CAPTAIN WESSEL WHITTAKER was from Buffalo. The man knew a good waterfront when he saw one.
The one he fell in love with, the one he believed he could build into a lakeside mecca and transform into America's next major port, he found because of a fluke.
In 1834, Captain Whittaker set sail from Buffalo, N.Y., en route to Chicago, a tiny, new city on the edge of Lake Michigan. He never made it to his final destination. A violent storm crossed his path, sending him scrambling toward the opposite coast.
Washed along the empty shores of the Great Lakes, Captain Whittaker and his crew marched toward civilization. Along the way, something caught the captain's attention. The Galien River. It ran right into the southeastern tip of Lake Michigan's waterfront. The intersection of the river and the lake looked like a perfect place for a harbor. There was so much land here, so much water, and the view was stunning. He could build a dynasty here.
Captain Whittaker believed this dynasty could be identical to his hometown. Perhaps it could become an even more impressive replica of Buffalo, which was creating its own momentum as a booming commercial hub on the Erie Canal. With this in mind, Captain Whittaker immediately began plotting his new city. He went back to Western New York with a blueprint, recruited a few of his friends to help, and returned to this shore on Lake Michigan in 1835.
But Captain Whittaker didn't forget his Buffalo roots. He would always be from Buffalo; he just wanted to make a new Buffalo.
So he named his city New Buffalo.
Officially established: 1836.
Two centuries later, New Buffalo, Mich., still stands. It has endured numerous brinks with economic ruin, and for 178 years, it has watched idly as Chicago, its neighbor seventy miles to the west, has grown from a town of 350 people into one of the most influential cities in North America.
New Buffalo was never supposed to be Chicago, though. It was supposed to be Buffalo.
And, strangely enough, if you look hard at New Buffalo, even all these years later, you'll still see remnants of the Queen City.
Only a glimmer of sunlight remains over Lake Michigan on the New Buffalo beach, which means one thing for the Chicago suburbanites on this July night: time to retreat for the evening. From Libertyville, Naperville, Wheaton and Arlington Heights, the summer vacationers flock here to escape the monotony of the Windy City burbs. New Buffalo Township's population technically hovers around two or three thousand, but during the summer, that number just about doubles. Located on the southern border of Michigan, near the intersection of the Illinois and Indiana state lines, New Buffalo provides the perfect getaway location for city slickers.
When the tourists need a break from the beach, they stroll toward Whittaker Street, the central road through downtown New Buffalo. They shop at the Whittaker House and stay in the Whittaker Suites. They tee up at the Whittaker Woods Golf Club. They buy their necessities at the New Buffalo Pharmacy, situated on the corner of Buffalo Street and Whittaker Street. In a peaceful, forested area, off the grid from downtown, there is a short road, no longer than one hundred yards in length, named Elmwood Drive. Like our Buffalo, the City of New Buffalo also has a Clinton Street and an Eagle Street near its downtown, not to mention a Ridge Road, a North Drive and a Jefferson Street.
The church on Buffalo Street in New Buffalo is named St. Mary of the Lake. We have one of those in Hamburg, too, and it might not be an accident, because Hamburg is where Captain Whittaker grew up.
Some of the restaurants in New Buffalo call their chicken wings "New Buffalo wings." The Liberty Hound is the restaurant on Buffalo's waterfront. The Stray Dog is the restaurant on New Buffalo's waterfront.
In Buffalo, the Niagara River intersects with Lake Erie. In New Buffalo, the Galien River intersects with Lake Michigan.
The coincidences are subtle. But they are impossible to miss, and they are a rare, two-century-old connection between two cities that appear at first to have little to nothing in common anymore. To even reach New Buffalo, Mich., from Buffalo, N.Y., a driver needs to travel 474 miles, navigating through five states, three toll roads and a never-ending stream of rest stops, gas stations and rural flyover communities.
In Wessel Whittaker's days, it may have taken weeks to arrive in Buffalo from New Buffalo. But these days, it's about an eight-hour drive. They call New Buffalo the "Gateway to Michigan," because it's located off Exit 1 on Interstate 94.
Two centuries ago, Bonnie Kliss' ancestors made a slightly longer commute to New Buffalo. They came from Germany in 1835, and, like Captain Whittaker, they didn't intend to stay in New Buffalo. As Kliss tells it, her ancestors had set their sights on Milwaukee, but while crossing the Atlantic on the first leg of their trip, they'd also endured a nasty storm. When somebody told them they had to take another boat across Lake Michigan to get to Milwaukee, they wanted no part of it. So they stayed.
Kliss is glad they did. She grew up in New Buffalo, and she has spent her whole life studying her New Buffalo roots. As the bookkeeper of the New Buffalo Township Library, there is probably nobody in this town who knows this place better.
"The old-timers, the people who were here a long time ago, most of them are long gone now. It's only us descendants," Kliss said. "If you don't keep the history alive, nobody's going to know about it."
Kliss has read and re-read just about everything ever written about Captain Wessel Whittaker. The library even carries a copy of "The New Buffalo Story," published years ago as a way to preserve the town history. Drawing on first-hand accounts and information from the Berrien County history book, it describes Whittaker's storm; his dream; and the new beginnings of a town created by Buffalonians.
"There's probably all kinds of people here descended from Buffalo, New York," Kliss said. "Maybe even more than we know."
At the very least, the road names descended from our Buffalo. The name "Whittaker" is everywhere. There's also a Willard Street and a Barker Street, named after Nelson Willard and Jacob Barker, two Buffalonians who bought interest on the property back in 1834 for the small price of $13,000.
"Basically, the streets were named after the people who came," Kliss said. "All the people who came with Whittaker, certainly they must have had family, too. That's the way it was. You had relatives, and you went wherever your relatives were."
But the Buffalo pipeline did not last long in New Buffalo. A year after the establishment of the village in 1836, the Panic of 1837 decimated the community. Suddenly, Whittaker and his partners couldn't sell the land. According to the book Harbor Country, only 123 people lived in New Buffalo by 1840. Whittaker died in 1841 without any money. And by 1842, the population had dwindled to two families.
The railroad offered New Buffalo's only chance at redemption. The Michigan Central Railroad Company created a terminus in New Buffalo, meaning people could stop here before hopping on a boat to Chicago across Lake Michigan. It pumped new life into the community. The remnants of the booming railroad industry remain to this day, over near the famous New Buffalo Railroad Museum. A rusty sign hangs over the tracks, printed in bold letters: "SAFETY TODAY: YOUR INVESTMENT FOR TOMORROW."
By 1853, however, the railroad company created a track to Chicago. People didn't need to stop in New Buffalo anymore. Chicago became Chicago, and New Buffalo remained New Buffalo.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. A number of locally-owned shops have carved a niche for themselves in downtown New Buffalo, and new condominiums constantly seem to pop up all over the place. One website has dubbed New Buffalo as "The Hamptons" for Chicago.
Tom Jennings, a lifelong native of Berrien County and the owner of the restaurant Casey's New Buffalo, jokingly describes the city as essentially a distant suburb of Chicago, because that's where all the vacationers seem to come from.
"Without the suburbs of Chicago," Jennings said, "none of the restaurants here would survive."
It has to feel a tad ironic that, 180 years after Wessel Whittaker created New Buffalo as a rival to the Windy City, his city's economy now depends on Chicagoans.
Still, some people just get hooked on New Buffalo once they get here.
"There are some people who've migrated here and live here full-time now, and absolutely love it," Kliss said. "A lot of them just wanted to get out of the city. They didn't want to live in Chicago."
Many of the vacationers in New Buffalo appeared both bewildered and fascinated by the Captain Whittaker story, but not all the people who live here are oblivious to the Buffalo roots. Charles Burke, a Chicago native, has spent his summers in this area for the past 56 years. He and his wife have even made the permanent move now to nearby Lakeside, Mich.
Burke knew the Wessel Whittaker story. Or, part of it, at least.
"He founded New Buffalo," Burke said. "He must have been from Buffalo!"
These days, the link between New Buffalo and old Buffalo is vague, and, realistically, somewhat forgotten.
"I don't think anybody really puts that connection anymore. You know, that we're named after Buffalo, New York," Kliss said. "In fact, I don't know how many people really know that."
But haven't you heard? "There's Always a Buffalo Connection." Even in a town hundreds of miles away, hundreds of years removed from Buffalo's original influence, there are small, eerie coincidences all over New Buffalo.
Take James O'Neill, who brings his wife and two kids to New Buffalo each summer from the Chicago suburb of Woodridge. His mom's best friend lives in Buffalo. More importantly, for the past 25 years, he's rooted for the Buffalo Bills, and not just in a casual, hope-they-win kind of way. At the very first mention of "Buffalo," O'Neill's wife and kids just about jumped out of their skin—Buffalo? You have got to meet my husband, she said.
"Just started following football back then, and I picked the Bills, so ever since, that's what I've been doing," O'Neill said. "They are everything."
His five-year-old daughter can even sing "Shout!" The Bills run in the family now, even though his four-year-old son tragically admitted that he likes soccer better. Naturally, there's a good chance the O'Neill family will be at Soldier Field in September, when the Chicago Bears open the regular season at home against the Buffalo Bills.
"I'm just hoping we have a good year," O'Neill said. "We're due."
There are even more direct connections to Buffalo. Charles Burke's family lives in Tonawanda. His sister used to live in Lakeview.
"I thought Buffalo was a very nice place," Burke said. "More like a Midwestern city."
Burke has visited Buffalo on numerous occasions. Unfortunately, he's traveled to Buffalo at the wrong time before: during the winter.
"I got snowed in there once for five days," Burke said. "It's coming from Canada. You oughta tell the Canadians to stop that snow."
Buffalo, N.Y., can still be quite foreign to some people in southern Michigan. At the Casey's New Buffalo restaurant, Jennings said the only Buffalo connection he can remember is the one time he knew a Bills fan.
"We've had customers from all over the country," Jennings said, "but never from Buffalo."
At The Stray Dog, the New Buffalo waterfront restaurant with a strangely similar name to The Liberty Hound in Buffalo, manager Joey DiMaggio said his only link to Buffalo comes from the confused callers who make Google search errors and think they've stumbled across a Western New York delicacy. To New Buffalo, it's kind of like their version of every Buffalonian's favorite question: "How Close Do You Live to New York City?"
"They're trying to Google 'Stray Dog New Buffalo,' and they forget the 'new,'" DiMaggio said. "Buffalo, New York, is obviously the first thing that comes up."
Martin Lukaszewski, who currently lives permanently in Minneapolis but grew up in nearby South Bend and once briefly lived in southern Michigan, feels a distant connection to Buffalo because of the connection to his heritage.
"There are a lot of Polish people there, and I know they do an excellent Dingus Day celebration there," Lukaszewski said. "And being Polish, we do Dingus Day in this neck of the woods, too."
Of course, even our friends in New Buffalo can't resist a good jab at our weather.
"We don't want winters like Buffalo, New York," Burke said.
"Here in this area, when they talk about Buffalo, New York, it's usually with, 'well, we get Lake Effect snow, just like Buffalo," Lukaszewski said. "We get the same thing."
It's not like they've never seen snow in Michigan, though.
"Last winter, we had a bad winter. We probably had as bad a winter as you guys," said Kliss, who, upon being informed that Buffalo experienced two blizzards this winter, still wasn't fazed. "We had more snow if you go back into the '60s and '70s. A heck of a lot more snow than we have these days."
Maybe we have more in common than we thought.
"I love it. We're the New Buffalo," Jennings said. "We're like your sister city."
According to the history books, the First Methodist Church on Whittaker Street is the "oldest house of worship" in New Buffalo. It was built in either 1861 or 1862; nobody knows for sure.
There are still original structures from that time period, but not many.
"It's nothing like it was when I grew up here as a child," Kliss said. "That's certain. It's changed over the years. We used to have brick streets; now everything is paved. Everything is more modern, but that goes with the times."
After a tumultuous wave of highs and lows throughout the 19th and 20th century, New Buffalo finally revitalized its harbor in the mid-seventies. As Harbor Country describes, the creation of Interstate 94 in 1970 also drew a new wave of visitors to New Buffalo. The book describes this town as "the commercial center of Harbor Country's resorts."
"Economically, I think everything has been running pretty steady," Kliss said. "The businesses we have along Main Street are pretty stable. They've been there for several years now."
The recession hurt, of course, but New Buffalo doesn't have a Rust Belt story or a saga of closed steel mills.
The tale of New Buffalo starts with Captain Wessel Whittaker of Buffalo, New York. It continues through the story of a violent storm on the water, a big imagination on the shores of Lake Michigan and an ambitious plan to re-create the Queen City. Ultimately, the tale ends with the comparison to that city to the west, and that feeling of what-could-have-been, had the Panic of 1837 never happened, or if the Michigan Central Railroad Company had just never built that railroad line to Chicago.
There must be a reason, though, that all those people come from Chicago to New Buffalo during the summer months. It could be the nightlife of downtown New Buffalo, the quaint shops on Whittaker Street, the slow pace of vacation life or the nostalgic ice cream stands.
Or, maybe, they just come for that stunning view of Lake Michigan from the beach of New Buffalo.
That's why Wessel Whittaker fell in love with this place.
"It may not be exactly what Wessel Whittaker had in mind when he stumbled on the mouth of the Galien 170 years ago," reads the passage in Harbor Country, "but New Buffalo has ultimately become a thriving, well-known community."
No, it's not Buffalo.
It's New Buffalo, and it has its own backstory.
"You need to learn your heritage and know what happened here, if you're going to live here," Kliss said. "I'm proud of it."
Special thanks to the New Buffalo Township Library for providing WGRZ-TV with access to "The New Buffalo Story," as well as accounts from Berrien County history books and other literature.