Lake Erie and the Niagara River together have served Western New York as highways for trade, travel and military movements, and as a source of water.

The local waterways have also been an important source of food since the days when the Native Americans settled in the region. The earliest white explorers often reported seeing the native peoples catching large fish, probably sturgeon or muskellunge, from the river.

In more recent times, most sportfishing took place along the Niagara River, which offered more sheltered waters than Lake Erie. (The currents were swift, but the Peace Bridge has made the water move faster these days.) There was also less commercial traffic on the river compared with traffic in Buffalo's harbor and on the Buffalo River. Lumber hookers served the City of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda, but there was usually enough room in the wide waters of the Niagara River.

This area would become a haven for local sportsmen, supporting businesses and social organizations that would serve the fisherman and provide a way to meet like-minded individuals.

Fishermen's Clubs

Fishermen's clubs set up headquarters along the Niagara River and the Towpath. The Canal Authorities tolerated them, or at least ignored their presence, as long as they did not interfere with operation of the Canal. Along with the fishing clubs and related businesses, there was for many years a large squatter's community. The squatters ran or worked for the boat liveries and bait shops.

The club houses were frame buildings supported by wooden pilings, with the "front" resting on the shore and the "back" supported by pilings. The back extended far enough out into the river to bring the boats in. Usually there would be a sort of "garage" where the boats would be stored.

Many had a trap door in the building's floor to dip for minnows when the water was high. Local legend - probably true - says during Prohibition more than minnows ere dipped through these hidden doors. Cargoes of illegal liquor were brought to shore this way.

Most clubs had a name, from amusing to serious. Among them were the Blue Bell Fishing Club, Happy Day Fishing Club and the Eureka Fishing Club. The Buffalo City Directory from around 1900 shows these others:

Jefferson Fishing Club, meetings subject to call of the president, held in the boat house, Grand Island Ferry Landing, Frank P Person, president.
Niagara Fishing Club, meets first Sunday afternoon of the month in its boat house at the foot of Ferry Street, C. Weyland, president; Frank S. Engel, secretary.
Standard Fishing Club, meets first Tuesday of every month at 1248 Genesee St., boat house at foot of Ontario Street. J. Kruchters, president; Leonard J. Cole, secretary.

Other well known fishermen's clubs were the Oak Tree Fishing Club, the Riverside Hunting & Fishing Club, the Turkey Point Club, the Parkside Wheeling Club and the George Washington Fishing and Camping Club, so named because it was established on George Washington's birthday, Feb. 22, 1903.

The Parkside Wheeling Club, despite its origins as a cyclists' club, had a boat house on the river. Its founder, Cy LaMaitre, was a perennial candidate for mayor of the Towpath Squatters' community and achieved that office a couple times.

Early in the century there was even a club for the employees of the boat houses and fishermen's clubs, which had two membership classes - Wall Doodles, no mustaches, and River Rats, mustaches.

Fishing clubs tended to come and go, as seen by comparing the 1913 Buffalo City Directory to the 1900 edition. The 1900 lists several clubs, as well as their addresses, meetings and board of directors. In 1913, the only club listed is the Niagara Fishing Club, still at the same address. C. Weyland, who had been president in 1901, was still holding that office 12 years later.

Other clubs may have still existed but decided to discontinue listing in the directory. Possibly they had a full roster of members, or advertising their presence attracted people who caused trouble. Several longtime clubs, such as the George Washington Fishing & Camping Club, did not list in the city directory at all.

Clubs disbanded for various reasons. In 1903 the George Washington Fishing & Camping Club was praised by the International Gazette for maintaining a full social slate and an enthusiastic membership, "considering the recent falling off of so many fishing clubs." There must have been quite a few fishing clubs disbanding that year.

At least one fishing club was on Lake Erie, the Bison City Rod & Gun Club. It stood for many years along the lake shore at the foot of South Michigan Avenue. The clubhouse was built by its members. During World War II, the club house was taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard to use as a headquarters. The Bison City Rod & Gun Club is still in existence today, along the Buffalo River just downstream from the Ohio Street Lift Bridge.

Membership tended to reflect the surrounding neighborhoods. The clubs along the Towpath, such as the George Washington and the Parkside Wheeling Club, drew members from the Black Rock and Riverside neighborhoods of Buffalo, as well as from North Buffalo, the Village of Kenmore and Town of Tonawanda.

Members of the clubs on Squaw Island and the foot of Ferry Street came from Buffalo's West Side. The Bison City Rod and Gun's members tended to be from the First Ward, South Buffalo and Lackawanna.

Each club had its own membership requirements. A person had to be known by other members before being accepted, and did not merely fill out an application, pay a fee and become part of the club.

Along the river, the clubs sponsored fishing contests for their members as well as contests pitting one fishing club against another. The day's competition usually ended with a big fish fry.

Waterfowl hunting was a popular sport during the fall and winter months. Before the Grand Island bridges were built, and even for some time after, Grand Island was not as developed, offering plenty of opportunities for camp outs. The George Washington Fishing and Camping Club had an annual summer campout at Oak Tree Ville on Grand Island. The first year, the campout lasted three weeks, with members coming and going. Subsequent campouts lasted a week, or took place over a long weekend.

In the winter the clubs sponsored bowling leagues, often bowling at Mutz's.

The clubs contributed to the wider community as well. In 1936 the Bison City Rod & Gun Club built a 15?foot rescue boat for the Buffalo Fire Department for use in places the fireboat could not go. The George Washington Fishing and Camping Club in 1938 sponsored a regatta, and the International Gazette expressed its hopes that 1939 would bring more of the same. Cy LaMaitre, longtime Parkside Wheeling Club president and sometime Towpath mayor, was praised by the same newspaper for giving young men a place where they could find "good clean recreation away from the temptations of idleness."

The clubs along the river, especially in the Towpath and Marsh neighborhoods, served as headquarters to the Towpath mayoral election campaigns throughout the campaign season which lasted from April to June. Candidates would make all sorts of outlandish promises, such as "Beer pumps every 500 yards," and anyone could vote provided he bought a beer. No limits on beers or ballots on Election Day in June! The winner would wear a top hat and tails and he marched from one end of the Towpath to the other.

Boat Liveries Alongside the fishing clubs and sometimes sharing the same buildings were the boat liveries where boats, bait, and fishing tackle could be acquired. Like the clubs, they were located along the Niagara River, although there were several in the outer harbor that were around for many years and well known to local fishermen.

One of the earliest boat liveries was Dutch Bill's, a large, ramshackle house perched on the Bird Island Pier. Bill's was roughly opposite the present day Chief Petty Officer's Club, Naval Reserve and West Side Rowing Club. It was torn down in 1909 by the Army Corps of Engineers as part of "improvements" to Black Rock Harbor that would include the Black Rock Lock. Dutch Bill's was reputed to have been there for at least 40 years.

"Bill" was William Roth, a retired signalman for the Grand Trunk Railroad. He originally built a shed on the pier to store his fishing tackle. Over the years, he allowed other fishermen to store their gear at his shed. As a result the shed expanded and become a real hangout for local anglers. Local legend includes among them former Buffalo sheriff and Mayor Grover Cleveland, who was an avid angler. The shack withstood the effects of lake storms, ice jams and wakes of passing ships.

When the Corps of Engineers ordered Roth to leave, he fought the demolition in court for two years. Several other boat livery operators were in the same situation, and the fledgling Buffalo Launch Club joined in what proved to be a losing battle. Bill retired and disappeared shortly after he and his son demolished the shanty. The Buffalo Launch Club moved to Grand Island.

Not all livery operators went out of business. In 1913, the Buffalo City Directory listed one livery operator at the foot of Ferry Street, and William McLaughlin, ran a boat house at the foot of West Ferry Street. In 1919, George Thorn and Theodore Ulrich each had boat houses on the Bird Island Pier. These businesses remained until 1928.

After the Peace Bridge was constructed, the trestles and supports for the bridge caused the current to flow through the river at a much faster rate, and the Black Rock Lock restricted the flow of water in Black Rock harbor. Both changes may have had an adverse effect on the fishing.

Most of the boat liveries were farther downriver in the Black Rock and Riverside neighborhoods. The river widened at that point and the current, while always present, was much less of a problem than over near Squaw Island. Fishermen who belonged to clubs usually stored their boats in their boat houses. The boats could be brought inside and hoisted out of the water for repairs and at the end of the season.

There were several popular boat liveries along the Towpath. A few that were listed in the Buffalo City Directories over the years were Frank Fix at 1826 Niagara Street, William McLaughlin at the foot of West Ferry Street, George Moon at the foot of Amherst Street, and Freddy Angus at the foot of Arthur Street (for many years Jafco Marina, presently Harbor Place/ West Marine). An old barge that had sunk just offshore formed a small harbor for boats.

Felix "Cap" Sommer charged a dollar a day for the use of boat, bait and ice. Josiah "Cy" LaMaitre also operated a boat livery from 1932 to 1945 at the foot of Briggs Avenue, and had a tavern/hotel on Strawberry Island with ferry service to the "new" Beaver Island State Park in 1939.

0ne of the most famous of the old boat liveries on the river was Mutz's Pavilion, which stood at the what is now the foot of Ontario Street. It began operation around 1895, when Frank Mutz and his brother, John, opened a watering hole for canal users. There still were a few mule drawn barges on the Towpath at that time. It was said that a muledriver could run into Mutz's, order a beer and run back out again, and the mules would have traveled only a short distance as they headed toward Buffalo.

With the decline in canal traffic, the Mutz brothers reoriented their business to cater to the growing number of people fishing in the Niagara River. For many years, they kept a diary of happenings along the river: storms, shipwrecks, fires, deaths, successful hunting and fishing trips, and so on. Here are a few samples from early in the century:

February 1, 1895: Frank Mutz and Tom Westfall got 5 duck, John Mutz and Dutch Hourt got 20 duck.

March 8, 1895: Barney Young got first fish of the season.

April 18, 1895: Last ice down the river.

April 30, 1895: First boat down the river.

May 14, 1895: Snowed from 6 a.m. until noon.

May 20, 1900: Bedell's new boat {OSSIAN BEDELL) makes first trip.

September 11 th & 12th, 1900: Seventy-eight mile an hour wind.

June 9, 1902: First muskie caught by John Eiemiller and Frank Roessler.

June 1-4, 1903: Mike Burns catches first muskie.

During the 1940s, Mutz's charged about $40 a year for a season's rental of a boat. While this might seem like an awfully good bargain today, $40 was a considerable sum in the 1930s and 1940s. During the depression, people did not have much money for the necessities of life let alone for luxuries, (although a dinner of fresh caught pike, perch, or bass from the river probably went a long way toward saving money). For some people, $40 was a week's pay or very close to it, so the wise fisherman saved his money during the off-season.

Mutz's also featured a bowling alley and a bar. In its earliest days, illegal bare knuckle boxing matches were held there. Under legal pressure, the fights were moved to Navy Island near Niagara Falls, although fighters like Frank Ehrne (once lightweight champion of the world) trained at Mutz's before bouts.

It was said that there was a high watermark in the barroom reaching nearly to the ceiling. A storm that hit on December 21, 1921 brought some of the highest winds ever recorded in Buffalo, up to 96 miles an hour, causing a considerable rise in water levels along the lakeshore, harborfront and along the river. Ships in Buffalo Harbor and boat houses along the river suffered heavy damage.

Mutz's also constructed boats for the livery operations, and it was said that during Prohibition in the 1920s that Mutz made a lot of money building boats for the rum runners. At one point, it is said, the U.S. Coast Guard ordered Mutz to cease building boats.

The outer harbor was more exposed to Lake Erie's gales and had more commercial traffic from freighters, tugs, barges and passenger ships than the river, so it never developed into a mecca for local anglers. However, there were several boat liveries that served anglers who lived in the First Ward, South Buffalo and Lackawanna neighborhoods. One of the oldest of these was Jerry Foley's, located at the foot of South Michigan Street. Today all that is left is the ramp that Foley used to launch his boats. For many years Foley's was at the heart of Buffalo's "Beach," a squatter's community that stretched along Buffalo's old seawall. The seawall ran south from the Coast Guard Station to the foot of South Michigan Street. It was built to protect Buffalo after a devastating storm in 1844. The squatters had been forced out in 1917 and 1918, but Foley managed to hang on until his death in 1939. Foley also built his own boats in a low-lying shed not far from where his livery was and he usually employed a couple of men to build and repair his boats. In the winter Foley's was a haven for the ice fishermen who journeyed out onto Lake Erie near his shanty.

There were two other outer harbor boat liveries, Bannister's and Boquard's, both located near the Canadian Pool Grain Elevator. Boquard's is still in business today, one of Buffalo's last boat liveries.

Bannister's, run by Alex "Sandy" Bannister, had been in business since the early 1920s. Bannister, a former major league baseball star, moved the livery a couple of times before finding a location that fit his needs. In addition to the boats and bait, he had a food stand known as "Pork Chop Junction." It was known to serve up to 150 pounds of pork chops in a day. At times Bannister did so much business that he slept, at his stand to catch calls from fishermen, which would start coming in at 2 or 3 in the morning.

In 1942 Bannister's suffered a major loss when a storm carrying 70 mile an hour winds ripped boats from their moorings and smashed them against rocks that lined the shoreline.

Storms could cause damage along the river, too. As in 1921 and 1928, with sustained winds over 80 m.p.h. Usually the river was more sheltered, without the long fetch for big waves to build up, but high water was a problem. Squatters along the Towpath would build their homes on stilts. However, the chief worry confronting Towpath residents and businesses was not water but fire. The buildings were wooden and packed close together, and often gasoline for boats was stored nearby. A fire in 1938 destroyed six buildings, a dock and several valuable boats. The Mutz complex narrowly escaped destruction.

Most fishermen rented boats rather than owning them. There were several reasons for this. Until after World War II, most Buffalonians relied on public transport - buses and streetcars - to get around the city. For fisherman who did not own a car, trailering a boat home after a day's fishing was out of the question. Even if they did own an automobile, there was often little room to store a boat. Houses were built close together, and garages and backyards were very small.

Also, most small fishing boats were built out of wood, which needed to be immersed in water at the beginning of the season to have their seams swell. This kept the boats fairly watertight and was a spring ritual for boaters whether they owned a humble rowing skiff to fish from, a finely crafted racing yacht fresh off the drawing boards of Herreshoff, or another type of great yacht from one of the designers of the early 20th century.

The fishing boats themselves were double-ended rowboats fitted with two sets of oarlocks. It was said that two fishermen at the oars could cover the distance from Mutz's at the foot of Ontario Street to Strawberry Island in a few minutes.

Motors on boats were not common until the late 1930s and early 1940s. Fishermen who had motors usually installed an automobile engine in a boat. They would add a skeg - a short stub keel - to give the boat directional stability and more control when steering. According to one fisherman, the boats were slow but handled well, and the slow speeds made them ideal for trolling for muskies and pike. He said that he could get through the narrows between Fort Erie and Buffalo easily on a good day by "playing" the currents.

There were a number of local boat builders. Louis Peterson, on the corner of Hamilton and Dann Street, is said to have built more than a thousand boats in his lifetime. A lifelong resident of Black Rock, he built everything from fisherman's skiffs to hydroplanes to fish tugs, as well as a couple of sailing yachts.

Fishing Methods and Fishing Spots (View the Slideshow of old photos here)

Fishing methods were quite simple - anchoring, drifting or trolling. Downriggers, planer boards and other newfangled, complex methods of fishing were unheard of. Monofilament line was not introduced until the 1940s. Braided cotton and linen line were used on revolving spool (bait, casting) reels. Fixed spool (open and close-faced spinning or spincasting) reels were a European invention that, came back with returning servicemen at the end of World War II.

Some fishermen, especially those who fished in the deeper parts of the river, used handlines with the line wound on a piece of wood, notched at either end. Reels were expensive so many fishermen used long poles for fishing in shallow water.

Depth finders were not available until after the end of World War II. Fishermen used a lead line, which was a length of line attached to a lead weight. Often the tip of the lead was filled with wax or tallow, so when the fisherman sounded the bottom, he not only had an idea of how deep the water was but also of what bottom, he was fishing. The tallow or wax would bring up samples of sand, gravel or mud from the bottom.

Other fishermen used chugging or drifting "irons," which consisted of a lead weight molded onto a thick metal wire such as a straightened coat hanger with a loop to attach to the main line. The wire would transmit to the fisherman what kind of bottom he was over. Sharp, clear "ticks" meant rocks and gravel. Softer, less frequent "ticks" meant sand or even mud. Wire also would hang up less on rocks than the lead sinker.

Drift fishing was a popular way to catch bass, pike or perch in the river, just as it is now. Boat fishermen often drifted for the deep holes and eddies of the river, letting the current push them along and periodically bending to their oars to keep the boats under control. To return to a spot where they had caught a fish, they would note the "range." They would try to take a sighting on a shoreline object - a house, a large tree, church steeple, or a shoreline rock, and then intersect that with the line of sight of another significant shoreline feature. This was easy to do in the Niagara River.

Trolling was popular in the vicinity of Strawberry Island for muskellunge, considered the "king" of local game fish. They also were found further down the river near where the Bedell House once stood (near Anchor Marine on Grand Island, on the East River) and as far down as Burnt Ship Creek, where in local myth the French burned their ships in 1759.

Before construction of the Black Rock Lock and other "improvements," the area around Squaw Island, the foot of Porter Street and along the Bird Island Pier were popular spots for large muskies. Several that weighed close to 40 pounds or better were caught there in the early 1900s. Spoons - large silver lures with a hook that wiggled in a tantalizing manner - were the lure of choice for many muskie hunters, as were suckers and chubs. Later, large wooden lures that imitated small fish, like the Creek Chub Pikie Minnow, became popular.

For many years Mutz's had a muskie contest, with the winner being awarded a rod and reel. In the 1920s, the biggest muskie ever recorded in the Niagara River was brought in to Mutz's. It weighed 53 pounds and was caught by Tom Carter, although for the most part the muskies tended to weigh about 25 to 30 pounds.

Bass, pike and perch were often caught by fishermen using minnows,  crayfish and night crawlers. They -vould cast along rocky shoals and vhere there were edges of weedbeds. Popular spots were Rose's Reef at the lead of the river; Thompsons Hole, a deep 60 plus foot spot; the mouth of Frenchman's Creek on the Canadian side; and several submerged islands near LaSalle Island further north.

Bullhead catfish were caught in the back bay behind Strawberry Island. In spring 1939, Mike Draver and Bill "Nemo" Parker caught 800 pounds of the tasty little catfish in a week. The back bay was also a popular spot for perch and other panfish.

Shore fishermen had their favorite spots also. The foot of West Ferry Street remains popular with local anglers. In 1893, an article in the Buffalo Morning Express stated that for a few cents car fare, a fisherman could enjoy good fishing for white bass and sauger (a smaller cousin of the walleye or yellow pike). In a guide book to fishing spots published by Trout Unlimited in the late 1970s, it was said that an angler could reach the foot of West Ferry Street by Metro Bus.

In the 1930s, there was an establishment called Frank's Place at Bird Island Pier, advertising "service any time, minnows, soft shells, bait." Shore fishermen, especially when fishing the fast waters at the foot of West Ferry Street or a deep hole at the foot of Hertel Avenue, used the heaviest sinkers that they could to hold the bait on the bottom. Usually the current on the bottom was not as strong as it was higher up, and the fish would be hanging behind rocks or other bottom features.

End of an Era

The end of the "glory days" of fishing along Buffalo's waterfront came in the 1950s. In some ways it was part of a continuing trend along Buffalo's waterfront that started in 1909 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers evicted "Dutch Bill" from the Bird Island Pier. A few years later, the city of Buffalo and the railroads evicted the "Beachers" from the seawall. The Erie Canal was filled in during the 1930s and the city's leaders moved to rid the waterfront of the squatters neighborhoods along the Towpath and Marsh.

All these communities fell on hard times during the Depression and World War II, and were overcome by blight. The squatters, fishing clubs, boat houses, none of which had legal title to the land that their buildings rested on, were easy targets for a new generation of leaders who regarded them as eyesores rather than vibrant neighborhoods.

The Marsh went first. In 1952 the remaining buildings were condemned and the squatters evicted. This made room for a new waterworks plant at the foot of Sheridan Drive. The Marsh had been slowly eaten away through the years by the Huntley Power Station and General Motors.

One former resident said he had no bitterness at leaving, because the waters around the Marsh were so polluted that he didn't want to fish in the river any more.

The Towpath was next. New York State decided to run the Thruway along the Niagara River following the old Erie Canal bed, which would take it right over the old Towpath. The state already owned the land. Frank Mutz died in 1955, a year before the razing of buildings began, a year before the last good year of blue pike fishing. Towpath residents were ordered to vacate by April 1, 1957. A mock funeral was held by several Towpath residents, including Art Decelle, the last Mayor. A photograph shows pallbearers bearing a casket with these words inscribed on it: "In loving memory of T.O. Path 1825 - 1957, Doublecrossed by Dewey-Harriman, Tallamy."

Many of the fishing clubs, faced with the loss of their riverfront homes, disbanded. The only one that did not was the George Washington Fishing and Camping Club. An emergency meeting was held for the entire membership, which included three charter members. The club moved a few times before finding its present quarters at 2805 Niagara St., Town of Tonawanda. It has a magnificent view of the wide waters of the river and  Strawberry Island, but no waterfront access. Most riverfront neighborhoods were completely cut off from the riverside, and only a few places, like the boat launch at the foot of Ontario Street, allowed access to the river. The late 1950s could be called the end of easy access to the waterfront for the public.

The sportsman's club colony on Squaw Island fell at about the same time. It tried to purchase the land from the city, but was turned down. One official said the land was "too valuable to be given to sportsmen." Considering the things the City of Buffalo has done with the northern part of Squaw Island, maybe they should have left it to the sportsmen.

Progress did not spare the boat liveries along the outer harbor. Sandy Bannister's boat house was in the way of a detour around construction on the Father Baker Bridge. The state demolished it in January 1958. The state did tell him that he could rebuild when the project was completed, but Bannister was 72 years old. He didn't rebuild, he would live until 1969.

State fishery officials said the blue pike population was extinct in the lake by 1958. This led to the decline and eventual fall of the boat livery business. Catches of other species fluctuated, but all suffered from the heavily polluted nature of Lake Erie. See the sidebar on the famous (now extinct) blue pike.

Exotic species also took their toll. Lampreys were a predatory parasite that fed on larger fish. Smelt preyed upon the fry of other fish. Alewives consumed plankton that the fry of native fish and native baitfish (chub and shiner minnows) fed upon.

There are few traces of the old waterfront life along the Niagara River today. One still sees fishing boats out on the river, drifters fishing for bass and perch and the occasional yellow pike. Drifting irons, soft shell crayfish and minnows are still popular for bass and perch, but the lead line of old has been replaced by the depth finder.

The muskie hunters still troll the waters off Strawberry Island and Frenchman's Creek over on the Canadian side. The foot of West Ferry Street is still patronized by local anglers as is the Bird Island Pier. Most fishermen's clubs meet at churches, veteran's posts, etc.

Only three fishermen's clubs today have waterfront locations, the Bison City Rod & Gun Club, on Ohio Street next to the Ohio Street Lift Bridge; the Great Lakes Fishing Club located in the old GLF grain elevator on Ganson Street, and the Niagara River Station Fishing Club on Grand Island.

Boat liveries have for the most part disappeared. A quick look into the 1997-1998 City Directory reveals only two businesses in the Buffalo area that will rent you a boat, Boquard's and the Seven Seas Sailing Center, which specializes in sailboats.

Bass, perch and walleye are still popular and one can still see the "muskie hunters" working the river off Strawberry Island. The island has shrunk considerably and there are concerns that if the island disappears, a valuable spawning ground for many of the river's fish will be lost.

New species of fish, such as trout and salmon, were introduced to the lake and river starting in the late 1960s, and restoration of the lake has continued. The commercial fishing industry never really recovered from the loss of the blue pike.

The new generation of anglers has grown up never having caught a blue pike or fishing from a Towpath boat house. Concerns about pollution continue, and exotic species, this time the zebra mussels and the European ruffe, threaten to upset the lake's ecosystem. So, while the problems continue, the era of Buffalo's busy waterfront communities is but a memory.

Read the related sidebar about the effects on waterfront fishing of "Pollution, Depression, World War II."

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