During my years at Daemen College, I taught a course on urban America, using Buffalo’s history as a model for America’s growing cities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Among the greats who shaped our city was Samuel Wilkeson, famous for winning the western port of the Erie Canal in Buffalo Village.
The Wilkeson story helped me to rouse my sleepy students, ending with his tombstone in Forest Lawn, engraved with the words “Urbem Condidit” (He built the city). But when the book, “Forest Lawn Cemetery,” was published in 1996, I was stunned to discover that Wilkeson, who would later become mayor, was missing from Buffalo’s prominent biographies. Nor was he listed in the cemetery’s brochure for tourists. He died two years before the cemetery opened.
Had I misled my students with a fairy tale regarding Wilkeson’s gravestone in Forest Lawn?
Judge Wilkeson’s claim to fame is due to his leadership when Buffalo Village challenged Black Rock to win the western Erie Canal port. The struggle was daunting. Black Rock already had a harbor on the Niagara River, while Buffalo Creek was blocked from Lake Erie by a flowing sandbar at the mouth. Rolling up his sleeves, Wilkeson put his wealth at risk for a loan to finance the project, promised extra wages to keep the workers going on rainy days and engineered the project himself.
His strategy was to build a pier 800 feet into Lake Erie, then dam the mouth of Buffalo Creek, forcing it 350 yards to the south, along the pier, to form a deeper mouth. While racing to beat Black Rock, rain storms drenched the village, threatening the dam. In response, the villagers worked day and night by torchlight, forcing the raging currents to gouge a new channel opening the creek to the lake.
After 221 working days, their work was finished. But Black Rock was still in the race, with a handsome financial boost from Albany to improve its harbor. But then Mother Nature favored Buffalo, when fierce ice and wind damaged Black Rock’s harbor in the winter of 1824-1825. Moreover, engineers discovered that Buffalo’s water was higher than its rival’s, saving money from expensive excavations en route to Lockport. In late October, the canal was open for business.
No single event in the city’s history “has had as much impact on Buffalo as the opening of the canal,” according to writers Michael Vogel and Paul Redding. And Wilkeson, stubborn and ingenious, was the leader who made it happen.
Burdened by doubts about Wilkeson’s gravestone, I had to visit the cemetery to determine whether his tomb was really there. I scoured the family plot, but came up empty. Disillusioned, I took one more glance up the hill as I was leaving and found the “holy grail”: “Urbem Condidit” was engraved on the side, and on the front: “Samuel Wilkeson; Born at Carlisle, Pa.; June 1, 1781; Died at Kingston, Tenn.; July 7, 1848.”
Excited, I hustled back to the office, shared my discovery with the assistant and urged him, without success, to promote the Wilkeson story through tours. However, people visiting Canalside can catch a glimpse of his achievement on the historical tablet, near the restored channel.
Within 12 years, Buffalo had resurrected from the smoldering ruins left by the War of 1812 to a booming hub linking the thriving cities in the East to the growing prairies in the West. Wilkeson’s story should be an inspiration today for our struggle to revive our battered economy.