Buffalo might be known today for its cold winters, famous chicken wings, and the nearby Niagara Falls. However, for many years, it was one of the gateways to the West and one of the industrial capitals of the United States.
Wanting to learn more about this history, I decided to hop aboard a river boat tour with Buffalo River History Tours.
Buffalo River History Tours offer guided trips along the Buffalo River aboard their large sightseeing boat throughout the warmer months of the year. Sightseeing tours last about 90 minutes and offer visitors the chance to go three miles inland along the Buffalo River and to see and learn about the area’s industrial past.
Unlike most river tours I’ve done where you’re taken through a beautiful area, the Buffalo River History Tour takes you through the industrial heart of Buffalo past and present. In fact, only a short distance after leaving the dock, we were able to smell the distinct smells of cereal being made in the General Mills factory adjacent to the river.
Nevertheless, the scenery that you see along the tour is quite fascinating and offers the chance to learn a ton about the history, present, and future of Buffalo, New York.
From the dock, the boat heads upriver along the Buffalo River. Within a few minutes, it passes under the incredibly impressive Route 5 bridge known as the Buffalo Skyway, which towers more than 100 feet above the river.
This is the first of three bridges that the boat passes under. The other two, the South Michigan Avenue Bridge and the Ohio Street Bridge, are much, much tighter fits.
In fact, unless water levels on the river are especially high, the boat passes under these bridges without them being raised. For those on the top deck, this means that you’ll have to stay seated and possibly even duck further while going under the bridges as the clearance is only a couple of feet at best.
While it’s a bit scary at first to be so close to the bottom of the bridge, I actually found this to be one of the most fun and memorable aspects of the trip.
As the boat plies its way along the Buffalo River, a guide offers information about the city, its industrial past, and the sights you are seeing along the way.
The most dominant aspects of the river’s shores are the giant grain silos, many of which are abandoned. Thanks to the Erie Canal, Buffalo was once the largest grain port in the world, and the silos here could hold more than enough grain at one time to make a loaf of bread for every single American.
On the outside of the silos, the boat passes several giant grain elevators. These were designed to help speed the unloading of cargo ships and were one of the main reasons that Buffalo was one of the first cities in the world with electric power.
One of the other highlights of the Buffalo River History Tour was passing by the historic SS Columbia.
The SS Columbia is the last remaining excursion steamboat from the turn of the 20th century (and has an interesting story from America’s Civil Rights Movement). Since 2015, she’s been docked in the Buffalo River while awaiting further restoration.
This is an incredibly beautiful ship, and it’s great to see such a historic sight on the tour. Hopefully, however, she will soon be restored and no longer be a deteriorating fixture along the river.
All told, the Buffalo River History Tour takes about 45 minutes to travel the three miles upriver to a spot just below a train bridge and Red Jacket Riverfront Park.
Once it turns around, it traces its route back to Canalside.
While narration continues along the way back, the scenery is the same, so it’s a great opportunity to check out the boat’s snack bar, which features a variety of packaged snacks, cocktails, beer, and non-alcoholic drinks. I was impressed that the prices of the snacks seemed to be no more than you’d pay in a restaurant on shore, so you don’t have to go broke getting a snack or drink on the tour.
When the boat returns to Canalside, if time allows, the boat heads briefly past the dock and onto Lake Erie.
Along the way, the boat passes by the mouth of the Erie Canal, the USS Little Rock, part of the fantastic Buffalo Naval Park, and the Buffalo Main Lighthouse. I found it really interesting to see all three of these historic sights from the unique vantage point of the river.
While the trip onto Lake Erie is brief, it does offer a nice change of scenery and a great view of the Buffalo skyline, as well as a distant view of Canada. It’s worth noting that the water here can be a bit rougher, so it’s a good idea to stay seated when the boat is out on the lake.
Overall, taking the Buffalo River History Tour was a great way to spend 90 minutes. Not only did I get to learn more about the history of the city but I also had a chance to see parts of the city that are hard or even impossible to see from land.
If you are looking for fun and unique ways to explore Buffalo, I definitely recommend taking this tour.
Buffalo River History Tours
Hours: Tours offered daily May-September
Cost: Adults: $25, Children: $13
Address: 44 Prime St