Sarah: In 1901, the city of Buffalo was on the brink of what boosters believed was to be the city’s most important chapter. If the year went according to plan, Buffalo would not only seize the attention of people around the world, but seize it’s deserved position as one of the United States’ foremost cities in technology, industry, city planning, culture, and architecture.

Marissa: Starting in 1897, Western New Yorkers began planning to bring a world’s fair to the region. Plans were paused, though, with the onset of the Spanish-American War, the ‘splendid little war’ fought between the United States and Spain in 1898. The conflict resulted in the birth of a true American empire as the US came into possession of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Phillippines. When planning on the fair resumed, the planners now had a new theme: a Pan-American Exposition, a celebration of American imperial power in the Western hemisphere.

Sarah: But more than that, they believed, the Pan-American would show the world that in this new Empire, Buffalo was the perfect example of a prosperous modern city, booming with industry and glittering with the new electric lights made possible by the city’s proximity to the might of Niagara Falls. Just a few years earlier, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago had reintroduced that midwestern city to the world – no longer a country backwater, but instead a rival to east coast cities like Boston and New York. This was Buffalo’s moment to establish itself as one of the most important cities in the country.

Marissa: Around the same time that the city’s boosters were planning the Pan-American, they were also planning a luncheon to be held at the Delaware Avenue mansion of leading citizen John Milburn. The meal was held over the fourth of July weekend in 1898, and was attended by some of the leading industrialists of the region: Jacob Schoelkopf of Niagara Falls Hydraulic; John J. Albright of Ontario Power; Frank and Charles Goodyear, owners of a prosperous lumber, mining and shipping company; Frank Baird of Tonawanda Iron and Steel; John Scratherd of the Buffalo Lumber Exchange; George Urban, president of Buffalo General Electric, and William Ely, president of the International Street Railroad Company. There were also lawyers representing other Buffalo and New York State businesses, such as New York Central Railroad, Erie County Savings Bank, and the Third National Bank. But the guest of honor was not a Buffalonian, rather, a visitor from northeastern Pennsylvania: Walter Scranton, the operator of Lackawanna Steel, who was rumored to be looking for a new home for his growing steel business. The city’s leading men were determined to make Buffalo that new home.

Sarah: At the turn of the 20th century, Buffalo was – to borrow a phrase from historian Mark Goldman – a city on the edge. Perfectly situated on Lake Erie and a hub for railroads, Buffalo was a critical part of the country’s trade infrastructure. It was an ideal spot to unload cereal crops from the midwest, for instance, to be stored in the city’s many grain elevators until it could be moved along by rail or transferred to waterfront mills for processing. It had a booming ship building industry for lake-going schooners and steamers. It was close to the incredible power generating potential of Niagara Falls, the leader in mass produced energy in the newly electrified United States. It had a small but growing steel industry and was looking for ways to rival Pittsburgh as America’s steel city. The future, it seemed, was bright, glowing with electric potential.

But a key component of historical thinking is contingency, the idea that the path of history is not predestined but reliant on sometimes unpredictable events and outcomes. In contrast to the theory of teleology, which presents history as a process where each event is an important step leading inevitably toward a predetermined outcome, contingency reminds us that actually, things just happen, sometimes in unexpected, unpredictable, and unproductive ways.

During the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo was certain that the city’s future would be shaped by the sparkling fair celebrating industry, technology, and empire. They were, in some ways, correct – they just would never have predicted exactly how it actually happened.

Today, as part of our ongoing series on the 5 C’s of History, we’re exploring the historical idea of contingency by focusing on the rise, fall and rise of Buffalo, NY.

I’m Sarah

And I’m Marissa

And we are historians for this episode of Dig.

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Sarah: Contingency is a challenging historical thinking skill to wrap your mind around. It’s the idea that in any given historical moment, the outcome isn’t a given. For instance, looking back in time, it’s easy and comforting for us to think that of course the Allies won World War II. The good guys have to win in battles between good and evil, right? This way of thinking about history is often closely linked to other ideologies and worldviews. I’m not a philosopher, nor have I ever studied philosophy – in fact, I sort of loathe philosophy – but generally speaking, the philosophical theory of teleology can help us to understand contingency. Teleology is the idea that things exist for the sake of other things. Within history, a teleological view of history usually refers to the belief that one historical event takes place in order for the next historical event to take place. In other words, one thing leads to the next in a straight, forward-moving line: the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, which made the Americans enter the war, which meant the Allies won World War II, which meant the US became the world’s dominant power. The situation today is the destiny; all of the events in the past were just a way of getting here, the necessary outcome.

Marissa: This way of thinking has often been a component of other ideologies and worldviews. For instance, grand narratives of history, which see historical events as part of a story that has led or is leading to a certain outcome, usually for a nation or group. For instance, many Americans have a nationalist ‘grand narrative’ view of American history in which things like the oppression of Native Americans, the institution of enslavement, and westward expansion were necessary building blocks to creating the current (read: glorious) US state. Teleology is central to other historical interpretations – a Whig history, for instance, is one in which history is moving toward progress; a Marxist history is one in which history is always moving toward a socialist utopia; a Christian history would be one in which history is always evidence of God’s chosen outcome.

Sarah: Most modern, academic historians today, reject teleological arguments. Instead, modern history is heavily influenced by postmodernism, which rejects grand narratives, universal truths, biological determinism, and necessary outcomes. Instead, we try to think analytically and critically about why anything given thing took place. An example of this might be trying to understand Victorian ideals of gender – instead of simply accepting that gender ideas are natural or a given, scholars now want to know why Victorians believed women were naturally inferior and how those beliefs affected things like social structure and public policy. Contingency comes out of postmodernism. If one event isn’t the necessary or required outcome of another, then whydid it work out this way and not that way? What are the turning points in history?

Marissa: In Buffalo, contingency is a major part of the way residents think about the city’s history. Two painful examples that illustrate this really well is the “what could have been” thinking that surround two pivotal moments in the history of the beloved Buffalo Bills. In 1991, the Bills lost the Super Bowl by one point when kicker Scott Norwood’s field goal attempt in the final seconds of the game went wide right – a phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of Buffalonians even to this day. The game could have gone the other way had only that kick had gone straight through the goal posts, or if the Bills had put up one more touchdown, or any number of other alternatives. More recently, the Bills lost in the divisional round after the Kansas City Chiefs scored a touchdown in the final 13 seconds of the game, then won the coin toss, which gave the Chiefs the crucial opportunity to score during sudden-death overtime. Any Bills fan has wondered more than once – what if we’d just won that coin toss?! That’s contingency, baby.

Sarah: But Buffalo’s history has more turning points, moments that set into motion futures for Buffalo that they wouldn’t have foreseen or perhaps more importantly, wouldn’t have chosen. For the purposes of this episode, we’re going to examine just a small selection of these turning points, but of course we could point to dozens – hundreds? – of others.

Let’s start, though, with the turning point nearly every Buffalonian would point to as the critical moment in Buffalo’s history. In September 1901, the Pan-American Exposition was in full swing. Like the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, the Pan-American was a city unto itself, built to be beautiful but temporary. In the center was the Electric Tower, an ornate, baroque building at the end of a long series of fountains and water features, topped with a massive tower that was illuminated at night with electric lights. On top of the tower was a golden statue of the ‘goddess of light.” The press gushed about the beauty of the grounds, especially the illumination. According to Edward Hale Brush, journalist for Scientific American, “the great advance made in methods of electric lighting during the past decade renders it possible to effect an illumination at the Pan-American more beautifu, more glorious, more wonderful, than anything heretofore conceived or even dream of by the human imagination.” Surrounding the Electric Tower were various buildings – a midway to the west, stadium to the east, the Electricity Building, Horticuture Building, Government Building, Agriculture and Ethnology Buildings all around, plus various hotels, parks, fountains, and ponds.

Marissa: Suffice it to say, the Pan American was supposed to demonstrate not only the grandeur, but the possibility of Buffalo. The planners intended the fair to sell Buffalo to the rest of the world. At the time of the fair, Buffalo was bustling – it was one of the most lucrative shipping centers in the word – and glittering, with electric lights fueled by the might of Niagara Falls and humming with the first electric streetcar line in the United States. The city had produced two presidents – Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland – and was home to modern buildings designed by leading architects ike H.H. Richardson and Louis Sullivan. The city was still small, with only 350,000 residents, but it was growing – and surely would continue to grow if the fair did its job.

Sarah: Buffalonians weren’t just emotionally or psychologically invested in the fair – they were literally, financially invested in the fair. When the planning committee went to Washington to pitch Buffalo as the location for a 1901 world’s fair, they knew that they weren’t the only city in contention – Detroit was also gunning for the bid. The Buffalo committee knew that showing up in Washington with proof that the city was fully on board would strengthen their case. At a banquet in 1899, wealthy industrialist Frank Baird suggested that if the city’s leading men made grand public gestures out of buying stock in the fair,  it would influence others to do the same. Quickly, the city’s leading citizens had pledged half a million dollars, but the numbers rose as average folks bought in too. In the words of historian Margaret Creighton, “newsboys, firemen, artisans, laundrymen, butchers, and factory laborers invested money, too. The Polish community chipped inl the police chief put in a hundred dollars; a three-year-old girl named Esther Wedekindt sent in a bag of pennies.”[1]

Marissa: The fairgrounds were beautiful, and visitors poured in – on Buffalo Day, one of many themed days, 162,652 people visited the fair, representing almost half of the entire population of the city itself. The cool lake breezes, beautiful summer days, and endless entertainments of the Pan-American made Buffalo the center of the nation’s attention in the summer of 1901, and the city’s boosters hoped at least some of that attention would stay.

A map of the Pan-American Exposition grounds. The only building left from the fair, the New York State building, now houses the Buffalo History Museum. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: They couldn’t have anticipated that while the nation would pay very close attention to Buffalo for some time to come, it wouldn’t be for any of the reasons they hoped. By the end of the summer, attendance was not quite at the levels that the fair’s planners had hoped for, and worse, it wasn’t turning a profit. But in September, in the waning months of the fair, came what many hoped would not only be the crowning glory of the fair, but the event that set attendance records and increased profits  – an official, presidential visit by William McKinley. McKinley arrived in Buffalo on September 4, with his wife, hosted by John G. Milburn, a prominent citizen and president of the Pan-Am’s board of directors. Milburn conveyed the presidential couple in his exquisite victoria carriage on a quick tour of the fairgrounds before returning them to his Delaware Avenue mansion. The next day, McKinley visited the fair, along with 116,000 other people. He listened to a concert by John Philip Sousa and watched a fireworks display, promised by the planner as the “largest pyrotechnical display ever seen.”[2] The following day, Thursday, September 6, McKinley held a reception at the Temple of Music, an Italian-Renaissance building. When the doors opened at 4 pm, McKinley stood at the front of the auditorium and hundreds of people stood in a single-file line waiting to meet the president. After only a few minutes, an anarchist named Leon Czolgosz made it to the head of the line. As McKinley reached out his hand to shake, Czolgosz shot the president twice in the abdomen with a revolver concealed under a handkerchief.

Marissa: The Temple of Music descended immediately into chaos. A man named Jim Parker grabbed Czolgosz, keeping him from escaping, and slammed him to the ground until he was set upon by guards and eventually hauled off to the Buffalo Police headquarters. McKinley was removed to the fairgrounds hospital. The presiding doctor, the prestigious surgeon Roswell Park, was in surgery in Niagara Falls, leaving only gynecology professor Matthew Mann from the University at Buffalo medical school to attend to McKinley’s wounds. (Western New Yorkers will recognize that name, as our cancer center is now named for Roswell Park, who founded it.) Mann sewed up the president’s wounds and then McKinley was then taken back to John Milburn’s mansion, assured that the damage was mostly to muscle tissue and thus not too serious. The president convalesced at the Milburn home for a week, and appeared to be steadily improving, but on September 14, after a sudden turn, McKinley died. An autopsy later showed that the bullets had not simply passed through muscle tissue, as the initial doctor had thought, but had damaged McKinley’s kidney, stomach, and pancreas and that the bullet’s track had become badly infected. Theodore Roosevelt, the vice-president, had been in Buffalo only days before, but left for a camping expedition in his beloved Adirondack Mountains when he was assured that McKinley was safe. He was hastily conveyed back to the city – no small feat – to be sworn in, wearing borrowed clothes, in the library of another Delaware Avenue mansion.

Sarah: What was supposed to be the crowning achievement of the fair had dramatically turned The fair closed on September 14. The evening illumination, the fair’s signature achievement, was not lit that night, and the fair’s gates remained locked until September 16. When it reopened, it was somber. Crowds were far smaller. John Milburn desperately tried to convince Americans that visiting the fair would actually be a tribute to McKinley, who had believed in it and in the American empire it represented. But it didn’t seem to help all that much. There were still some big attendance days, but in early October, Buffalo newspapers were signalling that the fair was going to be a financial bust and that those who had invested in it were going to seriously lose out. After one Buffalo Times article came out, investors began showing up at the bank that held the Pan-Am bonds, demanding their money back. Soon, lines formed up and down the street of Buffalonians anxiously hoping to cash out their bonds. As Margaret Creighton describes the scene, Judge Loran Lewis, a director of the bank … got up on a chair to speak to those in the bank’s lobby “You ought in the interests of Buffalo … go away and do all you can to allay this absurd excitement. You should not have allowed yourselves to get into this foolish flurry.”[3]

Marissa: October did have one day that boasted the fair’s highest single day attendance – October 19, or Buffalo Day – at over 162,000 in attendance. But that was a outlier. Attendance never met the levels that organizers hoped for, and by the time the fair closed for good on November 2, the fair had not turned the hoped for profit. The Buffalo Evening News editors tried to assess what role the assassination had played in lackluster attendance. Attendance started slow, but was building week to week over the summer. After September 6, “the next week noted a falling off of 50,000 and the next week exhibited a further shrinkage of 90,000 or more. Even the great week that included Buffalo Day with its immense attendance could not restore the figures that were common before the fifth day of September. It is plain in the light of these figures that the Exposition would have been a magnificent success in every way but for the crowning sorrow that befell it when its troubles seemed wholly over.” Further, the final days of the fair were marked by chaos rather than any kind of triumph. On the closing night, rowdy attendees destroyed the landscaping and beer drinkers rioted in the Pabst Beer hall on the midway. To stop the melee, a waiter turned on a water hose and sprayed the crowd. The Buffalo Courier reported that “someone in the crowd shouted that “Pabst” was an anarchist, and this absurd rumor spread in all directions up and down the Midway.”[4] This drove the crowd into more of a frenzy until a waiter finally sprayed the crowd with a water hose. Later that night, with spilled beer and water still sitting in puddles in the midway, John Milburn turned off the glowing exposition lights for the final time. The fair’s organizers had hoped for 20 million attendees, but needed about 10 million to turn a profit. In the end, the Pan-American Exposition had 8 million attendees.

Sarah: Many still believed that the exposition had been a good investment. The Buffalo Evening News doubled down on the intentions of the fair, reprinting a reassuring editorial from the Massachusetts Worcester Spy, which read: “we believe that the Exposition has put Buffalo in a position to take a leading position among American cities, the place to which it aspires, the place to which it is entitled by natural advantages of position and accessibility to a great water power. That Buffalo is destined to rank with Chicago and New York seems certain.” But despite the true believers, there was still a deficit. The fair had lost more than $6 million dollars, and would default on $3.5 million in bonds. Buffalonians hoped the federal government would bail them out with a relief bill. De Alva Alexander, congressman from western New York, petitioned the federal government for assistance, explaining to the Washington Post his reasoning: “There would have been no deficit had there been no tragedy.” Was that accurate – that had McKinley not been shot at the Pan-American and died in Buffalo, the fair would have been a smashing success? Maybe – crowds did get larger in September before the assassination, and for Buffalo Day in October, but was it likely that it would have been enough to get the fair to 10 million or more visitors? We’ll never know. That’s contingency for you.

Marissa: When we started this episode, we talked about another important event that took place at John Milburne’s mansion on Delaware Avenue: that luncheon attended by the city’s boosters and business leaders along with an honored out-of-state guest. That luncheon was organized to woo Walter Scranton, one of the Scranton brothers who operated Lackawanna Iron and Steel in northeastern Pennsylvania. (We will just refer to the company as Lackawanna Steel here for simplicity.) Several of Buffalo’s business elite, including Milburn, Charles and Frank Goodyear, and John J. Albright, owned significant stock in Lackwanna Steel. Through this connection, they learned in the late 1890s that the Scranton brothers might be searching out a new location for their company. The luncheon was the setting for Buffalo’s full court press on Scranton, working hard to sell him on Buffalo as the perfect location for Lackawanna’s future. Milburn gave a speech extolling Buffalo’s three key benefits as a site for the steel plant: access to the Great Lakes for iron ore, shipped from the midwest; the might of Niagara Falls, generating vast amounts of power; and labor,  in the form of recently arrived immigrants who would work for cheap. The following year, Scranton traevled to Buffalo again, this time to walk the land sited for such a project – south of the city of Buffalo along the shore of Lake Erie. With Milburn and John Albright’s help, Scranton purchased 1000 acres of lakefront property. Later, this chunk of land was bolstered by donated land from both the state of New York and city of Buffalo.

Sarah: Soon, this undeveloped land was home to a massive steel factory. The Buffalo Times reported in 1900 that “on entering the gates the visitor is first impressed with the immensivty f the plant before him. As far as his eye can see, he can see the signs of industry, see the furnaces belching out their molten contents, the cupolas spouting fire, smoke and cinders like the dragons of song and story.” Two years later, the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser saw the fast, intense growth of Lackawanna Steel as the lifeblood of the “new Buffalo:” “Cities all over the country are striving for factories; they realize that they are the life blood of commercial eminence, but no city, however persistently it may have angled, has landed so enormous an enterprise as that which is spreading itself over teh two and a half miles of water front property at Stony Point [Lackwanna] … There have been many mythical beginnings for the new Buffalo, but the real, the genuine is finally here.”[5] Within a couple of years, that undeveloped land had turned into its own factory city which would come to known as Lackawanna, containing not only several mills but railroad lines, a shipping canal, and housing for laborers.

Lackawanna Steel and its shipping channel, ca. 1968. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: Lackawanna Steel was immediately successful, filling orders from around the world and producing over a million tons of steel a year. While Lackawanna wasn’t the only steel mill in town, it was the largest – of the 10,000 people who worked in the steel industry in Buffalo, 6,000 work at Lackawanna in the early 20th century.[6] The business was impacted by various economic downturns, and within a couple of decades was suffering from a lack of investment in new technology. In 1922, Lackawanna Steel was purchased by Bethlehem Steel, the second largest steel company in the nation. They infused the aging plant with tens of millions of dollars for renovations. The Great Depression did hit the steel industry, but it was also slowing down in the early 1930s because of its continued manufacturing of materials used in making railroad cars and rails – a technology that, while still important, was no longer the height of transportation technology. In 1935, Eugene Grace, the president of Bethlehem Steel made the decision to transition to making materials for cars, a risky move that paid off. Not only did Buffalo’s steel mills hit all time production highs, easy access to materials drove auto manufacturing to Buffalo – a GM and a Chevrolet plant soon opened along the Niagara River north of the city.

Sarah:  By the eve of World War II, 15,000 people worked in Buffalo’s steel industry, 12,000 of them at Bethlehem. In 1939, with war manufacturing revving up – even as the US clung to neutrality – steel in Buffalo was booming like never before, cranking out 10 thousand tons of steel a day. By the tie the war ended, the number of people working in steel and iron in the city had nearly doubled. In fact, lots of industries in Western New York were booming: the auto industry, brass and copper manufacturing, machine shops, electrical equipment factories, electrochemical and chemical plants, plus brewers and various specialty companies making wallpaper, furniture, and other products. Steel and heavy industry might be what Buffalo became known for during this era, but the city’s most recognizable industry was still the one that had sustained it since the early 19th century: grain trade. Grain grown in the midwest was shipped through the Great Lakes to the furthest eastern point – Buffalo – where it was offloaded and stored in the city’s iconic grain elevators or transferred to flour mills and cereal companies. Overall, a full 42% of the city’s population worked in some kind of manufacturing. Buffalo was, at least according to the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce, truly “a workingman’s town.”[7]

Marissa: But this is an episode about contingency. Buffalo could have trucked along, cranking out industrial products and processing load after load of raw grains – but things happened, many of which had almost nothing at all to do with Buffalo. One was the final completion of a project that had been slowly moving forward since the 1930s: the creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The seaway, a major international project between the US and Canada that deepend the St. Lawrence River to create a shipping channel that would allow freight ships to travel from the North Atlantic down the St. Lawrence, into Lake Ontario (aka the best Great Lake) and then throughout the rest of the Great Lakes. But some of you might be thinking – wait, how do the ships get from Lake Ontario into Lake Erie? While the Niagara River does connect the two lakes, there’s a pretty big obstacle between them – a little thing called Niagara Falls. So, it’s not possible to navigate from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie by way of the Niagara River. The St. Lawrence Seaway could only work if there was some kind of navigable shipping channel connecting the lakes. That actually already existed across the Niagara River in Ontario, Canada was the Welland Canal, which had connected the lakes since the 1820s. All that that preexisting canal needed was some additional dredging to accommodate the bigger, deeper hulled lake freighters. With some dredging and updates to the existing locks, the Welland Canal allowed for ships to pass easily from Lake Ontario into Lake Erie – with no need to stop in Buffalo.

Sarah: Buffalonians knew the Seaway project was underway, but had done little to stop it. In 1932, in response to the signing of the first agreement to create the shipping channel, Edgar Black, then the president of the Buffalo Corn Exchange, said that the Seaway Project would “make Buffalo a side port to the water of the Great Lakes. This may take a long time, but the beginning of the project begins Buffalo’s decline as a transportation point.” Business interests like the Corn Exchange lobbied Washington to abandon the project, but without much support and without much success. Other Buffalonians seemed, frankly, delusional about what the Seaway would mean for Buffalo’s future as the critical hub for Great Lakes shipping. In 1955, knowing the seaway was under construction, the Buffalo Corn Exchange opened a new building in downtown Buffalo, staffed with clerks monitoring grain prices and more than a dozen inspectors to oversee grain quality. In June 1959, barely over a month after the seaway opened, Buffalo was still convinced that the seaway was somehow going to be a huge win for the city rather than a catastrophe. In one issue of the Courier Express, one page had five different headlines that all insisted that the seaway was going to elevate Buffalo to the “status of world port.”[8] But that enthusiasm and positivity could not last. By 1962, the Courier Express was far less enthusiastic about the seaway, and was instead reporting on new railroad innovations that might help complete with the seaway. “A new type rail car designed to reduce transportation costs and help restore Buffalo’s once lively rail export grain trade to the Eastern Seaboard was exhibited here Tuesday to grain and rail interests,” the newspaper reported, “[Grain executive say] if shipping costs can be reduced sufficiently, Buffalo could be in a position to regain some of the millions of bushels of rail export grain trade lost to the Seaway annually since 1959.”[9]

Marissa:  It wasn’t inevitable that Buffalo would be entirely bypassed – the grain still needed to be milled and processed somewhere, for instance. But the seaway allowed other cities, such as Montreal, to build newer, cheaper, and more state of the art mills that rendered Buffalo obsolete. Further, Buffalo could potentially have wooed lakers into their ports for offloading, but the city’s ports were designed for the old-fashioned schooners and steamers of the past, not the heavy, deep-hulled lake freighters of the mid-20th century. Ultimately, the seaway, regardless of the delusional optimism of the Courier Express in 1959, was disastrous for Buffalo’s economy. Grain shipments moving through Buffalo dropped precipitously. Before the seaway opened, Buffalo unloaded 200 bushels of grain a year. By the 1990s, only 20 million bushels of grain arrived in Buffalo per year. Rail transport of grain dropped from 7.5 million bushels in 1958 to 73,600 bushels in 1964. Winter grain storage hung on by a thread for a while, as the seaway was mostly frozen during the winter and ships had to offload into grain elevators. But soon even that was gone as companies like Cargill, the Minnesota-based grain company, lost their deals with railroads that had made rail transportation for their product from Buffalo to the eastern seaboard profitable. By 1964, only one person worked in the new Corn Exchange building, and by the mid-1990s, only 3 of 38 grain elevators were in use. In 1996, the Corn Exchange dissolved. Buffalo’s days as the leading grain port in the country were over. Now, Buffalo’s grain elevators are an intrinsic part of the city – they’re these massive, iconic buildings all along the waterfront – but they sit empty, and in some cases, crumbling.

The Great Northern grain elevator after storm damage, 2022. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Sarah: A couple of years ago, my favorite one, the Great Northern elevator on Ganson Street, lost a significant chunk of its facing during a Lake Erie wind storm. I personally think it’s only added to its charm. But while the grain industry, long considered the stable centerpiece of Buffalo’s economy and identity, disappeared, the heavy industry that had boomed since the early 20th century continued to chug along. Unemployment was at record lows in the mid-to-late 1960s, with around 60,000 people working in the steel and auto industry in the region. In 1964, both Bethlehem Steel and Republic Steel invested in their technology, upgrading old-fashioned furnaces with new, oxygen-fueled ones, “able to produce as much steel in one hour as the old … furnaces had produced in six.”[10] Bethlehem, still the far larger mill, employed 6000 people and produced six million tons of steel, becoming the largest steel company in the United States. The auto industry was also thriving, employing 22,000 people across eight different plants. In the mid 1960s, Buffalo historian Mark Goldman writes, the auto industry in the city set new payroll records. The success of the auto industry in Buffalo meant a number of other car-related business were setting records for production in the 1960s, such as Dunlop Tire, American Brass, American Radiator, Buffalo Tool and Die, and Trico Windshield wipers.

Marissa: But all this boom very quickly went bust. Very quickly, steel work went from the most solid, well-paying job in Buffalo to creating a jobs crisis. For a number of complex, interlocking reasons, but mostly because of cheaper and more efficient foreign competition, American heavy industry faltered and failed in the 1970s. In 1971, in a shock to the city, Bethlehem Steel suddenly laid off half of its employees. Rumors abounded that the company was going to sell the Lackawanna plant , or worse yet, close it entirely. Bethlehem Steel Corporation took out huge, roughly half-page ads in Buffalo newspapers featuring an ‘interview’ with Stewart Cort and Lewis Foy, chairman and president of Bethlehem Steel Corporation respectively, intended to reassure Buffalonians that the company’s leadership wasn’t interested in abandoning the Lackawanna plant. But their ‘answers’ also blamed the problems in the steel industry on high taxes, stricter enrivonrmental controls, and unions. When asked about labor negotiations with the steelworkers union, they respond that they hoped to negotiate without the need for a strike – then answered a question about the threat posed by foreign steel by saying that “steel imports are always more attractive in a period of labor negotiations when steel is in great demand.”[11] In another ad, Lewis Foy said of the Lackwana plant, “it was quite obvious that we’re in deep trouble unless all of our employees improve their productivity.”[12] To Bethlehem Steel’s leadership, if foreign steel was going to pose a problem, it would be the fault of the workers, not the bosses.

Bethlehem Steel’s 1971 ad blaming workers for impending problems with the US steel industry. | The Buffalo News, January 15, 1971

Sarah: Layoffs continued through the early 1970s. From an all-time low unemployment rate in the mid 1960s, by 1975, unemployment in Buffalo hit 12%. By 1977, the steel industry in the United States essentially collapsed. Bethlehem Steel posted hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and thousands more were laid off, leaving less than half of the number of employees in 1965. Finally, in December 1982, Bethlehem Steel announced that it would shut down essentially all but a tiny bit of the steel manufacturing at the Lackawanna plant, leaving a minuscule 1300 workers on the job. The front page of the Buffalo News on December 27 was dismal. Buffalo major Jimmy Griffin was stunned. “It’s a shock,” the News reported him saying. New York State senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that the situation in Lackawanna was an example of the state of the union – saying that the nation was in a “desperate depression,” and that the “people in the White House don’t know what’s happening out there.”[13] The late December 1982 Buffalo newspapers really show how devastating this was for the city – the pages were full of articles obsessing over the Bethlehem’s closure. Articles recounted the timeline of Bethlehem’s statements over the past year, suggested that – like the St. Lawrence Seaway – Buffalo really should have seen this coming, pointing out that the the Bethlehem leadership had consistently pointed to the Lackawanna plant as a problem for the company.[14] But more devastating were the interviews with average Buffalonians, whose lives centered (for generations, in some cases) on the Lackawanna plant. AOne article included a quote from a steelworker sitting drinking beer at a place frequented by plant employees: “I really don’t know what I’m going to do now,” the 37 year old father or two said. “I bought a house, I got a hefty mortgage payment to make and there aren’t any jobs for me to chase now that the plant has shut down.” The owners of the restaurant worried that no one would come to their restaurant, pointing to the fact that Lackawanna was essentially a company town: “Who’s going to come here for dinner? People just don’t come to Lackawanna for dinner the way they might go to Buffalo for a night out.” Another man was more bitter, saying: “I saw it coming. They bled that company dry and we saw it coming. This place will be a ghost town now and it’s all the fault of the damn politicians. I knew it all along, but I’m just a worker, so who’s going to listen to me? Well, now I guess they wish they’d listened to people like me.”[15]

Marissa: In 1898, when Buffalo’s leading businessmen wined and dined Walter Scranton at that fancy luncheon, they hoped that by luring Lackawanna Steel to Buffalo they would make Western New York into a center for the booming, Gilded Age steel industry. The luncheon, it turned out, worked so well that within a few decades, not only was Scranton’s Lackawanna Steel booming, the town that sprang up around around the mill named itself for the company. But while Buffalo’s identity as a steel town was born from a moment of contingency, it was also undone by factors it could never have foreseen in 1898: foreign competition from countries that could crank out steel without labor protections or living wages; conservative politics that eroded union strength and deincentivized corporate bosses from hiring American laborers; the faltering economy of the 1970s and downturn in car manufacturing.

Sarah We could have a similar episode about many cities, in the US and around the world. It’s not that Buffalo is unique, especially in its history of a deindustrializing city in the late 20th century. Pittsburgh has a similar story, as does Detroit and Cleveland.  But to me, Buffalo is an example of a city where contingent moments such as the ones we’ve discussed today have made a significant difference in fate: a difference between success and failure, thriving and scraping by.


Goldman, Mark. City on the Edge: Buffalo, New York. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Goldman, Mark. High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York. Albany: SUNY Press, 1983.

Creighton, Margaret. The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016.


[1] Margaret Creighton, The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016), 11.

[2] Goldman, City on the Edge, 21

[3] Creighton, The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City, 162

[4] “Night of Bedlam in Wild Farewell Revel, Pabst’s Wrecked by Mob,” Buffalo Courier, Buffalo, NY, November 3, 1901.

[5] Goldman, City on the Edge, 20.

[6] Goldman, City on the Edge, 37

[7] Goldman, City on the Edge, 150

[8] “May Ocean Cargo Sets Record Here,” Courier Express, Buffalo, New York, June 6, 1959.

[9] “New Grain Car Loaded for Run East,” Courier Express, Buffalo, New York, December 19, 1962.

[10] Goldman, City on the Edge, 292.

[11] “Bethlehem Steel’s New Leadership Team Looks Ahead to 1971,” The Buffalo News, January 15, 1971.

[12] Goldman, City on the Edge, 293

[13] “Cuomo Forms Task Force on Bethlehem,” The Buffalo News, Buffalo, NY, December 27, 1982.

[14]Robert J. Summers,  “Handwriting was Clearly On the Wall,” The Buffalo News, Buffalo, NY, December 27, 1982.

[15] Mike Billington, Spirits Battered, They Saw Blow Coming,The Buffalo News, Buffalo, NY, December 28, 1982.


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