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.
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.