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Joseph Ellicott's original Buffalo street plan can be restored once downtown Skyway goes

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The Campaign for Greater Buffalo is proposing that The Terrace, a blocks-long public park and promenade linking several squares, be reconstructed as part of the state and federal project to remove all or parts of the Skyway.
The Campaign released proposals for the DL&W train shed and the Cloudwalk in January (see Cloudwalk: Skyway recycled), as part of the overall process to reinvigorate historic sites and re-establish the historic street patterns of Joseph Ellicott’s New Amsterdam plan, and the neighborhoods destroyed by highway construction and Urban Renewal. The Canal District streets and Central Wharf were the first fruits of that effort.

Until Frederick Law Olmsted's Park and Parkway system was laid out in the 1870's, Terrace Park was Buffalo's primary outdoor recreation and social space. You want a balloon ascension? The square at The Terrace and Church Street was the place. You want to build a market or raise a liberty pole? The square at The Terrace, Main & Lloyd was the spot.

The implementation of the Olmsted plan ironically led to the piecemeal destruction of the Terrace; The Terrace was largely forgotten as a civic space for the larger population. Its northern reaches between Court and Church streets became known mostly as neighborhood parks, its center section appropriated by the New York Central for its principal Belt Line and International station, and the southern section cut in half by a NY Central trench into the slope between Main and Evans streets.

Ellicott New Amsterdam proposed plan 1800
Joseph Ellicott’s first sketch of plan of Village of New Amsterdam, October 1800.
The steep slope—represented by black shading— fronting the lakeshore is the topographical feature which determined the orientation of streets. The slope between Seneca street and Court was set aside as a public park, Buffalo’s first, in Ellicott’s survey of 1803-4.

Terrace Park goes back to Joseph Ellicott’s very first sketch of his proposed Village of New Amsterdam. As Ellicott explained to his employers at the Holland Land Company in October 1800, New Amsterdam had lowlands at the western end of Lake Erie and along Buffalo Creek which, being flat and just four feet above the surface of the lake, could readily be laced with a network of canals and used for marine commerce. His canal at the foot of the Terrace and terminating at Little Buffalo Creek near Main Street so logically fit the natural geography that state engineers placed the Erie Canal along this path 25 years later. The lowlands ended at a steep slope, above which residential streets could be laid out from the upper terrace of land and eastward.

1872 Hopkins Terrace and Niagara Square
1872 map demonstrates the roles of border and promenade intended by Ellicott in his sketch of 1800.

The determining factor in his orientation of the entire future city was the disposition of the edge of the slope virtually parallel with the lake shore. He sketched lanes along the flat land at both the top of the slope and the bottom. Thus, Upper Terrace, Lower Terrace, and the sloping Terrace Park, set aside for public recreation. From the Upper Terrace, fine views of the Lake could be had, while the Lower Terrace could act as the interface between maritime commercial enterprises and the upper town.

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In addition to re-establishing Terrace Park, Campaign for Greater Buffalo proposes that economical housing be built to replace that taken for Skyway and the Waterfront Urban Renewal Area. This view, with stylized railroad crossing arms signifying a former use, to northwest from Erie Street. The roadway is a lane meant for access, not speed, flanked by broad sidewalks, bicycle paths, and a “logistics strip” for deliveries and drop-offs. On the right is a new mixed-use building that recalls St. Stephen’s Hall, where Grover Cleveland was nominated for mayor in 1871. It was demolished during the Depression.

Then, starting in the 1950s, the Skyway and Thruway set in train the events which would reduce the Terrace to a short stretch of stone wall between Genesee and Church streets. Everything else—parks, schools, apartment houses, commercial buildings, restaurants, corner stores, train station, civic gathering spots—was destroyed.

In the early 1880s, the city permitted the New York Central to build tracks across Main Street (these would shortly be routed through a tunnel) in exchange for establishing a passenger service on a belt line. The trench was cut across the slope to create a gradient to Church Street, where the tracks turned west to run along the Erie Canal. A Stick Style station with landscaped approaches was built between Swan and Church streets. Several footbridges were built to cross the trench and keep the Canal District connected with downtown. A four-block stretch of Terrace Park was thus abandoned to casual recreation (although the railroad carefully landscaped its section and erected an ornamental station, it was perceived as railroad property. The city even built what could have been its first public parking lot in the arc of greenery between Lower Terrace and the tracks).

The block south of the station grounds became the site of a new and imposing Buffalo Police Headquarters in 1884. With the building frontages on lower Pearl and Lock Street, a de facto square was created. 

Buffalo balloon ascension
Samuel Archer King, pioneering aeronaut, prepares to launch his Buffalo from Terrace Park at Church Street, 1873. Building at left is St. Joseph’s Academy, forerunner of St. Joe’s Collegiate Institute.

Another square was created where The Terrace met Church Street. This was the closest open space to the civic heart of the city, the interface between the commercial-industrial waterfront and emerging office and government precincts. This square was where perhaps the most famous aeronaut of the 19th century, Samuel Archer King, launched his hot-air balloon Buffalo, on September 16, 1873. The balloon was manufactured on an upper floor of the Aetna Building on Prime and Lloyd streets in the Canal District, and its ascension warranted a story in the New York Times. King called it the largest balloon in the world; it contained over 94,000 cubic feet, and the airship’s name was spelled out in letters seven feet high. King took the Buffalo all across the country. In 1877, it delivered the first airmail-stamped letters on a flight from Nashville to Gallatin, TN.

The Little Station That Could

Historically, the modest Terrace Station played an outsized role in the history of transportation in the city for several reasons. First, it was the chief station on Buffalo’s commuter rail network, include the Belt Line. Demand was so great it soon became, by the testimony of the NY Central itself, the third-busiest station in the entire NY Central system at a time when the Central was the second-largest transportation enterprise on the planet. (Grand Central Depot in New York was first, Buffalo’s Exchange Street Station, second).

Second, it was the station through which the NY Central ran its chartered excursion trains. Right through to the 1950s, Rochester travel agencies were running promotions to the Terrace Station for the Ice Capades and sporting events at Memorial Auditorium. Third, it was the Central’s station for trains to Niagara Falls and points north and west, thus many Canadians and Michiganders stepped onto its platform.

Train at Lower Terrace and Church St.
Until the early 1950s, New York Central commuter, excursion, and International trains used tracks laid in Terrace Park and Church Street. Terrace Station was for a time the thrird-busiest in the Central’s system. Train turning from Church Street onto The Terrace.

The Terrace Station was a stealth stop for very important people. In September 1901, for example, Theodore Roosevelt made his first-ever public appearance as President on the platform of the Terrace Station when he alighted from a special express train from North Creek, NY after the assassination of President William McKinley.

Roosevelt became president at the moment of McKinley’s death early in the morning of September 14th (he had been shot on September 6th) while hurtling down from Mt. Marcy after receiving a message that McKinley would likely die; when he boarded the train in the morning darkness at North Creek, he was told that McKinley had, indeed died. That afternoon, thousands gathered around the Exchange Street Station waiting for Roosevelt’s train to arrive at the Central’s main Buffalo Station. Unknown to the general public, plans were in place to have the train pass the station and stop several blocks away at The Terrace, where a detachment of soldiers and other security personnel cleared his path across the platform to a waiting carriage, which took the new president directly up Delaware Avenue to the Wilcox house near North Street for the Oath of Office.

(A week earlier, McKinley’s assassin had been taken to police headquarters on The Terrace immediately after the shooting. The NY Central tracks to the Terrace Station passed directly behind the building, and the two buildings were easily seen from each other.)

It was standard fare for newspaper reporters to be sent to stake out train stations for arriving celebrities and politicos, and the Terrace Station had its share, from entertainers to six-day-bicycle racers arriving for competitions at the Broadway Auditorium. Exclusive platform interviews were the stuff of reputations and circulation. None could possibly be bigger than the King and Queen of Britain, and one newspaper reporter, Courier-Express police beat writer Manuel Bernstein, was on hand for the unscheduled stop on the night of June 7, 1939. It wasn’t by accident.

Reconstructed Terrace station would act as a stage, picnic shelter, and cafe for re-established Terrace Park, occupied since 1954 by the Skyway. Theodore Roosevelt and the King and Queen of Britain were among unscheduled transients to the site.

Bernsein had a long career as a police reporter and—making up for the penury of a writer’s wage—a pharmacist. Reporters would lounge around the front desk at police headquarters waiting for stories to come across the transom as perps were dragged in or calls went out. With multiple dailies, police reporting was more voluminous than today (yes, hard to believe), ranging from bloody mayhem to incompetent capers of juveniles and pick-pocketing around train stations. A New York Central railroad cop stopped by Bernstein’s desk one day, as recollected in a story for the Buffalo News over 50 years later, and complained that Bernstein never wrote up his collars. Bernstein told him the next time he made an arrest and could take him to the thieve’s lair, he’d write up the story. Within a week the cop had an arrest, Bernstein had an exclusive, and the cop a measure of crime-fighting fame. This earned Bernstein a favor from the cop that got the reporter an exclusive with the Queen, a $200 bonus, and a two-tiered Page One headline.

The railroad cop let Bernstein in on a little secret. The Royal train would be sitting at the Terrace Station, hard by police headquarters, while track work went on ahead. King George IV and his wife Queen Elizabeth (not the present Queen, but her mother. The Queen Mother). King and Queen were on the first-ever visit to the dominion of Canada of a British monarch. They would make a trip to St. Catherines to dedicate a highway named after the Queen, and see Niagara Falls (the monument she and the King unveiled that day is still to be seen, whizzing by on the QEW over a small bridge). That night they would cross into the US directly to Washington to meet with President Franklin Roosevelt (thence to Hyde Park for hot dogs), becoming the first King and Queen to set foot in the U.S.

They would have to switch tracks in Buffalo, from the NY Central to the Pennsylvania Railroad. The switchover would occur along Seneca Street near Hamburg Street. It was a complicated maneuver that would take teams of men working in coordinated fashion in the dark (the Central and the Pennsylvania were bitter rivals and did not share track; a temporary link would have to be engineered in a busy train yard and Pennsylvania engines attached to both the Royal train and a press pilot train). This time, they would be viewed by thousands, despite the best efforts of police to keep people from the overlooking viaducts. Time for stealth.

Terrace station
Detail of the south end of the Terrace Station highlights the Stick Style architecture with decorated brackets, panels of drop siding, and contrasting framing sticks. The tracks were about five feet below Upper Terrace (rear) and the buildings of St. Joseph’s Cathedral.

Despite the late hour, thousands of people gathered at crossings and viaducts to witness the Royal Train. Cross-streets were closed off. Mobs of people were gathering at the Pennsylvania yards. The plan: The Royal train, rather than parking on a Pennsy siding, would stop at The Terrace, the press in the pilot train would sit on the siding near Hamburg Street until all work, except for the switching of engines, was over. That was Bernstein’s tip. He didn’t tell anyone else, not even an editor. When the train arrived, he was the only civilian in the station.

Bernstein, as quoted in the News: “It was at night, and City Hall was all lit up,” Bernstein recalled. “The queen stepped out on the back platform of the caboose and asked, ‘What's that beautiful building?’ I told her, ‘Your majesty, that’s our new City Hall.’ Then, I said, ‘I hope you enjoy your visit here with the president.’”

Nice chap. The Queen decided to chat. She told Bernstein (it is not clear he identified himself as a reporter) that she had important business in Washington

Bernstein, coy: “What’s so important, your majesty?”

Elizabeth spoke of war clouds and the need for British allies against Hitler’s Germany. That was no secret, but a royal saying it, that was news (British royalty are forbidden to engage in overtly political or diplomatic discussions). Scoop.

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King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in Canada during their 1939 grand tour

“But out walks King George onto the platform. I can see he’s mad as hell. He whispers something in the queen’s ear and really roughly pulls her inside the caboose.” That didn’t make the story, but everything else did. Queen Elizabeth and King George set foot in America at Terrace Station, the Queen had an eye for architecture, and war was all but declared.

This somewhat foreshortened view shows the run of The Terrace between Main and Court streets as it appeared in 1932. Terrace Park once extended from police headquarters to Court St. Buffalo History Museum Collection.

The Little Station That Could almost did not survive its first decade. The Central wanted to build a much grander station of stone with another platform to handle the traffic and symbolize the line’s third-busiest depot. It sat on land the city owned, and the agreement hammered out permitting the Central to build the Belt Line gave the city the upper hand in negotiations. Despite two concerted attempts to obtain demolition permits, the Central was unable to overcome the resistance of Lower Terrace bar owners, whose establishments directly overlooked the wooden station and its platform. Thirsty commuters, travelers, and horseplayers going to Fort Erie, could, and did, walk directly across the tracks to the bars. The new station would have presented a solid stone wall facing them.

WURA 1950 overlay 1932 1

The Terrace in 1932. Buffalo History Museum Collection. By 1952, when the station faced its imminent demise to make way for the Skyway, it had progressed from the calumny heaped upon it by its owner to become a source of civic recollection, fond newspaper stories, and pleadings for its preservation, even moved offsite for restoration and display. It was not to be. The station closed at noon on August 1, 1952.

That needn’t be the end of the story. The state’s ongoing environmental review of the Skyway’s closure must take into account the possibility—and the funding—of the restoration of Terrace Park, both as a recreational, cultural, and historic piece of topography, but also as an arrow that points straight to the Canal District and the Cloudwalk.

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Buffalo’s birthplace, re-established. Joseph Ellicott established the Village of New Amsterdam to take advantage of two geographic features at the eastern end of lake Erie: Buffalo Creek and The Terrace. Removing downtown section of Skyway would open opportunities to reconstruct historic parks, canals, neighborhoods, and redress 60 years of social and environmental injustice. Over 12 acres of land would be freed by Skyway removal alone. An Urban Renewal superblock behind City Hall that has been mostly parking lot since St. Anthony’s Park and the surrounding buildings were destroyed, is envisioned as an “urban hamlet.”

Upcoming posts will look at The Campaign’s proposals for the northern sections of the former Terrace Park, the so-called Two-Park and St. Anthony’s Park, lost to highway building and Urban Renewal. In the meantime, the status quo isn’t working. It should become clear that removing the downtown section of the Skyway and replacing lost public amenities is a tremendous opportunity that should not be frittered away.

Want to help realize the vision of rebuilding The Terrace and Canal District, extending the Erie Canal, restoring the DL&W train shed, and do the Cloudwalk? Contact the Campaign for Greater Buffalo at [email protected]