what were buffalo gals? -- 10/31/22

Today's selection -- from A Man of Iron by Troy Senik. In the 1800s, with the advent of the Erie Canal, the city of Buffalo saw one of the most aggressive civic growth spurts in American his­tory.

"In 1830, five years after the opening of the Erie Canal -- and two years prior to the city's actual incorporation -- Buffalo's population stood at 8,668. By 1860, around the time the twenty-three-year-old [future president] Grover [Cleveland] was admitted to the bar, the population had grown to more than 81,000, making it one of the ten largest cities in the nation. That number would nearly double by the time he became mayor in 1882, reaching more than 155,000.

"The canal was at the core of the city's success, making it a thor­oughfare for shipping and trade. The year that Cleveland arrived in town, 1855, marked the apex of that trend, with more than 33,000 commercial shipments traversing the waterway. As major cities grew up on Great Lakes waterfronts -- Chicago not least among them ­-- Buffalo's direct water access helped it grow in tandem. The influx of new residents -- and, even more so, the steady supply of transients that inevitably characterizes a port city -- meant that Cleveland's Buffalo was a rough-and-tumble place. Accounts of the era note that police officers would only travel down some streets in pairs -- and then, only during daylight hours. Prostitution was so widespread that it even in­spired a song that became a part of the American canon. To modern ears, the lyrics 'Buffalo gals, won't you come out tonight,' ring quaint; in their original context, they were decidedly less so.

Single by Malcolm McLaren and the World's Famous Supreme Team

"Not all of the tumult was of an illicit quality. As the city's initial wave of New England settlers began to be diluted by immigrants (pri­marily German and Irish, nonnatives would eventually make up approx­imately 60 percent of Buffalo's population) the culture began to change in at least two ways that were propitious for the young Grover Cleve­land. The first was the immigrants' attraction to Cleveland's Democratic Party, which displayed less hostility to foreigners than the then-regnant Whigs. The second was the changes wrought to the city's culinary land­scape. The Germans in particular brought with them a cuisine heavy on beer and sausages, both of which would become staples of the Cleveland diet. The earliest surviving picture of Cleveland -- in which the bearded, follically intact Grover looks, if not svelte, at least reasonably proportioned -- gives credence to the reports that he gained roughly one hundred pounds (in presidential terms, the equivalent of swallow­ing James Madison whole) during his time in Buffalo.

"Mid-century Buffalo was not pure hedonism, however. By the time Grover came to town, the city's proximity to Canada had made it the pen­ultimate stop on one line of the Underground Railroad. Nearby, Harriet Tubman had taken escaped slaves north across a wooden suspension bridge close to Niagara Falls on multiple occasions. In the 1830s, a slave couple from Tennessee fled into Ontario with their six-week-old baby, only to be kidnapped by slave hunters dispatched by their erstwhile owner. When the couple was brought back stateside, a contingent of about fifty of Buffalo's free blacks set them free and then fought their way back to the Canadian border through two hours of armed conflict with a local posse assembled by the slaveholder."

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Troy Senik


A Man of Iron: The Turbulent Life and Improbable Presidency of Grover Cleveland


Threshold Editions


Copyright 2022 by Troy Senik


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