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Pan-American Exposition of 1901

The Irish Community of Buffalo and the Pan-American Exposition

By 1901, there was a well-established Irish community living and working in Buffalo, for the Irish, like the Germans, were among the earliest of Buffalo's settlers. Most of the city's Irish emigrated from their home country in response to the Irish Famine, and arrived in Buffalo during a period when the city was rapidly growing as a grain port. As the century progressed, Buffalo would become a major transportation hub for shipping and rail and a center of heavy industry. Both the German and Irish immigrants played major roles in the city's growth. However, while the Germans became part of Buffalo's political and economic mainstream, the Irish were somewhat socially isolated by century's end, in part because they maintained a much stronger ethnic identity, with emphasis on family ties, Ireland and the Catholic church.

The Irish were an integral part of the labor force during the periods of Buffalo's heaviest growth. It is difficult to say with any certainty, however, exactly what role the Irish as a group, may have played in the Pan-American Exposition. With the exception of a few diocese-supported publications, there were no ethnic Irish newspapers to refer to1, and personal accounts have been difficult to obtain. Nonetheless, there is ample evidence allowing us to speculate as to just what role Buffalo's Irish community played in the construction and operation of the Exposition.

The First Ward

Bishop John Timon

Bishop John Timon. Image credit: The Sage Sons & Co. Lithograph Co., Buffalo, N.Y. n.d. Source: Charles G. Deuther. The Life and Times of the Rt. Rev. John Timon, D.D., First Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo. Buffalo, N.Y. : Charles G. Deuther, 1870. Frontispiece.

While it is estimated that there may have been as few at 400 Irish-born in Buffalo in the early 1830's2, within 20 years, the population had grown to over ten thousand. Most were Catholic and arrived in the years following the Great Irish Famine. They settled primarily in the First Ward, a low-lying area south of the city's central business district near the waterfront, which was lined with grain elevators, warehouses and factories. Buffalo's first Roman Catholic Bishop, Fr. John Timon, organized the St. Vincent de Paul Society to aid those immigrants escaping the famine and established St. Brigid's Roman Catholic Church in response. The church became the spiritual and social center of the First Ward and while originally home to families of numerous ethnicities, by 1880, 70% of the ward's population was Irish.3

In the early periods of settlement, most of Buffalo's Irish were unskilled or semiskilled laborers who worked in the regions immediately adjacent to the First Ward—as longshoremen, at the nearby Buffalo Union Furnace, and on the railroads. Because of the First Ward's proximity to the numerous grain elevators that lined the Buffalo River, the city's "grain-scoopers" were predominantly Irish. William Jenkins writes,

[Eastern elevator, Buffalo, N.Y.]

[Eastern elevator, Buffalo, N.Y.]

The milieu of the First Ward was akin to a small industrial town where, rather than the Satanic mill, the Irish lived in the shadow of the grain elevator. Many Irish immigrant livelihoods depended on the latter building, developed by Joseph Dart in 1842.4

Scooping was seasonal work, dependent upon the traffic of shipping on the Great Lakes and Erie canal. During the winter Irish laborers often took work on the railroads or as workers in other capacities such as digging canals and warehouse slips and repairing Buffalo's sea walls.5 Indeed, by 1900, the railroads were employing a significant number of Buffalo's Irish, as were the foundries, mills and factories. But "scooping" was a job that became almost exclusively associated with the Irish and one of the more pivotal events in the history of the Buffalo involved this group of laborers at a time when the city was planning for the 1901 Pan-American Exposition.

The Great Strike of 1899

Bishop James Quigley

In the spring of 1899, while Buffalo leaders were engaged in planning the Pan-American Exposition to be held 2 years later, scoopers, freight handlers and other dock workers on the city's waterfront went on strike, bringing Great Lakes commercial transport to a standstill. The scoopers were not protesting against the lake shipping companies or local industrialists, rather, their complaints were waged against the freight contractors—fellow Irish saloon bosses common in the First Ward, who held exclusive contracts with the elevators and shipping companies to control the labor supply. William Connors, in particular, was the grain contractor against whom this strike was directed. He was an Irish saloon-keeper who "contracted with shipping companies to unload grain from ships in Buffalo's harbor, and then in turn signed on men to do work. This arrangement was highly profitable for Connors, but also highly exploitative, since the men worked on a day-by-day basis with no job security, and Connors picked the men who spent the most money in his saloon to perform the labor."6

The strike created a volatile environment and could easily have lead to violence between the strikers and the Connors camp. Despite their notoriety for anti-labor crackdowns, police and City officials exhibited restraint, although both Connors and the scoopers accused them of favoritism. The police did not support Connor's attempts to bring in scab labor and "Democratic Mayor Conrad Diehl, finding himself in an awkward position, took no public stand. The Common Council, according to its printed proceedings, did not discuss the strike..."7 and the administration's overall apathy toward the dockside labor unrest was apparant.

The Buffalo Star commented "During this crisis, what has our city government done? Talked Pan-American, with a thousand families struggling against starvation."8

Bishop James Quigley proved to be an important force in the dispute, defending the Irish workers against Irish contractor interests, and calling the saloon-system immoral. He was joined in the attack on Connors' forces by other clergyman, including Protestants from the city's leading churches.9 Despite the tension and the disruption to lake commerce, the strike was a relatively peaceful victory for the strikers (only one man was killed) and led to reforms in the saloon-boss system of labor, much to the benefit of the scoopers, longshoremen and other freight handlers.10

Images of Buffalo's Grain Elevators, ca.1900 (Adjacent to the First Ward)

Unloading wheat into elevators, Buffalo.

Unloading wheat into elevators, Buffalo. Photographer: Unidentified. Published: c1900 / Detroit Publishing Co. no. 011477. "Badger State" and "Lackawanna Green Bay Line" on ship. Collection: Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Source:

An Old timer at C.T.T. elevator, Buffalo, N.Y.

An Old timer at C.T.T. elevator, Buffalo, N.Y. Photographer: Unidentified. Published: [ca.1900] / Detroit Publishing Co. no. 012926. "Badger State" and "Lackawanna Green Bay Line" on ship. Collection: Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Source:

Great Northern elevator and shipping, Buffalo, N.Y.

Great Northern elevator and shipping, Buffalo, N.Y. Photographer: Unidentified. Published: 1900 / Detroit Publishing Co. no. 012924. "Andaste of Ishpeming" on left freighter; "I.W. Nicholas" on center freighter; and "B.L. Pennington" on right freighter. Collection: Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Source:

River and elevators, Buffalo

River and elevators, Buffalo. Photographer: Unidentified. Published: [c1900] / Detroit Publishing Co. no. 011470. Collection: Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Source:

River and elevators, Buffalo, foot of Michigan St.

River and elevators, Buffalo, foot of Michigan St. Photographer: Unidentified. Published: c1900 / Detroit Publishing Co. no. 011468. Collection: Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Source:

River and elevators, Buffalo, foot of Main St.

River and elevators, Buffalo, foot of Main St. Photographer: Unidentified. Published: c1900 / Detroit Publishing Co. no. 011469. Collection: Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Source:

Building the Exposition

Workers on the Exposition Grounds

Workers on the Exposition Grounds. Photographer: Unidentified. Source: Thomas E. Leary and Elizabeth C. Sholes. Buffalo's Pan-American Exposition. Charleston, SC : Arcadia Publishing, c1998, p.19. From the collection of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

The Scoopers Strike may give the impression that most of Buffalo's Irish were unskilled laborers. It is true that most of the immigrants arriving during the 1850's began work as unskilled or semiskilled laborers. There were very few entrepreneurs and only two factory owners in 1855—William Carland, who owned Gothic Hall and made ready-made men's clothing, and Augustine Keogh, who manufactured pianofortes.11

By 1900 however, the Irish had become well established in the semiskilled and skilled trades and were making strides in what we would refer to today as "white collar" jobs. In looking at a sample of Irish surnames in the 1900 Buffalo Directory one can see a noticeable increase over previous years in the number of professionals, clerks, shopkeepers and, among women, teachers. Most significant, however, were the numbers of tradesmen listed, especially, blacksmiths, carpenters, bricklayers, molders and other construction related occupations. Over 16% of the sample fell into the category of "skilled trade", while 12% were laborers, and 10% worked for the railroads.12

With so many involved in construction-related occupations, we can speculate that Buffalo's Irish played some sort of role in the actual construction of the Exposition. It was well advertised throughout the period newspapers that the pay for construction work at the Exposition grounds was very good and that laborers were coming to Buffalo from all parts of the country. With good pay and and abundance of construction work, it is safe to assume that the Irish tradesmen and laborers were involved in building construction and in operation of the railroads running to and from the grounds. It is unfortunate that, without any first-hand accounts, we can only speculate at this point.

The Exposition Fire Department

Pan-American Fire Co.

Temporary Battalion No. 7: Engine 33. Buffalo Fire Department - 1901. Photographer: Unidentified. Source: Courtesy of The Buffalo Firefighters Historical Society. Note the Midway Entrance and Indian Congress Exhibit in the background.

Hook and Ladder Co. 10 Hook and Ladder Co. 10

The Buffalo Fire Department, with its heavy representation of Irish-Americans, was charged with fire protection of the Pan-American Exposition grounds with five fire companies assigned to protect the property and people at the fair. These five companies made up temporary Battalion No. 7, and included Engine 33, which consisted of a combination chemical engine and hose wagon, along with two horses. Engine 33 was located at the South Midway near the Indian Congress, and its crew included members of Buffalo's Irish and German communities. Hook & Ladder 10 is shown with their 65 foot Gleason & Bailey truck in front of their quarters near the Belt Line Station on the exhibition grounds.

Fire Dept. Ledger Page Sept. 6, 1901

The Buffalo Fire Department's Alarm Office Journal for September 6, 1901 indicates the general call received by the office when President William McKinley was shot in the Temple of Music at 4:10 p.m. Source: Courtesy of The Buffalo Firefighters Historical Society]

Occupations in the police and fire services have been historically, if not stereotypically, linked to Irish immigrants. In the case of Buffalo, separate research by William Jenkins and Sidney Harring and supports the stereotype. The Buffalo Fire Department, never formally organized as a paid fire service until 1880, had a disproportionately large number of Irish. Jenkins found that in 1900, of the Department's captains, lieutenants and firemen, the percentage of Irish was 39.5, 18, and 37.7 respectively.13

This was also the case with the city's police department. "The plethora of Irish names in the annual reports of the Buffalo Board of Police is testament to the strong representation of the first- and second- generation Irish of the city on the force."14 Indeed, in reviewing the 10 precincts and 2 substations existing in 1900, Harring found that 8 of the 12 police captains had Irish surnames, as did 72% of the officers.15

Railroad Day

Many of Buffalo's Irish immigrants were employed as laborers on the railroads that served the city, bringing out-of-town visitors to Buffalo. They worked as switchmen, yard supervisors, conductors, engineers, signalmen and freight handlers. As a thriving railroad center in 1901, the Pan-American Exposition was within a single day's journey by rail for millions, and many special excursion trains and private cars arrived at the Exposition Depot, located at the northern end of the exposition grounds. However, as noted in this letter, railway business took precedence over the pleasures of the Pan for the employees of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

Lehigh Valley Railroad Letter

"Railroad Day" Letter. Source: Courtesy of Tom Blake

Irish Sports Week

The only Pan-American Exposition event to feature some aspect of Irish culture was "Irish Sports Week," which took place from August 28-31, 1901. Events included Gaelic games as well as other Irish running and jumping events, which were held in the stadium located on the Exposition grounds. These activities gave local Irish-Americans a chance to compete against individuals and teams from other areas and to showcase their national sports before an international audience.

Pan-American Exposition Stadium

Pan-American Exposition Stadium. Photographer: Unidentified. Source: The Latest and Best Views of the Pan-American Exposition. Buffalo, N.Y.: Robert Allan Reid, 1901.

The highlight of the games was an Irish football match where spectators were treated to a free fight. "For roughness it has got the regulation college game scraped to a polish. Black eyes, bloody noses and cracked heads were much in evidence by the time the first half was over. The game resembled a free fight more than anything else."16

Press coverage by the Buffalo Evening News indicates that the reception for the Irish sporting events was rather lukewarm, in part because the games were so poorly organized and promoted. On August 30th, the News reported that "[t]he Irish sports in the Stadium have been so carelessly managed that they attracted but little interest yesterday."17 However, articles do describe the excitement of hurling, a game somewhat on the order of lacrosse. "It is pretty rough fun, but it is fast and the crowd liked it."18

Article - irish Sports in the Stadium

Article: "Irish Sports in the Stadium." Digitized photocopy. Source: "Irish Sports in the Stadium." Buffalo Evening News, August 29, 1901.

Article: Irish Sports conclude today

Article: "Irish Sports Conclude Today." Source: "Irish Sports in the Stadium." Buffalo Evening News, August 31, 1901.

Article: Irish football - A free fight

Article: "Irish Foodball a Free Fight." Digitized photocopy. Source: "Irish Sports in the Stadium." Buffalo Evening News, August 30, 1901.


  1. In 1852, Bishop Timon brought D'Arcy McGee from Boston to Buffalo to publish the Buffalo American Celt and Catholic Citizen although it was to be edited by future politician, Michael Hagan, "to provide in English, news of diocesan affairs and reminders of religious obligations and to interpret public questions from a non-partisan, but wholly Catholic viewpoint." In 1853, when McGee proved too partisan, Timon "guided" the American Celt's successor The Sentinel, edited by Hagan. David A. Gerber. The making of an American pluralism : Buffalo, New York, 1825-60. Urbana, Ill. : University of Illinois Press, 1989, p. 153, 293. It is unclear as to when the Sentinel ceased publication, but in the latter decades of the century Buffalo had no Irish newpaper.
  2. Quoted in Gerber, p. 122.
  3. William M. Jenkins. "In the Shadow of the Grain Elevator: A Portrait of an Irish Neighborhood in Buffalo New York in the nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries." Éire-Ireland, an Interdisciplinary Journal of Irish Studies, v. 37, no.1/2 (Spring/Summer, 2002), p. 20
  4. Ibid., pp. 23-24.
  5. David A. Gerber. The Making of an American pluralism, p. 125.
  6. Sidney Lee Harring. The Buffalo Police—1872-1915: Industrialization, Social Unrest and the Development of the Police Institution. Unpublished dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1976. pp. 138-139. Note: Harring reports that the name of the contractor was James Connors. In an email dated June 10, 2006, A.M.Beiter informed me that that the contactor involved in the dispute was William Connors, not James -- B.L. Battleson, June 12, 2006..
  7. Brenda K. Shelton."The Grain Shovellers' Strike of 1899." Labor History, v.9 1968, p. 220.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Sidney Lee Harring. The Buffalo Police—1872-1915, p. 139.
  10. David A. Gerber. The Making of an American pluralism, p. 143.
  11. A sample of 975 Irish surnames, spanning from O'Boyle to O'Toole was taken from The Buffalo Directory, (Buffalo, NY : The Courier Company of Buffalo, 1900.) Occupations studies fell into the following categories: laborer (12%), skilled laborer (16%), railroad worker (10%), scooper (3%), police or fire department (5%), saloonkeeper (3%), and teacher (3%). There were other occupations listed, including a handful of professionals and entrepeneurs, as well as contractors and foremen. While not at all scientific, this sampling does give an overall sense that by 1900, those Irish-born and of Irish descent in Buffalo were no longer primarily unskilled laborers, as they were a few decades prior.
  12. William M. Jenkins. Social and Geographic Mobility Among the Irish in Canada and the United States: a Comparative Study of Toronto, Ontario, and Buffalo, New York, 1880-1910. Unpublished dissertation, University of Toronto, 2001, p. 315.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Harring, p.120.
  15. "Irish Football a Free Fight." Buffalo Evening News, August 30, 1901.
  16. Ibid.
  17. "Irish Sports in the Stadium." Buffalo Evening News, August 29, 1901.