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  • Lucas R. Watson

Architecture Around Buffalo: F. G. Ward Pumping Station

By: Lucas R. Watson

Buffalo is a city defined by the waters that grace our shores and have brought it great renown. One origin story about the naming of the village of Buffalo was from what was known as “Buffalo’s Creek,” where a Native American trader had set up a trading post. The land and river the trading post was set up alongside were known as Buffalo and Buffalo’s Creek, respectively. Our place at the terminus of the Erie Canal was not by chance but by deliberate design. The water has long been a source of pride for Buffalo. Our famed waterfront is even featured in the city seal.

The Colonel Francis G. Ward Pumping Station is one of the prominent features of our waterfront; finished in 1915, it is a staple of the waterfront with the iconic red roofs that adorn the complex. For most of Erie County, their water supply is filtered here and sent into pipes across the county. The water intake goes by several names. In a nautical sense, it is known as the Buffalo Crib Light (the official name is the Water Intake Building). It is also called the Emerald Channel Water Intake Building or the Red Roundhouse for its distinctive red roof. It can be seen from nearly any point along the waterfront and is famous on Buffalo's many-day cruises. It is located in a part of Lake Erie known as the Emerald Channel, given that name due to the emerald-colored water in the area. It is some of the freshest water in Lake Erie, coming in at about 20 feet deep. The roundhouse itself faces the brunt of most storms on Lake Erie. However, it faces no significant threat to its stability, as the walls are said to be around 20 feet thick.

The little red roundhouse and the pumping station are connected by a 20-foot wide tunnel in solid Lake Erie bedrock, over a mile in length. At the time and even today, it is considered an engineering marvel. I have met several people who have questioned how fresh the water is and what the complete filtering processes are, and I can confidently say that the water is some of the best-tasting and freshest water you can find on the Great Lakes. The water is chlorinated and purified to a high standard. Even since 1915, the pumping station has not yet been used at maximum capacity. Still today, we only use half capacity to supply all of Erie County, around 80 million gallons daily. Buffalo is in a position where we have abundant water and relatively low water prices compared to other population centers of our size.

The F.G Ward Pumping Station, before the COVID-19 pandemic, offered tours of its vast halls where some of the largest steam pumps in the world stand dormant. These tours happened once per year and were sporadic in their location. If you are in the Buffalo area and happen to have the chance to attend one of these tours, I am told by a few sources that it is a sight worth seeing, regardless of whether or not one has an interest in this subject. Portions have been modernized over the years, with one of the most recent and significant modernizations happening in 2008.

Buffalo has had a strong connection with its waters along our shores, and the F.G. Ward Pumping Station is one of the most prominent examples of early 20th-century engineering along the Great Lakes, still in use today and for as long as the City of Buffalo and Erie County need fresh, clean water. The Col. Francis G. Ward Pumping Station will remain in use as one of the city's most extraordinary public works projects.

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