How Geography Helped and Hurt Buffalo.


Today, the city of Buffalo has a population of 258,071 people. This is a far cry from its 1950 peak of 580,132 people. Buffalo’s rapid fall in population is characteristic of American cities located in the Rust Belt(such as Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, etc). However, with Buffalo, one particular case to consider is geography.


Geography has helped Buffalo grow. It is also been Buffalo’s down fall. Buffalo was a major break-in-bulk point. This is where goods are transferred from one mode of transportation to another. Buffalo is located along the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Goods would often traverse from the upriver cities such as Montreal and Quebec City to Detroit and Chicago. After the Erie Canal was built, this connected Buffalo to New York City via the Hudson River. With Niagara Falls standing between Buffalo and the rest of the watercourse, a stop at Buffalo would be necessary. Goods would have to change modes of transportation at Buffalo. Goods coming from upriver along the Saint Lawrence Seaway would break bulk in Buffalo, and goods would be shipped further west from there.

And then Niagara Falls itself was a major benefactor. The waterfalls provided water power for the mills that would crop up in Buffalo. Buffalo became a major flour milling center.

This is where geography has become Buffalo’s downfall. The Welland Canal was built in the province of Ontario, along the Niagara Escarpment. The Welland Canal extends from Port Weller,ONT to Port Colburne, ONT. Because of the canal, ships traversing the Saint Lawrence Seaway can travel west and descend the Niagara Escarpment without going to Buffalo,NY.  There is no need to break bulk anymore. In addition to the decline of the steel industry in Buffalo, the city of Buffalo would be bypassed because of the canal. Fewer ships going through the canal means fewer goods going in and out of Buffalo.

Buffalo’s geography helped it become a major shipping and manufacturing center. Geography would also hurt it. Break in bulk shipping has been declining due to containerized shipping. However, for Buffalo, the ability to be bypassed due to an alternate waterway expedited this process.


Buffalo’s economy is transitioning from a mainly manufacturing economy to an economy centered on the medical industry, financial industry, biomedical engineering, education, and technology. There is one thing hurting Buffalo, in geographic terms. There is a trend for more working professionals to move to large southern cities(such as Atlanta, Charlotte, and Nashville), Texas(Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin,etc) and western cities(Phoenix, Denver, Portland, etc). Buffalo has a markedly lower cost of living than the aforementioned cities. However, these cities have an advantage. These cities have milder climates than Buffalo. Even with Denver’s cold winter, it has the advantage of being less cold, having drier air and having the Rocky Mountains nearby for recreation.

There is something else to consider. Buffalo is the snowiest city of 250,000+ residents. The city gets close to 95 inches (240-241 cm) of snow each year. Buffalo is the 8th largest metropolitan area in the Great Lakes region.  Of all of the metropolitan areas, only Buffalo is projected to lose over 150, 000 people (not just Buffalo city). Cleveland is next on the list in terms of snowiest cities with 250,000+ residents. However, it occupies the 4th highest spot for Great Lakes metropolitan areas. Of the top 5 metros in the Great Lakes region, only Cleveland metro gets close to 90 inches of snow annually. Chicago, Milwaukee, Toronto, and Detroit all get high snowfall totals. However, none of those metros average snowfall totals above 55 inches of rain annually. Buffalo and vicinity averages 95-100 inches of snow annually. While this is good for the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, it isn’t good for living in urbanized areas. While the Great Lakes region becomes very cold in the winter, the most populated areas of the region are in the areas that don’t receive the most snow. Why does Buffalo get so much snow, but not Detroit, Chicago, or Toronto?

The Lake Effect. This is what happens when northwesterly winds swept down the Great Lakes. Chicago and Toronto are located on the western and northern shores of their respective lakes. The winds hit those cities before hitting the lakes. Buffalo and Cleveland, on the other hand, are along the southern and eastern shores of their lakes. The winds pass the lakes, picking up moisture, and then snowfall is deposited in large amounts on those cities. Cleveland became markedly larger than Buffalo and has not had to deal with the same geographic bypassing that Buffalo has dealt with. Detroit, though part of the Great Lakes region, is on the Detroit River, and not on a lake. It doesn’t get much of the lake effect. And being a river city, Detroit is still an important shipping corridor.

If leaves alot to wonder what might be next for Buffalo. Manufacturing and transportation geography helped Buffalo. The decline of manufacturing and its geography have hurt it as well. It has gone from a break in bulk point to being bypassed thanks to the Welland Canal. It has gone from a major manufacturing center to becoming a city where white collar industries are the growing industry. Buffalo’s economy can still benefit from white collar industries. Its low cost of living could make it a place for a young professional to move to. However, its particularly harsh winters are likely to make a comeback difficult. The trend in the USA is to move to cities in the southern and western USA. This is due to relatively milder climates, more recreational opportunities, and the growing economies in many of aforementioned places. While the Great Lakes region is not a place where many professionals are seeking to move to as a whole, Buffalo is being hit particularly hard by its own geography.

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