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Archive for the ‘Kenfield’ Category

Screenshot (8)Connelly Avenue runs one block between Bailey Avenue and Olympic Avenue in the Kenfield neighborhood on the East Side of Buffalo.  The street is named after John Connelly, from Connelly Brothers Ship Chandlers, a waterfront business in Buffalo for more than a century!

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Portrait of John Connelly. Source: Jennifer Connelly

John Connelly was born in Ireland around 1852.  His father, Michael Connelly as a sailor who visited nearly every port in the world.  On one trip Michael Connelly traveled to the Great Lakes.  He was impressed with Buffalo, which he called “a city of promises”.  In the 1860s, Michael’s two oldest sons, Michael and James sailed to America and came to Buffalo.  In 1866, they brought their brother, John, to the country.  John was about 14 years old and had already been working in the rolling mills in Wales for 50 cents a week since he was 10 years old.  He was excited to come to America, to get away from the cold, hunger and poverty of the old country.  

John and his brothers worked hard to establish a ship chandlery business for themselves here in Buffalo.  Connelly Brothers Ship Chandlers was established in 1870.  Brother James tragically died in 1872, drowning at the foot of Illinois Street. To start their business, John and Michael would take their rowboat to Tonawanda, load it with lumber and tow it to Buffalo, pulling the tugboat from the towpath the horses used along the canal.  It was noted that even as he got older and was successful and could work less, John would still get up early, get dressed, read the newspaper by gas light and get to work right at sunrise.  The ship company was located at the southwest corner of Ohio and Michigan Streets, at a site selected by John Connelly.  They built some of the first steamers built for shipping lumber on the Great Lakes.  In 1896, they built the last steamer that was built to ship lumber on the Lakes.  

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View of the Buffalo River, between 1900 and 1910. Note Connelly Brothers, the small building in the foreground to the left of the bridge abutment. Source: Library of Congress. Click here to see larger image.


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Mary Connelly. Source: Jennifer Connelly

John Connelly met Mary Sullivan on a trip along the Erie Canal. She was from Ireland and was visiting friends in Oswego, New York.  She returned to Ireland and Mary and John wrote letters to each other for a year.  He then made his only trip back to the old country in 1885 to marry her.  The Connellys lived on Michigan Avenue, which was called Michigan Street at the time.  It was still a quiet, residential street lined with trees.  Today, the site of their house is a parking lot across the street from the Seneca Buffalo Casino.  John and Mary had eleven children, six sons and five daughters.  Unfortunately, five of the children died in childhood.  Five sons and a daughter lived to adulthood – Boetius, William, John Jr, James, Mary and Arthur.  

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Connelly Family on the steps of their house. Source: Jennifer Connelly

In 1901, the Connellys moved to 126 Fargo Avenue.  The family lived there for many years.  The house is now a part of the Nickel City Housing Cooperative and is known as Plankton House.  The family also had a servant who lived with the family.  In 1900, their servant was Mary Giritt, a 19-year old woman from Germany.  In 1900, the servant was Annie Snyder, a 20-year old from Germany.  In 1920, their servant was Elizabeth Endres, a 27-year old woman born in New York state to German immigrant parents.  Because John had to leave school to work at a young age, he insisted that all of his children complete high school and offered them all a college education.  John Jr and William were the only two who went to college – both becoming attorneys.  William sailed on the Great Lakes to help finance his education, served in the U.S. Navy and specialized in marine law.  Boetius served in the US Army during WWII.  Mary and James worked for Connelly Bros.  Arthur worked in labor relations. 

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Ad for Connelly Ave Lots for Sale from 1921. Source: Buffalo Times.

Connelly Street was developed in the early 1920s as Buffalo grew.  John Connelly did not see Connelly Street as a source of pride.  The street was named in his honor, which was a sign of his respect and esteem throughout the community.  However, Mr. Connelly could only think of the money he lost when the street was cut through his property!

Despite being eager to grow his fortune, Mr. Connelly was also known as an easy target for those down on their luck.  People would approach him for spare change, and Mr. Connelly would always empty his pockets for them.  Eventually, his family persuaded him to give his change to the bookkeeper every morning, so that he would not have cash on him while walking around town.  Mr. Connelly would then ask his bookkeeper for half a dollar to buy a handkerchief at the store across the street.  He’d buy a hanky and then give the change to the person who asked.  Because of this, he had many, many handkerchiefs!

Mr. Connelly died in 1928.  He is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna.   After Mr. Connelly’s death, son James and daughter Mary Connelly Keene and Mary’s husband Russell Keene continued the business.  In 1933 Mary Connelly Keene became President of the company. 

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Aftermath of the Bridge Collapse. Source: Buffalo News.

On January 21, 1959, the Michigan Avenue Bridge collapsed in what is often referred to as “the Tewksbury Disaster.”  That winter was very cold, with heavy snow and bitter temperatures.  On January 21st, there was an unseasonable thaw.  The 50 degree day combined with a wind storm broke up the sheet of ice along Cazenovia Creek around 6pm, pushing the ice from the creek into the Buffalo River.  The ice jam ran up against the hull of the MacGilvray Shiras, owned by the Kinsman Transit Company in Cleveland.  The Shiras was moored for the winter at Concrete Central Elevator and full of corn.  The Shiras broke free from its mooring around 10:40pm during wind gusts of 48 miles per hour.  A chain-reaction accidental crash when the steamer Shiras broke loose from a dock owned by Continental Grain Company.  The Shiras floated down river, where it struck the steamer Michael K. Tewksbury, which was stationed for the winter at the Standard Elevator and full of wheat.  The boats continued downriver, past the Ohio Street lift bridge which was under construction and out of service.  The story goes that the bridge operators for the Michigan Ave bridge were drinking at the Swannie House and not manning the bridge.  One rumor says that the bridge operator was in bed with his mistress!  William H. Mack testified in Federal Court that he did visit the tavern twice during that evening, from 8:20-8:40pm and from 10:00-10:20pm but that he was back on duty a half hour before the first warning call came in.  Shift change for the bridge came at 11pm.  One of the bridge tenders, Casimir Szumlinski, came on duty at 11.  A call came in at 11:10pm from the watchmen at Standard Elevator alerting the bridge that there was a loose boat coming their way.   It was said an earlier call came in at 10:45pm but the operators were waiting for Mr. Mack and Mr. Szumlnski because they did not know how to raise the bridge.  Mr. Szumlinski recollected to the Buffalo News in 1969, “I saw the boat about 1000 yards away.  It looked like a phantom coming out of the night – no lights, no flares”.  The efforts to raise the bridge came too late, they were only able to partially raise the bridge before they needed to abandon the bridge.  Two of the bridge tenders were injured as the boats slammed into the Michigan Avenue Lift Bridge at 11:17pm.  The bridge plunged into the river, also damaging a water main.  The two ships came to a stop near the wreckage of the bridge, abutting each other and wedged in the River amongst the wreckage of the bridge.  The Shiras had traveled almost 3 miles! 

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Approximate path of the MacGilvray Shiras on January 21, 1959

The ice jam created by the ships blocking the river caused intense flooding in the First Ward. The quick thaw and the rain that occurred caused one of  the worst flooding events in Metropolitan Buffalo History.  There was also major flooding that night in Tonawanda and Amherst along Ellicott Creek.  Delaware Park lake (now Hoyt Lake) rose several feet, closing Delaware Avenue.  The New York Central Railroad tracks between Forest and West Delevan were washed out from flooding on Scajaquada Creek.  Smokes Creek flooded an area 2 square miles in size, causing a state of emergency to be declared for Lackawanna. 

At 7:45am the next morning, the north tower of the Michigan Avenue bridge toppled, crushing the roof of the Connelly Bros building and kicking out the sidewall timbers of the Engine 20 (the fireboat) firehouse.  Connelly Bros lost the building, many marine supplies, a pier, and a 40-foot supply ship which sunk under the weight of the twisted bridge girders.  The boat was recovered several months later, found in the rubble in the river.  It took about two weeks for the Shiras and the Tewksbury to be freed from the wreckage, with tug boats and a coast guard ice-breaker cutting thru the ice.  51,000 bushels of wheat were unloaded from the Tewksbury to lighten the load to help free the ship from the wreckage of the bridge.  Suction equipment was used which pumped out the wheat into trucks.  With the Michigan Avenue bridge wrecked and the Ohio Street bridge closed for repairs, the Skyway was the only way to access South Buffalo from Downtown.  The trucks hauled the grain from the wreck site over the Skyway to Connecting Terminal, an 8-mile trip.  A channel was finally cleared on February 3rd preventing the risk of the River flooding again.  The Shiras was damaged and on February 12 was towed to the GLF elevators to be unloaded and then taken to the American Shipbuilding dry dock for repairs.  The Shiras ended up being towed to Hamilton, Ontario and sold for scrap in June 1959.  The Tewksbury continued operations, returning to winter in Buffalo in following years.  In 1962, the Tewksbury was renamed, but the ship saw service until 1975. The Michigan Avenue bridge reopened December 7, 1960.  

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Connelly Bros Boat at their pier, 1946. Source: Buffalo News.

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Connelly Bros Boat Recovery in March 1959, after the bridge collapse. Source: Buffalo News.

At that time, Connelly Bros was 89-years old and were the oldest chandlery business in Buffalo.  The company lost an estimated $200,000 ($1.8 Million today).  It took many years for a ruling on how the three parties involved – The Continental Grain Co (owner of the dock), the Kinsman Steamship Co (owner of the steamer MacGilvray Shiras) and the City of Buffalo must share the payment of damages.  The City was held partially liable because it was determined there should have been adequate time to lift the bridge.  The case revolved on whether or not the Shiras was properly moored at Concrete Central elevator.  The lawsuit for the damages was appealed at least six times.  Final settlements for the 28 claimants was decided in 1966, totaling $1.8 Million ($16.5 million today) in damages.  The original damage claims exceeded $3 Million!  Connelly Bros ended up receiving $42,500 ($389,331 today) for business damages and $42,238.17 ($386,932 today) for damages to the building.

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Mary Connelly Keene, 1974. Source: Jennifer Connelly

After the bridge collapse, the company leased space in a warehouse on Scott Street.  The company suffered another tragedy when the warehouse suffered a fire four years later on March 9, 1963.  Connelly Brothers moved to 43 Illinois Street on March 21, 1963, just 12 days later!  In February 1969, Mrs. Keene was presented a plaque by the Buffalo Propeller Club and the International Shipmasters Association which recognized her contributions to both groups.  Mary Keene was president of the company for more than 40 years!  A rarity for a woman of the time!

Shipping in Buffalo was changing.  The winter of 1974 was the first year since before the Civil War that no freighters spent the winter in Buffalo.  The grain ships, like the Shiras and the Tewksbury, used to spend the winter with storage grain for Buffalo flour mills.  In 1974, it was decided they could move grain in by train as needed.  At the height of grain shipping in Buffalo, there would be more than 100 ships wintering in Buffalo.  In 1973, there were just 12 vessels.  The loss of winter ships impacted the Buffalo economy.  Each ship that stayed in port typically spent about $75,000 (about $500,000 today) in Buffalo before leaving in the spring.  This includes towing, docking fees, shifting fees, shipkeeper pay, and electric and water bills.  Additionally, they’d spend money on food and repairs during the fit-out to prepare the ship for the spring lake season. At the time the entire business of Connelly Bros was built around marine trade.  The company branched out to serve ships across the Great Lakes, not just in Buffalo, trying to survive.  

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43 Illinois Street, the final location of Connelly Bros. Source: Julia Spitz


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Connelly Bros Ad from 1976.  Source:  Buffalo News

Mary Keene’s son Gilbert Norwalk was president of the company after Mary retired. Mary Keene died in 1978 at age 81.  She is buried in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Tonawanda.  As the marine business continued to decline, Connelly Bros eventually shifted to including Auto Repairs as part of their business to keep up with the times.  The company closed in 1984, after 114 years in business!  In 2014. the Illinois Street building was listed as part of the Cobblestone District local historic district.  

So the next time you’re down at the waterfront, think about Connelly Bros and the 114 years they spent working on helping ships in the harbor! Special thanks to Jennifer Connelly, Great Granddaughter of John Connelly, for allowing me to use some of her family photos in this post.  

Want to learn about other streets? Check out the Street Index. Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made. You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right-hand side of the home page. You can also follow the blog on facebook. If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

Sources:  

  • Smith, H. Katherine.  “Connelly Street a Memorial to Ship Chandlery Founder”.  Buffalo Courier Express.  January 12, 1942, p6.
  • Wood, Jerry.  “Company Crushed in Bridge Collapse”.  Buffalo News.  February 26, 1959, p1.
  • “US Judge Rules on Who Shall Pay in Bridge Disaster.”  Buffalo News.  May 1, 1963, p10.
  • Maserka, Ron.  “Damages in 1959 River Crash Are Set at $1.8 Million”.  Buffalo News.  April 22, 1966, p25.
  • “Mrs. Keene to get Plaque”.  Buffalo News.  February 3, 1969, p2.
  • Buckham, Tom.  “Waterfront’s Economy Hit Hart by Loss of Winter Grain Fleet”.  Buffalo News.  January 25, 1974, p34.
  • “Connelly Bros Leases Building”.  March 21, 1963, p33.
  • “Mary Connelly Keen Dies; Headed Ship Supply Firm”.  Buffalo News.  June 28, 1978.
  • Hariaczyi, Todd.  “January 21, 1959:  The Michael K. Tewksbury topples the Michigan Avenue Bridge”.  Buffalo News.  July 4, 2017.
  • “Mayor Aids Confer in Flood Emergency; Zero Cold Forecast”.  Buffalo News.  January 22, 1959, p1.
  • Kowalewski, Ed.  “1959 Bridge Crash Still Vivid.”  Buffalo News.  Janaury 21, 1969, p29.
  • Maselki, Ron.  “$1.8 Million Damage Found by Investigator of 1959 River Crash”.  Buffalo News.  April 21, 1966, p67.
  • “Crews Start A Task To Cut Away the Bridge.”  Batavia Daily News.  February 2, 1959.  P1.
  • “Conveyors Unloading Grain From Aft Hold of Tewksbury”.  Buffalo News.  January 29, 1959, p31.
  • “Visited Tavern Before Crash, Bridge Operator Tells Court”  Buffalo Courier Express.  May 3, 1961, p64.

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