The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Shipbuilding on the Lakes, No. 1 Buffalo and the District of Buffalo Creek, N.Y.
The Monthly Nautical Magazine and Quarterly Review (New York, NY), January 1855, pp. 289-998

Full Text
No I.

It was originally our intention, in preparing a series of articles on Ship-building on the Lakes, to have gone back to the earliest period in its history, when the schooner Washington, the first American vessel built on Lake Erie, was launched at Four Mile Creek, near Erie, Pa., in the summer of 1796, and trace up to the present time, through each successive stage of advancement, the rapid progress made in this important art; but we regret that, after several days spent in examining the records kept in the Custom-House at Buffalo, we were unable to obtain any information relative to early ship-building at that port, or in the District of Buffalo Creek. It appears that the Collectors of the several Districts are not obliged to retain in their offices records of all vessels built in their respective Districts ; all that the law seems to require is, that where a vessel is built in any one District, if she is to remain in that District, (that is, if her managing owner is a resident thereof,) she is enrolled, and a copy of her enrollment remains in the Collector's office ; but when the managing owner resides in another district from where the vessel was built, she is furnished [p. 290] with a ship-builder's certificate, and a temporary enrollment is given her, with which she can proceed to the port where she is to be enrolled, and no record is kept at the port where she was built of her ever having been constructed there. In this re- spect we consider the law relative to the enrollment and regis- tration of vessels defective in an important particular.

But little care seems to have been exercised by those having charge of the early official records of the District, to preserve them in a manner that they might be accessible to persons desirous of referring to the early history of the city, and that they might be forthcoming when the historian should require them. Such, however, has not been the case ; and not only are the records very incomplete, but several of the first set of books which were kept in the Custom-House have been lost or mislaid, so that they are not to be found. We have therefore been compelled to depend in a great measure on the books of one or two of our oldest ship-builders, in making out the tables which follow.

Most of the officers of the Customs on the Lake frontier are attentive, and are desirous of furnishing all the statistical and general information in their power, and many of the citizens engaged in trade and commerce, and in the transportation and shipment of produce and merchandise, have frequently furnished the public with useful information on the Lake trade and commerce ; but it has been difficult to obtain full detailed statements on some of these points, owing to the absence of proper legal requirements and authoritative departmental instruction in that respect.

The American frontier on the Lakes has been divided into seventeen districts. These districts have not been established on geographical position or territorial limits of States, but to suit the convenience of the Custom-House.

The District of Buffalo Creek has a coast line of one hundred miles in extent, commencing at the Falls on the Niagara River, and thence extending southward and westward, embracing the ports of Schlosser, Tonnawanda, and Black Rock on the river ; Buffalo, on Buffalo Creek, at the foot of Lake Erie, and Cattaraugus Creek, Silver Creek, Dunkirk, Van Buren Harbor, and [p. 291] Barcelona, on the southern shore of Lake Erie, being all the ports between the Falls of Niagara and the eastern State line of Pennsylvania.

Prior to the year 1809, we can find no mention of any vessels having been built in this district. During that year, however, a small Durham boat, of about ten tons burthen, was constructed at Black Rock. The first schooner built in the district, so far as we can learn, was the Experiment, of 29 65-95th tons, at Black Rock, in 1813.

In 1816 three vessels were built at Black Rock -- the sloop Hannah, of 48 73-95th tons, the schooner Erie, of 77 47-95th, and the schooner Michigan, of 132 30-95th tons burthen. We do not find that any vessels were built at the Rock in 1817.

The first steamer on the lakes, above the Niagara Falls, was called the Walk-in-the- Water, of 338 69-95th tons burthen; was built by Noah Brown, at Black Rock, in 1818.

In 1822, the first steamer, and so far as we can learn the first vessel, was built at Buffalo. She was called the "Superior," of 346 38-95th tons burthen, and was built by Noah Brown, the same who built the steamer Walk-in-the- Water.

Previous to the year 1821, Buffalo had no harbor, and the smallest class of coasting vessels could not enter and depart from Buffalo Creek without interruption, and the entry of one or two small vessels in a day, excited more interest then than the arrival of a hundred steamers and sail vessels would now. The steamer Walk-in-the-Water, which had then been running nearly three years on Lake Erie, ran from Black Rock to parts on that lake, not even touching at Buffalo.

A harbor company had been formed early in the year 1821, with the view of deepening the channel, and making a harbor which vessels might enter at any time with safety.

This company having finished the pier, and the creek having been carried by a new and straight (although shallow) channel into the lake, a harbor was completed, and measures were im- mediately taken to establish a ship-yard.

In an old scrap-book, in which are written some of the "Early Incidents of Buffalo," we find the following account of the es- tablishment of the first ship-yard, and how the steamer Superior, [p. 292] the first vessel launched in Buffalo Creek, came to be built there : --

It was expected that the spring freshet would so widen and deepen the channel as to permit lake vessels, and even the Walk-in-the-Water, (the (only steamboat on the lake,) to enter safely. This boat had been built at Black Rock, and run to that place, not even touching at Buffalo, and the very prospect of having a steamboat arrive and depart from Buffalo was highly encouraging. But while anticipating these benefits, the Walk-in- the-Water was driven on shore a short distance from Buffalo, while on her last trip, in 1821, and bilged. The engine, boilers and furniture were saved, and there was no doubt that the Steamboat Company would build a new boat, as they had purchased from Fulton's heirs the right to navigate, by steam, that portion of Lake Erie lying within the State, which right was then deemed valid.

The citizens of Buffalo, without loss of time, addressed the Directors Of the Company, presenting the advantages that would accrue to them by building their boat at Buffalo. The Company, immediately on learning their loss, made a contract with Noah Brown & Brothers, of New York, to build a boat at Buffalo, if it could be constructed as cheaply there as at the Rock, and if there would be a certainty of getting the boat out of the creek.

Brown came on early in January, passing on to Black Rock, without even reporting himself in Buffalo: nor was his arrival known here until he had agreed to build his boat at the Rock, and engaged the ship-carpenters of that place to furnish the timber. The Blaek Rock contractors, gratified with their success, agreed to accommodate Brown by meeting him at the Mansion House in Buffalo, in the evening, to execute the contract, which was to be drawn by an attorney in Buffalo. The gentlemen, with their securities, were punctual in their attendance.

As soon as it was known in Buffalo that the boat was to be built at the Rock, the citizens assembled in the bar-room of the Mansion House, and after spending a few minutes in giving vent to their indignation, it was resolved to have an immediate interview with Brown, and know why Buffalo had been thus slighted. Perhaps he might be induced to change his mind, if the contract were not already signed. The landlord undertook to ascertain this fact, and reported that it was not yet executed. A delegate to wait on Brown was chosen without any ceremony -- there was no time to give specific instructions. "Get the boat built here, and we will be bound by your agreement." The delegate had never seen Brown, and on entering his parlor, had to introduce himself. This done, he proceeded : --

"Mr. Brown, why do you not build your boat at Buffalo, pursuant to the wishes of the Company?"

"Why, sir, I arrived in your village while your people were sleeping, [p. 293] and being obliged to limit my stay here to one day, I thought to improve the early part of the morning by commencing my inquiries at Black Rock, and consulting the ship-carpenters residing there, who had aided in building the Walk-in-the-Water. While there I was told your harbor was all a humbug, and that if I was to build the boat in Buflfalo Creek, she could not be got into the lake in the spring, and perhaps never. Besides, the carpenters refused to deliver the timber in Buffalo. Considering the question of where the boat should be built as settled, I proceeded to contract for timber to be delivered, and shall commence building the boat immediately, at the Rock."

"Mr. Brown, our neighbors have done us great injustice, although they, no doubt, honestly believe what they have said to you about our harbor. Under the circumstances, I feel gratified in making you a proposition, which will enable you to comply with the wishes of the Steamboat Company and do justice to Buffalo, without exposing yourself to loss or blame. The citizens of Buffalo will deliver suitable timber at a quarter less than it will cost you at the Rock, and execute a judgment bond to pay to the Steamboat Company one hundred and fifty dollars for every day's detention of the boat in the creek after the 1st of May."

"I accept the proposition. When will the papers be made out?"

"To-morrow morning. And if you wish it, a satisfactory sum of money shall now be placed in your hands, to be forfeited if the contract and bond are not executed."

" This, sir, I do not require. I shall leave at ten o'clock this evening, and my friend Moulton will prepare the necessary papers and see them executed."

The judgment bond was signed by nearly all the responsible citizens, and the contract for the timber taken by Wm. A. Carpenter, at the reduced price agreed on. To comply with this contract, both as to time and the quality of the timber, required no little energy and good management, but the contractor executed it to the satisfaction of all concerned.

The work of deepening the channel was now proceeded with, but many were the obstacles that the Harbor Company were continually encountering. A heavy bank of ice, resting on the bottom of the lake and rising several . feet above its surface, had been formed during the winter, extending from the west end of the pier to the shore. This ice-bank arrested the current of the creek, forming an eddy alongside the pier, into which the sand and gravel removed by the flood were deposited, filling up the channel for the distance of over three hundred feet, and leaving a little more than three feet of water where, before the freshet, there was an average of four and a half feet. This obstruction of the harbor produced not only discouragement, but consternation. Various plans were devised for again clearing out the channel, and at length piles were driven down, and scrapers, formed of oak planky were set to work, and by the 15th April, much more than [p. 294] half the work was accomplished, and every doubt as to the practicability of completing it removed.

Although the weather was more favorable for the prosecution of the work during the latter part of April, and the scraping continued with the utmost diligence, yet the first of May came while there was still a few rods of the channel in which only about six and a half feet of water had been gained. As considerable work yet remained to be done on the boat and no loss or inconvenience would accrue to the owners in allowing a few days to deepen the channel, yet no time could be obtained. The boat, hav- ing been completed, was now put in motion, and fortunately the pilot, Capt. Miller, having made himself acquainted with what channel there was, ran her out into the lake without difficulty. The boat was however light, and when fully loaded would require much more water. The scraping was therefore continued.

From 1822 to 1845, quite a large number of steamers, propellers and sail vessels were built in this district, but the register kept at the Custom-House, containing the certificates of builders of vessels, could not be found, and we are therefore compelled to pass over that period, and simply give a list of the vessels built in the district during the past ten years, with their names, tonnage, and by whom built.

Buffalo, from the unsurpassed advantages offered by superiority of location, naturally takes the lead of any other lake city in this important branch of industry. Her ship-yards have already sent forth upon the Western waters steamers which must elicit the wonder and admiration of the world.

Steamers, propellers, and every class of sailing vessels, can be built at that port with greater advantage to the owner in the important item of economy, and at the same time equal, if not superior, to all others in quality and model. The timber used in the construction of vessels can be procured as cheap at that port as at any other on the lakes, and the item of iron, which enters largely into the construction of vessels, can be laid down there at a much lower figure than at any other point on the lakes.

Buffalo is also well supplied with machine and boiler shops, furnaces, &c., and machinery can be made as cheap there as elsewhere, and considering the great expense of transportation, and the disadvantages of having the hull and engine built at a distance from each other, perhaps cheaper. Buffalo has four large [p. 295] ship-yards, with any amount of vacant ground, admirably located on the creek and ship-canal, for ship-building purposes. Connected with one of these yards, there is a dry dock of sufficient capacity to admit a vessel of over 3,000 tons, with marine railway to facilitate the hauling out and repairing of vessels. There is also near the same yard a large derrick, for the handling of large boilers and heavy machinery. These, and other facilities which she possesses, give to her the pre-eminence of a ship-building city, and to these facts may be attributed the reason she has turned out annually the large amount of tonnage noted hereafter -- more than double the amount of any other lake city, excepting Cleveland.

This branch of industry has hitherto given constant employ- ment to from twelve to fifteen hundred mechanics, who were enabled to earn good wages throughout the year. This fall, however, owing to the general depression, and the tightness of the money market, there is scarcely any vessel-building going on. Only two schooners, of about 300 tons burthen each, are now on the stocks, and we can hear of no contracts making for the construction of any more. There will doubtless, however, be two or three propellers, perhaps a steamer and a few sailing vessels, commenced during the present winter.

There is at present no demand for vessel stock, and prices of lumber, &c., would be merely nominal.


No. 1.-- Buffalo, N. Y.

List of Vessels with their tonnage and by whom built from 1845 to 1854 inclusive, at the Port of Buffalo, N. Y.


SteamerNiagara1,084Bidwell & Banta.
PropellerSt. Joseph460"
"Pocahontas 426Jones.
SchoonerWatts Sherman199Bidwell & Banta.
"M. A. Myers16"
SteamerBaltic800Bidweil & Banta.
SteamerBelle240Bidwell & Banta
BrigWm. Monteath261"
"H. B. Bishop265"
"Wm. Adair81Cameron.
"Robert Emmett245Bidwell & Banta.
"Charter Oak184"
"Green Bay233"
SteamerKey Stone State1,354Bidwell & Banta.
"St. Louis210Bidwell & Banta.
SchoonerE.K. Bruce240"
"Henry Hagar237Jones.
"P. P. Pratt196Van Slyck
"Helen Kent92Laurie.
SteamerTom Sims150Bidwell & Banta.
PropellerM. B. Spaulding419"
"Illinois530Bidwell & Banta
BargeLiberty126Van Slyck.
PropellerHenry A. Kent442Jones.
SteamerLady Elgin1,037Bidwell & Banta.
"Lathrop55Van Slyck.
SchoonerB. F. Davidson154Bidwell & Banta.
SteamerSouthern Michigan1,470Bidwell & Banta.
"Northern Indiana1,475"
"Golden Gate770"
"City of Oswego357"
PropellerEdith549Bidwell & Banta.
"Bay State372"
"Frederick Follett37Wafford.
"B. F. Bruce168Chapman.
"G.W Tifft81Sims.
SchoonerFox405Bidwell & Banta.
"Robert Willis367"
"Henry L. Lansing369"
"West Wind255Jones.
"May Queen43Carpenter.
SteamerCrescent City1,756Bidwell & Banta.
"Queen of the West1,851"
"Garden City657"
"St. Lawrence1,844Jones.
PropellerNorthern Michigan359Bidwell & Banta.
"Young America359"
"A. S. Field116"
BrigYoung America346Jones.
SchoonerNorth Star366"
"Homer Ramsdell275"
"Arabian353Bidwell & Banta.
SteamerWestern World2,002Jones.
"Plymouth Rock1,991"
"Oriental950Bidwell & Banta.
"Omar Pacha343"
"Hamilton Morton144Collier.
"Wm. Peck172Sims.
BarqueGreat West765Weeks.
"Emily J. Roelofson385"
BrigEmpire State396"
SchoonerMaple Leaf299"
"Geo. M. Chapman318"
"Robert Bruce312"
"Three Bells305"
"Little Belle158"
"Richard Mott296"
"Harriet Ross229Walsh.

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Date of Original:
January 1855
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  • New York, United States
    Latitude: 42.8802914125108 Longitude: -78.8906893751118
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Shipbuilding on the Lakes, No. 1 Buffalo and the District of Buffalo Creek, N.Y.