Buffalo’s waterfront renaissance offers hope for the future, and is long overdue.
Piece by piece, bits of the river and lake shorelines are opening to public access with new green spaces and new attractions. It’s only fair; the harbor built the city, and now it’s the city’s turn to rebuild the harbor.
But building the future should not come at the expense of the past. Buffalo has a rich maritime heritage, as the point where the Great Lakes of the American heartland met the commerce of the early Atlantic seaboard, thanks to the 19th century engineering marvel known as the Erie Canal. There are stories on this storied waterfront.
As the nonprofit Buffalo Lighthouse Association nears completion of a long restoration project at the 1833 lighthouse depicted on the city seal, and plans preservation of the long-neglected South Buffalo Lighthouse, it is uncovering and retelling some of those stories. With hope someday to replicate an old federal Lifesaving Service station as a visitor center on Lighthouse Point, researchers have been combing local resources and the National Archives for reports and plans that resurrect the past as a guide to the future. And along the way, remarkable stories do unfold once more.
One such story involves an incredible act of heroism by the keeper of the Buffalo station, more than a century ago. As much as any bit of city waterfront history, it deserves to live in community lore. It deserves retelling.
Winslow W. Greisser was no fool. A frown would have creased his already weather-lined face throughout that raw November morning, as he peered out over the cauldron of spray and crashing waves that was the entrance to Buffalo Harbor. He would have smelled trouble.
Capt. Greisser commanded the six surfmen of United States Lifesaving Service Station No. 5, near the elbow of the Buffalo River. He had a lookout posted in the station’s watchtower, wary of the gusts of wind that sometimes reached 80 mph and sent huge combers to batter that worst nightmare of mariners, an unprotected lee shore.
The turn of the century already had been a busy one for the crowded little station. Two of Greisser’s surfmen, Archie and John Farrell, had earned Silver Lifesaving Medals, Archie for rescuing a woman bather off Woodlawn Beach and John for several rescues of drowning people throughout the harbor. It was a source of pride for Greisser, who himself had started out as a surfman 16 years earlier in Ohio, and perhaps a little push for the construction of the new and bigger station that was under consideration.
The 37-year-old keeper wasn’t concerned about bathers and casual boaters today, though. There would be none of them out there, as the gale swept the length of Lake Erie and battered a lake shore not yet fully protected by harbor breakwaters. His concern was for ships that might be running out of sea room in the storm as they approached one of the world’s busiest harbors, even though it was late in the season. And his men were watching the shipping already in the harbor and anchored just offshore in the lake, knowing the strain being put on cables and hawsers.
Trouble didn’t come that day. It was already here. Keeper Greisser was about to enter his worst, and his finest, hour.
At 2:20 p.m. that afternoon, during what came to be known as the Great Gale of Nov. 21, 1900, the tower lookout saw disaster begin to unfold. Three miles away, at the other end of the outer harbor, two scows with men aboard broke from their moorings and began drifting toward the line of heavy surf.
Within minutes of the alarm, Greisser and his crew had the station lifeboat in the water and six strong backs bent to the oars. The captain of the steam tug Mason saw the action, and pulled alongside to pick up the lifeboat as a tow. Greisser quickly had the lines fastened, and the rescuers headed into the dangerous storm.
With years of experience in the worst of conditions, Greisser was as expert a small-boat handler as they come. And he had a plan: He signaled the Mason to drop his boat three-quarters of a mile from the surf engulfing the scows, so he could drop an anchor and ease his craft into the surf line and toward the scows.
His plan went terribly wrong.
The anchor failed to bite into the hard-packed lake bottom, dragging along as the gale drove the lifeboat into the heaviest of the breakers, burying it in lake water. Two huge waves slammed the lifeboat, driving it even deeper into the surf. A third wave lifted the bow, snapped the anchor hawser and flipped the boat end over end toward the beach.
All but one of the men were thrown into the water, but managed to fight their way through a quarter mile of churning seas. The scows grounded on the beach, too, and their crews jumped to safety – all but one sailor, who had been washed overboard and lost in the surf.
He wasn’t lost for long. A cry from the onlookers gathering on the beach alerted the battered lifesaving crew to a figure seen clinging desperately to an old timber in a group of pilings a third of a mile down the beach, about 400 to 500 feet from shore. Waves were breaking completely over him, and he couldn’t hold out for long.
The crew started down the shore, but a passing Lehigh Valley train slowed and the engineer offered to speed them to the scene. Once there, Greisser tied a line to his arm and signaled Surfman Greenland to swim with him to the man’s aid. Dismayed onlookers told them not to make the attempt; Greisser, as Secretary of the Treasury Lyman J. Gage later noted, simply said “Wait until we try; he cannot come to us, we will try to go to him.”
Waves quickly threw both men back onto the beach, but they started out again. Fifty yards from shore, a heavy comber threw Greenland against a piling, seriously injuring him, and then swept him to the land. Greisser swam on alone.
It took him 15 minutes of hard swimming and being swept shoreward to reach some pilings 70 yards from the beach. He caught his breath and then set out again, often being swept 100 to 200 feet backward by the breakers. A floating telephone pole swept over him two or three times, injuring his back. He started diving beneath the waves and letting the undertow carry him out; finally, he got close enough to throw the drowning sailor the end of his lifeline.
The sailor had strength enough to tie the line to his wrist, and in the process waves tangled the line among the pilings and washed Greisser a hundred feet away. His own strength ebbing, Greisser said that for the first time he entertained “a doubt” that he would be able to make this rescue.
“The imperiled man was begging piteously for you to save him and crying out that he could hold on but a few moments longer,” the secretary noted in his subsequent Gold Lifesaving Medal citation. “To the people on shore it seemed as though both of you must certainly perish.”
But Greisser tried again, and after 15 minutes reached the man and cleared the snarl. The sailor let go, and willing hands ashore pulled him through the surf to the beach, where he was picked up unconscious. Greisser swam for it; when he reached the beach he was unable to stand, and had to be lifted by the crowd that now lined the beach. The lake would claim no lives here, that day.
Hundreds witnessed the rescue. The secretary marveled, “it would seem incredible but for indisputable evidence that you performed the marvelous feat, which was, indeed, effected only at the extreme peril of your life.”
Greisser is long gone; so is the station he commanded, and the grand new one that was built just two years later on Lighthouse Point at the mouth of the Buffalo River. His legacy continues, of course; a dozen years after the new station was built, and after Keeper Greisser had transferred back to his native Ohio and earned more praise for his work during extensive river flooding, the U.S. Lifesaving Service was merged into the Coast Guard. There’s still a rescue station on Lighthouse Point, and the Coast Guard still honors its unofficial motto: “You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.”
Coast Guard Sector Buffalo recently divided its base, carving off part of Lighthouse Point as parkland focused on the city’s historic 1833 lighthouse. The Buffalo Lighthouse Association, in addition to restoring the tower, years ago installed about $20,000 worth of interpretive signage on the point as part of its $600,000 worth of work since 1985.
And the not-for-profit organization now sees another opportunity – a chance to combine a long-held dream of a lighthouse visitor center with a building project that could put that facility in a replica of the large station and boathouse, with its own lookout tower and carved Lifesaving Service emblem. Rebuilding one of only two stations ever built in what is termed the service’s “Old Chicago Style” is seen as a way to create a tourist attraction that honors both sister services and their modern-day equivalent, the Coast Guard.
It’s a distant dream. The organization first must tackle a major $120,000 lighthouse lens conservation project this year, and the federal government is turning over the deed to the South Buffalo Lighthouse as the prelude to an $850,000 restoration and reuse project at the other end of the harbor. Land issue solutions and some $2 million to $3 million in fundraising for a visitor center will have to wait.
But long-range planning already is under way, along with more historical research on the station. Lighthouse Association board members believe it would be a perfect fit and an architecturally interesting tribute to the legacy of altruistic service at Lighthouse Point. Already, $100,000 has been pledged toward future exhibit development.
As a visitor center, the replicated station would be a place to tell stories of courage, service and sacrifice. Greisser’s rescue stands out, but the Lifesaving Service’s annual reports detail many others.
In mid-August 1895, for instance, a saloon-keeper, his bartender and another employee closed their tavern at midnight and thought the time perfect for a bath in the lake. They took a boat from Coit’s Slip near the river mouth, leaving behind most of their clothing, and headed into the harbor.
At about 2 a.m., after an initial swim, they decided to head out even farther. When two of the men tried to change places in the skiff, it overturned. Two of the men went straight to the bottom; the only survivor caught hold of the capsized vessel and began shouting for help.
Surfman Adam Dickey was nearing the lighthouse on patrol when the cries came out of the pitch-black night. He pulled the alarm, shed his own clothing and dove into the harbor. Guided by the fading calls for help, he reached the skiff after a 100-yard swim, secured the victim to the vessel and spent five minutes searching for the others until the station keeper and another surfman arrived in another skiff to complete the rescue. On the way back they landed Dickey on the pier, so he could retrieve his clothing and complete his patrol.
The worst loss of life in the entire Service that year occurred here just two days later, when the small steam yacht Rung Brothers got caught in a sudden change of weather and went down just off the harbor entrance.
Chartered for a pleasure cruise on the Niagara River, the boat had landed three passengers at Ferry Street but was attempting to return with the rest of the party when it was caught broadside by building waves. It filled with water and almost immediately went to the bottom. The three-man crew and three passengers were thrown into the water, but six others who had sought shelter in the vessel’s small cabin were trapped and drowned.
The sinking was witnessed by a patrolling surfman, and two other surfmen – out in a skiff dragging for the bodies of the drowning victims of two nights before – headed immediately to the rescue. They got there even before the station boat, which reached the scene in less than 10 minutes. The lifesavers rescued two men, and a harbor tug retrieved four others.
Station No. 5, established in 1876 as one of the first of the service’s Great Lakes stations, originally occupied a building that had been used by the city’s Volunteer Lifesaving Corps. The crew’s work was seasonal, and included lots of practices and drills – drills that would be showcased at a temporary station and “wreck” installed in Delaware Park’s lake for the Pan-American Exposition of 1901.
The more elaborate station was built in 1903, along the pier opposite what is now the Erie Basin Marina. Half the $40,000 cost went into building seawalls and creating land for the station’s foundation. The new station continued well into the Coast Guard years, under keepers lenient and strict; at one point, embittered surfmen called the place “Alcatraz in camouflage.”
The station was demolished in the 1950s. All that remains is rubble marking the point where boat slips once sloped through the pier and into the river. The station site itself now is a parking lot.
That could change, in the future. The stories remain, and the fabric of history can be rebuilt. Perhaps time, once the station’s enemy, will make its rebirth a reality – and extend yet another lifeline to Buffalo’s rich maritime heritage.
Mike Vogel, a retired Buffalo News reporter and editor, heads the Buffalo Lighthouse Association and has won national honors for lighthouse preservation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.