Thursday, August 27, 2009

Buffalo was a young city when Grover Cleveland arrived in 1855: The children of its first non-indigenous settlers still walked the streets, and they remembered well (and bitterly) how the British had burned the city to the ground during the War of 1812. After the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, Buffalo became a boomtown, for it was where the waterway met the Great Lakes. From crops headed east to heavy equipment going the other way, everything passed through Buffalo. Between 1830 and 1860, the city’s population grew tenfold, from 8,000 to 80,000.

And, like most boomtowns, it was a pretty wild place, teeming with brothels, saloons, and gambling halls. An old canalhand named E. E. Cronk later estimated that “60% of the buildings on both sides of Canal Street from Erie Street to Commercial were houses of prostitution, 30% were saloons, and 10% grocery stores, etc.” “The lowest houses of prostitution both in level and quality were those lining the tow path in back of the Canal Street buildings,” Cronk remembered. “The prostitutes operating on Canal Street considered themselves ‘ladies of the evening’ and the towpath women ‘dirty whores.’”

Not surprisingly, it was a dangerous place, too. Police patrolled Canal Street in threes, one in front, two in back. When the canal was dredged every spring, it wasn’t unusual for eight or more human bodies to be discovered.

The canal itself was a frothing, stinking bouillabaisse of garbage, human and animal waste, agricultural and industrial runoff, and offal (not to mention the bloated corpses). The effluent would occasionally produce giant methane bubbles that would rise to the surface and explode, unleashing a stench so foul it sickened some people for days. It practically goes without saying that disease was rampant. Periodic outbreaks of typhus, typhoid, and smallpox killed hundreds annually.

Yet, for all its faults – and there were many – Buffalo was also an exciting, vibrant, bustling place, filled with practically limitless opportunities for an ambitious young man. There were fortunes to be made, and you could have some fun there, too. One imagines 17-year-old Grover Cleveland strolling down Canal Street’s wooden sidewalks for the first time, smelling the fetid canal, hearing the beckoning calls of the ladies of the evening and the rollicking piano music emanating from the saloons. It must have enthralled the minister’s son from rural Fayetteville.

He resolved to stay.