We took a day at the start of this week-long bike ride along the Erie Canal to get a feel for Buffalo: the wealth from a century ago when industrialists were building their mansions along Delaware Avenue with the profits from their grain silos, from when the Pan-American Exhibition that showed off the promises of the new century was marred by a presidential assassination, and when Art Deco became the fashion.
Actually, there wasn’t enough time to see everything.
So if you have to pick one thing, my recommendation is Buffalo River History Tours and its boat and walking tour of Silo City, an abandoned collection of grain elevators stretching up to 10 stories tall as well as a couple of adjacent buildings that are slowly being turned into housing.
The tour starts where the Erie Canal meets the Buffalo River, in the shadow of a General Mills silo and a cereal factory where the scent of the day was Cheerios.
The Buffalo River is much quieter than it was when grain silos, a steel factory and other industries were humming; in its heyday, 6,000 ships hauling 332 million bushels of grain arrived each year (really a six-month season), our guide told us. Of the 14 silo complexes that still line the river, only four are in use, claimed by either grains or cement. The two that hold grains only get a shipment every five to six weeks. So it was unusual to see two lake freighters during our two hours on the water, one heading out after making a delivery, the other, the bigger one at nearly 700 feet long, headed in.
Here’s some of the detail from Silo City. That last one is left over from an art installation.
Once the premier destination for goods heading east, given its position as the eastern-most point along the Great Lakes (Detroit is a day away by boat), Buffalo’s fate was sealed when the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959 and allowed bigger ships to reach the Atlantic Ocean. Buffalo finally tried to deepen its own channel after the St. Lawrence opened. But it was too little, too late. The ships were already gone.
No surprise that the Buffalo River was once badly polluted; add it to the list of those you know that caught fire before America got serious about cleaning up its air and water. Today it’s clean enough to begin trying to reintroduce fish. The shoreline now includes a naval museum with decommissioned military ships and a submarine, parks, homes and the Shoreline trail that we will take north to Tonawanda, where we will turn east as part of our 360-mile journey along the Erie Canal.
I’d love to have taken an architecture-focused tour, whether Art Deco or the Delaware Avenue mansions. A few highlights:
Buffalo has several presidential connections: the McKinley assassination and inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt; Grover Cleveland the former mayor; Millard Fillmore, a former congressman. Statues of Cleveland and Fillmore are in front of the gorgeous Art Deco City Hall, and you can tour the inaugural site (interesting but nowhere as good as the Silo City tour). Our timing was off for a tour of City Hall.
Some of the practical stuff
We took Amtrak from Albany to Buffalo. Only one bike per car (front wheel off, bike hangs from the rear wheel … such a cumbersome process) and only four cars. So reserve early. Amtrak, you should let handicapped spots be reserved at no cost and then use the long luggage spot opposite them to fit two or three bikes. The luggage rack could be reclaimed by oversized bags, you could transport more bikes, and all would be happier.
We parked in long-term parking at the train station. The sign says $7 a day, $30 for a week, but I believe they raised prices a few months ago for the first time since 2013.
Amazingly, we got into Buffalo Exchange (the downtown station) early. Have you ever had that happen on Amtrak?
We stayed in the historical Allentown neighborhood, an easy 2-mile ride from the station and walkable to just about everything we needed.