Surfing the rolling waves with a stiff wind at our backs, the novice crew anxiously trimmed the sails as we headed past the breakwater into the safety of Buffalo Harbor. Captain Ed Quinlan of the Seven Seas Sailing School barked a command to trim the jib, and after complimenting my wide-eyed sister on the helm, leaned against the stern and turned to the rest of us.
“Now that,” he said with a broad grin, “was sailing. You looked like old hands out there. Lake Erie can be a challenge, but you did well.”
After the wild ride in the open lake, the crew – a little green from the pounding of the waves – breathed a sigh of relief and smiled with pride at having bested the turbulent lake and returned to the safe haven.
“Now try and imagine,” said Captain Ed, pointing toward the lighthouse, “what it must have been like out in the lake when the seiche crashed over Kelly’s Island and washed away most of Buffalo. Ships went down or were washed ashore in that storm and nobody knows how many souls were lost.”
I had never heard of a seiche, an inland tsunami, before, and found it hard to believe that one had struck Buffalo. I started an Internet search as soon as I reached home and came across an excellent article by Jerry Malloy of the Buffalo History Gazette. I was hooked. I delved into maritime accounts, archived newspaper articles and personal journals to find out more.
A local news station recently had a report on the seiche that took place on Dec. 26, 2012, and posted striking pictures of the exposed lake bottom. A seiche is fairly common on Lake Erie, but the one that occurred on Oct. 21 and 22, 1844, was of epic proportions. A gale pushed the waters of Lake Erie to Cleveland and then the winds reversed and the waters came rushing back with devastating impact.
During my research, I came upon more and more fascinating details of Buffalo and Western New York history. I read journals, newspaper clippings and regimental accounts of the Niagara campaign of the War of 1812. One find led to another and a picture of life on the Niagara Frontier, filled with hardship and danger, emerged.
In the brief period from 1812 through 1844, Buffalo grew from a tiny village to the Queen City of the Lakes. Settlers carved out homes in the wilderness, fought a war, watched their homes burned in retaliation for the burning of present day Niagara-on-the-Lake, survived a global crop failure from the Red Sun brought on by volcanic eruptions a world away, dug the Erie Canal, suffered through cholera epidemics, caused the bank failures that led to the Panic of 1837 and finally were inundated by the waters of Lake Erie.
Buffalo became a center of trade, industry, crime and expansionism. While some made millions, most labored under cruel conditions to merely survive. Our history is replete with tales of heroism and cowardice, compassion and cruelty, creativity and ignorance, generosity and greed.
Three years later, I now teach sailing alongside Captain Ed at Seven Seas, opening the waterfront to others, and because of an idle remark on an exhilarating sail, have published the historical novel, “Da’s Shillelagh – A Tale of the Irish on the Niagara Frontier.”
I am indebted to all the Buffalo boosters helping us preserve and enjoy our rich heritage.
Timothy Shannon, retired principal of Alden High School, has just published his sixth novel.