Every local native knows North Tonawanda’s lumber-rich past and that CNN’s Wolf Blitzer attended Kenmore West High School.
But how many Tonawandans know that one of college football’s pioneers hailed from the region, or that a saint once walked through Kenmore?
Historians from the two cities, town and village were asked to contribute five items each that highlight hidden historically significant tidbits from their respective municipalities. Following are their edited offerings.
City of TonawandaCompiled by Ned Schimminger, city historian
• ALL-TIME ALL-AMERICAN: One of Yale’s greatest football players, Frank Hinkey, was a native of Tonawanda. Born here in 1871, he went on to Phillips Academy and Yale University after completing his schooling here at home. Playing first right end and then left end on the Yale team, Hinkey is said to have never allowed an opponent to run around his end. During his four years on the team — at a now-paltry 5-feet, 6-inches and 130 pounds, Hinkey guided the team to only one loss. During those four years, the team racked up 1,606 points to its opponents’ 26. Hinkey was captain of the team in 1893 and 1894.
• CANAL TERMINUS: Today, the Erie Canal ends in Tonawanda where Tonawanda Creek empties into the Niagara River after passing under the Seymour-River Road Bridge. But for the first 100 years of its existence, the canal continued from Tonawanda to Buffalo, passing directly through downtown Tonawanda between what’s now McDonalds and the HSBC First Trust Bank, along the right-of-way of the current Niagara Street arterial and through the length of Niawanda Park and Isle View Park. In the lower right hand corner of the accompanying photo (circa 1925), you can see the filled-in bed of the old Erie Canal. Along this route, thousands of American pioneer families made the first leg of their trek West. McDonalds could have made a fortune if it had been open back then.
• DOWNSIZING GOVERNMENT: Residents of the Tonawandas, on both sides of the canal, were for a short time governed by one village council. The original Village of Tonawanda, incorporated in 1853, consisted of four wards, with the fourth ward encompassing the more scarcely populated area north of the canal. This scenario was short-lived, and in 1857 the northern ward voted to secede from the village and once again become part of Wheatfield. The decision seems to have been due mostly to a perceived unfair sharing of tax revenues by the more powerful constituency downstate — sorry, make that downvillage. There was also an attempt to have the Village and Town of Tonawanda annexed to Buffalo in 1896, but the idea was defeated by a 387-287 margin.
• TORNADO TOTALS TONAWANDA: In September 1898, a rare tornado hit the City of Tonawanda. After crossing over the river from Grand Island, the tornado damaged the old Murray School as well as several homes along Franklin and Kohler streets. Its worst havoc was wreaked along Fuller Avenue, where a dozen homes were severely damaged, several being leveled to the ground. No one was killed by the fierce storm, but there were numerous injuries.
• TRAINS ON MAIN STREET: The primary railroad tracks running through the Tonawandas used to run down the right-of-way of Main Street in downtown Tonawanda across the canal to Webster Street. At the turn of the last century, when rail was still the predominant mode of passenger and freight travel, more than 80 trains per day rolled through downtown. The trains caused excessive soot, dirt, noise, injury and death. Around 1920, the tracks were rerouted to circumvent the downtown business district on an elevated loop that still services trains today.
North TonawandaCompiled by Peter Trinkwalder, city historian
• BISON SHIPYARD: As one looks at the southeastern end of Tonawanda, there is a very large building that was at one time a trucking terminal and is now some kind of a manufacturing facility. This end of the island at one time was time home of docks and lumber piles which helped to make North Tonawanda the lumbering capitol of the world. Prior to World War II, those seven acres at the end of the island were occupied by Hill Manning Boat Company. A partnership of two Buffalo industries, Ernst Iron Works and August Feine and Sons, obtained contracts to build a type of landing craft called Landing Craft Tank. The steel was cut and sized in Buffalo plants, and the boats were put together on Tonawanda Island. Navy personnel would take charge of the LCT, and most were taken up the Erie Canal for use overseas. Some 353 LCTs were built by Bison Ship Building Company and its 800 workers from 1942-44.
• CITY HALL: Before City Hall was City Hall, the area was part of lot 81 of the mile reserve, which ended at what is now Thompson Street on the north end, and purchased by James Sweeney in 1824. The area, as shown from a map of 1875, was a gravel pit owned by New York Central and Hudson Valley Railroad. This includes the area that is now known as Felton Field. A map from 1886 shows that the property was New York Lumber and Wood Working Company’s Lumber Yard, and at least four rail sidings ran form Vandervoort to Payne Avenue. A map from 1893 shows that the railroad tracks were still on the property, but the property was listed as vacant. A photo of the North Tonawanda High School football team from 1911 shows the dome of Felton High School and Sweeney Cemetery in the background. It was used as the team’s football field until the late 1920s, at which time City Hall was built and a new football field was built on Payne Avenue.
• COLONEL PAYNE: As a young boy, the name of Colonel Payne (Lewis Stephen Payne) was heard often. My mother went to Colonel Payne School, as did I and most of my family. In addition, I was raised on Wheatfield Street, which was named after the colonel’s wheat field, and not far from Payne Avenue. Colonel Payne came to town in 1837 to work in the lumber business and was also successful in the mercantile business. In 1841, he purchased the Anguish farm from one of the town’s earliest settlers and built a home at the corner of Payne Avenue and Wheatfield on what is referred as Payne’s Hill. When the Civil War began, Payne — at his own expense — recruited a company of volunteers mostly from Niagara County and served for the Union forces. Payne’s exploits were noted in national media, and he was considered a famous scout in the Civil War. In August 1863, Payne was shot in the throat, taken prisoner and imprisoned in Columbia, S.C., until March 1865. After returning to North Tonawanda, he was elected Niagara County clerk and later state senator. Payne is buried in Elmlawn Cemetery, Buffalo.
• TONAWANDA ISLAND: In “ History of the Holland Purchase” by O. Turner (1849), it is noted that there was located an ancient mound on the southeast end of the island that earliest settlers described as at least 10 feet tall and 25 feet in diameter. A large number of human bones, as well as arrows, beads and hatchets, were removed over the years. The site was eventually evacuated by E. G. Squier, a well-known archaeologist who credited the site as belonging to Neuter Indians, who were early inhabitants and known for gathering bones and burying them in one place. A second site at the northern part of the island was discovered at the end of the 18th century and was described as 15 feet high and encircled by stones which had traces of fire. The diameter was about 10 feet and contained three to four skeletons, as well as worked flint, broken points and antlers.
• TONAWANDA ISLAND, PART II: Opposite the ancient mound on the southeast section near where the Little River meets Tonawanda Creek (or, if you please, the Erie Canal) there was discovered in the late 1800s or early 1900s what may have been an ancient armory or remnants of prior residence. In an area of earth were found chips of flint, refuse pieces and imperfect arrows. Also recovered were pottery shards, pipe bowls, pipe stems and various tools While North Tonawanda was being settled, plows would uncover various items. At one time, Cornelius Creek ran through the area. Information regarding this site is sparse. Archaeologists recovered artifacts that they believed to have been created between 6000 B.C. and 1600 A.D.
Town of TonawandaCompiled by John Percy, town historian
• EARLY BURYING GROUND: The first cemetery in town was located near where St. Christopher’s Church stands. Little is known about it. Only three markers remained in the early 20th century, according to the first town historian, Dr. Frederick Parkhurst. It’s gone now as a result of St. Christopher’s expansion. It apparently was the burying ground for early French settlers to the town. Nearby French Creek and Amherst’s French Road commemorate our earliest settlers.
• MILITARY ROAD: Just east of Military Road, on the mall of Sheridan Drive, sits a stone marker commemorating the oldest road in the Town of Tonawanda. At the time of its dedication in 1936, the stone was located right on Military Road, but road widenings have forced its relocation to its present site. It was constructed in 1801-02 by U. S. Army soldiers from Fort Niagara, but not completed until 1832 due to fund shortages. It connected Fort Niagara to Buffalo.
• TOWN BOUNDARIES: Once upon a time, the town’s boundaries included what is now the City of Tonawanda and Grand Island. Grand Island was so isolated that it broke off from the rest of the town in 1852. It remained primarily rural until well after World War II. A village was formed within the town in 1854, the Village of Tonawanda. It grew rapidly due mainly to the Erie Canal and gained city status in 1903. State law requires cities to be totally separate from towns. So today, the Town of Tonawanda has the smallest area in Erie County of all towns but one of the largest populations.
• TONAWANDA’S RAILROADS: The Town of Tonawanda became host to three important railroads. In 1836, one of the nation’s earliest railroads, the Buffalo and Niagara Falls, was built near Military Road. It was sold to the New York Central in the mid-19th century and still functions as an important link for both freight and Amtrak. In 1870, the Erie Railroad built a line through the center of the town between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. It functioned through the mid- 20th century. The Lehigh Valley built a line between the two cities in 1896 that passed through the northeast portion of the town. It functioned until the late 20th century.
• MUNICIPAL BUILDING: The Municipal Building at the intersection of Delaware Avenue and Delaware Road is a town and village landmark. It was built in 1936 under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in spite of the fact that residents Kenmore and the town voted 4-to-1 for the Republican candidate that year, Alf Landon. It was designed by the notable E.B. Green architectural firm and built in the Monumental Classical form with Art Deco decorations. It houses some town and village offices, and the two communities share its expenses. Only one other building of its type exists in New York state, and ours is far less changed, so it is an architectural treasure.
(The attached photos show the building on an early postcard ,about 1950, and an architect’s drawing of what it would look like, c1935)
Village of KenmoreCompiled by Ed Adamczyk, village historian
• CAR INSPIRES AN ICON: The explosive economic boom that followed World War II included visionaries convinced that America needed tiny cars, and then bathtub-shaped runabouts to serve as households’ second cars. They were wrong, but one such manufacturer was the Playboy Motor Car Company, which built a 40-horsepower, 1,900-pound car with 12-inch wheels in a building at the foot of Kenmore Avenue. The plant was used by General Motors to make war material and was available after its release by the War Assets Administration. The undercapitalized company built 97 Playboys at a retail cost of $895 before calling it quits in 1951. And yes, it was a suggestion by a Playboy sales executive to Hugh Hefner that led to the magazine’s name.
• THE D-SHAPED ROAD: Nearly every road in Kenmore is straight line that forms a perpendicular grid. Delaware Road isn’t. Rather, it’s a bowing, 1.5-mile road that meets Delaware Avenue in two places, north and south, to form the letter D. Delaware Road has the highest elevation in Kenmore and began as an Indian trail. By 1813, the Zimmerman and Failing families, among others, obtained titles to adjacent lands and began farming along that curving dirt road, making it the first real community of what later became Kenmore. That section of Delaware Avenue, straight through Kenmore, was not paved until 1895, despite its link between Buffalo and the City of Tonawanda.
• ROAD IS A GOVERNMENT PROJECT: The current Military Road runs from Buffalo through Kenmore to Lewiston. It was indeed a military road, laid out by the venerable Joseph Ellicott (of the Holland Land Company, the original non-native owner of Western New York) and built by the U.S. Army. In 1801, the Army cut out a road, 100 feet wide, from Youngstown south to Tonawanda Creek, and built a bridge over the creek. In 1809, the state government appropriated funding to finish the job through what is now Kenmore.
• A SAINT WAS HERE: In the early 1830s, Western New York saw a wave of German immigrants, the Catholics who founded a log chapel at Englewood and Belmont avenues. A young priest from Europe, Father John Neumann, arrived there in 1836 to hold religious services for congregations from Niagara Falls in the north to the current Eden in the south (and because of his fear of horses, it is said, he walked his routes, through swamps, mud and mosquito infestations). Reassigned to Philadelphia in 1840, he organized the American system of Catholic education, was nominated to be a bishop and was canonized as St. John Neumann in 1977.
• THE WATER TOWER: Kenmore’s celebrated “Million Gallon Water Tower” is perched high above Elmwood Avenue, is painted pale blue and was built in 1927 to allay frequent complains about low water pressure in the village. It once had a large, bright red arrow painted on its top, circa 1930s, to direct pilots toward Buffalo Airport in Cheektowaga. Prior to the advent of police radios, it also had a red light high on its surface to alert officers, in the style of the Bat Signal, to check in with headquarters.
Every local native knows North Tonawanda’s lumber-rich past and that CNN’s Wolf Blitzer attended Kenmore West High School.
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