Buffalo Bike Tours shows Olmsted’s parkways are just what we need right now
Buffalo Bike Tours’ Free App Shows Buffalo’s Hidden History
When urban planner Frederick Law Olmsted first came to Buffalo, he was appalled at what he saw. Despite our booming waterfront industries, Buffalo was crowded, dirty, congested and generally an unhealthy place to live. Olmsted set to remedy this by creating a series of parks and parkways in Buffalo, which would at once connect people to nature as well as create a happier, healthier populace.
In light of that, Buffalo Bike Tours is teaming up Niagara River Greenway to bring you the Olmsted Loop, part of Bike There, Buffalo!, a series of free, pre-planned routes promoting exercise around Buffalo. These free bike tours are a great activity to do alone or with your family, especially in this challenging time – all you have to do is fill out a short form and you’ll be e-mailed the route. On the Olmsted Loop, you’ll see familiar sites like the Martin House, Delaware Park, Albright Knox, and Buffalo History Museum – but you’ll also uncover some lesser-known histories as well.
So today we’re bringing you 7 hidden histories on the Olmsted Loop. Full disclosure: I am owner of Buffalo Bike Tours, which leads food tours and history tours of Buffalo by bike – check out our full lineup here.
Tour of the Olmsted Loop:
Growing up in Buffalo, I had always heard the name Olmsted but putting together this tour really opened my eyes to his life and work. Born in 1822 in Hartford, Connecticut, Olmsted spent his adolescence as a wanderer – several accounts describe him as a vagabond. He traveled widely, worked at his dad’s dry goods company, toured China, and ran a farm in Staten Island, before coming down with severe sumac poisoning.
He began sitting in on classes at Yale, where his brother attended, and took an interest in writing. In 1852, he published his first book and soon was hired by the New York Times to author a series of blistering accounts of slavery urging for abolition. He became the editor of Putnam’s Monthly and founded The Nation, one of the first liberal magazines, still in operation today. He also was founder and director of the oddly named U.S. Sanitary Commission, the predecessor of the Red Cross.
In 1857, he became superintendent of Central Park, then won a design competition to plan its expansion. It was then he became known as a landscape architect, designing everything from cemeteries and arsenals to college campuses and private estates. But Olmsted’s lasting legacy is his parks in cities, of which he was a crusader. His plan for Buffalo was to connect the entire city through greenways, the first system of its kind in the U.S., of which he later remarked was “America’s best designed city”.
Stop 1: Front Park
Front Park may seem like a strange place to begin our tour but it was once one of the most treasured of Olmsted’s designs, providing access to the Niagara River and a popular place for sporting events. It was also the site of the historic Fort Porter, a campus that grew to include 40 buildings, four barracks, a hospital, a bakery, and several storehouses. The most remembered buildings were a large blockhouse (apparently the largest ever built in the U.S.) and a building referred to as “the castle”. The entire campus has been demolished and urban renewal has since cut the park off from the water, making it rarely used today. Stop by, view historic photos, and learn more about this lost gem.
Stop 2: Day’s Park
While many know Day’s Park as a small pocket park in Allentown, most don’t realize it is actually an Olmsted Park. The park is named for Thomas Day, an early settler who made a small fortune by operating the city’s first brick kiln and investing his profits in real estate. Day gave the land to the city in 1859, stipulating that the site be used as a park that would be named in his honor.
Stop 3: Soldier’s Circle
Soldier’s Place, now Soldiers Circle, was the largest of Olmsted’s circles and was named to honor the veterans of the Civil War. For years it was equipped with several large rifles and stacks of cannonballs. These were removed, however, as people saw them as a threat to passing motorists. Take a quick stop as you cruise around Olmsted’s parkways and check out photos of what it used to look like.
Stop 4: 198 Overpass
It goes without saying that the 198 Overpass is a site of much contention. Completed in 1960, the highway cut right through the middle of Olmsted’s Delaware Park and its pastoral landscape, introducing traffic, noise, and pollution – and enabling the expansion of the suburbs, white flight, and large-scale disinvestment. On one hand, it is the epitome of Buffalo’s bad city planning – on another, the loop-de-loop over the highway is exhilarating and a fun view.
Stop 5: McKinley Shooting Rock
Tucked away on Fordham Drive is an unassuming memorial. A lonely plaque in the middle of a grassy median, known as the McKinley Shooting Rock, is all that remains to remember the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley. As legend has it, on September 6, 1901 McKinley hosted a gathering at the opulent Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition. As one spectator, anarchist Leon Czolgosz, approached to shake the president’s hand, he instead reached for a revolver, disguised in his bandaged hand, and shot the president twice. When doctors couldn’t find the bullets, McKinley died in Buffalo days later, casting a shadow over the fair. Stop by and learn more about one of the most significant moments in our city’s history.
Stop 6: Olmsted Mural
While not as well known as some of Buffalo’s notable public art commissions, the Olmsted Mural is located behind McKinley High School and only accessible via bike path. It was completed in 2011 by Los Angeles-based artist Augustina Droze, who worked alongside students at the school for several months to create the colorful work. Depicted are scenes celebrating Olmsted’s life and work and his legacy in Buffalo.
Stop 7: Hotel Henry
Most Buffalonians know the story of Hotel Henry, but we had to put it on our list of hidden histories. The complex was originally a mental hospital, designed by H.H. Richardson, who sought to create a healing place for those with mental health issues and enlisted Olmsted’s help to design the campus grounds. Stop by and learn more and enjoy the ride under the hotel’s archways.
Follow along with our GPS for more info:
How do I download the program?
To access the Olmsted Loop, all you need to do is sign up your email to download the program.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and, as always, ride…before it snows!
This post was originally published in 2020 and has been updated.