By the 1830s both the Erie Canal and the Buffalo and Niagara Falls Railroad had come together at the Niagara River, assuring the industrial development of the Town of Tonawanda that had been settled here back in 1805. The first to take advantage of the advantageous situation was the East Boston Timber Company that purchased timber rights on White’s Island, now Tonawanda Island, in 1833. Soon they were loading barges high with fine white oak bound for eager markets on the Eastern seaboard.
But it was not the hardwoods of western New York that were to make Tonawanda but the seemingly limitlesssupply of high quality white pine from the vast forests of the Upper Midwest in Michigan and Minnesota and Wisconsin. In 1861, J. S. Noyes created the first practical cargo barge for open water by removing the mast and deck from an old schooner, an invention that revolutionized Great Lakes shipping. Timber would be loaded onto barges and pulled - sometimes four or five at a time - across the Great Lakes by steam tugs bound for Tonawanda and a trip down the Erie Canal.
Tonawanda, developed on both sides of the Erie Canal/Tonawanda Creek, split in 1865 when North Tonwanda was incorporated as a village. There was some ongoing nastiness over the use of a gravel pit but mostly the political management of communities in two different counties was becoming unwieldy. It was North Tonawanda that became “Lumber City.” The first cargo of lumber unloaded for distribution was in 1867. By 1890 over 700,000,000 feet of sawed lumber was docked here and for a brief time North Tonawanda was the world’s largest lumber port.
There were more than 150 lumber companies operating in town. Most were dealing in the usual suspects - fence posts, railroad ties, wooden laths and the like. J.S. Bliss and Company became the second largest manufacturer of shingles in the world, turning out as many as 56,000,000 white pine shingles of all shapes and sizes in a single season. The Ray H. Bennett Lumber Company produced kit homes sold around the nation and Canada for 70 years. But the abundance of lumber also attracted some more colorful manufacturers: Allan Herschell was turning out the nation’s finest merry-go-rounds with hand-carved wooden horses by the 1880s and Rudolph Wurlitzer established a plant for crafting organs in 1908.
When the lumber fields were depleted and the railroads pushed further west, new industries of steel, paper, chemicals and auto parts manufacturing set up shop due to the established bulk transportation infrastructure. Today the lumberyards are all gone and so are the rapids in the water that led the Senecas to call it Tonawanda Creek meaning “Swift Running Water.” Our walking tour will work into the neighborhood spawned by the wealth of that lumber but first we will begin at the spot that started it all, looking out at the western end of the historic Erie Barge Canal...
Gateway Harbor Park
Webster Street at Sweeney Street
The confluence of Ellicott Creek and Tonawanda Creek and, after 1825, the western terminus of the Erie Canal has always been the defining geographic feature of Tonawanda. Once the largest lumber port in the world, the area is now a picturesque park. Since 1983 the park has hosted Canal Fest, the largest of its kind along the entire length of the Erie Canal.
WALK AWAY FROM THE WATER ON WEBSTER STREET.
Buffalo Suzuki Strings Musical Arts Center
4 Webster Street
Edward Brodhead Green was Utica-born in 1855 and moved to Buffalo in 1881 where he became, along with his partner Sydney Wicks, the city’s go-to architect for nearly a half-century. Here he designed a Neoclassical structure in limestone and marble in 1928 for the Tonawanda Power Company and the State Trust Company Bank. The Niagara Service Building, as it was formally called, or the Power Building as it was generally known, opened with great fanfare on March 2, 1929. Today the renovated building is home to the Buffalo Suzuki Strings, a music education program and boasts a 300-seat concert hall on the street level.
15 Webster Street at northeast corner of Sweeney Street
This is where William Vandervoort built his original brick home in North Tonawanda and later was occupied by a silk mill. The three-story Sweeney Building was completed in 1912 and housed the Tonawanda Power Company for many years. The entrance on Webster Street has been severely compromised by a modernization effort but the decorative stone carvings at the cornice line remain and the lamp stanchions on the roof have been restored.
20-26 Webster Street
These two Italianate commercial buildings were united by John W. Cramer in 1900 when he joined H. Jason Knapp in selling hardware and supplies. The flat-roofed building to the south was built as the Kent Music Hall in 1859; the building the north with the heavy Gothic cornice was constructed in 1877. A number of North Tonawanda churches began with their first services in this building. The Cramer business occupied the site for much of the 20th century, sliding into the industrial supply field during World War II.
North Tonawanda History Museum
54 Webster Street
The museum, which began operating in volunteers’ homes, moved into this building in 2009. It once housed the G. C. Murphy 5 & 10-cent store that opened in 1928 and was closed by McCrory Corp. in 1997. The much-altered building (Murphy’s covered the brick facade with a metal sheathing in 1965) began life in 1888, perhaps as a millinery shop. John Schulmeister operated a dry goods store here from 1894 until 1926.
Evening News Building
58 Webster Street
This is one of the buildings occupied by the Tonawanda News in its journey from its founding in 1880 to its present location at 435 River Road in 1960. In between, they relocated from here across the street to 83 Webster before their own building designed by Louis F. Eggert.
64 Webster Street
This three-story Romanesque commercial block, built in 1891, features decorative brickwork on the floors above its modernized street level. Over the years it has welcomed many tenants. The Witkop & Holmes furniture store was a long-time tenant and their “ghost” advertising sign remains visible on the north side of the building.
67 Webster Street
The Riviera Theatre opened on December 30, 1926 as the “Showplace of the Tonawandas” featuring movies, vaudeville acts and musical events. Architects Leon H. Lempart and Son gave the the 1,115-seat theater an exotic Italian Renaissance feel and Ferdinand Kebely contributed the interior artwork. Amidst all the opulence, from the beginning the star attraction of the Riviera has been its Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ with 11 ranks of pipes. Even when the theater fell on hard times and closed for long stretches there were monthly organ performances. In the early 1970s, The Niagara Frontier Theater Organ Society bought the Wurlizer with the provision that it remain in the theater. The club also spruced up the Riviera adding a chandelier with 15,000 French crystals that formerly graced the Genesee Theatre in Buffalo.
TURN RIGHT ON GOUNDRY STREET. CONTINUE UNDER THE RAILROAD OVERPASS ONTO THE TOWN’S MOST FASHIONABLE STREET.
United States Post Office
141 Goundry Street
Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department, Oscar Wenderoth, drew up the plans for this two-story post office that was completed in 1914. Wenderoth, who was responsible for many New York post offices, blended classical elements into his Colonial Revival design. The symmetrical building features a colossal central portico splitting a stone balustrade around the roof; the confection is topped by an elegant domed cupola.
208 Goundry Street
Alexander Granger Kent left the family farm with just a single year of schooling to enter the grocery business. In 1848 the 26-year old Kent became one of the first lumber dealers in the area, helping launch the town on its journey to becoming an important lumber center. Kent retired in 1890 to this grand mansion - now much altered - that he had built a year earlier. The house was long thought to have been designed by Stanford White of the legendary architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White that was setting the standard for elegance in the Gilded Age, but that is not certain. Kent died here in 1895 and his family occupied the home until 1931. Once the torch-bearer for the splendid mansions on Goundry Street, the house stood vacant for many years before being divided into nine apartments.
Carnegie Art Center
240 Goundry Street
Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie dispensed many of millions of dollars building public libraries - 1,679 in the United States and more than 2,000 worldwide. The community of North Tonawanda received one of the grants and constructed this Classical Revival building in 1904. The one story brick building trimmed in Indiana limestone served as a library for 70 years and has done duty as an arts center since 1976. It stands as one of 277 Carnegie libraries listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
273 Goundry Street
Bank president James DeGraff, scion of the family that would do much to build the community a hospital, built this eclectic Queen Anne-styled brick house in 1884. The first indoor plumbing to show up in North Tonawanda was installed in this house.
TURN LEFT ON PAYNE STREET.
east side of Payne Street
This small graveyard was the family burial ground started on James Sweeney’s farm, probably in the 1820s. The cemetery was founded on February 12, 1868 as the Col. John Sweeney Rural Cemetery Association and many of North Tonawanda’s leadign citizens rest here. In 1977 the city assumed ownership of the cemetery.
CROSS OVER TO THE WEST SIDE OF PAYNE STREET.
The greenspace next to city hall is named for John Brauer, a city alderman who donated trees, shrubs and evergreens and supervised their planting in the 1930s. It is now home to memorials to North Towandan veterans.
216 Payne Avenue at Brauer Park
North Tonawanda came into being after a dispute over the use of gravel and this is where that gravel pit was located. This is actually the third home for the government since the incorporation of North Tonawanda as a village on May 8, 1865 and as a city on April 24, 1897. The building with its streamlined Art Deco appearance opened with appropriate fanfare in 1929; the price tag was $200,000.
TURN LEFT ON THOMPSON STREET.
Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum
180 Thompson Street
The manufacture of carrousels and band organs on the banks of the Niagara River greatly influenced the growth of the amusement park industry. The best-known carrousel maker in the United States was Allan Herschell. A native of Scotland, Herschell came to America in 1870 to construct steam boilers and engines. In 1883 Herschell produced his first steam-driven “riding gallery,” an forerunner of the merry-go-round. By 1891 one machine a day was being shipped from western New York to some place in the world. The city of North Tonawanda also produced most of America’s band organs. When added to the carrousel these colorful musical instruments made the merry-go-round an irresistible amusement ride.
The Allan Herschell Company manufactured carousels and other amusement park rides here for nearly 40 years before moving to Buffalo. The building housed a carving shop where the horses were hand carved, a paint shop, woodworking shop, upholstery shop, and machine shop. The museum still features one of 71 carousels manufactured by Herschell and is open on select days.
TURN LEFT ON OLIVER STREET.
Railroad Museum of the Niagara Frontier
111 Oliver Street
The Niagara Frontier Chapter is one of the oldest chapters of the National Railway Historical Society, chartered on February 1, 1942. The organization’s museum is housed in the Erie Railroad’s North Tonawanda freight depot, built in 1922 and painstakingly restored to house a unique collection of artifacts, inlcuding the group’s five pieces of rolling stock.
TURN RIGHT ON SWEENEY STREET.
Elks Lodge 860
northeast corner of Main Street and Sweeney Street
This has been the home of the Elks fraternal organization since 1921. The design of Louis F. Eggert has been tampered with over the years but the exterior remains essentially unchanged.
CONTINUE ALONG SWEENEY STREET TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.