BUFFALO, N.Y. – Once swampy grassland dotted with sheep,
then a booming center of the nation’s economy,
Buffalo’s Erie Canal neighborhood has lived many lives over
the past 200 years and now is giving up some of its secrets.
For the second year in a row, it is doing so through the
University at Buffalo’s popular Demonstration Archaeological
Excavation. The excavation is now open in downtown Buffalo’s
old Erie Canal neighborhood and archaeologists will be digging away
through the entire summer.
The site is directly across Main Street from the “Webster
block,” bounded by Main and Hanover streets east of the
Skyway. (See map: http://bit.ly/11CVdpJ.) The site
will be marked with large banners that feature historical photos,
descriptions of the area during the 19th century and of the dig
The public is invited to visit the site, observe its operation
and talk with archaeologists and historians working there about the
process of archaeology, what they’ve found and what it tells
us about life along the canal from the early 1800s onward.
Artifacts from the excavation and prior excavations will be
displayed and discussed in terms of their significance to our
understanding of the City of Buffalo from its earliest days.
The site was opened by backhoe on June 5. Hand excavation has
begun and will continue until the end of August from 9 a.m. to 4
p.m. (Cleanup begins at 3 p.m.) on the following days: June 15, 19
and 29; July 3, 13, 17, 27 and 31, and Aug. 7, 10 and 21.
The Canalside excavation is funded by the UB Department of
Anthropology, which houses the Archaeological Survey directing the
dig, and the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation as part of
the corporation’s Canalside Visitor Experience Program. The
project also has received assistance from the City of Buffalo and
Buffalo Place Inc.
Excavation director Nathan Montague, senior research support
specialist in the UB Department of Anthropology, says he expects
the project to produce new artifacts and present new information
about the site itself. Visitors are encouraged to return
often to check on the excavation’s progress
“The mission of this effort 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,” Montague says.
“Artifacts from the site will tell 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
At its terminus in Buffalo, 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
(crafted from Little Buffalo Creek), where it met Lake Erie and the
Buffalo River. Montague points out that most of the harbor section
of the canal was filled in by the 1930s, which is why we don't
"remember" where it was.
"So where we propose to dig is now an abandoned field,” he
says, “but four- and five-story brick buildings once covered
this entire block of land between the canal and the Buffalo
"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. Some of the buildings likely were erected in the 1830s and
the last ones weren't torn down until about 40 years ago.
“It’s hard to say what we’ll find down
there,” Montague 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, ash and something that could be a cannonball or
part of a ship's ballast.
“Last summer we turned up building materials, objects
related to daily use, ceramics and cups and parts of
children’s toys, and parts of tools – all evidence of
the daily lives of people living and working here. We will
probably find similar items and even may find a few
surprises,” he says.
The layout and use of this area has changed dramatically over
the years, Montague says. Before the canal, this block was
part of a swampy area at the bottom of the bluff where HSBC stands
today. “People would graze their sheep here,” he
“Once the canal arrived, products from the west –
grain, vegetables, finished items like shoes, etc. – came
through here in abundance as did an enormous range of products from
the east headed west. These were accompanied by swarms of
people who traveled in both directions and new retail
establishments that served their needs. Many, many thousands of
people worked here, lived here and stayed in hotels and shopped
while they waited to ship out in boats going east and
That certainly was one of the city’s maritime heydays.
Montague says that after the Civil War, more rail lines came in
and the canal traffic began to wane. By by end of 19th century, the
importance of this part of the waterfront diminished as a shipping
“Eventually,” he says, “Italian immigrants
moved into what was a tough, high-crime area, and their arrival was
marked by diminished crime and the establishment of more
residential and commercial activities. But the buildings
themselves eventually began to fall apart and by the 1930s Little
Italy was moving into the west side. By the 1940s most of those
buildings were demolished and by the 1970s, it was pretty much
finished as a residential or commercial site.”
Instead, there was the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, the Skyway
and wide, barren fields.
“It’s such an interesting experience for those of us
who live here now to be able to connect with a world we don’t
remember and can hardly imagine,” he says. “This
excavation is helping to uncover and present artifacts that serve
testaments to a rich and fascinating aspect of Buffalo’s
history that many of us hardly know.”