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Manufacturers Index - Buffalo Steam Engine Works
Last Modified: Mar 9 2012 9:35PM by joelr4
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      The old Buffalo Steam Engine Works, founded in 1841, had a long and important career. Acquired by George W. Tifft in 1857, the works were carried on by him and his family, in the firm of George W. Tifft, Sons & Co., for many years, turning out a very considerable part of the product of the city in steam engines, boilers and architectural cast-iron.


      The first complete engine built in Buffalo was constructed at the works of Wilkeson, Beals & Co., in the year 1829. This engine was built under the superintendence of Mr. John A. Hibbard, for the above named firm. Shortly after this period Mr. Hibbard went into business with Mr. Fairchild, and in 1831 and 1832 they rebuilt several engines, one of which was for the William Penn, one for the Ohio, then sailing the lakes, as well as several others. These gentlemen continued in business for a few years, but for want of capital were obliged to surrender to the pressure of hard times which came on about that time or a little after. Mr. Hibbard is now living in this city and keeps a small store on Carroll street. He is a veteran machinist, and has left his mark on the times in which he lives as an honest, industrious, warm hearted man. It may be that he has not amassed as much of this world's goods as some who have done less labor, still his memory will be as lasting and as green as if he had retired a milliouare. In 1831, a beam engine of seven inch cylinder and three feet stroke, was completed in their works for the Detroit Water Works Company. The firm continued to manufacture engines and machinery for a time, when it passed into the hands of Eli Williamson & Co., afterwards to Williamson, Clark & Co., and from that it merged into the present Buffalo Steam Engine Works. The first engine put up in these works was manufactured by Williamson, Clark Co., while the Buffalo Works were in process of construction, the fly wheel of which was taken from the engine of the old steamer Walk-in-the-Water, and is now attached to the engine made by the Buffalo Works, for a blast furnace in Tioga, Tioga Co., Pa.

      About the year 1829, Gibson, Johnson & Ehle, started a machine shop and foundry at Black Rock, where they did quite a large business in the manufacture of steam engines. The first engine built by them was for the steamboat Pennsylvania, which was the first marine engine ever built in Buffalo. They also made engines for the steamers Niagara, Henry Clay, New York and General Porter. After doing business a year or two, they sold to Gibson, Grayson & Co., who finally succumbed to the hard times of 1832 and 1833. A large amount of patterns and castings were bought by the Buffalo Works, after the failure of Gibson, Grayson & Co.

      In the year 1837, Eli Williamson, Robert Skilling and William Butterworth, three mechanics in moderate circumstances, inaugurated what is now the Buffalo Steam Engine Works. These three men commenced operations with the only capital they had, which consisted of a knowledge of their business, and the few imperfect tools they had on hand. They leased what was then known as the Wilkeson Foundry, situate nearly opposite the present Buffalo Steam Engine Works. It was here they went to work under adverse circumstances, but full of determination and hope. They struggled along for a while, barely earning enough for their daily subsistence. Not long after this Mr. John Hibbard, before alluded to, Mr. Stephen C. Clark, since dead, and Mr. Samuel Graham, joined interest with them, and furnished sufficient capital to establish a permanent business for those days, for the repairing of engines, and the partial manufacture of others, most of which was for marine purposes. Having met with sufficient encouragement in their labors, they were induced in the year 1840, to apply to the Legislature of this State for a charter granting certain manufacturing privileges. Accordingly application was made, and in the winter of that year a charter was granted to Eli Williamson, Stephen C. Clark, and Robert Skilling. The capital stock of the company was 1300,000, with a provision that when $50,000 was subscribed, and $25,000 paid in, the company were allowed to commence operations. The charter was perpetual, granting favorable privileges for manufacturing steam engines and machinery, and doing all manner of work in the iron line. Under this charter and agreeable to its requirements, the necessary stock was subscribed and paid in by the parties named in the grant . It is due to the memory of Mr. Clark to say that by his untiring industry and unflinching perseverance, the charter was obtained in the face of a formidable opposition and remonstrance’s from his fellow citizens at Buffalo.

      It may not be out of place in this connection to relate a little incident which occurred in the early infancy of our struggling young corporation. Shortly after it got into a prosperous working condition, it was suggested that they might possibly need, in the course of their business transactions, some bank facilities, although at that very time the concern had in silver laid away in bags about $3,000. Notwithstanding this circumstance, Mr. Clark thought it would do no harm to establish mutual relations with some banking institution, of which there were but three or four at that time doing a banking business. Accordingly, one day he made a note of some five hundred dollars, which he got endorsed by two responsible friends, and with it he and Uncle John Hibbard started for the Bank. The first approach they made was on the Commercial Bank, then doing a successful business in this city. On applying for the accommodation they were told by the officer of the Bank that they could not do the paper, as their limit was up and they had no money on hand. This was a little unexpected to the applicants, but they accepted the reason very mildly, and left in hopes of meeting with better success elsewhere.

      After making one or two applications with no better success, they finally entered the O. Lee & Co.'s banking office, where they were very cordially received by the shrewd President of that institution. Said they " We have come in this morning to ask you to discount a note for us. We are using considerable money in our business, and we have made a note with good endorsers, which it would accommodate us if you would discount." " Can't do it, can't do it," replied the President. " I have no faith in your concern; you will fail and we will be obliged to collect it of the endorsers. Can't do it, can't do it."

      By this time Mr. C. thought it became his duty to assert some rights he was entitled to as well as others who were having accommodations at this Bank, and straightening himself up in the dignity of his manhood, he said, holding out the note, " Mr. Lee, you will discount that note or one of us must prepare to take a whipping." The sagacious President looked at Clark for a moment and made up his mind that that note would be promptly paid. "Teller," said he, "give Mr. Clark the money on that note." " I don't want the money," said Mr. C. "What! You don't want the money, what do you want?” " I want," said he, " a bank-book and a check-book; we will check for the money as we need it." This was a little out of the fashion of doing business in those days, and it naturally attracted the attention of the President, as he supposed, if he discounted the note, the whole amount of the money would be immediately withdrawn from the bank. In two or three days after this occurrence, Mr. Clark collected the bags of silver, put them on a cart and backed up in front of the 0. Lee & Co.'s Bank. After unloading the treasure, he walked into the bank, where he met the worthy President, who very anxiously had been watching the operation of the last few moments. He asked Mr. C. what it meant. " Oh, nothing," said he; " we had this money which had been paid in by customers, and as we had no safe place to deposit it, and as we have succeeded in establishing relations with the' Bank, I have come to deposit it with you." The President was not a little surprised, but was more so when on invitation he visited the works of the Company, saw the comprehensive nature of their business, and was shown over 810,000 of accounts against some of the best concerns in the West and in Canada It is needless to say that ever thereafter the Buffalo Steam Engine Company; could get what money they needed from the O. Lee & Co.'s Bank without an endorser.

      In the year 1841, the Company bought a part of the land now occupied by them on the corner of Ohio and Washington streets, for the sum of $13,500, and erected the present workshops, foundry, &c. From time to lime since, additional land has been purchased, and buildings erected to accommodate the increasing business, until they have assumed their present imposing proportions. The first of these works was completed and in operation in 1842; business increased rapidly from that time, and for many years it gave employment to from 150 to 300 men. The iron at this time was mainly procured from iron works in Pennsylvania, owned in part by this company. The bituminous coal came from a mine owned by them in Pennsylvania. The anthracite coal came by Erie Canal, purchased in Albany. The business at this time was mostly confined to the manufacture and repairing steam engines. It was the intention of the Company at a future time to remove to a point where they could have a waterfront and more room. Consequently, in 1850, they bought of the Central Rail Road the tract of land lying on Buffalo Creek, at what is now the junction of the creek and new channel, comprising a front of four hundred feet on the creek and across Ohio street three hundred feet, as also two hundred feet on Louisiana street, nearly adjoining. This property is now owned by Mr. G. W. Tifft, on which he is erecting a large elevator. During the prosperous days of the Company some of the Directors of the Albany City Bank were on a visit to the city, when they were invited by Oliver Lee to take a look at one of our large iron establishments. He, with the Directors, called at the works; there they found the President, Mr. Williamson, dressed in a swallow tailed coat with one skirt torn off, and he looking as black as the iron he was forging. On approaching him Mr. Lee wheeled him round in the presence of the invited friends, remarking: "You are a d—lish pretty looking President." The Directors went back, no doubt, feeling safe in discounting all the paper the Company would offer; at least they said they would after looking at the President. We may remark that at the time we are writing, say 1837, there was in this city but one piston engine in operation; this was in Case's tannery. During the administration of John Tyler, the Iron Revenue Cutters Dallas and Abert were built at West Point, the engines of which were made by the Buffalo Works. This establishment also built the first trip hammer ever made in Buffalo. The first large shaft for a steamboat cast by Williamson & Co., was for the "Constitution." She had broken her shaft in 1839. To show how poor the facilities were in those days for casting large pieces, we may remark that they commenced at twelve o'clock drawing off the iron, and at six at night in hoisting up the ladle the rope broke; the ladle fell some five feet without spilling the iron, after which a new rope was procured and a good shaft cast without re-melting the iron. This shaft weighed about five tons. We have gone somewhat into detail in regard to the Buffalo Works, which may be pardonable on the ground of its being the pioneer in that line in our city; we have noticed how its early founders struggled against every vicissitude, and how, after years of hard toil and amid embarrassments of the most crushing character, it has lived and flourished; an example of what determined will, economical exactness and persevering effort can accomplish. Within the past few years the Buffalo Works have changed hands. New proprietors have come in, and the Works are now principally owned by G. W. Tifft, Esq., one of the most enterprising citizens of Buffalo, who is prosecuting the business with great vigor.

Information Sources

  • The manufacturing interests of the city of Buffalo by C. F. S. Thomas 1866 page 40
  • A History of Buffalo by the Progress of the Empire State Co. 1911, page 3
  • American Steam Engine Builders: 1800-1900 by Kenneth L. Cope, 2006 page 46