
from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., to visit the dig site, observe its operation
and speak with the archaeologists and historians working there.
The site is bounded by Main Street and Hanover Street, east of
the Skyway Pier. Hanover Street runs between Marine Drive and Prime
The project manager, historian Nathan Montague, is a research
support technician in the UB Department of Anthropology, which
houses the survey. He is directing the dig as part of the Erie
Canal Harbor Development Corp.'s Canalside Visitor Experience
Its mission is not only to excavate the area, but to educate the
public about the canal and canal life, generate interest in the
canal excavation and restoration work, and help people understand
the work of archaeologists in general.
"We're in the early stages of excavating this dig site," he
says, " but previous digs we've conducted nearby have uncovered
pipe stems and other personal items, dinner plates, commercial
objects, a lot of brick and mortar, coal dust and ash, and
something that could be a cannonball or part of a ship's ballast.
We will probably find similar items and even may find a few
During much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Buffalo was a major
international industrial and grain transport city, largely because
of its waterfront and the Erie Canal, which cut a swath through
what are now downtown streets.
"The canal was right downtown, so there was a great deal of
commercial activity along this stretch of the waterfront for the
better part of two centuries," Montague says.
The canal's main body, plus its many slips and adjuncts, covered
a lot of territory. It ran southwest parallel to the harbor and
ended at the Commercial (Street) Slip, where it met Lake Erie and
the Buffalo River. Most of the harbor section of the canal was
filled in by the 1920s, which is why we don't "remember" where it
"So this spot now looks like an abandoned field," Montague says,
"but four- and five-story brick buildings once covered the entire
block of land on which we are digging.
"The lower floors of those buildings typically housed businesses
like warehouses, wholesale groceries, taverns, insurance companies
and hardware stores, while upper floors were used for lodging or
storage. Most of the buildings likely were erected in the 1830s and
the last ones weren't torn down until the early 1970s," he
"Artifacts from the site will tell us the stories of the people
who lived and worked here when the Canalside neighborhood was the
center of Buffalo's -- and the nation's -- economy," he says.
He says the dig offers the public has a unique opportunity to
get a sense of the layout of this area and how it has changed
dramatically over the past century, and to see how urban
archaeology is conducted and what it has to teach us.
The Archaeological Survey is a not-for-profit research,
contracting and applied archaeology institution within the UB
Department of Anthropology. It has been engaged in cultural
resource management projects for more than 30 years. The
institution manages artifact collections and information about
historic and prehistoric archaeological sites and buildings in
Western New York.