Buffalo’s Naval and Military Park – An Icon
The harbor was not glamorous. Lake freighters, ore and grain boats, and tugboats all jockeyed for position at docks along giant grain elevators, coal shoots, railroad sidings, and steel mills. The water looked awful; it gave off a foul odor. The air was full of soot and smoke. The notorious lower Main Street had flophouses, rowdy saloons, and a bowery-type atmosphere. Only a few bright spots existed: notably the Detroit and Crystal Beach boats.
Industry and commerce were ascendant, as they had been since the waters of the Atlantic and the Great Lakes were joined by the Erie Canal some 125 years earlier.
The St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959 and its opening sounded the death knell for the Buffalo Harbor, more or less. The city of Buffalo declined. For every big ship that passed through the Welland Canal and headed east toward Buffalo (as in the old days), some 19 or more ships turned west and headed down the lakes toward Cleveland and on to Duluth and ports in between.
Not much activity took place along the Buffalo Waterfront in the following two decades. Occasionally, something newsworthy did occur. In 1966, President Johnson visited Buffalo. He made a side trip to the Buffalo harbor accompanied by local environmental activist Stan Spisiak. Stan was a longtime fighter in the battle for clean water. A famous harbor picture showed President Johnson dipping into a bucket of sludge taken from the harbor waters. The photo op worked: a few years later, Congress passed a major Clean Water Act. This was a great victory.
Other waterfront “awakenings” began. Pleasure craft began plying the waterways; the Erie Basin Marina was opened, and other marinas followed. The affluent-bought condos along the Buffalo waterfront, the Waterfront Village, was built. The Hatch opened, a popular short order joint, making available greasy french fries and barely decent coffee. A high-end restaurant, always under various names (now Templeton’s Landing), was built.
Then a major event took place in 1979. The Buffalo Naval Park (now called the Naval and Military Park) officially opened. The U.S. Navy provided the cruiser, Little Rock, and the destroyer, The Sullivans. A few years later, the submarine “Croaker” joined the fleet.
Now Buffalonians, as well as visitors to our city, had a place to go, a destination worth visiting on the waterfront. The Naval Park was a beginning and signaled hope that one day a real renaissance might take place on the Buffalo waterfront.
Under the late Lt. Colonel Pat Cunningham (ret.), the Naval Park flourished. A museum was established, housing wartime artifacts and military memorabilia. I visited the War of 1812’s 200th anniversary exhibit; it was first class.
In a fenced area nearby, there is an exhibit area holding a number of vintage military items. Included is a marine helicopter from the late 1950s, an army tank from the Korean War, a marine armored personnel carrier, a Huey flown in Vietnam, a Navy PT boat, a Navy Fury jet, and, most befitting our area, a WWII P–39 Airacobra, made by Bell in Buffalo (on Elmwood Avenue, where a Home Depot now sits). Many locals are not even aware that this outside, fenced-in exhibit exists. The need for more space for this impressive Naval and Military Park is obvious.
The Veterans Memorial Gardens is an integral part of the park. There are now 13 monuments and they are enhanced by beautiful gardens. According to the Naval Park’s present CEO, Paul Marzello, a crack group of volunteers meticulously care for the variety of flowers, shrubs, and plants.
One can take a leisurely stroll through the gardens and view the inspiring monument row that extends along the shoreline toward the mouth of the harbor. It provides the observer with a wonderful history lesson. There are monuments for Pearl Harbor, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and ones recognizing the contributions of specific veteran groups such as Hispanics, African Americans, the Irish, the Polish, and others too.
The most recent monument is named “The Battle Within.” A ceremony was held this past Memorial Day weekend to unveil this addition to the park. Mark Donnelly, of a local Masonic lodge, according to brother lodge member, Bob Baus, was the impetus behind the creation of this monument. His successful efforts help to make us aware of the tragedy of all those veterans who have taken their own lives. As Mark stated, the monument is “to honor our heroes for their service, regardless of where they died.” CEO Marzello further noted that the purpose of the monument “is to create awareness for PTSD and veterans’ suicides.”
The Naval and Military Park stands as the centerpiece of the Buffalo Waterfront. It established its rightful, pre-eminent position in 1979 and continues to be an iconic destination today, in the midst of the present renaissance that began in the early years of the 21st century.
Yes, there were several other developments that took place in the “pre-renaissance years.” A wide-ranging discussion of the Tuesday night pub intelligentsia mentioned some worthy of note. These included the Erie Basin and the nearby condos that make up Waterfront Village. Paul Reister and Tony McElroy noted the demolition of the Aud and its successor (named after various banks), now the Key Bank arena. George Eberl may have noted the Seneca Casino. Jim Burke would not let us forget the new baseball stadium. It has survived numerous names, but according to Burke, it might rightly be called Jimmy Griffin Stadium. All of these developments, and others too, pointed in the direction of an enhanced downtown and waterfront area.
The present renaissance that began about 15 years ago has involved outer harbor developments, new hotels, restaurants, condos, boating facilities, restored historic sites (a section of the old Erie Canal), and a great lawn for concerts, festivals, exhibits, and more!
But that is a separate story that will be researched and written by local historians in the decades ahead. It will involve identifying and showcasing the contributions of many individuals and groups, of men and women in leading government and business positions, of citizens and citizen groups of various interests.
It will be the story of all those involved in coming together to make a better Canal Side and Harbor Place, a magnificent Buffalo Waterfront and, indeed, a bigger and better Buffalo, New York.
The Buffalo Naval and Military Park and its iconic ships were essential to that entire period of the pre-renaissance years and now to the current renaissance itself. The Naval and Military Park was and is the centerpiece. However, the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park now face a huge challenge. The USS The Sullivans is in need of major repairs. The repairs will be very costly; a major campaign will be announced shortly to raise sufficient funds. Let’s unite and contribute and “Don’t Give Up the Ship.”