Historians describe growth of Irish communities in Buffalo, Rochester

By Angela Wallin


Two Upstate New York historians, Carolyn Vacca and Tim Bohen, lectured on the economic and social impact Irish immigrants had on upstate New York during the early 19th century.

Carolyn Vacca, Associate Professor of History at St. John Fisher College and also Monroe County Historian, discussed the Irish community of Rochester. She focused primarily on the early immigration of the Irish that took place before the well-known potato famine era.

Tim Bohen, author of Against the Grain: The History of Buffalo’s First Ward, explained the irish community of Buffalo from the early 1800s until now. He touched on the the Irish immigrants’ relation to the Erie Canal, how the Irish migration impacted Buffalo, the daily life of those living in the Canal District in the 1800s, and the legacy that came from it all.

Vacca presented a slideshow that compared various maps and pictures of 19th century Rochester to what we know today. Through the pictures, Vacca was able to give specific examples of how the creation of the Erie Canal led to many changes and expansions of the Rochester community. Vacca concluded her presentation with crediting certain individuals from the first wave of immigration from Ireland that made their mark on the city of Rochester.

As much as people may not realize it it, Buffalo was also largely impacted by the Irish migration to America. Using city directories as evidence of the number of Irish families, Bohen concluded not many Irish immigrants were in Buffalo around the time of the canal construction But the success of the Erie Canal brought the Irish to Buffalo as there was a need for more workers with the skill set that many of them already attained.

This created the infamous Canal District, a lively and troubled Irish neighborhood that, although has calmed down a significant amount, still exists in Buffalo today.   

Bohen finished by looking at the legacy left behind as a result of the Canal District of Buffalo.

Many known persons of Irish descent living around Buffalo would be the 1927 Light Heavyweight boxing champion of the world Jimmy Slattery, as well as well-known hockey superstar for the Chicago Blackhawks, Patrick Kane.

Not only did Vacca and Bohen fill the air with rich history there was a sense of pride that reflected onto the crowd after finishing their tales of the Irish and their impact on the Erie Canal and Upstate New York.


Buffalo author Tim Bohlen's presentation centered on the growth of Buffalo's Irish population in the early 19th century, around the time the Erie Canal construction got under way. Map, left, shows how they moved from the First Ward around the mouth of the Buffalo River to the Eighth Ward, on the city's west side.