BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Buffalo was the 8th largest city by population at the beginning of the 20th century. The city was a center of industry on several fronts.
"The railroads were one of our largest employers. We were the second largest rail center in the United States, second to Chicago," said Cynthia VanNess, Buffalo History Museum Director of History and Archives.
"Curtiss-Wright set up manufacturing here right around World War I, when aviation starts to be a major factor in warfare."
Buffalo also became a major player in the steel and grain industries. Thanks to the railroads and the Erie Canal, the city could send goods across the country.
"1817 is when you first get the news that the Erie Canal Terminus is coming to Buffalo, and if you look at the population numbers after that, it's pretty much every decade, the population in Buffalo doubles, and that carries through to the 20th Century," said Anthony Greco, Buffalo History Museum Director of Exhibits/Interpretive Planning.
Buffalo's population would peak in the 1950s, but since lost more than half of its residents. Greco cites the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 as a big hit to the local economy, because it allowed cities to bypass Buffalo for shipping.
"Buffalo starts as basically a seaport, an inland seaport. Shipping was so incredibly important, and when you take that away, that's what the entire going back to the Erie Canal, that's what the city was built upon. You take that away, and things are going to decline pretty quickly."
VanNess says Curtiss-Wright had as many as seven plants building planes during World War II, but the need for planes dropped after the war. The company also decided to leave Buffalo because the weather wouldn't allow for year-round production.
Greco identified cheaper steel being produced abroad as a contributing factor to Bethlehem Steel's demise, but after decades of downtrodden economic activity, there has been a resurgence.
"You've got these private investors coming in, and they're building off of each other, and you've got, to mention one of the obvious ones like Terry Pegula, coming in and investing so much money to the sports teams and the area down at Canalside, and that's just a boon to what's already been going on with Erie County Harbor Development Corporation," Greco said.
"Property value's up, new immigrants, a lot of entrepreneurial energy and investment, a lot of new construction, a lot of loft conversions that rent quickly, the new green code, the new bicycle infrastructure," VanNess explained.
Both VanNess and Greco say they believe Buffalo is once again heading in the right direction, but they say a great measure of the city's growth is its population, and they won't pop the champagne until it begins to rise once again.