The Scajaquada Drain: Buffalo's Massive Infrastructure Project

Consider this number: $52,203,462. This inflation-adjusted total is the amount the City of Buffalo spent between 1920 and 1925 to cover the Scajaquada Creek from the city line to Delaware Park. This amount was paid entirely by the residents of Buffalo through bond issues; there were no New York State or federal funds available in the early 20th century.

Why was the most massive infrastructure project in Buffalo's history undertaken? The Scajaquada Creek, in its meandering course through neighborhoods from Bailey Avenue, Genesee Street, Fillmore Avenue, Humboldt Parkway, and Main Street, had long been a source of grievance by residents. In the spring, homes around the Bailey Avenue area regularly had flooded basements. Other residents, with homes not connected to the city sewer system, emptied their sewage directly into the creek which, during summer, had very little water. Industries emptied their waste water into the creek, also. The waterway was a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Something had to be done.

As early as 1915, newspapers reported on the plans for covering the creek in three stages. Over 100 easements and titles had to be negotiated with near residents for part 1 alone. There was very little opposition to the project before it began.

The open creek before drain construction, looking toward Grider Street. Image source: WNY Heritage

Here is an article that fully describes the project:

Buffalo, N. Y., Is Doing Away with a Public Nuisance Through the Construction of an Underground Drain

By Patrick Kane, Jr. Buffalo, N. Y.
The American City Magazine  February, 1923

Three  years ago, at a general election, the people of Buffalo declared the Scajaquada Creek a public nuisance and voted in favor of having a large portion of it that which flows through the east side residential district converted into an underground drain. This, in substance, is now being taken care of.

The Scajaquada Creek proper flows through the entire north side of the city. Experts reckoned it a hard job, made difficult through the various obstacles to be overcome. Chief among these were the water and the rock problems. Hard, compact limestone was encountered just below the surface of the creek-bed. The drain itself, or rather that portion of it now under construction, is 6,000 feet long. And the average depth of rock to be excavated is 8 feet.

Estimated approximately, the length, is about six miles. The creek pursues a winding, diagonal course from east to northwest, emptying into the Niagara River. It serves as a non-sewerage drain to the adjacent territory, taking care of the outlying east side especially, where, because of land development, modern drainage has not yet been installed.

1900 map with the course of the creek highlighted. Image source: private collection

In accordance with the wishes of the people, action was begun on this underground drain at once. A survey was made, plans were drawn up and bids let, and the work started the following spring.

The drainage area of this creek is 22.40 square miles. During the summer months, the volume of water handled is very slight, but during the wet season the depth increases to as much as 8 feet. Estimating the width of the creek-bed at 45 feet, one appreciates that the volume of water carried by this creek is considerable.

In drawing up the plans for this work, Metcalf & Eddy, consulting engineers, of Boston, Mass., after carefully studying the project, submitted a report on three different types of drains as practicable for a work of this kind. The first type called for a dish-bottomed drain with side-walls, but no roof. This type was not recommended, and the city rejected it, as scum and refuse would collect on the surface of the open water in warm weather; also, the drain would form a breeding ground for mosquitoes. It would also have been necessary to bridge all street crossings for traffic purposes, thus entailing further expense.

The second type considered was a flatbottomed drain with side-walls and arched roof. The dimensions of this drain were considerably smaller than those of the first type, and it necessitated a detention basin covering, say, 500 acres of land at the upper end to take care of the abnormal flow of water, which this drain was incapable of handling during the wet season. The expense of buying the land to construct this basin would bring the total cost of this type of drain up to that of the third type. The city therefore rejected the second project as unsuitable.

The third project called for a flat-bottomed drain with side-walls and roof-arch similar to that of the second type, only larger. This type of drain was to be 14 feet high from the floor of the center of the roof-arch. The average width was 28 feet, and in some places it ran as wide as 33 feet.

This drain is capable of handling a waterflow of 5,600 cubic feet per second past a given point. This capacity was chosen after a careful study of rainfalls and flood flows, with the intention of making it adequate for such a flood as would probably occur about once in 25 years, after the district has reached such a point of development as it may attain in about 25 years.With the development in its present status, the critical flood would probably be met only once in 50 or 100 years. This is the drain selected by the city of Buffalo for Scajaquada Creek.

This drain does away with all bridges. In the present section under construction, six bridges have been removed, one of these a splendid, three-arch, massive stone structure which carried Humboldt Parkway. All streets crossing the new drain will be laid down over the arch, which will be constructed to sustain a load of 1,000 pounds per square foot, including its own weight.

Click through captioned photos below illustrating the stages of construction. Images source: various

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The Buffalo Dredging Company, contractors, are in charge of the construction of the new drain. They are using the best materials obtainable, every lot or shipment received being thoroughly tested several times before being used. For the concrete work, Pennsylvania portland cement is being used, the testing of which is in charge of the R. VV. Hunt Company. All steel used is tested by the Pittsburgh Testing Laboratories. The side-walls and roof of this drain are of concrete, reinforced with two rows or layers of 24-inch bars. These bars run horizontally as well as vertically, and where they cross each other are securely wired together so as to be held in place till the concrete is poured. On the top of the arch, about 9 inches separates the layers of iron reinforcement. In the side-walls, about 14 inches separates the rows of iron work. The arch throughout was designed for unusually heavy loads because of the probability of street crossings in locations which could not be foreseen, and also because of the possibility of the storage of heavy material over the drain in certain localities. The thickness of the concrete in the roof-arch is 12 inches at the center, sloping out to 21 inches near the sidewalls. The side walls are 18 inches thick, and are backed up by a solid, natural wall of limestone. The floor is of smoothly finished concrete, laid directly on the rock, the smoothness of the floor facilitating the flow of water by offering no obstacle on which sediment or silt can gather.

In the slope or grade given this drain, the amount of rock excavation was kept as low as possible; at the same time, sufficient cover was provided so that the arch might be protected and the small water pipes and drains could be laid below the surface. All large water-mains and sewers that cross this drain will be raised and laid on the top of the arch, and will then function by the siphon method.

Manholes are provided at street crossings, giving access to either end for entrance. Weepers of 5-inch vitrified pipe are provided every 50 feet at the level of 152 the bottom of the side-walls, to take care of water seepage through walls.

The forms used in the construction of the concrete arch are of the movable type on wheels and tracks. They are of steel and can be moved as the work progresses. In constructing the side-walls, steel forms were used, while for the overhead arch work the top surface of the forms was of wood. The wooden forms are well oiled, and the seams where the sections of the forms join together are covered with strips of thin sheet-iron to prevent the fresh concrete from leaking through. Once the concrete is set, these forms can be loosened, dropped down and run out from under the arch.

One portion of the old creek, approximating 1,200 yards, formerly ran a crooked course parallel to Florida Street. At one end, this creek ran directly alongside the street, and at another point it was over 100 feet from the street. The engineers, in laying out the course of the new drain, saw here a chance for improving the new course over the old one ; so instead of following the course of the old creek-bed, they made a new course directly through Florida Street. The street was dug out and the new arch-drain built within it. The old watercourse was then filled in, thus making additional land available for the use of the abutting property owners, should the city so authorize.

The cost of this drainage work is rather high on account of the existing market prices of materials and labor. In view of this, the city decided to divide the Scajaquada Creek job into three possibly four sections, and to proceed with the construction of each section as the financial condition of the city allows. The money to defray the expense of this improvement is to be raised by taxation, general or local, to be decided by the city authorities at a later date. In the meantime, the work on the first section is nearing completion 6,000 feet of underground drain, built at a cost of $1,449,000."

The covering of the drain and removal of the bridges and paving of the streets had to wait until after the project was completed which caused some complaints, needless to say. One visual example of the somewhat inadequate covering could be seen around 1594 Fillmore Avenue, as seen below:

Photo taken in the 1920s. Image source: WNY Heritage

2003 photo of the same area. (More recent paving has erased the small bulge)

After the drain was completed, complaints immediately arose regarding the smell and effluent emptying into what was then called Delaware Park Lake (Hoyt Lake). Fingers were first pointed at the creek's origin in Cheektowaga and it was agreed that improvements to that town's sewage treatment were needed. The city, however, discovered that overflow sewage was entering the underground channel from the Ferry Street trunk. One councilman proposed adding a sewage treatment plant at Delaware Park Lake; the idea was rejected. Dredging the lake periodically was done but the essential problem of pollution entering Delaware Park Lake has continued to be an issue into the 21st century.

Here is a link to an article from the January 22, 1925 Engineering Record magazine for those who wish to read more about the engineering aspects of the project.