Shipyard Industry in Buffalo

The text below is an excerpt (pages 5) from
The Beginnings of Buffalo Industry
By Robert Holder
(online August 2013)

The sharp smell of pitch, the sight of snake-like coils of rope, and the
never-ending sound of hammers and wood-scrapers were the signs of the booming shipyard industry along Buffalo Creek. Keels [the principal structural member of a ship, running lengthwise along the center line from bow to stern, to which the frames are attached] for lake sailboats and steamers were laid at Buffalo and Black Rock.

There was great demand by the settlers for transportation from the end of the Erie Canal to points farther west. In the year 1833 alone, 50,000 passengerswere transported westward across Lake Erie from Buffalo.

To keep the cost of passage down, the boat builders constructed shelves and tables in the steerage. Stoves were set up for cooking so that the emigrants could prepare and serve their own meals on board ship.

A total of 30 steamers, characterized by their billowing white clouds of woodsmoke, were built in Buffalo between the years of 1818 and 1857. Starting with the steamer Walk-in-the-Water, built in 1818, nine more ships were constructed at Black Rock by the year 1843 when the Union was launched.

The first tragic lake-steamer explosion happened at Buffalo when the Peacock burst her boiler while tied up at the wharf in 1830. When the water in her boiler ran low, a carelessand inexperienced engier turned a valve which gushed in a stream of cold water. The boiler blew up, and fifteen men were killed.

Steamer construction in Buffalo hit a mad pace in the 1840's and 1850's. During these years businessmen and tourists were leaving for Detroit and Chicago to join the large number of immigrants going west. Each year found the ships faster, larger, and more luxurious. Even the railroads built special steamers to make connections with their lines at the other end of the lakes. But too many ships were built, even for the rapidly increasing lake traffic. In 1857 the shipowners went bankrupt becauseof over expansion. Much of the lake passenger and freight business was drained off by the new railroads. Handsome rosewood-finished ships, now too fancy for the regular lake trade, were docked and used for less elegant purposes. The shipping business simply could not continue to operate without a profit.

Later ships were built specifically for transporting coal and grain between Buffalo and other lake cities. In the 1870's a fleet of schooners was constructed for hauling cargoes between Buffalo and Chicago and Milwaukee.

See also:   Ship Building at Buffalo reprinted from the December 28, 1856 Detroit Free Press

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2013
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