Scajaquada Creek was named by the native people of the Neutral Nation, who were the earliest recorded inhabitants of the river. The name, Scajaquada, meant “beyond the multitude,” and it reflected the abundance of natural resources in and along the stream. The wide-open grassy delta at the mouth of the creek was a spiritual refuge. People of the Iroquois Nation moved into the area later as did many French fur traders. Settlers moved in soon afterwards, and in the early 1800s, the first American naval yard was built along its banks. During the War of 1812, a battle with the British ensued at the mouth, which ended with the burning of Black Rock settlement and Buffalo, which had grown to 500 residents.
As Black Rock and Buffalo rebuilt, residents settled along the banks of the Scajaquada Creek, established businesses, and began the first modifications to the creek. The delta was partially filled in and straighten to build the Black Rock harbor, and the stream began to be used as a convenient place for the disposal of waste. As a consequence, by the mid 1800s, cholera broke out in Buffalo. Consequently, the city began using the natural Jubilee Springs, which flows under what is now Forest Lawn Cemetery, as the city’s drinking water supply. With a fresh source of drinking water available, the creek continued to be used as a vehicle for disposing of sewage, dead animals, garbage and industrial waste from the production of steel, acids, ammonia, chlorine, enamels, lacquers, paints, perfume, inks, shellac, turpentine, varnishes, coal tar, asphalt, creosote and many more products.
In the late 1880s, Frederick Law Olmsted dammed part of the Scajaquada Creek to create Gala Waters, which was also called Delaware Lake and later Hoyt Lake. The large body of water with bays, islands and docks became the centerpiece of his beautifully designed Delaware Park. However, by the early 1900s, it was evident that the lake had become polluted by the creek that was feeding it.
By the 1920s, the residents of Buffalo could no longer endure the stench and the health hazards created by pollution found in the stream. In response, they spent six years and $4.5 million to bury the creek in a tunnel 15 to 30 feet underground. The project was called the Scajaquada Drain. A few years later, sewer lines that had crossed the stream were removed so that they could feed directly into the creek. Soon afterwards, Gala Water had become a sewage depository and was closed to the public.
To alleviate some of the sewage issues, the Delavan Drain was built under the Scajaquada Drain to intercept pollutants created upstream of the old tunnel and to redirect most of water and sewage to the treatment plant at Bird Island. As the city and suburbs continued to grow, additional storm sewer lines were built to flow into the creek. During periods of heavy rain or quick snow melt off, the excessive water from the storm sewers overwhelmed the sewage disposal pipes along the entire length of the creek. When these systems could not handle the extra flow, untreated sewage, chemicals and other pollutants flowed directly into the stream. These overflows continue to this date.
In the 1960s, Olmsted’s design for creating a green space of quiet solitude for the residents of Buffalo was destroyed as the Scajaquada Expressway was constructed right through the middle of Delaware Park. Significant parts of the park and lower sections of the Scajaquada were also filled in and channelized.
A decade later, Gala Water (Hoyt Lake) was dredged in an attempt to clean the body of water and to separate it from Scajaquada Creek. As residential developments continued to grow outside the city, even though the population was dropping, frequent overflows from the creek continue to pollute the lake with sewage and toxic chemicals. Since there was no longer any circulation of water in the lake due to the constructed barrier between the lake and the creek, water from the aquifer that fed the Jubilee Springs was pumped into the lake. As the aquifer’s water level dropped so did the water in the neighboring ponds of the Forest Lawn Cemetery, which were filled by the natural springs.
As Cheektowaga continued to grow, it experienced frequent flooding from the creek and related property damage. In the 1960s and 70s, the Army Corp of Engineers began a major flood control project in the township that removed four hundred trees, stripped vegetation from twenty-three acres and rerouted and channelized two miles of the creek and three other miles of its tributaries.
In the 1980s, the Walden Galleria Mall construction took over 65 percent of the creek’s remaining wetlands rerouting and channelizing the stream. The remaining stream sections upstream of Cheektowaga have also been rerouted through fields, around property lines and through culverts. The water has also been stored in man-made basins and channelized through development areas. The very small remaining “wild” sections of the stream continue to be reduced as new residential developments are scheduled to open in the next couple years.
Unfortunately, the story of the Scajaquada Creek is not uncommon amongst other tributaries of the Great Lakes or streams in general across the nation. Concern for water pollution led to establishment of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, which stated that no person could discharge a pollutant into navigable waters without a permit. By the beginning of the 2000s, there were approximately 60 permits allowing pollutants to be introduced into Scajaquada Creek. During this time, the Department of Environmental Conservation was researching 14 Lake Ontario and two Niagara River tributaries. Their data concluded that fish born within the previous year in the Scajaquada Creek had the highest PCB levels of all the tributaries surveyed.
Presently, there are many community, city, county, state and federal groups and agencies working to address what has been done and what continues to occur to the stream. Their hopes are to create a cleaner body of water that will replenish the Great Lakes while providing a safe recreational venue for the 100,000 residents who live within its watershed as well as for the other communities downstream, such as Tonawanda and Niagara Falls, that are affected by the pollution of their waters and coasts.
There are many options available to alleviate the pollution. Some are more expensive, complicated and divisive than others.
Some of these solutions include:
- eliminate overflows of raw sewage by controlling excessive storm water run off and clogged pipes
- build storm water retention basins and system storage tanks
- develop a vegetated buffer zone along the creek to slow and filter some of the pollutants
- establish storm water infiltration structures such as basins, trenches, permeable pavement, modular bays pavement to collect and filter the majority of runoff from small storms
- implement dry and wet retention basins and wet ponds to capture runoff and pollutants
- increase street sweeping, which can remove 50 to 90% of street pollutants including various chemicals and litter
- conduct road and stream cleanup for removal of bottled contaminants and trash control public use of storm sewers as pollutant disposal sites
Communities across the country, like Buffalo and its surrounding municipalities, have come to appreciate the use of urban waterways and greenways as venues that can improve the quality-of-life of all of their residents while providing economic opportunities for new sustainable businesses. While the residents along the creek and nearby municipalities have made progress in making the Scajaquada more accessible to the public, a great deal more can be done to revive the stream’s role as a natural asset and not the mere conduit for the removal of sewage and pollutants that it has become over past several centuries.