Buffalo’s Liberty Poles

Buffalo’s Liberty Poles: Four Cheers for the Patriotic Grand Eagle and the Shafts That Nested It

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Written by Danielle Huber:
A committee was formed by the early inhabitants of Buffalo with the objective of creating a symbol of freedom for the city.  They held a vivid memory of when the Market House bell sounded to alert them that the British were coming near Black Rock.  The horrific images of the burning of the Caroline and the destruction of the Sir Robert Peel are what were the deciding factors that aLiberty Pole, to symbolize freedom; had to be erected.   [12]
“The first Liberty Pole was the creation and pet of liberty loving workingmen of young Buffalo.” The idea was generated by Dan Bidwell who owned a shipyard on the Skinner Canal.  The plan was implemented by an expert spar builder named Richard Taff.  The pole was considered to be “toothpick like” as it only stood to be 150 feet tall.  Considerations were made to erect the symbol of freedom in what is now Lafayette Square, but the subscribers below Seneca Street made a vigorous and effective punt to have it placed on the Terrace. To be exact, it was built on the grounds of the Terrace’s first settler’s hut.  Hartwell Bowen painted the pole, while John Wheedon carved the Eagle and Henry G. White gilded it with gold furnished by the committee.  Flagg and Maynard’s provided an immense trumpet of freedom, fourteen feet long, known as Gabriel’s Trumpet. The trumpet was placed in a way that it caught too much wind and became a danger to the Mansion House nearby.  The trumpet was taken down.  The Pole also housed a compass, but that was taken down as well, as it was proven too heavy.
The first Liberty Eagle to fly above the city was about five feet in height, with a wing-span of six feet.  While White worked on gilding the masterpiece, he decided that it needed to be strengthened so he placed iron braces on the back of it. There was a copper box placed in the breast of the eagle.  The contents of the box included the subscription list, civic papers, the history of the whole affair, newspapers, and business cards of men that contributed.  White got the honor of placing the box in the Eagle in which he proudly gilded.  The menacing Eagle was hoisted on to the peak of the pole in a way that he turned with the wind, but he generally faced Toronto “as if he were shrieking defiance to the British Lion.” The pole was completed and dedicated in 1838, with measureless soldiers and most of the 20,000 souls that inhabitedBuffalo around it.  The conspicuous ornament decorated the New Era as it aimed to honor the good old days on a night that was all about ringing in the new: AULD LANG SYNE! [11, 12]
In 1860, twenty-two years later, a second pole was erected to replace the first.  This Pole gained numerous nick-names, one being the “Big Stick,” in comparison to the initial Pole’s nick-name of the “Tooth-pick”. It was constructed from the first pole, but iron bands were spliced on.  White’s gilded Eagle flew on this pole, too, but only after some putty, glue, and paint were applied.  Also, a new copper box was placed into the Eagle with a combination of old and new items.  The magnificent dedication included people of uniform and holiday dress, fire departments, and bands.  One could hear cannons exploding, cheering, and cries from the crowd.  The Pole withstood sixteen years of sun and storms, but then it was time to discuss a third Liberty Pole. [11, 12]
On Independence Day of 1877 the third Liberty Pole was dedicated.  The residents of Buffalo assembled at Main Street and the Terrace to watch as Taff’s third constructed Liberty Pole was raised above the city.  It was 153 feet tall with a base diameter of ten inches.  This would be the last wooden Liberty Pole the city would see.  Buffalo’s Common Council provided $100 for an American flag and for repair of Wheedon’s wooden eagle.
Seventeen years later, the flagstaff was struck by lightening.  Riggers removed the rotted wooden pole and parts of it were sold or scrapped.  The only part that was kept unharmed was the 56 year old Eagle.  Even though it was badly rusted, it was a grand American symbol of patriotism and thousands of people gave it three cheers as it made its way down to Earth.
The fourth and final pole, in which was demanded by the city, was erected on the 120th Anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. This pole was the first to be made of iron and was much taller than the first three.  It stood at a monumental height of 186 feet and weighed in at a remarkable thirteen tons.  A 50 foot long and 30 feet wide flag consisting of 45 stars was made by Howard H. Baker & Co. and denoted by Mayor Edgar B. Jewitt.  The July 4th celebration in 1895 found Buffalo turned out, once again, by the thousands for the dedication. Led by Mayor Jewett, virtually every dignitary in the city participated. A gun from Fort Porter, pointed down Evans St. and boomed a 45-volley national salute.  In addition, several military bands were on hand as were 900 Indians in full tribal regalia representing 20 tribes.
Although the symbolism of the fourth flagstaff was congruent to all others, there were many changes.  The location of this shaft was fifteen feet north of the preceding three due to prospective excavations on the Terrace.  To memorialize the first three, a much shorter flagstaff was placed as a marker in their place.  In addition, the now historic eagle no longer gazed towards Toronto, instead it stared in the direction of Lafayette Square.  All of the misfortunes of the previous poles were considered when building this one. Thirteen feet of concrete was utilized to embed the pole as well as a surrounding circumference of 12 feet of concrete.  Braces were used for storm resistance and lightning conductors were installed.
This rallying point for numerous civil and patriotic observances was not only a symbol of freedom, but also represented Buffalo’s augmentation as a city.   As the citizens of Buffalo joyously gazed at the symbol they were reminded of the past but thought about the future.   The steel Liberty Pole looked over the city for 44 glorious years when its fate would come to an end.
Passersby reported that the city’s prominent landmark and the world’s tallest flagstaff, the Liberty Pole, was leaning to the west and they were concerned that it might fall [5].  Two days later, on the 28th of June, a two foot bend was identified by engineers in the already weathered pole.  To determine the pole’s future, the past was discussed.  The maintenance of the pole was always a task that had to attract people from all over the country to complete. Every few years the pole, the staff and the Eagle had to be painted. One time, a steeplejack traveled horizontal across the Nation from California to complete the painting.  With this difficulty in mind, the consideration was made to remove 75 feet from the center section, where the bend was located, and then raise it again. [4]
Claims lingered that the bend was dated back from time of erection in 1895. It was stated that, “When we raised the pole, we first attached that eagle, which had been on the old wooden pole, then started to pull it up. We bent it then, had to lower it and finally tied two 60-foot timbers to keep it in shape until it was in the air.” [3] A suggestion was made by UB alumna and dentist to strengthen the pole by filling it with concrete. [1] Regardless Commissioner Lois A. Harding decided that after the pole was diagnosed, if erosion did set in, it would have to come down shortly after.
It was without doubt that the Eagle would be dismantled and taken down. The weight was too much for the bent pole to withstand. The six foot-8 inch Eagle with a wingspan of approximately congruent length would need to swoop-down after 44 years of watching over Lake Erie and the Queen City. “Even in that light wind Sunday, observations by our engineers showed the tip of the pole with 400lb eagle swayed in a circle about 3 ½ feet in circumference.”[6]  The project would be a challenge, “removing and lowering the bird admittedly is a task to test the ingenuity of the best steeplejacks.” [4]
“The Leaning Tower of Pisa” act that was taking place above the city’s Terrace would be taken down at a cost of $1,500.  The pole stood 175 feet tall and would have to be taken down in sections.  The riggers had a tremendous job on their hands. The possibility of taking the Pole down for mending and then re-erecting was said to be hardly worth while. [7]
Buffalo’s 1939 Mayor, Thomas L. Holling, received a proposal by the Port Leyden Museum curator, Alfred Ward, of Lewis County to buy the bronze Eagle for their museum collection. [1] Thirteen days later, the official new nest, for when the Eagle would land, was announced after some other disputed considerations were made first.  The grand, symbolic Eagle that was perched atop the city’s soon-to-be departed Liberty Pole was brought into consideration in 1939 to be draped over the new Municipal Auditorium entrance. Lovejoy District Councilman, and Democrat, John Ulinski interrupted the consideration by saying, “not unless a donkey goes along side it.” The Common Council then voted to turn the 400 lb. bronze Eagle of freedom over to retire at the Buffalo Historical Society. The proposal from the Port Leyden Museum had been officially denied. [2]
The three ton pole was dismantled section by section on the 6th of September, 1939, even though that date was almost postponed due to a dispute regarding labor and unions.  Approximately 3,600 feet of cable and rope, a “gin” pole, acetylene torches, and an army of men were utilized to lower history to the pavement from the city’s skyline.   Chris Poulson accepted the dangerous job, as he had a lengthy resume of working on church steeples, skyscrapers, and smokestacks. William Higgins & Sons Company provided him assistance. The shaft where the Eagle sat was taken down first.  The Eagle took its final flight that day.  It “reached the pavement at12:15 o’clock this afternoon, climaxing a ticklish feat.”  Within days the symbol of American Independence was vanished from Main St. and The Terrace and would remain a memory.  This loss would bring forth the dawn of the Memorial Auditorium. [8,9]
The Aud. lived approximately 70 glorious years here in the Queen City.  With the Aud. also being a simple memory now, I propose the idea of reincarnating the beloved Liberty Pole that was once the hub of the city. Each of the four Liberty Poles held congruent symbolism, being freedom and patriotism, but each was a little more grand than the previous one. If we could build a fifth Liberty Pole, one that was even more grand, we might see a focal point for future redevelopment. The historic Terrace district linked downtown and the waterfront. We could use a new, reincarnated Liberty Pole as a way to reinstate that link, along with the area’s vibrant past and tie it in with modern ideas and technology.
[1] North Country Offers Home For Doomed Liberty Pole (7-6-39)
[2] No Eagle -or Donkeys – Will Adorn Auditorium (7-19-39)
[3] Bend in Liberty Pole May Date From 1894 (7-1-39)
[4] Old Liberty Pile Faces Scrap Pile (6-28-39)
[5] Flag Pole Leaning? (6-26-39)
[6] Rust Spells End of Liberty Pole (7-3-39)
[7] Liberty Pole Doomed To Go; Courier Express (7-4-39)
[8] Riggers Ready to Raze Historic Liberty Pole (9-6-39)
[9] Labor Dispute Fails to Halt Liberty Eagle’s Last Flight
[10] Conspicuous Public Ornament Erected in 1838; Buffalo Courier, 7-5-1895
[11] Long May It Stand; 7-5-1895; Buffalo Courier
[12] Razing of Bent Liberty Pole Will Erase Ancient Landmark; Courier Express; 1939
Photos and captions: WNY Heritage Press –
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Lead image: Early sketch of Buffalo’s first “Liberty pole” at Main and Terrace. The balconies at left are from the Mansion House; the towered building at right is the Terrace Market. Photo source: Severance, Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo
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^Liberty pole #2, 1866 at the same location as above. Photo source: Severance, Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo. At left behind the Liberty pole is the Spaulding Exchange.
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^1902 map showing the location of the 4th Liberty pole, 15 feet from the original location of the previous poles.
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^Liberty pole #4 , 1939, just before it was demolished. Photo source: WNY Heritage. The foundations of the Memorial Auditorium are visible behind the Liberty pole; it was constructed on the site of the Spaulding Exchange.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

I’ve always liked Rochester’s. It’s a modern interpretation of the Liberty Pole that works well in a variety of ways. Unfortunately, to anyone who doesn’t understand the history of it, it can come across as an odd Christmas decoration. It looks like Buffalo’s was situated under the current 190, so no point in trying to be historically accurate about the location. The Canal Harbor area is close enough, and certainly fits the bill as an appropriate gathering place to house a new one. Would love to see the ECHDC or the city incorporate plans for a new pole at Canalside or the Naval Park. Perhaps invite submissions for the project so the 5th pole can be seen as more than just a flag pole or weather vane by people who are unfamiliar with the symbolism. Our 21st century Pole can be much more sculptural in appearance than a simple “stick”.
Yeah, this is very cool, something I’d never heard of before and would love to see recreated.
Tremendous research, Danielle-congratulations. I really like this concept because it is authentic to Buffalo, was truly part of our history and can be reconstructed (with a modern interpretation, as Deaner puts it). I really tire of peoples’ need to appropriate ideas from other cities–we have a rich history here, let’s rebuild that. (I wouldn’t mind reconstructing some of the adjacent buildings as well…..
Lets bring back that Liberty Pole! Buffalo has a bigger pole than Rochester (not that we are measuring). Chuckle Chuckle. Its a guy joke. Seriously Buffalo should celebrate and bring back as much of its golden age of prosperity as possible. Buffalo has the history and culture to be the equivalent of a Boston or Philadelphia of the Great Lakes.
Campaign For Greater Buffalo is also supporting this, in conjunction with re-establishment of the historic street grid on the site of the former Aud. As you can see from the old map in this article, the re-establishment of Commercial Street from the Commercial Slip all the way to Main would provide a direct link to a re-established Liberty Pole.
I like both these proposals.
Cuba NY already has a 150ft pole. We need to beat this! http://www.wellsvilledaily.com/news/x1886165722/Cuba-erects-150-foot-flagpole

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