Why would anyone take a Buffalo River silo cruise? I grew up in Buffalo New York and this was the first thought that came to my mind when I returned to the Queen City for a short city break. When I was a kid, the Buffalo River was no man's land; an area of forgotten history between Downtown Buffalo and Lackawanna. Today, with the Canalside Buffalo revitalization, the silos along the Buffalo River provide a unique opportunity to explore and reflect on the rise, fall, and rise again of Buffalo, New York. Join me on a Buffalo River History Tour through the silos and grain elevators of Buffalo's past.
Casting Off from Canalside in Downtown Buffalo
Buffalo River History Tours depart from Canalside in Downtown Buffalo. When I was a teenager in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this area of downtown Buffalo was largely derelict. It was exciting to see locals out for a walk or a bite to eat and drink in the shadow of the Skyway. We boarded a double-decker catamaran and cast off from Canalside onto the Buffalo River.
Buffalo's Forgotten Silos and Grain Elevators
Motoring along the Buffalo River on a 90 minute narrated tour ($21 USD per person at the time of writing), we saw the hulks of Buffalo history on either side. At the turn of the 20th century, Buffalo was a hub for grain shipments and brewing. As the Western terminus of the Erie Canal and the Eastern terminus of the Great Lakes, Buffalo was a hub of commerce. The Great Depression, Prohibition, and improvements in alternative transportation routes meant that there was soon a decline and the once mighty silos and grain elevators along the Buffalo River fell into disuse.
Still, there is beauty in this urban decay along the Buffalo River.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Buffalo is sits in a part of the U.S. known as the Rust Belt. Once considered in decline, Rust Belt cities are undergoing a renaissance. Consider Pittsburgh where you'll find great coffee, lots of fun things to do like taking a photowalk in the Mexican War Streets neighborhood, birdwatching at the National Aviary, and energizing walks around CMU and Pitt university campuses.
A Gold Medal Experience on the Buffalo River
The industry along the Buffalo River isn't all abandoned. We learned on our Buffalo River History Tour that General Mills still operates in the area. The Gold Medal Flour silo is visible from Canalside and is framed by the Buffalo Skyway.
A Whiff of Lucky Charms from General Mills
On our Buffalo River Silo Cruise, we also caught a whiff of something baking which had a decidedly fruity air. Our tour guide remarked that you can often smell Cheerios baking all around Downtown Buffalo. I'm pretty sure that General Mills was baking Lucky Charms when we visited which would explain the sweet fruity smell.
Regeneration at Buffalo RiverWorks
Our Buffalo River History tour took us past another Downtown Buffalo waterfront revitalization project: Buffalo RiverWorks. This sports, music, and entertainment complex is unmistakable. Just look for the bright Labatt's Blue logo painted on the silos.
A Tight Squeeze Under the Bridges Along the Buffalo River
The Buffalo River is dotted with old-fashioned bridges that can be raised and lowered. The bridges themselves are in varying stages of disrepair and reliability. This is one factor that all the Buffalo River cruises need to contend with.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Cleveland is another Rust Belt city that has developed a great food and craft beer scene. Spend one day in Cleveland and you won't be disappointed.
The day that we visited, one of the bridges wasn't working at all. We were instructed by our Buffalo River History Tour guide to vacate the upper deck of the boat and go below while we cleared the bridge.
The tour is actually bounded by an old railroad bridge that is no longer functional and that the Buffalo River cruise ship simply can't clear.
See the Former Bell of the Ball
On our Buffalo silo boat tour, we spotted the century old SS Columbia, the oldest remaining excursion steamship in the U.S. Up until 1979, the SS Columbia plied the Detroit River. The ship was moved to the Buffalo River for restoration work. The SS Columbia blends right in with the ruined grain silos on the Buffalo River.
Buffalo River Cruise or Kayak?
We opted to take a boat tour of the Buffalo River but apparently there is a more personal way to see Buffalo's forgotten silos. Bright orange red kayaks paddled quietly past the grain elevators from Buffalo's heyday.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other great cities to visit in the U.S. midwest? Make time for a trip to Chicago for amazing architecture, fantastic food, and a colorful history.
The Buffalo River Is Irresistible to Urban Adventurers
While cruising, we also discovered that the silos on the Buffalo River are irresistible to urban explorers. We saw people hiking among the ruins of the silos and grain elevators along the waterfront.
Several hikers waved at our boat as we glided past.
Clearly these visits to the abandoned grain elevators in Buffalo are unsanctioned and not super-safe. Still, I can see the allure. I'm glad we were able to view the silos from a safe distance aboard our Buffalo River History Tour.
Views of Downtown Buffalo
Aside from the chance to reconnect with Queen City history, a Buffalo River cruise offers fantastic skyline views. In a single view, you can see the rise, fall, and rise again of Downtown Buffalo. For more on the historic architecture in Western New York, check out this post about our whirlwind walking tour through downtown Buffalo.
Cruise to Buffalo Main Light
Our Buffalo River History Tour took us all the way up the river to the mouth of Lake Erie and we caught a glimpse of Buffalo Main Light. Once again, this highlighted Buffalo's important position as a nexus of shipping and commerce in the 19th and early 20th century. There are a number of lighthouses dotting lake Erie including Barcelona Lighthouse in Westfield NY which is located less than an hour south of downtown Buffalo.
Return to Canalside
Before we knew it, our 90 minute Buffalo River History Tour was wrapping up and we made our way back to Canalside to disembark.
Buffalo is my hometown but I haven't been back in years. I really appreciated the opportunity to explore Buffalo's history and revitalization with a Buffalo River silo cruise.
If all that history made you hungry, make sure to check out my round-up of the best things to eat and drink in Buffalo.