I’ve been admiring Soldiers Circle, or Soldiers Place, since well, I guess since the first time I really noticed it. I used to work for the Government of Canada here in Buffalo, and the Consul General’s official residence was on Soldiers Circle. The Canadians purchased the mansion in 2009. There would be parties held there on occasion and I remember it being a beautiful home that was surrounded by other beautiful homes.
For some odd reason, I never really noticed this circle before that time. I mean, I had driven through it many times. But after the first party at #196, I started extending my walks in Delaware Park to include Lincoln Parkway and Soldiers Circle. We are so fortunate to have so much gorgeous architecture to look at on our daily walks. And to be fair, this circle is wide. Might be why I never noticed the homes until I went in one. What I mean is that the homes are a good distance from the circle itself, with lots of green space and trees in between. And when you’re driving or biking through, you really have to pay attention to traffic.
Let’s get to it.
A Bit of History at Soldiers Circle
When Frederick Law Olmsted designed our parkway system, he put Soldiers Circle at the center of the three main parkways, Lincoln, Bidwell and Chapin. These three parkways lead to all the others, which lead us to all the other parks. Sadly, not all the others have survived. But we’re not here to discuss that today.
Today, it’s all about the circle itself. Originally, Soldiers Circle was meant to be home to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument which ended up being placed downtown in Lafayette Square. History isn’t clear how or why that happened, but here we are. Instead the circle originally had three Navy Parrot Guns, which were Civil War cannons, and stacks of cannonballs.
Word on the street says that from the beginning, Buffalonians couldn’t resist stealing the cannonballs. I guess some sold them for scrap, some sold them to collectors, and some simply kept them. Still others would roll them up and down the parkways. Oh, Buffalo…
Either way, all of it was removed in 1937 by then Parks Commissioner Frank Coon, who said they were traffic hazards. Apparently, more than once, people ran their vehicles into the cannons. (Was this a precursor to people driving into buildings in Buffalo?) Seriously though, this is not the first time I’ve heard that early drivers had trouble maneuvering through traffic circles. Anyway, and ironically, the cannons and their accompanying cannonballs were sold for junk at that time.
The Homes on Soldiers Circle
I headed over to Soldiers Circle on an absolutely beautiful October day. The sun was shining, the sky could have been a bit more blue, but it was a crisp, pretty, autumn day nonetheless.
I entered the circle at Chapin Parkway heading towards Bidwell. The first thing I see is this building (above) that was originally a hotel, built for the Pan American Exposition in 1901. It’s since been turned into townhouses and apartments. I’ve seen photos of the interior of a couple of the townhouses and they’re beautiful!
I’m not sure what’s going on with the brick though. I doubt it was originally a mix of yellow and red, which shows at some point there was at least some neglect, but it appears to be well maintained now. I love that almost every window still has the original leaded glass transoms above. And there are so many windows!
On this particular day, I noticed a lot of things I’ve never noticed about this building before. Like what are those openings in the peaks? Are they patios? If they are, how lovely! And I love the transoms and sidelights at the main entryways! Gorgeous!
The Oldest Home on the Circle
The very next house I come to I meet the owner on his way out with his dog. He tells me his is the oldest home on the circle. It’s an 1885 Eastlake Victorian, and I daresay it’s one of the nicest examples of the style I’ve seen.
An Eastlake Victorian differs from other Victorians, from what I understand, by the ornamentation. Named for Charles Locke Eastlake, the Eastlake style home has more subdued ornamentation than other Victorians. Charles disdained flamboyant decoration, and it showed in his designs. The use of color is more subdued as well. In this case it makes for a gorgeous home. To my eye, the colors are spot on, and the ornamentation is a perfect compliment to the home. The windows are original and open out from the bottom, see photo. I find the whole house to be very charming. I’d love to see the inside.
But alas the owner and his super cute Labradoodle have already left for places unknown.
Am I in Allentown?
This whole section here has a real Allentown feel. It’s quite different from the other ‘sections’ of the circle. Now that I think about it, each section of this circle has its own distinct feel. You’ll see what I mean as I move along.
This one is Allentown. Lovely homes that have a real comfortable feel. Like that feeling I get in Allentown. Look at this house below. Doesn’t it just look comfortable? Like you want to be on that second floor porch reading away the afternoon. Or sipping wine with friends into the late hours on a summer evening. How about that? Sound good? You know it does.
Yes, this section is gorgeous and unpretentious.
Lipke House, Jody Douglass House, & Niscah House
Next I came to one of several homes in this area that Buffalo Seminary owns. Most of the homes are used to board students, but a couple are home to Head of School, Assistant Head of School and the like. Pictured below, are three in this stretch owned by Buff Sem. They are Lipke House, Jody Douglass House, and Niscah House.
For clarity, Buffalo Seminary is a non-denominational, day and boarding school for college bound girls. It has its roots in early Buffalo history (1851), and is one of the oldest institutions of higher learning for females in the country.
First up, Lipke House (1896). This one is home to the current Assistant Head of School. What a great example of the Colonial Revival Style. Just look at those four pedimented dormers complete with dentil moldings. Also, notice what is called pebbled dash inside the triangular section of the dormer. I don’t believe those would have originally been painted, but I can’t say for sure in this case. Most were simply mortar with medium size ‘pebbles’ placed at irregular intervals throughout. Interesting!
Next, are Jody Douglass House (1905) and Niscah House (1910), respectively. Both are for students boarding with Buff Sem. Indeed, as I came upon them, a handful of teenage girls came out of the houses, and headed over to the school. What an idyllic setting for this school. It helps that all of their buildings are incredibly well maintained.
The building below the two houses is Buff Sems’ West Chester Hall. It faces Soldiers Circle. Another beauty and it’s perfectly maintained.
As I Cross Bidwell Parkway
As I cross Bidwell, I get distracted by a house I see, and I’m not sure whether it’s on Bidwell or Soldiers Circle. So I walk up to it, and I find it’s not either. Check it out.
First of all, this is one of the best gates I’ve ever seen! It’s awesome! Second, note the address above the door. Lincoln Woods? It’s then that I remember seeing a small lane off Bidwell Parkway on a map several weeks ago. I make a left to see if I can find it.
I pass this…another home with a Lincoln Woods address.
Sure enough, there it is…
So, even though it appears private, it doesn’t say so. I make a right and I start walking up Lincoln Woods Lane. I don’t go far, out of respect, and because of the fact that there is no city street sign. In fact, there’s a concrete driveway out onto Bidwell. This is what I’m thinking as I take photos of one more Lincoln Woods Lane home.
It was at that point that I felt like I was intruding on people’s privacy, and I always try to respect that, so that’s as far as I went. When I came home, I looked at a map. There’s at least two more homes back in there. Maybe more. Secrets off Bidwell. Well, I guess it’s not really a secret. I mean, there’s a sign there announcing it! The things you notice when you’re walking!
Back to Soldiers Circle
As I head back into Soldiers Circle, these are the homes I see. All lovely. A bit newer than I expected, (1960-ish) but just lovely. The backyards of these homes are on Lincoln Woods Lane. Nice.
And Then, There’s This
Yep. Frank Lloyd Wright is represented on Soldiers Place with this stunner! This home was built for William Heath, who, like Darwin Martin, worked for the Larkin Company. Heath was an office manager, and eventually a vice-president, and was able to engage Frank Lloyd Wright to build this home on Soldiers Place at Bird Ave.
Here’s what I know about it. Like Darwin Martin’s house, it was built in 1905. It’s one of Wright’s Prairie School designs, shaped to fit on this narrow, long lot. Wright achieved privacy for the Heaths by building up the lot so that the first floor windows are above street level. Indeed, when you walk by, you cannot see inside the home. But still, it draws your attention to the art glass windows, the low slung, hipped roof with projecting eaves, that large, private porch, and just the sheer perfection that this home is.
There is an apartment above the 5+ car garage that has the sweetest second floor patio you can imagine. You know how I love a second floor patio. The home itself is still a private, single family residence, with the exception of that apartment above the garage. This home adds a lot to the appearance and ambience of the circle.
And it’s unique that a Frank Lloyd Wright home sits on a Frederick Law Olmsted designed traffic circle. We are fortunate to have such an amazing design among our Buffalo homes, on one of our historic parkways.
The Other Side of Bird Ave.
As I cross Bird Ave, this is what I see. I don’t even know where to begin! This house is just so – pretty. It’s in impeccable shape. While I’m snapping photos, the owner comes out with his morning coffee and a newspaper. We start to talk and I tell him how much I admire his home.
The symmetry of this Georgian style home is what does it for me. I’m an admirer of symmetry. When things don’t match up, I get uneasy. Not really, but when they do, it pleases me. The bay windows on the Bird Ave side of the house are perfect, and the Palladian windows both on the front and the sides of the house are spectacular. And that entryway! Classic!
If I have one criticism of this house it would be lack of access to the front porch from the outside. It’s one of my pet peeves. I understand why people do it. Especially on property such as this, where the home faces a circle. But it’s somehow, unneighborly. That being said, the owner was very friendly and willing to chat for a few minutes. And to be fair, he did not build the porch. So, please understand that I mean no disrespect to him. I still love the house regardless, save for that one thing.
Two More Homes on This Stretch
This slice of Soldiers Circle is set up a little bit differently. Instead of facing the circle on an angle, the homes all face what would be the continuation of Lincoln Parkway, and are stepped somewhat. In the photo below, to the left you can see the previous home set back somewhat from this home, placed further away from Lincoln Parkway. And the next one to come is closer still to the Parkway. The feeling here is one of privacy, and peace.
So, there are just three homes in this section.
This one welcomes you right up to the front door.
I love the use of Flemish brick bonding on this home. It’s a way of arranging the bricks in each row so that the bricks alternate which side of the brick itself faces the outside. With one being laid the long way, and the next is laid the short way. In the case of this house, a darker brick is used for the bricks with the short end facing out. I love the effect. In fact, all three homes on this section of the circle use this technique of Flemish bonding. It’s fabulous on this particular home.
I also love the entryway. It’s simple, but stately and elegant. The leaded glass sidelights are perfect for this house. And finally, the use of black paint really allows the architectural details to pop. Love it. Why isn’t that done more often?
And then there’s this one, below. I love how the front walk curves out to the common sidewalk. I admit I wanted to walk up it. Love the brick pavers. The landscaping is beautiful, if a little overgrown at this point in the year. Understandable.
And the house itself. To me it’s a unique design that has great arts and crafts details. The hipped roof with wide, un-enclosed eaves, the exposed roof rafters (these may be decorative). And the rounded porch with its exposed beams and square columns. Love the whole effect.
I picture this as a family home. Unassuming and well lived in. Just as a home should be.
Moving Right Along
As I cross Lincoln Parkway, I notice that this section of the circle is the only one with a separate road on the circle side of the homes. Convenient, if a little less private I guess. Google Maps calls it Soldiers Place. And all the addresses of the homes on the circle are listed at “Soldiers Place”. I should take a moment right now to say that Soldiers Circle is sometimes called Soldiers Place, Soldiers Way and Soldiers Walk. I have no explanation or reasoning for this, except that in Buffalo, we tend to call things whatever we want, and sometimes we end up with a little confusion. This is one of those times.
Getting back to the homes on the circle, check this out. This home is of the American Renaissance Style, and it’s one I’m not very familiar with. It appears to be a precursor to the Arts & Crafts movement. This particular home has that central dormer with a hipped roof, the terracotta, keystone lintels at the windows and the Doric columns on the offset porch. The wrought iron on the upper patio is fantastic! Right down to the landscaping, this home is perfect. To me anyway.
As I move to the next home, this is what I see (below). It’s official. I’m a fan of the Tudor style. I don’t know why I ever thought I wasn’t. Going out on a limb in this election year, and changing my mind. I like Tudors. Especially this Tudor Revival. It features half timbering over shingles, and a brick first level. Love the chimney.
It was built in 1906 for Albert de La Plante and his wife Margaret, who came to Buffalo from Canada in 1898. Albert worked for Twin Cities Lumber Company. Their son Walter, was Treasurer and Manager of the Peace Bridge later on. Cool! As far as I know they were the first Canadians to live on the circle. But not the last.
Did Someone Say Statler?
Then, suddenly and without warning I’m looking at a 1961 Cape Cod Ranch (below). Here’s another style I wouldn’t have known offhand. Apparently the pitched roof elevation and dormer windows are typical of the Cape Cod style, while the horizontal lines, and large windows lend themselves to the ranch style. Hence, a blending of the two. I never knew ‘Cape Cod Ranch’ was a thing.
This home was built on part of the property previously occupied by the estate of Ellsworth Statler. There is a low-slung wall on the far right of this photo that still exists from the Statler era, and the Medina Sandstone paving was reclaimed from elsewhere on the property. While I inwardly mourn the loss of the Statler house, I absolutely love the look of this home. I think it’s a nice compliment to the more modern homes on the opposite side of the circle.
The Last Section of the Circle
As I cross Bird Ave (again), I see this beauty. I love the symmetry here. The three dormers with broken pediments are lovely. I wish the windows were original, but I fear that they are not. Note the curved arches above the windows, and the keystones. I love when a second floor window copies the front entryway door with its sidelights, like this one does with a smaller version of the surround. I also love, love, love this porch. The curved roofline is just so nice to look at! It softens the rest of the straight lines of this house. Lovely.
And these two. I love the wrought iron on the front door and sidelights of the first house. And the one below that, is just beautifully built. It appears perfect in every way, with the exception of the complete lack of landscaping. It strikes me as odd in this neighborhood. I’d love it if the walls could talk in this house, because I wonder what’s going on inside.
The Government of Canada on Soldiers Circle
Like I mentioned earlier, the Canadians purchased this mansion on Soldiers Circle in 2009. I say the Canadians purchased the property because the Consul General at the time, Marta Moszczenska, always said that the home did not belong to her, but to the people of Canada and their locally engaged staff.
Here’s a funny story. A friend of mine was at the home for a holiday party. While at the party she spilled red wine on white carpeting in an upper hallway. She was mortified and didn’t mention it that night. But by the following Monday, she felt so bad about it, she went to Marta’s office to confess. True to her word, Marta told her not to worry, that it didn’t bother her in the least, and that she would take care of it. It was, after all, not her home. She was only the caretaker. By the end of the conversation, they had made arrangements for the wine spiller to house-sit the following week. That, in a nutshell, what it was like to work for the Government of Canada here in Buffalo.
Let’s Take a Look at the Interior
Elizabeth and Stephen Hays now own the home, and they were gracious enough to invite me inside and into the backyard. My memory was correct. It’s a beautiful home that’s got great flow from the front foyer all the way around the interior and back again. It’s spectacular!
I thought perhaps that over the years, I had built the home up in my mind to be something more than it really is. But no, it’s genuinely a great home. It’s got wide open rooms that are great for big gatherings, and small little nooks to hide away and read a book in peace.
Liz and Stephen have five children and I have to tell you that I like that a large, busy, fun-loving family now fills these rooms. It’s what big homes should be about. Where nobody cares (too much) if you leave a blanket and pillow on the floor. Or forget to pick up your socks. Basically, who cares if someone actually sees that people live here? That attitude seems alive and well here. And I love it. Here’s the family.
Oh the parties I could give in this backyard. Just sayin. Only thing that bothers me here is all the utility wires criss-crossing it. Sort of annoying in the yard of a mansion. I’m sure that could be remedied though.
I hardly know where to begin with my impressions this week. From the history of this circle including Frederick Law Olmsted, to Frank Lloyd Wright himself, to the Government of Canada, this circle has so much going on.
Between the three circles I’ve written about now, Soldiers Circle, Symphony Circle and Colonial Circle, this one by far feels the most affluent. Most of the homes are mansions. But there are also the humble Eastlake Victorian, the 1960s Capes and the smaller homes on Lincoln Woods Lane, which are probably larger than they appear.
This circle is also the only one surrounded by Parkways, and that makes it feel affluent as well. Right in the middle of Lincoln Parkway, Bidwell Parkway and Chapin Parkway. Three of the most sought after addresses in the city.
And Soldiers Circle takes up a lot of real estate. Seriously. From the circle itself, it’s difficult to see any of the homes lining it. I both like that, and don’t like that. Know what I mean? It does make it park like for the homeowners.
And to be fair the sidewalks do run pretty close to the homes. So, I guess Soldiers Circle, or whatever you prefer to call it, makes a great argument for urban hiking. If you want to see stuff, get out and walk. But isn’t that what I always say?
Take a walk over at Soldiers Circle. You’ll love what you see just like I did!
*Get the book! They make great keepsakes, or gifts for friends and family. Click this link to order, or click on the photo below.
**Special thanks to Elizabeth and Stephen Hays for sharing your home with us! Follow Liz on Instagram @lovelizhays
***All photos in this post are mine, unless otherwise noted.
Several years back now, my parents were looking in to senior housing. There were some new builds going up adjacent to Amherst State Park that they went to take a look at. A few days later my Mother and I were going somewhere, and we made a slight detour to drive through the parking lot just so I could see the place. They had already decided they didn’t want to move there, but I was (of course) curious anyway.
When we pulled into the lot, I said, “What is this place?” My Mom explained that the new, and at the time, incomplete buildings off to the right hand side, were what they had looked into. But the other, older building straight ahead is what I was interested in. She went on to say that that building used to be the Motherhouse for the Sisters of St. Francis. But that now there was a state park on most of the grounds of the convent.
A state park? What? In Amherst? Just a stone’s throw from Main Street in Williamsville? Yep.
Best kept secret, ever. At least to me.
It’s been a long time coming, but I finally made it over to the park several weeks ago for one of our quarantine hikes. Great decision, it’s a sweet find.
St. Mary of the Angels Convent
My fascination with old buildings immediately drew me to the old convent. Of which I had already done a little bit of research.
I learned that it’s Gothic Revival style is pretty common among convents, and was designed by Deitel and Wade. The same architects who designed our own city hall. At around the same time too – 1928 for this building. 1929 – 32 for City Hall. This building is impressive.
Most of the Franciscan Sisters who lived here were involved in health care and education throughout Western New York. They ministered at such institutions as Mount St. Mary’s Hospital in Niagara Falls, local colleges, high schools and grammar schools. Including my own grammar school.
Nuns have always been the butt of many jokes told by people of all walks of life. And maybe I was at the right age for this, but the sisters who taught me were mostly very nice, and at times sweet ladies. Of course there were one or two that stood out for being ‘mean’, but there are also one or two lay teachers who stand out for the same reason. In my 30’s I had occasion to work with some Felician Sisters, and it was then that I realized for the first time, that sisters are people. (!) They each have their own personality. Some are gossipy, some are pious, some are funny, some are quiet etc. Just people though, trying to get through life just like the rest of us.
Anyway, what a beautiful contemplative place this must have been for them to retreat to, once the rigors of work brought them home in the evenings.
Amherst State Park
The Business End
Roughly 80 acres of the convent land was put up for sale in 1999. New York State and the Town of Amherst acquired the property after splitting the $5 million price tag, in 2000. The agreement states that the town maintain the property which is to be used for conservation and passive recreation only.
And that is exactly how it is being used.
The old convent building is now St. Mary’s Apartments for seniors 55 and over. Very affordable if you look them up. The apartments themselves appear small, but nice. Just think of the yard though! And you wouldn’t have to maintain any of it!
The Park that Brings on Daydreams
While hiking around the park, we came upon a set of old stone stairs. As I walked up them, I had a very clear memory of being of being here, many years ago. My grammar school class had a field trip in what used to be the convent orchard. A couple of us stole away, and when we saw some stairs, we snuck up them. The building we saw at the top was like nothing any of us had ever seen before! We stood at the top of the steps just staring at what we were sure had to be a castle! Are kids still this easily impressed nowadays?
The old orchards are evident in the still existing (apple?) trees. Ellicott Creek ambles in curving paths through the property, bringing peace as it rolls by. Water does that to us, brings peace. There are wooded areas, nature paths, and a bike path too. There are secluded areas, and wide open meadows, and even a pine forest! If this place is not the stuff of daydreams, I don’t know what is!
Graffiti Art and The Cemetery
Bet you’re not used to seeing graffiti art and cemetery used in the same sentence.
Well, while taking a bike ride on another occasion, we took the bike path to the south end of the land. There were some ruins of what appear to be outbuildings for the convent. Now, they are mostly covered in graffiti art, and no one is removing it. Love this.
But when we reached the end of the path, and indeed the property, we noticed a cool looking little chapel in the middle of a field. We, like the little kids who found those stairs years ago, kept going.
Well, it wasn’t a field. It was a cemetery. Specifically, Gethsemane Cemetery, and it appears to be for the sisters who lived and served the community here. The Sisters of St. Francis. I have to admit, it’s a beautiful, serene resting place. And just a stone’s throw to Main Street in Williamsville.
There are still Sisters on the property where we found the cemetery. And they are still serving our community in health care and education. How do I know? We ran into one of them out for an evening walk while I was taking photos of the chapel. She told us she didn’t know the age of the chapel, but she thought it was almost as old as the convent itself. It’s a beautiful little chapel.
My Impressions of Amherst State Park
We all know Glen Park. That gorgeous little park on Main Street in Williamsville with the waterfall. If you go to the parking lot on the other side of Glen Avenue, and follow the creek to the north, you’ll end up in Amherst State Park.
Come to think of it, some college friends and I used to go to that very parking lot on beautiful spring days, take off our shoes and walk the creek for what seemed like miles. It’s not miles to the state park, so I suppose we were on convent land at the time. Hmmm. Good thing the nuns didn’t know what we were up to… 😉 Or maybe they did, and just let us be. Who knows?
Anyway, Amherst State Park gives me a good feeling. It’s there for conservation and passive recreation. But really, in my book it’s for walking, hiking, biking, and for getting away from it all. It’s a real retreat from the day to day life right now. And let’s face it, we could all use a break right about now.
The main entrance is on the west side of Mill Street, about halfway between Glen Avenue and Sheridan Drive. If you haven’t been to the park, you should think about getting there this summer. It’s not crowded like a lot of our parks have been this summer. I hope you find it to be as peaceful as I do.
I think of Chestnut Ridge Park as a winter place. Probably because that’s how I’ve used the park throughout my life.
I don’t have any memories of going there as a small child. As a young teenager however, I regularly went there for sledding and tobogganing. The thrill of flying down the hill while practically out of control will always stay with me.
There was a social aspect as well. Chestnut Ridge has long been the best place to sled in the Buffalo area, and there were always kids there from other schools. Which was exciting in the expanding world of a young teen who was just starting to tug on her mother’s apron strings. Remember, these were the days when one parent would drive several 13 year olds out to the park and drop them off. Another parent would pick them up 3 or 4 hours later. We were on our own and testing the waters.
We felt so free! But in reality, there were enough adults around so that we couldn’t really get into much trouble. Basically it was good, clean fun, and the memories are indelibly imprinted in my brain.
Skip ahead, ahem, several years. Now I return every fall and winter for walking, hiking and snowshoeing. Chestnut Ridge is arguably the best place around to fully appreciate both fall and winter. What’s not to love? With its rambling roads, picturesque hiking trails, and the colorful trees in the fall. Oh the trees! The trees in Chestnut Ridge are nothing short of spectacular.
That takes me to the history of Chestnut Ridge Park itself. You know that with me it always comes down to history.
The park was named by early settlers of the area for the magnificent chestnut trees that grew on the land. It’s located in Orchard Park, NY, twenty-five minutes southeast of Buffalo, and is a little over 1200 acres making it the largest park run by the Erie County Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry. Delaware Park in Buffalo’s city proper is 350 acres. So Chestnut Ridge covers quite a bit of area. It is in fact, one of the largest county parks in the United States.
Erie County acquired the land for the park in 1926, a busy year for establishing what the county considers heritage parks, because in that same year, the county also established Como Park and Ellicott Creek Park. These followed Emery Park in 1925. Akron Falls Park was established in 1933.
These parks are all treasures in their own right, but Chestnut Ridge is the one that speaks to me. Maybe it’s the fond memories of my teenage years and the nostalgia attached. I’m an old soul and when I hike through Chestnut Ridge Park, I get a feeling of history, yes of nostalgia, and a sense of wistfulness for a simpler time.
I find it interesting that these are the feelings this place invokes in me, when the very park itself grew up on the backs of those struggling to get through the depression.
The New Deal
The park’s roads, buildings, shelters and landscaping were improved substantially through the Works Progress Administration during the depression. It was an agency of Roosevelt’s New Deal and sought to provide employment for households where the main breadwinner was unemployed.
This agency kept roughly 8.5 million men and women employed between 1935 and 1943. That’s a lot of people. The workers were paid the prevailing wage of the area at the time. Most were hired as laborers and were put to work creating infrastructure for the nation’s current and future society. Including parks.
Most of the structures you see in Chestnut Ridge Park were built at this time. Although the original casino seen in the vintage photo above was built in 1925, it was replaced with this stone and timber building as part of this project in 1938 (see below). It’s strategically placed to take full advantage of the views from the natural ridge. And what views!
Present and Future
Earlier I mentioned that the park is maintained by Erie County Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry. Since 2010, they have been receiving help in this monumental task from the Chestnut Ridge Conservancy, which has helped with many, many projects that have improved park life. Some of these include, a $40,000 restoration of the 1948 murals inside the casino (!), long range binoculars on the casino patio (that view!), various park benches, stone work restoration, among many others. Read more about the Chestnut Ridge Conservancy here.
The park is open all year long and everyone, of all abilities, can find something to do there. From lounging on the patio of the casino, enjoying the view from the top of the ridge to trail running and disc golf. And from scenic driving to snowshoeing and cross country skiing. Head over to the southwest portion of the park to hike out to the eternal flame falls to see one of Western New York’s most unique attractions. A small waterfall containing an ‘eternal flame’, created by natural gas. Or take a short walk from the casino to a picturesque lake complete with cabin and fishing pier. This park’s got it all.
In the end, I believe it’s the structures built during the depression, coupled with the incredible landscape architecture, some natural, some carefully planned, that gives me the nostalgic feeling I get when I spend time in the park.
I wonder if those relief workers in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s could have ever imagined the thousands of people all of their hard work would touch. And will continue to touch.
If you are a regular reader of Hello Buffalo, then you know that Chestnut Ridge is among my favorite places to beat the winter blues. I’ll be starting those Saturday morning trips to Chestnut Ridge Park very soon.
Fend off the winter blues this year. Make it a point to get out to Orchard Park to soak up some history, do some sledding, or just enjoy the views, either now or whenever it suits you to go. Chestnut Ridge Park is spectacular in all four seasons.
Last night I went for a walk with my friend Cathy. We have this little custom of driving to different areas to walk. Keeps it fresh, plus we both love looking at homes and generally enjoy seeing different parts of Buffalo.
This time it was my choice, and I told her I wanted her to take me on a tour of Williamsville. Cathy’s office is in the village, and I know that as a busy small business owner she’s been taking walks through the village now and again to get out of the office, relax and meet her neighbors. The Village of Williamsville is probably one of the best spots around to do just that.
We started at Island Park, her office being only steps away. Just inside the park, we came upon the Williamsville South High School Band, playing a summer concert in the park. What a lovely surprise, and what a superb way to spend a summer evening! They are a talented group of musicians to be sure.
We allowed ourselves just a few minutes of enjoying the music. These walks are for fitness as well as fun! We walked to the tip of the park and if you go there you’ll see that the park is indeed an island on Ellicott Creek and it comes to a point at the end. When I was a kid, I imagined the tip of the park was the bow of a boat. I guess I was a daydreamer even back then.
Walking around the park taking in the views of the creek and the surrounding greenery, it occurs to me that it felt as though we had walked into an oasis, very much like walking into the residential parks in the city. It’s very serene, natural and calming. Especially with the music playing softly in the background. What a great place to de-stress after a busy day! Bring the kids too. There’s a playground for them to enjoy as well. Very family friendly.
We moved on to Main Street and zig zagged through a few of the streets just south of Main. Along the way, we saw plenty of gorgeous homes, felt a very ‘village’ vibe. Next, we wound our way to over to Garrison Road, and another quaint little park, Garrison Park. This one is smaller, is all about kids, and is every bit as lovely as Island Park. Again it’s just one block over from Main Street and all that’s going on there.
We swung back around to Main Street where, by the way, local businesses absolutely abound! This is a perfect place to support local businesses. We had a conversation about the new brewery coming to Main Street. There are so many new breweries all over Buffalo. Do people really drink that much beer? We decided that this is Buffalo so yes, yes they do. And this brewery is perched at the edge of Ellicott Creek and promises very pretty views. Welcome Britesmith Brewing. We’ll sample your brews and your views soon!
We walked past the library where we came upon this little walkway that always draws me in. I love the arrow sign telling me what I already know, that the Village of Williamsville is a walkable community, giving the minutes to each spot instead of miles. Sweet.
Really, really enjoyed getting to know Williamsville again.
By the way, the friend I’m walking with is Cathy Lanzalaco, owner of Inspire Careers. She is in her third year as a small business owner located in this historic and thriving community. Cathy says of Williamsville, “I love working in the village! I have been here for almost three years and I love the people, the energy, and the vibe.” Inspire Careers offers career advisement, resume writing, and job search strategy coaching. Her most recent addition is a Student Professional Launch Program. Check out her website here. Alright, that’s the end of my shameless plug for a great friend…
Neither of us had a lot of time that night so this was a short walk. Maybe I’ll continue this little tour another day, I’ve enjoyed getting to know Williamsville again. It’s good to get out in your community and walk. Explore a little. Talk to people. Get to know your neighbors. Become a tourist in your own city!
When I was a kid, my Aunt was somewhat of a local celebrity in military circles here in Buffalo. She was one of the first women in the country to become a U.S. Navy Seabee. So whenever anything happened of Naval importance in Buffalo, she was always involved, and was almost always invited as an honored guest.
So when I read about the Tall Ships coming to Buffalo, one of my first thoughts was that if she were still with us, she’d definitely be in attendance. Not only to visit each ship, but she quite probably would have been among the VIPs attending the after hours receptions as well. And she’d have enjoyed every minute of it. She loved all things to do with ships and open waters.
My Aunt Ann. We affectionately called her Major Houlihan.
So it was with this in mind that I chose to volunteer for this event. I attended one training session in the beginning of June and I contributed a very small amount of time (six hours) on the 4th of July working with guest services selling tickets, answering guest questions, and handing out pamphlets & maps to arriving guests. By now you all know how much I love Buffalo. I was happy to be involved in such a monumental event at the waterfront, a place that has played such an important role in our city’s history and will hopefully be an even greater part of our future.
The event was run by the Buffalo Lighthouse Association, under the leadership of Mike Vogel, the Association’s President. He, along with his committee has been working tirelessly for years to bring this event to Buffalo. The title sponsor for the event was the Basil Automotive Family. There were many, many more sponsors. From a volunteer perspective, the event ran pretty smoothly, although I’m sure the people running the show were more stressed than the volunteers. I had a great time getting to know a couple of my fellow volunteers, and talking to numerous guests as they came through the gates and had questions about the event. It was overall a lot of fun for me, and for most volunteers.
Photo Credit: Glenn Ferguson. The Niagara, a brig from Erie, PA, and a frequent visitor to Buffalo.
Photo Credit: Glenn Ferguson. The Empire Sandy, a tern schooner from Toronto, Ontario, the longest of the twelve.
Photo Credit: Glenn Ferguson. The Bluenose II, a Gaff topsail schooner from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, the tallest in the fleet.
I did have the opportunity to take a break from my post, just in time to see a bit of the parade of ships coming into the Buffalo Harbor (admittedly a bit later than they were expected, a stroke of good luck for me).
The parade was…exciting. I couldn’t have been more surprised. I didn’t expect exciting, but it truly was. A few of the ships shot their cannons and that added a bit of drama to the whole scene. I was glad I was there, and happy for the organizers. Because everyone around me was excited too. I could see it in their faces, how they reached to get photos, heard all their comments. The crowd was happy to be witness to this magnificent display of some of the most beautiful ships in the world.
I went back the next day with my husband as a tourist in my own city, one of my favorite things, to get a closer look and to board the ships.
It was hot and humid. Almost oppressively so.
We entered the secure zone with our ‘passports’ at Canalside to see the three ships docked there, the Niagara, the Pride of Baltimore, and the Denis Sullivan. There was one line to see all three ships, and it was long. Very long. It spanned more than the entire length of the boardwalk, and we decided to just get a close up look from there, and to swing back around and see those later. It was while we were doing that, that we heard there were virtually no lines along the riverwalk to see the three ships docked there, the Bluenose II, the Empire Sandy, and the Picton Castle.
We walked right up and boarded the Bluenose II immediately. No waiting on this side. If only we could have gotten the message back to Canalside, and told the people to spread out to all the ships, no one would have had to wait very long at all. As a matter of fact, the only other line I saw was at the Santa Maria, which I think was due to its overall uniqueness.
Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate on Saturday. A friend who volunteered on that day, reported that the rain was monsoon-like. But she also said it was so hot, she didn’t mind getting wet. Attendance was reportedly down due to the weather, but people still came out. The Buffalo News reported 15,000 or so that day. Reports said the near perfect weather on Sunday brought the event to expected numbers.
All in all, I think it was remarkable. I’m sure the Lighthouse Association is happy with the outcome.
Were there things that could have been done differently? Yes. But I’m confident that the organizers have paid very close attention and will make adjustments for next time. There was the water issue for the first two days. People need to have access to water in the secure areas to stay hydrated in the scorching heat. Easy fix. There were also the long lines at Canalside. Possibly could be solved by increasing the access to the lower part of the boardwalk, or docking some ships elsewhere in the area to alleviate the long lines. But either way there will always be long lines whenever you have that amount of people in one place trying to see the same thing.
By all reports, it looks as though the event was a success, and this will become a triennial event, meaning that it’ll happen next in 2022, and again in 2025, which happens to be the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Erie Canal. That’s bound to bring with it many festivals and celebrations in Buffalo, possibly even throughout that entire year. At least I hope so. We do love our festivals. And by then, all the kinks will have been worked out, and it’ll be smooth sailing for the committee!
This weekend, in true Buffalo fashion, my husband and I tipped back a couple of cold ones to celebrate the Basil Port of Call Buffalo’s success. I think my Aunt would have done the same. In fact, I know she would have.
As Buffalonians, we all know where Unity Island is. Some have been on the island, some never have. Why, I wonder? Let’s talk about this well kept secret on Buffalo’s waterfront.
A Short History
In 1802 New York State Purchased the mile wide strip of Native land along the Niagara River known as the New York State Reservation. This property became known as Black Rock, named for an actual black rock formation that jutted out into the Niagara River near where the Peace Bridge is today. Black Rock was a village in its own right and the fledgling village of Buffalo was further south near where the Niagara River, Lake Erie and the Buffalo Creek all come together.
Buffalo was owned by the Holland Land Company at this time. The company worked consistently to market Buffalo as a new up and coming town where pioneers would be able to make a prosperous life for themselves under the direction of Joseph Ellicott, their land agent. New York State, on the other hand, was not in the marketing business, and therefore Buffalo grew a bit quicker than Black Rock.
The Erie Canal
Both Buffalo and Black Rock submitted bids to win the terminus of the Erie Canal. The competition began as a friendly rivalry but it reportedly became a bitter feud.
In Buffalo however, there were several businessmen who worked hard to have the Buffalo Creek dredged and made wider to accommodate ships, they created slips, piers and more. These Buffalonians were George Coit, Charles Townsend, Oliver Forward, and Samuel Wilkeson (more were involved, but these were the four who saw the project through to its completion). In the end Buffalo won out and the rest, as they say, is history. Black Rock eventually became a vital neighborhood within what became the City of Buffalo.
So what does all this have to do with Unity Island? Well, Unity Island is located in what we locals still call Black Rock. It’s not technically on the land that New York State purchased in 1802, but it is within the city of Buffalo and is just off the coast of Black Rock, in between what is now called the Black Rock Canal and the Niagara River.
Photo Credit: The Buffalo News
The Seneca Nation on Unity Island
The Seneca Nation acquired the Island around the 1650’s. They called it Deyowenoguhdoh, pronounced de-dyo-we-no-guh-do, meaning “divided island”. Apparently there used to be a marshy creek that ran through the island, and hence the name. It is said that the French explorer LaSalle coined the name Squaw Island in the late 1600’s, and that’s the name that stuck. Until recently, the island was known as Squaw Island.
Given its proximity to Canada, the island was a staging ground during the War of 1812. A six-gun brig that was launched as the Adams by the United States in 1798, was captured by the British during the War of 1812, effectively giving England control over Lake Erie during the war. The Brig was renamed the HMS Detroit. In October of that same year, the Americans briefly recaptured her, but came under heavy fire, and had to abandon her to the Niagara River’s strong current. The ship ran aground at Unity Island, and the Americans were forced to set it afire.
By Special Collections Toronto Public Library from Toronto, Canada – Prize brig Adams in Lake Erie, Ontario, in 1812 (JRR 1153), CC BY-SA 2.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=38678979
The Senecas held on to Unity Island until early 1816 when they gifted the island to Captain Jasper Parrish, who served them as an agent and interpreter. In 1823 Parrish sold the island to Henry Penfield, a local attorney. The island changed hands several more times after that.
The Ferry & Railroad Bridge
The Black Rock Ferry operated from the island, and ran back and forth to Canada on a regular basis. It is well known that this was the final leg of many a runaway slave’s journey north to Canada and freedom. Remember that even though slavery was illegal here in New York State, it wasn’t illegal for bounty hunters to find and transport escaped slaves back to the south. Buffalo played an important part in the Underground Railroad, and Unity Island was a key player.
In 1873, the International Railroad Bridge was built and effectively ended the career of the Black Rock Ferry.
Stories Abound About the Island
There was the story of a hermit, Jason Thorp, a jeweler and an inventor, who reportedly moved to the island after having his heart broken by a woman in Ohio. He chose the island as the ideal place to drop out of society. Thorp apparently kept to himself, growing his beard well past his waist. After his death, it was described as the beard of a patriarch. His story makes me think of our modern day Williamsville Larry; everybody knew of him, but who among us really knew him?
There were other stories as well, mostly true. There were people smugglers and drug smugglers. One Sunday afternoon in 1897, 50 pounds of opium were seized from Chinese nationals who came over from Fort Erie. A U.S. customs agent was shot by a silk and whiskey smuggler. People simply moved in on the island and built ‘shacks’ for themselves and their families. There were several bars who reportedly served fish fries. And with the bars, came the bar fights and more.
And most of this was before 1900!
Photo Credit: The Buffalo News Chronicles
The Gov’t Gets Involved
In the 1920’s the Federal Government owned a dike on the island, where 35 or so families lived. They were ordered out as squatters. The people argued that having lived there for 20 some uninterrupted years, they should be allowed to stay. A judge agreed and the people stayed.
Eventually the city of Buffalo purchased a large piece of property on the island and used it as a garbage dump (who makes these decisions??). They also built a water treatment facility on the island and began operations there in 1938.
Through all of this, the people living there stayed once again. They worked, grew gardens, fished in the river. For the most part, they lived simple, quiet lives.
Photo Credit: The Buffalo News Chronicles. In the background of this photo is the International Railroad Bridge. Love the cat.
In my research of the island, which admittedly began a few years ago now, I began emailing with a woman named Sally who used to summer on Unity Island, where her grandparents lived. She wrote to me about how, as city kids, she and her sister felt such freedom on the island in the summers.
Running through the tall grass, and swimming (swimming!) in the Niagara River! She said the river didn’t run as quickly in those days and the current didn’t come into play until you were 20 feet from the shore. Her grandmother would fish off the end of their dock teaching them both to fish and to prepare it (mostly perch) for their evening meals, which would also consist of whatever vegetables they had in their little garden.
There was no electricity on the island; they had kerosene lanterns for light. The family drank well water that supposedly tasted like iron. They used an icebox, and had to travel off the island once a week to buy blocks of ice. The kids were outside from morning till night and they relished every minute. To a city kid, Unity Island was a paradise. The wistfulness in this woman’s writing was palpable. I could feel how much she loved her summers there.
Photo Credit: The Buffalo News Chronicles
Sally’s parents moved to California in 1950 and her summers were spent elsewhere. They eventually settled in Arizona, where she still lives. Even though she was close to 80 when we became email pals, she spoke of how she could never forget those summers on Unity Island. She asked me to throw a “pebble” in the water and to say, “that’s from Sally.” I did.
It was during the 50’s when the dump began to fill up and it was suggested by a common council member that if the city kicked out all the “squatters” they could use the north end of the island as a dump as well. Unbelievably, that’s exactly what happened.
The residents argued that it was insulting to be called squatters, as they paid the city to live there ($225/yr). All the same, they were evicted and the last of the residents were gone by 1966. I’ve wondered if Sally’s grandparents were among them.
The city did indeed expand the dump and continued to dump there until that was full as well.
From Squaw to Unity Island
In 2015 Jodi Lynn Maracle, a local Mohawk native, along with members of the Seneca Nation of New York, petitioned the Buffalo Common Council to change the name of the island from the racist and derogatory Squaw Island to Unity Island. The vote was unanimous in favor of the petition. In my mind, it was the only way they could go. Thankfully, they did.
Photo Credit: Army Corps of Engineers
Bird Island Pier / Broderick Park
Extending south from Unity Island is a stone pier called Bird Island Pier. It was built in 1860. It once connected Unity Island to the former Bird Island, which was rocky to the south and held fertile soil on the north side. Natives were known to cultivate corn there. This island was noted in the journal of DeWitt Clinton, who surveyed this area before the construction of the Erie Canal, which began in 1817. By 1880, however, maps show that Bird Island had disappeared. Bird Island Pier, however, is still there and has been extended south of the Peace Bridge. It is well used by walkers, bikers and fishermen alike.
Broderick Park marks the spot where the Black Rock Ferry operated. It serves as a monument to Buffalo’s part in the Underground Railroad, complete with timeline markers. This alone should make Unity Island a destination for all Buffalonians. It’s an interesting look at an important part of Buffalo history.
The dump was eventually capped and Unity Island Park was built. Occupying the north end of the island it is complete with walkways and bike trails. Plenty of space for picnicking, not to mention true interaction with the Niagara River.
Restoring the Natural Habitats on Unity Island
As a matter of fact, there is an Aquatic Habitat Restoration Project nearing completion in Unity Island Park as I write this, headed by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. It is being described as the recreation of a natural habitat for fish and wildlife in the area. Along with the restored habitat will come the fish, birds and other wildlife, as it should be.
Photo Credit: The Buffalo News. Shows restoration project well underway in May 2018.
This can only be a good thing for an island with a somewhat checkered, but incredibly interesting past, not unlike the city of Buffalo itself.
My Impressions of Unity Island
Sally abruptly stopped writing to me. And since it happened after she asked pointed and specific questions regarding the island, I can only assume that she is either not well, or is gone. Last week, as is my custom now whenever I visit Unity Island, I threw a “pebble” into the Niagara River, and said aloud, “That’s from Sally.”
Put Unity Island on your list this summer. You’ll find it at the foot of West Ferry Street. (Now you know how that street got its name.) If you see any pebbles, you know what to do.
Update 5/5/2020: A Sad Unity Island Story
A couple of months ago I received an email from a man who grew up on Chenango Street on the West Side of Buffalo. I’ll call him Paul. In the late 1950’s, Paul would have been roughly 7 or 8 years old. There was a municipal construction project (sewers) going on at the time and he told of how the boys in the neighborhood would hang around the construction site watching the work. I can picture it; little boys love that kind of thing.
One of the workers drove a “big red dump truck”, and would take Paul with him on quick trips to Unity Island to dump stone into the city sewage disposal. One day Paul showed up and the man was not there. It was then that he heard that the worker had gone the day before to dump on Unity Island, and the makeshift road being used for the dumping had given way and the truck ended up in the Niagara River.
The driver was apparently able to free himself from the cab, but could not swim to shore before getting dragged under. The currents are very strong on the Niagara, and the man, sadly, drowned. It was very, very lucky that Paul had not driven along with him that day. The Courier Express news article is pictured below, detailing the accident.
Buffalo Courier Express, Saturday, July 20, 1957
Another Unity Island story. A very sad one indeed. Next time I’m on the island, I’ll throw a pebble in the Niagara for him too.