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UB archaeologists continue Erie Canal dig

By PATRICIA DONOVAN

Published June 13, 2013

“This excavation is helping to uncover and present artifacts that serve as testaments to a rich and fascinating aspect of Buffalo’s history that many of us hardly know.”
Nathan Montague, excavation director
Department of Anthropology

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 UB’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. The site will be marked with large banners that feature historical photos, descriptions of the area during the last century and descriptions of the dig itself.

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 5, 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.

Canalside dig 2013

The Skyway looms overhead as Nathan Montague (left) and James Dietterich focus on their work.

Photo: Douglas Levere

Excavation director Nathan Montague, senior research support specialist in the 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 says.

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 Harbor.

Canalside dig 2013

Among the artifacts found at the dig site was a green-glass bottle. Photo: Douglas Levere

“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 says.

“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 west.”

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 area.

 “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 as testaments to a rich and fascinating aspect of Buffalo’s history that many of us hardly know.”

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