The Great Gatling Land Boom, Hamburg, New York

gatling

On Saturday, June 3rd, 1893, Dr. Richard J. Gatling, the inventor of the Gatling machine gun, laid the cornerstone of the great Gatling Steel Plant beside Eighteenmile Creek in the Town of Hamburg. The new plant was to employ a thousand men in the production of heavy steel guns using a new casting process invented by Dr. Gatling. Surrounding the plant site were the neatly laid out streets and numbered lots of the future model industrial city of Gatling, New York. Over three thousand people attending the dedication ceremonies listened as Dr. Gatling predicted that the city of Buffalo would reach a population of one million and Gatling would become a thriving manufacturing suburb that could avail itself of the great electric power from Niagara Falls.

A few months earlier, in November 1892, George M. Bailey, a former reporter and city editor for the Buffalo Express, and a group of New York City investors organized the Gatling Ordnance Company. The company was to manufacture heavy ordnance for coast defense and naval purposes. Guns of six to twelve inches caliber would be made under patents held by Richard Gatling. The Gatling process used a method that allowed the guns to be made in one casting, rather than put together in sections and bound with hoops.

On November 6, the Board of Directors of the Gatling Ordnance Company met in their offices at 63 Wall Street in New York City to decide upon a location for their steel works. Sites at Philadelphia, Duluth and Marion, Indiana, where natural gas was to be supplied free of cost, were rejected in favor of the site near Idlewood Station in the Town of Hamburg, New York.

Idlewood Station was located just south of Lake View where the Pennsylvania Railroad crossed the present North Creek Road. According to the Buffalo Express, “The site of the proposed town is well chosen and commands a fine view of all the surrounding country. The town is cut in two by Eighteen-mile Creek, a lively, sparkling stream which flows through a kind of canyon with precipitous sides of solid rock about 100 feet high. The hamlet of Idlewood can be seen nestled among the trees about 2 miles as the crow flies, from Gatling, and the natural beauties and picturesqueness of Eighteen-mile Creek are some of the attractions which make this place so popular as a summer resort.”

Natural beauty wasn’t the only reason for choosing the Idlewood site. Proximity to the Eighteenmile Creek gorge was also cited as one of the primary reasons for selecting the Hamburg site. In order to cast guns of immense size, it would be necessary to build a mold. The one to be constructed at Gatling was to be 20 feet in diameter and 75 feet deep. The neighboring ravine would be connected with the bottom of the mold and used as a natural drain.

The superior rail and water facilities of the site were also described. Coal, lumber and Lake Superior iron were said to be much cheaper than anywhere else where the other necessary conditions existed. It was proposed to widen and deepen the creek to allow lake traffic to reach the plant. Proximity to natural gas was another advantage of the Idlewood site. A gas well had recently been drilled at Wanakah less than a mile away and another was to be started on the Gatling Ordnance Company property within 30 days.

Soon after the directors of the Gatling Ordnance Company had accepted the site at Idlewood, George M. Bailey, who had brought the Gatling directors to Buffalo, organized the Gatling Town Site Company and set about in secret to purchase the land surrounding the site of the steel plant. A map was made of the area with the names of each owner and the size of his farm, and Daniel McIntosh, Dr. George Abbott of Hamburg, Charles Roberts and N.B. Wood of Angola, John Kinney, assessor of the Town of North Evans, and Fayette Read, justice of the peace of North Evans, were enlisted to negotiate with the owners of more than thirty farms. Their objective was to secure a solid block of property nearly two square miles in area and to purchase it at its current farm value.

By December, contracts had been filed with the Erie County Clerk for the purchase of all the land between Lake View Road and the Eighteenmile Creek gorge on both sides of the current Conrail and Norfolk and Western tracks and extending eastward toward the Village of Hamburg for a distance of three miles. The contracts provided for a cash down payment, usually $50, with a further payment to be made upon delivery of the deed and the balance due by mortgage payable in two to five years. Some of the farms were purchased for prices as low as $95 an acre. On January 7th, George Bailey transferred all the land contracts totaling 1,028 acres to the Gatling Town Site Company of which he was president, in return for 8,000 shares of stock. The total amount required to obtain title to all the farms would be $160,000 plus interest. The entire property had been secured for less than $200 an acre.

After the purchase of the land was completed, the engineering firm of Ricker & Wing moved in to survey the property. Two teams of surveyors and engineers were at work daily in spite of bad weather, the men boarding at the hotel in North Evans. Maps of the tract as a whole as well as each of the thirty-four farms were made and levels taken every five hundred feet. Streets, parks and boulevards were laid out. Section one, nearest the railroad tracks, was divided into 45 blocks of 1861 lots, each 33 by 120 feet in size. The factory district, including the 20 acre site of the Gatling Steel Plant, was located east of the railroad tracks between Idlewood Avenue (now North Creek Road) and the north bank of the Eighteenmile Creek gorge. Another 100 acres more were to be reserved for other factories including a shoe factory, a brickyard, a planing mill and a stoneyard.

The City of Gatling was to be a model industrial town. No liquor was to be sold within its limits and every deed was to contain a clause forbidding forever the sale of liquor on the premises. Buyers were promised no taxes for two years and “no objectionable industries” were to be located within the city. A park was to be made from the woodlot of one of the farms.

Plans were announced for the construction of a hotel to be built before spring on the bank of the creek between Idlewood Station and North Evans. It was to cost $10,000, and be built in Gothic style with 30 rooms and have all modern conveniences. A lot was donated to the Layman’s Missionary League of Buffalo for an Episcopal chapel, the League having agreed to begin holding services as soon as the building was ready. Mr. J.D. Bostwick from Simcoe, Ontario had bought some lots and erected a few cheap houses. The first issue of the Gatling Weekly news appeared some time in January, published by the Gatling News Company at 473 William Street in Buffalo. The owner, Mr. Work, formerly editor and proprietor of the North Tonawanda News intended to move the paper to Gatling “… in due time.”

In January, George M. Bailey and Dr. Gatling were in Washington, D.C., where they sought an appropriation from Congress to pay the expense of manufacturing two guns for experimental purposes. A bill was to be introduced appropriating $100,000 for one 10-inch and one 12-inch rifled, high power steel Gatling gun for coast defense.

An unsuccessful attempt was made to move the Gatling Machine Gun Company from Hartford, Connecticut to the new site in Lake View. George Bailey made several trips to Hartford and Gatling Company officers came to Buffalo to view the Gatling site. An option on the company’s shares was purchased. Buffalonians were cautioned not to confuse the two Gatling companies, “There is the Gatling Ordnance Company; capital stock $1,000,000; makers of heavy ordnance structural steel, and heavy castings. Their works are now being built at Gatling … there is a Gatling Machine Gun Company at Hartford, Connecticut, makers of the rapid-firing field guns. We haven’t got them yet but hope to get them.”

One investor, Colonel Robert C. Wood of New Orleans, who purchased an interest in the Gatling Ordnance Company, also bought six lots on the main boulevard when he visited the site in February. It was reported that he gave one of the lots to his aunt, Mrs. Jefferson Davis, and another to her daughter, Mrs. Hayes of Colorado Springs. They all planned to build cottages in the summer and Colonel Wood believed that Mrs. Davis’s home there would make Gatling a popular place for prominent Southern families “who were getting tired of Newport and other expensive fashionable watering places, and would like a home near the shores of one of the Northern lakes.”

On April 3rd, 1893, work was begun on the Great Gatling Steel Plant. The excavation of a large pit, to be used for the casting of heavy guns was begun. A railroad siding running east for a half-mile through the factory district was built. Construction of the main furnace building was to begin “as soon as the materials were laid upon the ground.”

In May 1893, one of the largest promotional campaigns in Buffalo’s history was begun. All the Buffalo papers were carrying advertisements for Gatling. A Gatling machine gun was on display in the city. Lots were being sold from the Gatling Town Site Company offices at 24 Erie Street “on easy payments to responsible people, at prices from $250 to $750 each, less 25 per cent reduction.” They were also selling stock in the Gatling Town Site Company at $100 per share.

Near the end of May, the newspaper advertisements began trumpeting announcements of a free excursion to the June 3rd dedication ceremonies at Gatling; “ONLY NINE DAYS MORE!”, “ONE WEEK MORE!”, “NEXT SATURDAY – DON’T FORGET!”, “TO – MORROW!”, “… make arrangements to attend the Dedication Ceremonies at Gatling, formerly Idlewood Station. You can do it without expense. All nature is at her loveliest. The country is full of wild flowers. The air is pure and laden with the fragrance of many orchards in bloom. Gatling is Buffalo’s most beautiful suburb, 8 miles southwest from Buffalo on the three great trunk lines of railroad. You can live at Gatling and work in Buffalo. You can live at Gatling and work at Gatling. There is every convenience now at Gatling. Telegraph, telephone, express messenger service, frequent trains, beautiful drives along the shore of Lake Erie, pure air, pure water, perfect drainage. Lots sold on weekly or monthly payments.”

The Buffalo Express was particularly vocal in expressing support for Gatling, “… it is not the intention of the Company to push the sale of these lots by excursions or flaming advertisements … nothing will be boomed. Nothing will be exaggerated or misrepresented … no Sunday excursions will ever be run.” The Erie County Independent, a Hamburg newspaper, was a little more skeptical, “… we are down on all this system of booming … remember that certain classes of boomers are schemers. Let our readers be wise and act accordingly.”

On Saturday, June 3rd, 1893, the dedication ceremonies were held at Gatling. Over 3,000 free tickets had been distributed at the Gatling Town Site Company offices at 24 Erie Street in Buffalo. A special train left the Central Depot on Exchange Street at 10 A.M. with ten cars crowded with people. The train was run out on the new siding which extended across the Gatling site. Visitors witnessed the firing of 500 rounds of blank cartridges from the Gatling gun which had been on display in Buffalo for several weeks previously. The shoe factory of the Lehman Company, employing 50 men, was to have been in operation that day but apparently never did open even though the machinery had been installed.

Another inventor, Captain Lina Beecher, was selling stock in his newly formed Beecher Single-rail Company. His company was to manufacture and sell a new type of street car or railway coach which was designed to run on one rail. He had a wire strung across the Eighteen Mile Creek gorge with a small sample car on it.

At 11 A.M. George Bailey introduced Dr. Gatling, the inventor of the Gatling machine gun, who gave a short address. The corner-stone of the main furnace building was then laid. It contained a copper box in which were copies of the previous day’s Buffalo papers, a list of the officers and stockholders of the Gatling Ordnance Company, some coins, a steel engraving of Dr. Gatling and a printed biography of his life, and a list of officials of the state, county and city governments.

A large tent had been set up midway between Lake View and Idlewood and a free lunch of sandwiches, crackers, cheese, hot coffee and lemonade was served at noon to about three thousand people by a caterer from New York City. Music was provided by the Buffalo Cornet Band. Shortly after lunch, Jere Johnson Jr., a real estate auctioneer from New York City and president of the Brooklyn Real Estate Exchange, climbed up into a carriage and opened the sale. The first lot was sold for $250. The carriage was then rolled forward to the next lot where the bidding continued. The bids came quickly and over 30 lots were sold in an hour and a half at an average price of $215 per lot or almost $2400 an acre for farmland that had been purchased for as little as $95 an acre only six months before. At two-thirty in the afternoon, the crowd was greatly enlarged by the arrival of a second train from Buffalo. By 6 o’clock, about 175 lots had been sold.

The return train to Buffalo comprised 18 well-filled coaches and was said to be the longest passenger train ever to arrive in the city. The next day, the Buffalo Express said “The Town of Gatling has been placed before the public in all the glory of electric-lights and mechanical effects and those interested say the boom will never die.” The Erie County Independent merely wished “… success to all honest, meritorious enterprises.”

After opening day, all the excitement quickly died out. By the end of June, rumors had started that the Gatling Ordnance Company was in financial trouble. Little or no payments were made on the land contracts and many of the farms remained uncultivated during the season, the farmers not knowing whether they owned them or not. Stock in the Gatling Town Site Company soon became worthless. In August, it was reported that Walter G. Hopkins had obtained a judgement against George Bailey in Superior Court. The Sheriff was instructed to attach sufficient of Bailey’s property to satisfy the judgement, but reported that “he had been unable to find any real or personal property to attach.”

By September, there had been little change at Gatling. The shoe factory and the railroad switch were sold at a sheriff’s sale, leaving nothing to mark the site of the city of Gatling except the casting pit and a granary used occasionally as an office. In December, the Industrial Land Company, successor to the Gatling Town Site Company, began buying up old claims for land and labor. They promised to go slower and on a more solid footing and encouraging results were promised for the following season.

The Gatling land boom left a bitter memory with Buffalonians for many years. Today, however, few remember and little evidence remains. The train station at Gatling, which soon reverted to its previous name of Idlewood, no longer exists. The shoe factory building soon after was sold to George Heath of North Evans who tore it down and used the lumber to make a house for his berry pickers. Later, he tore that building down and used the lumber again for an addition to his home.

In 1895, one section of the property was sold to the Queen City Cycle Company which built and operated a large bicycle factory until early in the next century when the cycling craze died out. Most of the property eventually reverted to its original owners after they returned the deposit that they had been paid. George Bailey, the Gatling Town Site Company and the Industrial Land Company did not completely divest themselves of their interest in all the property until 1900.

The great pit for cooling the huge castings could be seen until 1942 when the Pennsylvania Railroad removed all the soil around it for fill during the construction of the new railroad bridge over Eighteenmile Creek. Burke Road, one of the streets laid out by the surveyors during the winter of 1893, is still in use today.

This article first appeared in the Winter 1999 issue of Western New York Heritage Magazine.

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2 thoughts on “The Great Gatling Land Boom, Hamburg, New York”

    1. I’d love to know. I haven’t seen any indication of what happened to it. I assume it was removed at some point. I’ve walked the site which has been somewhat obliterated by subsequent construction of the bridge.

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