Western New York Heritage

Buffalo and the Great War, Part I: The War Before the War

August 1914

This bucolic summer scene in Delaware Park was typical of Buffalo’s experience during the early stages of the Great War in Europe. The city would not remain untouched for long, however.

Western New York Heritage Press collection

Mid-summer in Buffalo: in the words of the Buffalo Courier, summer calm” had settled on the city. “Suburban homes and club houses are scenes of social life and out-of-door diversions attract.” Many families were away for the summer, their travels duly noted in the society pages. Some of those remaining in town announced luncheons and “at homes” to introduce friends to visitors stopping off in the Queen City. Lucy Lincoln of the Buffalo Evening News could be relied upon for helpful tips for the hostess.

The BufFeds—later to be known as the Blues—Buffalo’s major league baseball team, were contenders in the Federal League pennant race. The Canadiana ferried amusement seekers across the Niagara River to the park at Crystal Beach, while steamers like the Seeandbee invited vacationers to embark for Cleveland, Detroit or further points on the Great Lakes.

In the City’s department stores it was the height of the summer bargain season. Men’s suits were $7.50 at The Liberty; H.A. Meldrum offered ladies’ summer dresses at prices ranging from $0.59 to $5.00; J.N. Adam promoted its annual sale of ostrich plumes ($1.29 to $2.98, with free trimming).

Larry Schlafly, manager of the Federal League’s Buffalo Blues, poses for a pregame photo with Lee Magee, manager of the Brooklyn Tip-Tops, 1915.

Library of Congress

Cross-border activities flourished. Americans joined their neighbors to celebrate the centennial of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. Others, with a more contemporary focus, planned to attend a major suffrage rally to be held at Crystal Beach, which was to include an address by pioneering Buffalo attorney Helen Z.M. Rogers.

The steamer Kensington, with its load of iron ore, was the first vessel to pass through the new “Government” (Black Rock) Lock. Buffalo schools were ready for the September dedication of new buildings housing Masten Park, Hutchinson and Technical High Schools. The Common Council officially renamed Michigan Street as Michigan Avenue. City Hall announced the appointment of the City’s first female police officer. Though unarmed, she would have full police powers and would be assigned to look after the welfare of “strange, friendless and penniless girls” passing through the Exchange Street railway station.

And, of course, no snapshot of life in Buffalo could ever be complete without controversy over a development project. Civic leaders were distressed that a court had granted the petition of a group of “concerned citizens” to enjoin construction of a new passenger and freight terminal at the foot of Main Street for the DL&W Railroad deemed critical for the City’s future.


The centennial of the Battle of Lundy’s Lane (July 1814) saw numerous Americans cross the border to Niagara Falls to participate in the ceremonies, despite the tensions of a new war.

Courtesy Niagara Falls Public Library (Canada)

Across the Atlantic, the frantic diplomatic manoeuvers which followed the assassination in June of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary spun out of control through the month of July. By the first week of August declarations of war were being traded across the continent. Secure in the expectation of being home by Christmas, the youth of Europe marched off on what many thought would be a great (and short-term) adventure. All too soon, however, the heady euphoria of their noble crusade “for King (or Emperor) and Country” was swallowed up in the brutal reality of the front. Those fortunate to survive would spend the rest of their lives reliving the horrors of the “War to End All Wars.”

The War would not come home to Buffalo in earnest until after Europe had endured over two and a half years of carnage. Most Americans were content to follow Woodrow Wilson’s admonition that “any man who really loves America will act, and speak in the true spirit of neutrality. . .” which the President declared on August 4 to be the nation’s policy.

Notwithstanding the neutrality declaration, the people of Western New York were exposed immediately to the new realities. Canada imposed press censorship and ordered German and Austrian nationals to depart the country immediately, while aliens seeking entry were turned back at the border. Canada began to mobilize; military units throughout the Niagara Peninsula called for volunteers. 22,000 of the new enlistees were scheduled to sail for England on August 19. Rumors of possible saboteurs on the loose led to the stationing of troops to guard border crossings, railroad bridges and the Welland Canal.

Getting Home

The Buffalo Evening News chronicled the changes taking place along the U.S.-Canadian border during the early days of the war, these headlines dating from August 6, 1914.

Private Collection

Aliens residing in Western New York, principally British and German, who had outstanding reserve commitments began receiving orders to report to their units. Those recalled scrambled to settle their affairs, gather the necessary travel documentation and find ways to cover their travel costs. Others sought to volunteer to join the forces of their native countries.

As expatriates struggled to rejoin their regiments, Americans traveling in Europe were desperate to find a way home; government agencies and the press were besieged with requests for help in locating relatives and friends.

Lists of “missing” Buffalonians were published in local newspapers, with daily updates tracking the names of those who had or had not been heard from. Robert L. Fryer let it be known that he and his family were safe in England. Norman Mack assured friends that there was no need for concern over his welfare. Thomas F. Hickey, Catholic Bishop of Rochester, along with fellow pilgrims to Rome, managed to reach the safety of Paris. Mr. William A. Douglas had not been heard from. Anxiety mounted among his congregation at Temple Beth Zion over the fate of Rabbi Louis J. Kopand who, when last heard from, was “in the heart of war country.” Brewer Jacob Lang sought help in locating his stepmother, Mrs. Augusta Lang; there had been no news from Miss Norma Keen, believed to be pursuing the study of French in Liege, Belgium.

Many local businessmen faced being stranded and hastened to find a way to get home. William H. Andrews, President of the Pratt & Lambert Company was among these. With his corporate sales personnel he was fortunate to escape from the War zone on Mauretania, the last regularly-scheduled trans-Atlantic steamer to leave England. 

Much to the great relief of many, a local newspaper announced on August 4: “Evelyn Rumsey Not a Prisoner; Is at Bar Harbor.” For several days local readers had been riveted by accounts of the harrowing odyssey of Evelyn Rumsey, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Laurence D. Rumsey. She had sailed from New York on Tuesday, July 28, on the German liner Kronprinzessen Cecilie, bound for Bremen. About one third of her 350 fellow first-class passengers were Germans hoping to get home before hostilities broke out. Also on board was over $10 million in gold bullion and another $3.4 million in silver under consignment to London and Paris in payment of European bank loans to American corporations.

Kronprinzessin Cecilie—with Miss Evelyn Rumsey aboard—arrived safely at Bar Harbor, Maine on August 4, 1914. Note the ship's black funnel tops, which were painted by volunteers in an attempt to disguise the ship as a vessel of the British White Star Line.

Library of Congress

On Sunday it had been reported that: “Buffalo Woman on Liner Seized by British Boats.”  With war declared, the German vessel with its cargo had become a target; there were reports that she had been intercepted in the English Channel by British warships. The British government would neither confirm nor deny the report; North German Lloyd, the ship’s owner, had been unable to make contact. In fact, the ship was still in mid-ocean, about two days out from its first scheduled stop at Plymouth. During a dance on Friday evening, the Captain, Charles Pollack, summoned the men among the first-class passengers to the smoking room an announced that war had broken out. Hoping to avoid capture by a hostile warship, the ship had put about and was sailing back to America.

A group of financiers among the passengers offered to buy the ship and sail back under an American flag, but the offer was declined. The ship proceeded at high speed under blackout conditions and radio silence. At the Captain’s request, volunteers painted black bands around the ship’s four buff-colored funnels in hopes that any British warship encountering the Cecilie would mistake her for a ship of the British White Star line. The ship managed to avoid contact with British and French warships and finally sailed into Bar Harbor, Maine on the morning of August 4. Once in American waters, the radio room reopened for business so that the Rumsey family could receive the happy news that all was now well. Captain Pollack, a German reserve naval officer, was widely praised for his courage in bringing his ship, along with its human and metallic cargo safely to port. The Cecilie was interned in Boston until America joined the war, at which time the vessel was seized, renamed USS Mount Vernon, and set to work as a troopship.

Impact at Home

The impact the War might have on the Western New York economy was evident early on. Many imported products became unavailable to American consumers as European manufacturers switched to products needed for the War. British blockade of German ports cut off the supply of raw materials, especially chemicals and petroleum derivatives for which Germany had been the sole or principal source of supply for American industry. Former European markets for American goods were disrupted or closed. The ability to transport goods wherever sales might be made was impaired by the increased perils of sailing on the high seas, as well as the shortage of ships as private vessels were commandeered into war duty.

There was great concern for the grain trade for which Buffalo, at the time, was the world’s principal trans-shipping point. Not to mention the loss of customers in Europe, there were concerns that unavailability of ocean freighters could paralyze the grain trade. Grain buyers and shippers would be unable to finance their cargoes owing to cutting off of the London exchange. Grain traders feared that, if the war were to go on for more than three months, Buffalo’s elevators would be filled to capacity and grain would have to be held through the winter on board grain freighters or stored at the point of harvest until the oceans were clear and safe.             

Some industries reacted immediately by cutting operations in anticipation of hard times to come. With 65% of the company’s business based on sales to Europe, the Johnston Harvester Company announced closure of its Batavia plant, idling 2,000 workers. The Otto Coke Oven Company halted construction of a new coke plant in Lackawanna, resulting in the layoff of several hundred workers. Anticipating a drop-off in passenger and freight traffic, the Erie Railroad laid off hundreds from across its network and reduced work hours for many more. Other railroads in the Northeast followed suit.

Batavia’s Johnston Harvester Company was one of several local businesses whose reliance on European sales forced it to close following the outbreak of World War I.

Courtesy Genesee County History Department

Buffalo Forge Corporation decided to close down its fledgling climate control division to concentrate its efforts on an anticipated increased demand for heavy industrial products as a consequence of the war. In 1915 Willis Carrier, the engineer whose brainchild was the air conditioning technology, purchased Buffalo Forge’s air conditioning business. Before his inventions would transform domestic and commercial architecture, Carrier’s technology transformed the armaments industry by reducing greatly the risks of explosion in munitions plants.

When the outbreak of war caused the Buffalo Forge Corporation to cease work on its climate control division, engineer Willis Carrier decided to branch out on his own, forever linking his name to the air conditioning business.

Courtesy Carrier Corporation

Between 1911 and 1913 the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company began to produce trucks that were soon widely recognized for their reliability. In the fall of 1914, the French government began placing orders to meet its pressing transportation needs; 600 trucks were shipped to France between October and November of 1914. By war’s end, over 14,000 Pierce-Arrow trucks had been shipped to Europe, principally to France, but also to England, Belgium and Russia.

[Note: for more on the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company during this period, see Brooks Brierley’s “When Pierce-Arrow Went to War,” in the Spring 1999 issue. Copies still available.]

England’s Wolseley Motors purchased a number of 5-ton Pierce-Arrow truck chassis which it used as a base for armored vehicles for the Royal Marine Artillery. Armed with a two-pounder “pom-pom” cannon capable of firing four rounds per second, these units proved to be highly effective against enemy aircraft.

Britain’s Wolseley Motors fitted armor to a five-ton Pierce-Arrow truck chassis, then added a two-pounder, “pom-pom” cannon, creating an effective anti-aircraft vehicle which was used by the Royal Marine Artillery.

Private Collection

During the summer of 1914, aviation pioneer Glenn Hammond Curtiss was working on perfecting America, the largest flying boat of the day, in hopes of winning the $50,000 prize offered by the London Daily Mail for the first successful air crossing of the Atlantic. The deteriorating situation in Europe put an end to plans for the flight, as British naval vessels to be stationed along the route would no longer be available. Among the team working on the aircraft was Lt. John Cyril Porte, a member of the British naval reserves, who was recalled to duty as Britain mobilized. He persuaded the Admiralty to purchase America and a sister prototype, had the planes disassembled and crated and took them back to England on the Mauretania. Upon learning of the proposed shipment, Germany tried to intercept the shipment as contraband. U. S. authorities declared the shipment exempt since the planes were not armed.  

The British immediately saw the potential of the craft for coastal patrol activities and anti-submarine operations and were anxious to acquire more planes. Early in 1915, at the urging of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, the British government offered Curtiss a $15,000,000 procurement contract.  Curtiss was unable to meet the contract requirements at his Hammondsport, New York plant and lacked the resources needed for expansion. The British asked how much he would need. Intending to save transmission costs, Curtiss wired back, tersely, “75,000.” Admiralty personnel assumed the wire requested pounds rather than dollars, and sent Curtiss the equivalent of $600,000 against future deliveries of the Curtiss-Wanamaker Model H.

Curtiss used the advance to move to the former Thomas Flyer Automobile plant on Niagara Street in Buffalo. Not only did the move provide new manufacturing space, but provided access to needed skilled manpower and proximity to most of Curtiss’ suppliers, which were mostly Buffalo companies, as well as the opportunity to use Lake Erie as a site for future test flights.  

At the Niagara Street plant, at the behest of the U.S. Army, the company also developed an airplane combining features of its successful “J” and “N” models to produce the fabled Curtiss “JN,” or “Jenny,” a versatile two-seater aircraft which proved to be highly reliable and easy to fly and would, among other uses, become the principal training vehicle of the Royal Air Force. Soon, planes were being produced at the rate of 100 per week. By the War’s end, Curtiss had produced over 10,000 aircraft.

The Home Front

In 1914, one third of all people living in America were either foreign-born or had a parent from overseas. Buffalo’s flourishing German, Polish, Italian and Irish and other ethnic populations were proof for that statistic. The ethnic mix caused some to worry that war news from their homelands might set neighbor against neighbor. President Wilson’s Neutrality Declaration gave voice to fears that results might be “fatal to our peace of mind and might seriously stand in the way of our duty as the one great nation of peace.” However, in Buffalo, on the day after war was declared, “feelings among the foreign populations of the city were tense yesterday, but the police were not called upon to deal with any outbreaks.”

Buffalo Evening News August 5, 1914.

Private Collection

Countless Western New Yorkers agonized over the fate of loved ones in the war zone. Their concerns generated strong public interest, which received wide coverage in the local press. Coupled with pleas for empathy for those suffering from the war, there were also, very soon, strong efforts to elicit support for various of the warring parties. These efforts, in turn, became vehicles for nudging public opinion in favor of one or another of the belligerents.

German-Americans were wholeheartedly on the side of Germany. In their view, Germany’s actions were defensive against external threats to Germany’s well-being. German-language newspapers promoted loyalty to the Fatherland, encouraged the purchase of German War Bonds and appealed for “fairness” in reporting on developments in the conflict. Rallies were held to promote support for the cause, with speeches made in English and German. One early gathering featured Senator Gottfried Wende who spoke in English on “What German-Americans Have Done for the United States,” while another lectured in German about “German Ideals.” Early on, Italian-Americans were hopeful that Italy would remain neutral and avoid Belgium’s fate.

Some other ethnic groups were inclined to favor “the enemy” of their “enemy.” Many Irish-Americans, embittered by generations of struggles over independence for Ireland, openly sympathized with Irish support for the German cause. Jewish-Americans, many of whom had fled Eastern Europe on the heels of Tsarist pogroms, also tended to favor Germany since Germany was at war with Russia.

Numerous newspapers around the country published a series of Kriegs-Albums, which contained images of German and Austrian soldiers and civilians from the war zones. This edition, printed by the Buffalo Demokrat, is dated June 19, 1915 and features the heir to the throne of Austria on the cover.

Author’s Collection

Those with ties to nationalities in territories controlled by the five great empires engaged in the conflict were confronted with a dilemma: whether victory or defeat of imperial forces would better serve their kinfolks’ post-war prospects. Poles faced a more complex dilemma, to choose among Germany, Austria-Hungary or Russia among whom Poland was partitioned – in effect setting neighbor against neighbor. Tsar Alexander held out prospects of a willingness to sponsor an independent Slavic state were the Triple Entente prevail. Many Polish emigres were unmoved by the promise of statehood, arguing that no-one could trust the Russians.

The press in Buffalo did its best to remain even-handed. For example, in the first weeks of the War the Buffalo Courier began a front page feature of “Latest Bulletins for German, Polish and Italian Readers” daily updates (“Das Neueste Vom Krieg,” “Ostatnie Wiadomosci Wojenne” and “Bollettini Della Guerra”) on developments in their homelands in German, Polish and Italian.

Notwithstanding their strong support of one or another of the countries involved, any animus was, for the most part, directed against the combatant nations themselves, and not against their neighbors of a different persuasion. It is noteworthy that during the period from 1910 to 1917 Buffalo’s Mayor was an ethnic German, Louis P. Fuhrmann.

Good Neighbors

During the early years of the war, Buffalo newspapers regularly published the latest war news in multiple languages, in an even-handed attempt to cater to the region’s ethnically diverse population.

Private Collection

Ethnic Germans, Italians, Poles and others raised funds to help the needy of the warring nations through church, fraternal and patriotic organizations. Clothing and medicines were also collected and sent overseas.

The absence of a combat role did not prevent Western New Yorkers from aiding those in need overseas.

The YMCA International Committee called on chapters to send staffers to Europe to aid in processing and resettling prisoners of war. Two men from Buffalo took part, one serving “somewhere” in Germany and the other “somewhere” in Austria.

The American Red Cross issued a call for medical personnel to serve in the war zones. Physicians and nurses taking part would be limited to native-born Americans so as to ensure an appearance of absolute neutrality. Mayor Fuhrmann led a campaign to raise funds in support of humanitarian efforts in Europe to relieve suffering on the battlefields. Donations were encouraged as reciprocity for funds donated for the benefit of Americans from European nations during the Spanish-American War.

Prior to swaying from neutrality, Charity bazaars were held around the United States, in order to raise relief funds for the widows and orphans of German soldiers and their allies. Though this poster was created for the bazaar in New York City, Buffalo hosted a similar event in 1916 as well.

Library of Congress

By the second week following the War’s outbreak, a discernable increase in the cost of flour, sugar and other basic foodstuffs spawned rumors of profiteering. Thomas F. Cooke, of Buffalo’s Charity Organization Society feared in particular the potential impact on the City’s poor: “this jump in the cost of food will cause great suffering in Buffalo,” he lamented. The Housewives’ League immediately involved themselves in gathering information on prices and urging government to look into the matter. U.S. Attorney John Lord O’Brien launched an investigation into whether prices were being manipulated in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The Housewives’ League pledged to continue monitoring the market for groceries and consult closely with the O’Brien investigation.

A Turning Tide

Over time, Germany’s U-Boat raiders became more and more aggressive. At first, vessels sailing under flags of neutral nations were allowed unhindered passage. In time, however, as the stalemate in the trenches dragged on and Germany’s domestic situation worsened, seaborne raider activity increased and neutral shipping became targets. In hopes of driving Britain to the peace table, Germany sought to strangle British supply lines and inflict on the British population the same degree of hardship as its own citizens. In the United States, President Wilson ignored the attacks on neutral shipping in hopes thereby of keeping America out of the war. However, the mounting property losses were accompanied by an increasing civilian death toll. No event brought the message home to America more emphatically than the sinking on May 7, 1915 of the Cunard liner Lusitania, which was torpedoed off the Irish coast with a loss of 1,198 souls of whom 124, including East Aurora’s Elbert Hubbard and his wife, were American.

The sinking of RMS Lusitania was a turning point in American attitudes towards the war in Europe.  Among the 124 American passengers lost on board the liner were Western New Yorkers Elbert Hubbard and his wife, Alice.

Library of Congress

After nine months of soul-numbing tales of the horrors in the trenches, news of the Lusitania’s sinking and an accumulating revulsion over the increasing loss of life to women and children marked the start of a gradual change in Americans’ attitudes. The brutality was evidence that some of the fundamental underpinnings of a civilized society had now been fractured. Although America’s war was still two years away, the country was on an inexorable path few dreamed possible only nine short months earlier.



[NOTE: The next installment of this look back at Buffalo and the First World War will examine preparations for and the start of the conflict.]

The full content is available in the Summer 2015 Issue.