The History of the Germans in Buffalo and Erie County, N.Y. - Part I, pages 42 - 46

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State of New York passed a law, incorporating the City of Buffalo. The new city, bounded on the north by North Street and on the east by Jefferson Street, was divided into five wards. There was no "west side" in existence at the time. Black Rock, Cold Spring, Buffalo Plains, the Hydraulics, were considered as "far off suburbs".

It was the privilege of the common council - composed of ten aldermen, two from each ward - to elect the city officers: the Mayor, City Treasurer, City Clerk, Attorney, Surveyor and Street Commissioner. The new city fathers held their first meeting on the 28th of May and elected Dr. Ebenezer Johnson as Mayor. As the administration of the new commonwealth began on that day, the 28th of May, 1832, may rightly be called the birthday of the city of Buffalo. Hardly had our young city begun its life, when it suffered from a terrible visitation. The Asiatic cholera, sweeping from India over Europe in its deadly march, was in the spring of 1832 brought to America by Irish emigrants landing at Quebec, and in time reached Buffalo also.

The terrible and mysterious scourge against which neither precautionary measures nor successful remedies were known, demanded here eighty victims during the months of July and August. Many inhabitants, filled with terror at the approaching plague, fled from the city. The bodies of those that died from the cholera were within one or two hours delivered to the undertaker, whose wagon continually drove through the streets, and buried immediately. So suddenly did the cholera attack its victims, that many persons, enjoying the best of health in the morning, were lying in their graves in the evening of the same day.

In 1834 the cholera made its second appearance in the city, although not as malignant as in 1832. When that scourge raged here for the third time, in 1849, the number of its victims was very much larger than in the former years, but as the population had considerably increased in the meantime, the proportion to the entire population was smaller, than during the first visitations. In 1854 the cholera appeared here for the last time in epidemic form.

The directory, published in 1832, shows that at that time there were in Buffalo six churches, two banks, one insurance company, ten elevators at the harbor, one circulating library with 700 books, and sixteen public and private schools. The total number of their scholars did not, however, reach that of a single one of our present large schools.

This directory also contains hardly three dozen names which may safely be recognized as those of Germans: among them we discover

Caption under picture at upper left reads Old St. Paul's Church

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some that are not to be found in the parish registers mentioned above, viz: J.B. Bach, Alexander and George Deuther, George Houck, Samuel Kittinger, Michael Kress, Francis Kraft, E. Pritz, Balthasar Federspiel. F. Frick, August Stimel, Kaspar Weisner and Christopher Ziegelhaust.

The young city could not yet boast of a single paved street. Only Main Street, where often vehicles stuck in the mud after soft weather, was provides with brick sidewalks. The other principal streets tried to get along with narrow wooden footwalks and in the more distant streets a single line of planks or boards served as a sidewalk. An effort had been made on Main Street to overcome the darkness during the nights by a few oil lamps, a convenience which was entirely missing along the other streets. From the corner of the Terrace and Main Street, westerly to Court Street, extended a high bluff, down which the boys coasted in winter far into Commercial and Erie Streets. The land east of Ellicott Street was marshy. Niagara Street, called at that time Black Rock Road, passing through the woods for longer distances and crossed by several brooklets, was often impassable for driving and walking. As late as 1830 stags had been hunted, where the Normal school now stands. They had gone astray from the surrounding woods.

On pleasant days the scenes on Main Street offered a picturesque variety. It was a mingling of fashionably dressed ladies and gentlemen, of Indians - in blankets and moccasins [1.], of immigrants in the various national costumes of their countries, of merchants, following their trade, of sailors, enjoying their short recess after escaping the dangers of the sea.

Business was mostly confined to the west side of Main Street, between Mohawk and the Terrace. Mayor Johnson's residence, later occupied by the Female Academy, a stone building in the center of a large garden, was the only one of its kind on Delaware Avenue, which street for the most part was lined with lumber yards and soap factories. North of Mohawk Street were very few houses. It was considered a long way to Chippewa Street, and a walk to Tupper Street was looked upon as an extraordinary performance.

Caption under picture at center reads Dr. Johnson's Residence, first Mayor of Buffalo


[1.]Page 44, paragraph 3, left column: The German text reads "...of Indians - with the men in buckskin leather, partially dressed in the clothing of the white citizenry, squaws covered in colorful woolen fabrics..." Return to text

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Prosperity and Ruin in the Thirties

One of the most profitable enterprises during the later twenties and thirties - before railroads were in existence - was the running of stage coach lines. Buffalo, as the changing place for travellers going East or West, was one of the principal and central points of this business. During the severe season a journey in such a "stage coach", on roads that were a terror to travellers, could not be considered an enjoyment, for very often were the travellers compelled to walk in the most impassable places, when the weather was most unpleasant, or even to push the vehicle along. The fare to Albany was fifteen dollars. Two days were required to cover this distance. Taverns and inns were as prosperous an enterprise as stage coaches, as travellers usually were compelled to stop at Buffalo for some time, before they were able to continue their journey.

The brisk immigration in 1833 from the eastern parts of the country and from Europe, directed to Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, was of the greatest advantage to navigation on the canal and on the lakes, and Buffalo received a good share of this profitable traffic.

The immigrants, arriving here on canalboats by the thousands, were transported West on large steamers with bands of music on board as a special attraction. Their cases and trunks were often piled up "as high as mountains" in front of the inns and in the vicinity of the docks. Steamboats as well as inns employed "runners", whose business it was to catch customers for their employers. Noisy conflicts occurred often enough between the "solicitors" - this was the title claimed by the "runners"; but when trade was quiet, they were again the best of friends. An old German is still living on Genesee Street, near Mortimer, who in his younger years was a member of the guild of solicitors.

The products of the fertile plains of Michigan, of northern Indiana and northern Illinois began to find their way to the Erie Canal. The vessels carrying this abundant harvest to Buffalo were in return loaded with articles of necessity for the new settlements of the West. The harbor at the time was simply confined to Buffalo Creek and extended merely to the "old red tollbridge" on Ohio Street. There existed no Ohio or Erie Basin, no Blackwell Canal. Whenever a spell of steady westwind had gathered and retained at Buffalo many boats, they often lay so close from the lighthouse pier up to Washington Street, that they formed a continuous passage over the creek at any place.

Buffalo's growth and prosperity were greatly promoted by this lively traffic. The increase of the population in five years amounted to 81 per cent. The town in 1835 counted 15,661 inhabitants.

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It was everybody's firm belief, that Buffalo would in a short time develop to one of the largest commercial centers of the country.

In consequence of the closing of the "United States Bank" many State Banks were opened. These issued a great amount of paper money, which in most cases was founded on no other security, but on the confidence of the people. The rapid increase in the productiveness of the West and the apparent abundance of money caused an unhealthy inflation of trade and an unnatural rising of prices in the whole country, but especially on the Great Lakes, and nowhere more than in Buffalo.

In 1833 a speculation in the value of real estate began, which grew in 1834, still more increased in 1835 and reached its climax in 1836. Everybody was interested in real estate transactions, because nobody doubted that the prosperity of Buffalo was assured for many years to come.

The following incident may illustrate this speculative fever: James L. Barton, a well-known business man, owned two parcels of land in Black Rock, which he had bought in 1815 for $250. Returning to Buffalo in April, 1836, after an absence of two months, and walking down Main Street, somebody asked him at what price he was willing to sell his two lots. "For six thousand dollars," was the reply of Barton, who imagined he had asked an exorbitant price. The inquirer in parting promised to take the matter into consideration. A little distance further down the street Barton was asked again and shortly after this a third time for the price of his property, which he then offered at $7,500. A few steps more, and another person approached him with the same question. "Twenty thousand dollars," answered the now excited Barton, "with ten per cent in cash and the rest in six yearly payments." The bargain was closed at the nearest office.

All these purchases were made on credit, a small amount being paid down in cash, the buyer giving bonds and mortgages. People became rich in the turn of a hand, as it were - on paper.

One of the principal speculators was Benjamin Rathbun, since 1825 proprietor of the "Eagle Tavern". This hostelry had through his

Caption under picture at center reads Buffalo Harbor and Lighthouse

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energy and enterprise acquired a well deserved reputation as one of the best of its kind in the country. When the flush times began, he engaged in extensive speculations with such boldness and seeming success that he excited the envy of thousands. He built the "American Hotel", also the building known as "Gothic Hall", which in those days was considered a wonder of architecture. Through these and other building enterprises he gave employment to thousands of workmen. He also built and managed a large number of stores on the east side of Main Street. These were crowded to suffocation every Saturday night by his laborers and their wives, who received merchandise instead of money. He was the owner of several stage coach lines. He laid the foundation for a gigantic hotel, that was to occupy the entire square bounded by Main, North Division, South Division and Washington Streets. Although in the summer of 1836 prices for real estate began to decline, Rathbun was not discouraged and continued the execution of his many projects.

Then came a surprise and a sudden end. Rathbun, while attending an auction sale of lots, which he had bought near Niagara Falls, was arrested on the 2nd of August for forgery of notes. These forgeries amounted to nearly a million dollars. In the following spring he was tried at Batavia, found guilty and sentenced to States Prison for a term of five years. His arrest precipitated the financial catastrophe in Buffalo and vicinity that impended over the whole country. Suspensions of payments were the order of the day. Fortunes, founded on paper, disappeared over night; mortgages were foreclosed; real estate, sold at 30, 40 and 50 dollars per foot, would not realize these prices per acre. Banks tumbled down everywhere and paper money, without value before, became still more worthless.[1.]

On Main Street

The eye of the traveler who approached the city by the Williamsville road in the later thirties, was caught, even at a considerable

Caption under picture at center reads Eagle Tavern


[1.] Page 48, paragraph 3, left column: The German text continues with the following. This text was put on page 26 of the English text. It reads thus:

As one businessman after the other on Main Street was forced to close his doors, one day the Grocer Jacob Siebold was asked by his neighbor, George Brown, "Jake, did you fail?" "Oh no, not at all," was the reply. "Well eventually you will fail just like the rest of us," Brown commented. "I don't owe anyone a penny," Siebold countered. "It doesn't make any difference. We all have to believe that." "Well if that's the case," replied the German businessman, "I have go talk to my wife about it." His business did not close and he stood fortunate in the crisis.

In the year 1837 trade and commerce could not sink any lower. It was many years before people bounced back from the bad times. The country has never since experienced such a disasterous financial crisis as the one of 1836. The crash in the Fall of 1873 was child's play in comparison. Return to text


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Revised September 18, 2004
Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks