Unity Island – Then & Now

Unity Island – Then & Now

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.  

Roughing It  

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.  

Everybody Out

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.

Summer in Buffalo!

Summer in Buffalo!

I know it’s the kind of thing that we as Buffalonians, rarely think about but take a moment right now to think about where we live.

Buffalo is located at the convergence of three great bodies of water.  Lake Erie, the Buffalo River, and the Niagara River. Now I could go into a long story about Buffalo’s history and how these three affected the city and it’s growth, and normally I would.  But today I’m going in a completely different direction.

You see, I have long believed that when human beings are near bodies of water, it helps to calm our souls.  Whether it’s in a boat on a lake, sitting at the edge of a pond in an  Adirondack chair reading a book, laying on a beach, or biking a river path, being near water just seems to make us feel better.  It’s one of the ultimate stress relievers in my book.  Lake Erie has traditionally been my go to place whenever things get tough.  Being near the lake calms me and helps me to think things though.

And it’s not just me.  It’s been widely studied and accepted for quite some time now that being out in nature reduces stress, which induces a whole host of health benefits, but only recently have these studies included ‘blue’ spaces.  Most of the studies are taking place in the UK and they are showing that people who live near water are generally healthier than those who don’t. And it doesn’t have to be water in nature. The studies have progressed to man-made water features such as fountains and the like.  All have produced good benefits.*

So living here in Buffalo is good for our health.  That is, if we take advantage of our water resources.

Now you may argue that not all of us can afford lakeside living.  While that is true, you don’t need to live on the lake to gain the benefits of all that water.  Being that it is so plentiful here, you can get to it just about any time you want.

There are so many things we can enjoy for free (or close to it) on Buffalo’s waterfront.  The most obvious are Canalside, Erie Basin Marina, the Outer Harbor. All free and located right in the heart of downtown.  All you have to do is go there and walk, bike, or just sit and relax. Watch the sunset. Did you know that Buffalo is one of very few inland cities in the country that enjoys sunsets over water?  So many people west of Buffalo would love to see a sunset over a lake whenever they feel like it!   We are spoiled by our amazing sunsets!

How many of you reading this right now have never been to Erie Basin Marina for a sunset?  If you haven’t, you need to put it on your list of things to do this summer! You’ll be glad you did.

There are of course, other less obvious places with great waterfront fun in and around the city as well.  

North of the city there’s Isleview Park/Niawanda Park in Tonawanda.  They’re connected, and are both awesome for picnics and fabulous views of the Niagara River and Grand Island (which by the way, is the largest island on a river in the world!).  There is also a bike path that begins in Isleview that travels the Niagara River past the Peace Bridge and moves right into Canalside and beyond the city to the Outer Harbor! This trail is over 21 miles long, and has several parking spots along the way.  Pick one and cover as much ground as you like. You don’t have to bike, you can walk it too. And just about the whole time, you’ll enjoy amazing river or lake views.

There are several parks to enjoy on the water as well.  In the city are Front Park, Riverside Park, Broderick Park, LaSalle Park and Riverfest Park.  All are free and all are great spots for picnics, walks, bike rides etc.

Traveling south of the city, there are a series of absolutely stunning beaches! Gallagher Beach, Woodlawn Beach, Hamburg Beach, Wendt Beach Park and Bennett Beach are all fantastic choices.  Some of these charge a few dollars per car to get in, but the views alone (not to mention the stress reduction) are well worth the small price of admission.

In addition, there are other free places to go to get near water.  How about Delaware Park’s Hoyt Lake? Or Mirror Lake in the Japanese Garden behind the Buffalo History Museum? Both are very easily accessible, and are equally picturesque.  

If you work downtown and are looking for the calming influence of water on your lunch hour but maybe don’t have time to get to the waterfront,  head over to Fountain Plaza on Main Street for a little relaxation. Or Niagara Square’s McKinley Monument and fountain, or to the fountain sculpture in front of One M & T Plaza.   All three very easily accessible and remember that man-made water features work just as well to reduce stress and will give you the same health benefits that lakes or rivers will.

These are just a few ideas to get you out and taking full advantage of the area we live in, so rich in natural ‘blue’ spaces, and the summer sun.   Let’s face it, we need to store up some of that Vitamin D for the long winter to come!    

And no matter who you are, the Buffalo River, Lake Erie and the Niagara River are easily accessible to all of us.  Get out and enjoy your city Buffalo!

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Buffalo’s Residential Parks, Part 3 of 3: Johnson Park

Buffalo’s Residential Parks, Part 3 of 3: Johnson Park

This is the last in my three part series about Buffalo’s Residential Parks.  Click the links if you are interested reading about part one, Day’s Park, and part two, Arlington Park.

The West Village Historic District of Buffalo is a 22 acre neighborhood in one of the city’s oldest residential areas.  It is one of only a few in our country to achieve three designations as an Historic District under both the City of Buffalo and New York State, and it is also listed in the Federal National Register of Historic Places. The jewel of the West Village Historic District is unquestionably Johnson Park.

It is named for Ebenezer Johnson.  So who is he, and why is this park named for him?

Ebenezer Johnson.   Photo from Buffalo City Hall photos.

Ebenezer Johnson was from Connecticut. He studied as a physician in Cherry Valley, New York, where he met and married his first wife, Sally.  He came here in 1810 and opened his medical practice in what was just a glimmer of what he himself would witness Buffalo become during his time here.  During the War of 1812 he accepted a position as an assistant surgeon with the volunteers of New York State.

After the war, he returned to Buffalo and opened a drug store as well as resuming his medical practice.  After 1823 he became very active in business and eventually became well known for construction, real estate, trade and banking.  No small feat. He became quite successful and next turned to politics.   He held several posts and sat on many boards, and in 1832 when Buffalo was incorporated as a city he was elected by the common council as Buffalo’s first mayor.   Ah, that’s why the park is named for him! That, and the following…

That same year Johnson broke ground on a grand home located on a large piece of property he owned on Delaware Avenue between Chippewa and West Tupper.  It was completed in 1834. The home was referred to as “the Cottage” and was considered the most palatial home in Buffalo to date. On the property itself there was a man made lake, fruit orchards, a large vegetable garden and flower gardens.  The 25 acre property and “Cottage” was a well known spot for socializing among the elite in Buffalo.

The “Cottage”.   Photo from “Buffalo’s Delaware Avenue: Mansions and Families”, by Edward T. Dunn.  

Johnson served a second term as Mayor of Buffalo in 1834-35, after having turned down the nomination in 1833. Mayoral terms at the time were one year.  

Sadly his wife passed away in 1834.  He remarried a year later to Lucy Lord.  Johnson continued to be an influential member of Buffalo society until selling his estate and leaving the city sometime around 1847, when he moved to Tellico Plains, Tennessee, where he owned an iron ore mine with his brother.  He passed away there in 1849.

During the 1850’s Johnson’s property was divided up into one of the most elegant residential sections of the city at the time.    The lake became part of Rumsey Park on the estate of Bronson and Evelyn Hall Rumsey. The Cottage was re-purposed as The Female Academy, the most elite, all girls school in the city.  Incidentally, it was the first institute of higher learning for women in the country. (!) The Female Academy still exists today as Buffalo Seminary, now located on Bidwell Parkway.

The “Cottage” Photo credit to “History of the City of Buffalo and Niagara Falls.” Published by The Times, 1896.

An 1876 map of city parkland indicates that Frederick Law Olmsted redesigned the green space in the center of Johnson Park and incorporated it into his overall design of our Park System.  And it shows. You only have to walk through the park to feel Olmsted’s presence here. The flow of the park is just lovely. No other way to describe it.

Many of the homes on Johnson Park that were built in the 1850’s still exist, and many have been recently restored to their former glory.  They are close together, fostering that “neighborly, friendly” feel we discussed in the second part of this series. And like the other residential parks as well, Johnson Park is a great place to walk and to meet and talk to fellow Buffalonians, whether you live there or not.  The people here are indeed friendly, and more than willing to discuss what they know of the park and the homes lining it.



Johnson Park has suffered through the socio-economic troubles that have touched our city, and indeed our whole country.  Thankfully, Johnson Park and the city of Buffalo both have committed residents willing to stay the course. And like the city itself, the results in Johnson Park are showing.  This is due in great part to the commitment of the Johnson Park Association and the Cary Street Association, both of whom lead the way in ensuring that both Johnson Park and the West Village Historic District will remain as an integral, thriving neighborhood in Buffalo for a long time to come.  

Hutchinson Technical Institute which borders Johnson Park on South Elmwood Avenue

I get a feeling in this park.  It’s a nostalgic feeling of days gone by.  At the same time I feel a sense of future here, like the residents have a clear vision of what they hope for the neighborhood.  It makes me want to stay. Live here. Experience city living at its absolute best. That, is Johnson Park.

Go see it, you will be enchanted!

I hope you enjoyed my series about Buffalo’s Residential Parks.  

Click the links if you are interested in reading part one, Day’s Park, or part two, Arlington Park.

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Where in the city would be your first choice to live?  Money is no object…comment below!



Buffalo’s Residential Parks, Part 2 of 3:  Arlington Park

Buffalo’s Residential Parks, Part 2 of 3: Arlington Park

Several years ago now, I heard a story about a particular house in Arlington Park.  The person telling it spoke about the architectural detail, the unique building process and the care that has been taken to keep the structure original. I had no idea where Arlington Park was. Of course I asked a few questions and the next chance I had, I took off to explore. Here’s a photo of that house.  To my eye, it’s enchanting. And it sparked a real interest in residential parks.

In the beginning (1856), Arlington Park was designed and laid out as a private park on the estate of James Wadsworth.  The estate was accessed from North Street and extended to Allen, bordering on Wadsworth Street. Private parks were quite common among the rich in Buffalo at the time.  For us, that’s hard to imagine today, even among the rich.

Wadsworth was wealthy to be sure.  He was from Durham, Connecticut, and was a Yale graduate who settled in Buffalo in 1845, to open a law practice.  By 1850 he was chosen as the city’s attorney, and by 1851 he was elected Mayor of Buffalo. He served one term, which was one year at the time.  He was then named president of Buffalo, Brantford and Goderich Railroad after his mayoral term ended, and also served as a New York State Senator from 1856-58.

Basically, you could say he was successful enough to have a private park on his estate.  Wadsworth left Buffalo for New York City in 1859.

The city grew up around the park and through pedestrian use, the park was eventually ruled to be part of public domain in 1884.

Frederick Law Olmsted lived on Arlington Park while he was working in Buffalo designing our Park System.  He actually designed the green space in the park, going off of his own notion of what a common city space should be. After experiencing the park, I have to agree with that notion. It is everything a residential park should be! Trees, shrubs, flowers, meandering walkways, pretty light posts.  Enough space to throw a frisbee around or have a picnic, but not enough space for a baseball diamond. You get the idea.

Arlington Park is in Allentown just one block off of the busiest end of Allen Street.  It’s a small 300’ x 100’ plot of land. But standing in the center of the park, you would never believe the shenanigans that go on one block over.  The park is such a haven. It’s quiet (it really is!), it’s picturesque, and the homes. They are nothing short of spectacular!

The story goes that because Olmsted lived here, architects were attracted to building here, and they all tried to outdo each other.  Whether it’s true or not, we’ll never know. But you have to admit, it must have been a rare opportunity to be able to build on a park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the greatest landscape architect our country has ever seen. What we do know for sure is, the homes that were built here make living on Arlington Park quite a charming prospect.

They are all different styles and sizes.  Some are apartments, some are single family homes.  They are all well maintained. They are very close together.  Some people think this lends itself to the sense of community here.  My husband and I have always joked that the reason we have great parties is because our house is small and people are forced to mingle.  There’s something to be said for that.

Same thing applies to this type of city living.  There is a sense of community when you know your neighbors.  Some neighborhoods have it. Arlington Park definitely does. I’ve wandered through many times, and each time, I get into friendly little conversations with residents and visitors alike.  This is truly what a community should be.

There also appears to be an active block club in Arlington Park who keeps the residents in touch, the park in good shape, the flowers planted etc. The overall effect of all of it is serene, appealing and friendly.

If you think about it, Arlington Park is actually a microcosm of what Buffalo truly is.  A warm, welcoming, friendly place to live.

As I mentioned in part one of this series, residential parks are a great place to do a bit of urban exploration. Arlington Park is no exception. Take some time this spring and summer to get out and experience it and the surrounding neighborhood.  Fair warning, you may find yourself getting into some great conversations with the locals. Enjoy it!

Missed the first of three posts about our residential parks? Read about Day’s Park here.

Look for my third and final post about Buffalo’s residential parks next week.   It’s going to be a good one!

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Buffalo’s Residential Parks, Part 1 of 3: Day’s Park

Buffalo’s Residential Parks, Part 1 of 3: Day’s Park

Buffalo is fortunate enough to have three residential parks within its boundaries.  They are Day’s Park, Arlington Park and Johnson Park. This post is the first of my three part series on these parks.

I’m going to begin with Day’s Park, simply because it’s the first one I experienced.  My husband and I volunteer at Friends of the Night People, and on our way there one Sunday afternoon, years ago, I happened to catch a glimpse of the park while driving by.  My husband is a patient man and he pulled over so we could go explore. I remember thinking to myself, this must be a great place to live!

Photo Credit to Day’s Park Facebook Page.

The park is named for Thomas Day.  Although designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Day’s Park was not originally part of Olmsted’s plan for Buffalo’s Park System.  In 1886 (well into the building of our park system) the responsibility of the Board of Park Commissioners was expanded to include all public green spaces in the city. The Board requested from Olmsted designs for several new small areas, one of which was Day’s Park. He submitted plans for all of them.   So, Day’s Park is an Olmsted design.   Cool.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

After the burning of Buffalo in 1813, and after several more fires leveled numerous homes in the city, Buffalo’s fire code was changed (sometime around 1820-21) to stipulate that residences could no longer be built entirely of wood.

Thomas Day arrived on the scene in Buffalo in early 1823, and if you think about it, his timing couldn’t have been more perfect.  It was just after the fire code changed, and just before the opening of the Erie Canal and all the incredible growth Buffalo underwent immediately following.    

Thomas  Day, you see, was a brick maker.  When he arrived, he opened Buffalo’s first brick kiln.  The need for brick was there, and so was the money.   Day of course, made a small fortune.  Smart man.

Day’s Park entrance from Allen Street.

Like many who possess an entrepreneurial mind, Day’s next step was to invest in real estate.  He used his brick money to invest in land just north of the city. He anticipated that the city’s growth would move northward as the city became more and more industrialized.  He was right. That’s exactly what happened. Smart move.

Lewis Allen had a farm adjacent to Day’s land just north of the city, and when his herd of cattle grew too large for his own acreage, he used Day’s pasture.  He did this by driving his herd west from what is now Main Street. The well trod path to Day’s pasturage became what is now Allen Street, in Allentown. Named for, of course, Lewis Allen.

In 1859 Day donated the green space where Allen’s cattle pastured, to the city as perpetual green space, Day’s Park. Yet another smart move.

He then built the first two homes on the space for his sons.  They are Nos. 25 & 33. They were built with Day’s own bricks and both homes are still standing today.

Left to Right, Nos. 25 & 33 Day’s Park.   Homes built by Thomas Day.

Interestingly, Olmsted included a fountain in the Days Park plan.  In the entire park system he created for Buffalo, this was the only fountain included in any of his plans.  Regrettably, the original fountain was removed in 1923.   Fountains can be difficult and expensive to maintain over time, so one can only assume this was the reason for the removal.

The park itself was enjoyed and beloved for many years.  Unfortunately though, it fell on hard times in the mid twentieth century,  much like Buffalo itself. Sadly, homeowners moved out and rented the properties. Care of the previously well used and well loved park fell off, and so did the care of the homes adjacent to the park.  The park deteriorated and the homes became dilapidated.

In 1957, the city announced plans to split the park into a playground and a parking lot. Warren Day Ferris, a descendant of Thomas Day, produced an original deed which stated the land was donated with the stipulation that the land be kept a park, or it would revert to Day’s heirs.  When the city balked, Ferris sued. The case was taken to the State Supreme Court, which ruled the space had to remain as one space, and as a park.

In the 1970’s, a college student, David Urgo convinced a farmer to donate 60 wild oak, maple and ash trees and the parks department arranged for planting.  These replaced the elm trees that were lost to Dutch Elm Disease in the 1960’s. (Buffalo lost hundreds of Elms at that time.)

The hard times however, continued for the park, as they did for the city.  At one point there were drug deals going on in broad daylight right out in front of the school that resides on the park (now Elmwood Village Charter School). Police intervention was slow at best.

Elmwood Village Charter School on Day’s Park

In 1987, the Day’s Park Block Club was formed.  At this point more than half of the homes (both one- and two-family) were either owned by absentee landlords or stood vacant.   Just 30 trees remained. The Block Club began extensive renovation of the park.

They pushed the city to deal with the drug problem, and also assisted the city in prosecuting the absentee landlord situation, getting the owners to either sell, or make the necessary improvements to their homes on the park.

The movement was under way.  The fountain was replaced in its original spot in the park surrounded by a wrought iron fence, as Olmsted had designed it.  But almost unbelievably, the fountain was stolen in 1995 by thieves posing as city workers.   It wasn’t until 1999 that funds were made available to replace it.   With the fountain in place once again, the park looks much as it did on Olmsted’s original design.

When I visited Days Park again recently to snap a few photos for this post, I couldn’t help but notice the ongoing problem the Block Club has been experiencing with getting grass to grow in the park.  The trees shade the park so much that it’s difficult for grass to grow. They’ve held fundraisers specifically for this project.   It is ongoing. The fountain appears to need work as well, although this might be what it looks like every spring after a long hard Buffalo winter!    Mental note to check it out in a month or so”¦

I hesitated to even include this photo in the post, but when I check back, I’ll hopefully get a great shot of a beautiful working fountain. I’ll keep you posted.

Update:   A recent visit to Day’s Park shows the park in full bloom of summer.   I am happy to report that the fountain is up and running and looking great, surrounded by a plethora of wildflowers about to burst open!   A couple of other shots show the struggle with the grass continues, but you can also see the widespread shade provided by the trees, causing some of the problem.   Still, the park is a peaceful oasis, and I found myself wishing I had brought a chair and a good book.

You could say that the story of the park parallels the history of Buffalo.  Both built during great prosperity, both fell on hard times, and suffered struggles along the way.  But both are emerging victorious through hard work and perseverance.

Day’s Park is located just west of Allen Street at Wadsworth in Allentown, on a piece of property that used to be an open pasture.  Can you imagine it?   I can.   But you know what a daydreamer I can be.

Incidentally, residential parks are perfect for urban hiking.  Next time you find yourself yearning for a little urban exploration, get yourself to Day’s Park. Explore it and the surrounding neighborhood reminding yourself of the history this park has seen.  From farmland to numerous homes, a school, and a park. It all used to be pasture land owned by a brick maker, Thomas Day.   A smart man, who made several smart moves in his lifetime. One of which we benefit from still, our own Day’s Park.

Look for my second and third posts on Buffalo’s residential parks over the next two weeks.  

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