BUFFALO, N.Y. — History is all around us, in many cases you simply have to follow the signs, street signs that is. Angela Keppel is an urban planner who has created a website dedicated to the history and background of Buffalo street names.
Some street names are obvious. On Court Street is the old U.S. Court building. On Church Street is St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, you get the idea.
What about College Street in Buffalo's Allentown neighborhood? Where is the college on College Street?
Keppel says to find that we have to go back nearly two centuries, to 1836. College Street was supposed to be the westernmost border of The University of Western New York... and it was supposed to stretch all the way over to beyond Delaware Avenue. About one-third of Allentown would have been this large college campus.
This new center of higher learning was chartered by New York State on April 8, 1836. Keppel says they had some grand ideas. "They were looking to build a school that would rival Harvard or Yale." Cynthia Van Ness of the Buffalo history Museum adds, "They thought they would be rivaling institutions in Europe with this university, so they were definitely thinking big and had a lot of energy and excitement for the cause."
They had reason to be excited. Buffalo was incorporated four years before and growing fast after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. In short, Buffalo was booming! Keppel says, "The board of directors was a who's who of Buffalo." Among the board members for the university were the city's first and third mayor, Ebenezer Johnson, the city's fourth mayor, Hiram Pratt, the 5th mayor Samuel Wilkeson, war hero Peter Porter, and the inventor of the machine-powered grain elevator Joseph Dart. It was quite the impressive list.
Even though it was chartered, they never built a single building. They had one year of classes by most accounts. Those early classes were held in a building on what is now called St. Louis Place. It had originally been built in 1828 by the Buffalo High School Association as the site for the Buffalo High School. After the University failed, it soon became the first Sister's Hospital. In fact the building still stands today near Virginia Street and North Pearl Street.
So what happened? In 1836, there was a lot of optimism, new construction and high hopes for the growing city. That turned around quickly because of two incidents. First, one of the biggest power brokers in early Buffalo, Benjamin Rathbun, went to jail for passing worthless bank notes, putting about 10 percent of the population out of work. And then there was the financial panic of 1837 which affected the entire country.
Plans for the new university stopped. Nine years later another school was formed, and this one stuck around, The University at Buffalo.
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