Surviving Crisis - Additional Resources
The Burning of Buffalo
Thank you to the Buffalo History Museum for making reproductions of original drawings and paintings available for use on this project:
Home (right side) and tavern (middle) constructed by Gamliel and Margaret St. John, as drawn by their son, LeGrand St. John, from his childhood memories after the burning of Buffalo.
Gamaliel and Margaret St. John moved to a farm near the Mill Creek spring in Williamsville in 1807. They purchased Lot 53 in the village of Buffalo, now 460-470 Main Street, on the west side of Main Street between Court and Mohawk Streets. The St. Johns wanted to open their own tavern and build a new family home for their eleven children. They built a wood frame home in 1810 from wood harvested at their Williamsville farm. In 1812, the youngest son, Cyrus St. John, died of dysentery. Gamaliel and son Elijah were active in the War of 1812 Buffalo militia, as were many village residents. They drowned June 6, 1813 attempting to resupply American troops stationed across the Niagara River, leaving Margaret to raise the surviving children alone.
As the War of 1812 continued into the winter of 1813, New York Militia Brigadier General George McClure had not endeared himself to the villagers in Buffalo. There was no lodging available for solders, so they were billeted in almost every home in the village. General McClure failed to control looting in the village by his troops and made needless enemies from draconian management of the American controlled Niagara area of Canada. Far worse, he tempted British retaliation by burning without warning the defenseless Village of Newark (now Niagara on the Lake) on December 10th, 1813. After retreating to Buffalo, McClure’s situation became untenable. Without respect and support from the volunteer militia or the inhabitants, he was replaced by Major General Amos Hall on December 26th. General McClure took the remaining ammunition and regular troops, leaving Buffalo almost defenseless.
Painting by Raymond Massy, Courtesy of the Buffalo History Museum
Seth Grosvenor and Cornel Cyrenius Chapin at Main and Niagara Streets attempting to stop the British assault with an old cannon.
General Amos Hall had to make do with the 2,000 raw militia troops left in Buffalo. On December 29, 1813, in the evening, a battle erupted in Black Rock between the British and Hall’s militia. The Buffalo militia saw little hope in their advance and began to flee to warn their families. In the early morning on December 30th, after hearing fighting throughout the night, people began gathering their possessions and ran for their lives. While British soldiers made their way towards Buffalo down Niagara Street, their native allies crossed through the forest and entered the village from the north near Tupper Street. Villagers heading northward were cut off and had to turn around. In a short time many of the homes were empty except for two on Main Street, the homes of Sarah Lovejoy and of Margaret St. John. These two women lived across from one another on Main Street and both remained when Buffalo was attacked.
As the villagers fled, Margaret St. John’s son-in-law, Asaph Bemis, came to help. Bemis and his wife Aurelia, Margaret’s daughter, filled the wagon with six of the younger St. John children, but couldn’t fit the rest. This left Margaret and two daughters behind. Bemis planned to return to bring them to safety. He headed north on Main towards Williamsville but saw the British Native allies who had crossed through the woods to Main Street, emerge at Tupper. Bemis turned the wagon, heading south past the St. John house once again. He shouted to the frightened women that he would be back soon for the remaining family members. Bemis was unable to make the second trip to rescue Margaret and her daughters. The three women were left in their home fearing for their lives.
LeGrand St. John illustrated his Uncle Asaph Bemis’s wild ride out of Buffalo.
LeGrand St. James memory of fleeing villagers at the Lake Erie shore, south of Buffalo, with piles of baggage left behind as they lightened their loads to cross over the lake ice.
Margaret and her two daughters tried to lay low, hoping to be left alone. By this point, much of Buffalo and Black Rock was in ashes and Native Americans allied with the British were plundering the remaining homes. Margaret was peering out the window to see if there was any sign of Asaph Bemis. She caught sight of Sarah Lovejoy, across the street, defending her belongings from a Native American. Mrs. Lovejoy refused to give up, protecting her home with a knife. Margaret watched Sarah Lovejoy’s fight end quickly with a tomahawk to her head. The Native warrior took what he wanted and set the house on fire. Sarah Lovejoy’s son, Henry, was safe. Sarah told him to run before the invasion, but thought that she, as a woman not involved with the militia, would be safe to stay in her home.
Margaret St. John wanted to save Sarah Lovejoy’s body. When the roads were clear the three St. John women went across the street to find Sarah. They dragged her to the street and put out the fire before it grew too big. Margaret and her daughters placed the body back in the house with the hope that there would be a proper burial when the family returned. This did not happen; the next day the house was burned.
Margaret’s worry for her daughters grew after the incident with Sarah Lovejoy. She saw a British officer on the street, who, surprised to see people remaining in the Village, asked why they stayed. Margaret explained they had no choice but to stay in their home or die out in the cold. She begged the officer to prevent danger to her or her family. She pleaded that as a widow with many children to look after, she needed her home to care for her family. The British officer was not sure he could make such a promise. He left telling Margaret he would ask headquarters about her request. On her return, Margaret saw she may have been too late. There were Native women in her home, searching the trunks packed for their escape. A visitor came to the door, a translator for the British. He came from British headquarters to tell the Native women to leave the house alone and to return the St. John possessions.
A few days after the second round of fires, an elderly man rushed into the St. John home while they were preparing breakfast. He came to warn the family that the British and Native warriors were coming back to Buffalo to pillage the rest of the homes and burn them down. One of the daughters and the old man ran towards Mohawk Street in hopes they would survive. Margaret St. John and her other daughter decided to stay behind in house. She ran to her window with a white table cloth which she began to wave out the window as a sign of surrender. The daughter on the run was caught by a Native American, who painted the girl’s face and then rode away. The daughter returned home to her mother, laughing at her frightening encounter, but feeling terrible she left her family behind. She was afraid to take off the face paint in case other warriors came by. She hoped they would see the face paint and leave the family alone. Sometime later a British officer came by, reassured the family of their safety, and instructed the daughter to wash off the paint because it was not needed.
After New Year’s Day the villagers began to return. They were met with the view of a destroyed village, with only the St. John home, the stone jail, a barn frame and Rees Blacksmith Shop still standing. All that remained of the other homes and buildings were chimneys reaching out of stone basements. Having no other option, many spent the rest of the cold winter living in their basements, with only temporary roofs to keep out the weather.
The remaining members of the St. John family made their way home and the family was reunited. The St. John family offered food and clothes to other refugees. Margaret St. John lost the tavern, her family’s livelihood, but still had her home.
>Fosdick, M. C. (1925). When Buffalo was Young: Some Incidents of Local History Retold for Young People, Buffalo. http://www.buffaloah.com/h/stjohnmarg/fosdick/stjohn.html
Society, B. H. (1906). Papers relating to the burning of Buffalo, and to the Niagara frontier prior to and during the war of 1812. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu.gate.lib.buffalo.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=nys;cc=nys;view=toc;subview=short;idno=nys273
Smith, H. P. (Henry Perry) (1884). History of the City of Buffalo and Erie County, Vol. 2. Niagara University Library. http://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/VVN001/id/134
Recollections of the "Burning of Buffalo and Events in the History of the Family of Gamaliel and Margaret St. John",By their daughter, Mrs. Jonathan Sidway. Published in the Buffalo Historical Society Publications, Vol. 16
WNY Heritage Presents the War of 1812 Volume 2 – 1813: The Border in flames; Reaping the Whirlwind: Fire and Sword on the Niagara, 1813 by Donald E. Graves
Memorial Testimony, &c. From Inhabitants residing in the Niagara Frontier to the Senate and House of Representatives, 1817, Library of Congress.
Threat of Suburban Development
Buffalo was booming in the post war period. The population hit the half million mark in 1930 and continued to increase up to 1950 when Buffalo’s population peaked at 580,132. WWII veterans returned home to start careers and families. Federal programs devised to revive the depressed housing industry and to support veterans with low cost GI mortgages made it cheaper to own a home than to rent, and these programs gave preference to single - family detached homes in residential subdivisions. Buffalo’s population boom began to wane and suburban development took off. Downtown leaders noticed the downturn and called for action to save the downtown core.
In 1958 the Greater Buffalo Business Core Sub-Committee of the Buffalo City Planning Commission released a report documenting “several well known facts” including:
• “the trend…toward the suburbs is draining the life blood of the city…”
• “the suburbs with its shopping plazas are creating a dire threat to the highest real estate values within the city, namely the downtown business and shopping area”.
The City and the business community, represented by the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation, launched several planning efforts over the next decade to evaluate the downtown business climate and recommend solutions that they thought would improve shopping and office opportunities and retain downtown’s share in the regional market.
Starting with recognition of downtown’s strengths, such as transportation access, the presence of downtown employees, and the breadth of goods available for sale, recommendations were made to remake downtown in the new style preferred by suburban residents. The general theme was to rebuild downtown to closer resemble a suburban shopping plaza.
1958 - Greater Downtown Business Core, by Buffalo City Planning Commission. “A preliminary study to evaluate the future possibilities of the Downtown Business Core.” Click here to link to the plan.
1. Build a Perimeter Expressway looping around downtown. The Skyway and I 190 were already under construction. An Elm-Oak diffuser, West-side Expressway and Virginia-Carolina Thruway Interchange were recommended.
2. Separate and consolidate downtown land uses so that retail uses can be closer together and more attractive to shoppers. Serve uses with adequate parking
3. Large, multi-block parcels must be made available for development through Public and Private cooperation
1960 – Buffalo Downtown Study, a Report to The City of Buffalo and the Greater Buffalo Development Foundation by Arthur D. Little, Inc. Click here to link to the plan and summary.
1. Build the Court Franklin Parking Ramp
2. Change the downtown’s physical appearance to improve its image with new building facades and development.
3. Private redevelopment on the West side of Main between the Liberty Bank Building and Shelton Square
a. Close Eagle between Main and Pearl
b. Create an in-town shopping plaza on Main Street
d. Create a Public Plaza on Pearl
1961 - Proposed Renewal Plan for the Downtown Core, by Frank A Sedita, Mayor
1. Widen peripheral streets to increase capacity around downtown
2. Convert Genesee, Court, Niagara and portions of North and South Division, Broadway and William into pedestrian only plazas
3. Divert Pearl between Genesee and Niagara to the west to increase the size of the development parcels fronting on Main Street.
Following the call to action of the previous years, the City, County, State, Greater Buffalo Development Foundation, and private businesses cooperated to acquire properties, and adjust the historic Ellicott Street plan to create large multi-block development parcels, remaking the Shelton Square to Court Street section of downtown. Projects which were built included:
1. 1964 - Construction of the Pearl Franklin Parking Ramp
2. 1966 - Construction of M&T Plaza
3. 1969- 70 - Main Place Mall and Tower were completed
4. 1969 - North and South Division were reconfigured to create the Church Street Arterial
5. 1971 – The County built the Erie County Rath Building
1966 Downtown North plan
Once plans were well underway to remake the Shelton Square area, priorities turned to the shabbiness and vacancy of the northern part of downtown. Continuing the theme of redesigning downtown to better resemble a suburban shopping area, an ambitious plan was developed to build an enclosed office, hotel and shopping mall between Delaware and Main Streets between Huron and Johnson Park and St. Michaels Street.
A new east-west parkway would link Johnson Park to St. Michael’s Street. Chippewa Street and the buildings fronting on either side would be demolished for new connected buildings offering the large floor plates, ample parking and the weather protection available in the suburbs. The W.T. Grant Store at Huron and the domed Buffalo Savings Bank Building would be linked in to the new structure but their Main Street frontage would serve as the entry plaza to the new mall. It was suggested that although not necessary, converting Main Street from Church to Huron into a pedestrian plaza would be “the logical and attractive way to extend the amenity of the Downtown North project and Main Place to the existing stores on Main Street.” Pearl and Franklin Streets would remain open but would tunnel under the development.
1971 Regional Center Plan – A Comprehensive Plan for Downtown Buffalo, New York, by Wallace, McHarg, Roberts & Todd Click here to link to an exerpt of the Regional Center Plan.
The Plan projected increased regional population growth with downtown securing a third of the office and retail expansion if three conditions were met:
1. Secure a Buffalo/Amherst high speed transit line
2. Construct an all-weather Mall on Main Street between Genesee and Church Streets
3. Increase the parking supply by 1000 new spaces per year for twenty years
1978 Pedestrian Transit mall on Main Street from Tupper to Scott; Hyatt Hotel and Convention Center on Genesee Street; Baseball Stadium at Seneca Street
After unsuccessfully attempting to secure funding for a subway system, Western New York applied for, and was awarded a demonstration grant for the first phase of a light rail rapid transit system, which allowed placement of rapid transit rails at grade level because electrical power would be carried in overhead wires rather than in rail that would have to be elevated or sunk below roadways for public safety. The original proposal was for underground light rail downtown and surface installation in the neighborhoods. After community objections, and in light of the previous decade’s long discussion about creating downtown pedestrian spaces, the concept was flipped. Main Street between Tupper and Scott Street was to become a pedestrian transit mall, and the light rail transit would become a subway in the neighborhoods.
Erie County built the Convention Center in blank, extending across Genesee Street. The City further blocked Genesee Street with the City Court Building and parking ramp were construction in blank. When the Hyatt hotel was developed in 1980, the community was relieved that the iconic Genesee building would be saved, additional construction over Genesee Street was not a concern as the street was already closed in the next block.
The Metro Rail system opened in 1985 and the Buffalo Place pedestrian-transit mall was complete in 1986. While the years of construction contributed to many small businesses leaving Main Street, pedestrian activity and optimism surged when Main Street was completed. But by the late 1990s the downtown community noticed changing trends.
Growth of national big-box stores and retail buying groups made local store prospects difficult. One by one our local retail chains went out of business or were acquired by out of town owners less committed to Main Street. By 1999, the downtown community was aware that loss of automobile traffic on Main Street was related to storefronts remaining vacant. The City of Buffalo, NFTA and Buffalo Place started working on a design solution and environmental approval for returning automobile traffic to Main Street.
A design concept for automobiles sharing the trackbed with Metro Rail was completed in 2002. Federal environmental compliance was achieved in 2008. Construction in the Theatre District began in late 2012. The Theatre district was opened to automobile traffic in December 2014. Fountain Plaza and 500 Block construction started in late 2013 and will be opened to traffic in December of 2015.