Unknown Stories: Long Before Larkin, The Hydraulics

12:32 PM, Aug 11, 2012   |    comments
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BUFFALO, N.Y.- The Larkin District is one of Buffalo's rebounding neighborhoods. Earlier this summer, Larkin Development cut the ribbon on Larkin Square, turning this into more than just a business cluster, but a neighborhood center. Yes, the investment bodes well for the future in a neighborhood with such a rich past.

Long before Larkin and his famous soap company or his Frank Lloyd Wright designed administration building, this area was known as "The hydraulics".  A history that came as a surprise to even Larkin Development Group Partner Howard Zemsky.

"It was established in 1827, so this was the earliest industrial part of Buffalo, even before the city was incorporated in 1832."

Back to when this land was still frontier, in fact still part of the Buffalo Creek Reservation, and home to Seneca leader Red Jacket. But in that landscape, an association came together, led by Ebenezer Johnson, who would go on to become Buffalo's first mayor. The group established a textile manufacturing center, using water power harnessed from the Buffalo River and Little Buffalo Creek. It wasn't hydro-electricity, but a series of canals that used gravity and waterflow to power the mills in the various factories.  It was an important piece of Buffalo's history, the remnants of which are still here.

Zemsky tells me, "Interestingly, that mill race, runs diagonally underneath this building, right out to the Buffalo River. And Hydraulics Street runs to the east of our building where, not coincidentally, is where the hydraulic canal used to be located."

Zemsky took me on a tour of the Larkin underbelly, and there in the basement it is. A peculiar hump, that rises about 4 feet from the main floor level. It is the housing of an original hydraulic canal. Out under the surrounding streets, accessible only through the sewer system, are what is left of some of the other canals. A trickle of history, that remains from the industrial birthplace of Buffalo, under a neighborhood redevelopment that many hope will be a part of the re-birth of the Queen City. Or as Howard Zemsky puts it, "What goes around comes around."


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