Waterfront history tours do a booming business

Aboard the Miss Buffalo II on a Sunday afternoon, old Erie Canal folk songs blared out of the stereo. Captain Tom Woodrow greeted the passengers, most older than 60, who filtered onto the boat. Some were looking for a seat with a good view, while others made a beeline for the bar. But out-of-towners and locals alike were there to do one thing: learn about those strange, cylindrical structures that were abandoned so long ago.

“Silo City has been the No. 1 attraction for people taking tours this summer,” said Brad Hahn, executive director of Explore Buffalo. “It’s definitely the most popular tour we have.”

Renewed interest in the waterfront has brought plenty of attention to Canalside. It also has created a cottage industry for three organizations taking advantage of the public’s desire to know and see more.

• Hahn’s Explore Buffalo, which officially launched this winter and provides tours all over the area, started its waterfront history tours in May.

• The Industrial Heritage Committee, a nonprofit organization that documents Buffalo’s industrial and commercial history, has been educating people about the grain elevators on “The Historic Buffalo River Tour” for 29 summers. Its pamphlet states, “The Original, Accept No Substitute …”

• The Queen City Ferry Company did four historic tours a day out of Canalside’s Commercial Slip docks on the River Queen, a boat they had built specifically for these tours.

When Rick Hilliman started his Queen City history tours in summer 2012, he said, there were days when only two people would join them. This summer, the tours often reached their capacity of 40 people.

“It’s something people want. We get a lot of people through word-of-mouth and advertising. People recommend it to others all the time,” Hilliman said.

About half of the business is from people visiting Canalside who notice the signs, Hilliman said. Six years ago, that would not have been likely.

“You could shoot a cannon and hit no one,” he said.

Hilliman co-owns the Queen City Ferry Company with his son Rich and is the captain of the new River Queen. He and his crew, which includes Rich, do four historic tours a day out of Canalside’s Commercial Slip docks on the River Queen. They call the tours “Buffalo River History Tours,” and there are two varieties.

The 90-minute tour takes off three times a day and keeps patrons on the boat. The boat traverses most of the river, making it out to Concrete Central. The second tour is two hours and goes once a day. During this tour, the boat docks at Silo City, the site of the American and Perot elevators, and has customers walk around the grounds, now owned by Rick Smith, for most of the two hours.

Nancy Prawdzik, of Kenmore, was one of the people on Hilliman’s tour. She said she had read about the tour and wanted to see it for herself.

“We drive by (the grain elevators) all the time, and we wanted to learn more about it,” she said.

Many people on both her tour and the Industrial Heritage Committee’s version echoed these sentiments.

“It was mind-boggling. You don’t realize it’s here until you do it,” said Frank Maddock, of Lancaster. He was on the committee’s tour.

The Industrial Heritage Committee was forced to add more tours to its summer season to keep up with demand: seven compared with five in previous years. Those tours, with a 200-person capacity, generally sold out.

“People keep coming. We haven’t saturated the market yet,” said Lorraine Pierro of the Industrial Heritage Committee.

Hahn has two grain elevator-themed tours also at Silo City. “Silo City Vertical” takes adventurous spirits up to the heights of the structures, and the other keeps people on the ground. A third waterfront tour called “Down by the River” leads patrons from the Swannie House to Silo City and includes more general Erie Canal history than the other two.

The “Vertical” tour allows for a maximum of 20 people and has sold out every occasion to date. Hahn said that the other two tours consistently have 10 to 20 people. Each tour happens a few times a month.

All three groups have made an effort to fill their tours with historical facts that would be new even to some people who have lived in Western New York their whole lives. Of the many locals on each tour, very few knew the answers to the trivia questions tossed at them and were surprised at fun facts.

“Did you know Buffalo once had the largest bar per capita than any other city?” Hilliman asked his guests while passing under the Ohio Street bridge.

About four years ago, Hilliman began to operate the Queen City Ferry and noticed that people would ask him historical questions, so he started to research the answers to expand his base of knowledge.

“The only thing I remember of the Erie Canal from school is the song,” he laughed, referring to “Low Bridge,” the song about the Erie Canal.

Hilliman said he wants people to take the tours and leave with a sense of pride in their community and with a better understanding of the way the Erie Canal shaped Buffalo.

“People come on the tours with preconception that the grain elevators are ugly and should be torn down if they just see them from the Thruway. After this tour, they feel differently,” Hilliman said.

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