Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Discovering Burchfield's Buffalo

I grew up in the Buffalo suburb of West Seneca.  It was pretty ordinary, as suburbs go, but West Seneca was special in one regard: a famous artist once lived there.  My father told me this when I was a kid and it was kind of a magical thought, since Buffalo in the 70s and 80s was not always seen as particularly remarkable.  I knew even then that artists usually lived somewhere more exciting, like New York City, so a famous artist living in a regular everyday place like West Seneca made it special and gave me an early pride in my hometown.  The artist was Charles Burchfield.

Burchfield wasn’t from Buffalo (he grew up in Ohio) but moved to the city as a young man and lived in the area until his death in 1967.  He lived within the city of Buffalo for a short while but eventually settled in what was then called Gardenville (Gardenville in now a neighborhood within the larger town of West Seneca).  That Burchfield lived in a place called Gardenville makes sense, seeing as how he’s perhaps most well-known today for his fantastical nature scenes.  But, Burchfield also documented Buffalo’s industrial landscape, capturing the infrastructure around the Buffalo River and Erie Canal.  Railroad architecture, grain elevators and bridges feature prominently in his earlier work, and some of them are still standing.  Some of these structures feature in Burchfield’s painting called Black Iron, so I decided to look further in to them.

Charles Burchfield, Black Iron, 1937

Black Iron is a watercolor painting created in 1935.  It features two railroad drawbridges (technically called bascule bridges) running parallel across a river.  A train can be seen crossing one of them.   Several of these bridges cross the Buffalo River as it weaves between the countless grain elevators that still feature prominently on the city’s waterfront.  Since there’s such a high number of these bridges still around (many of them still used by trains), I figured that this was where Black Iron was painted.   I didn’t know if the bridges Burchfield saw were still around, but when scanning the river from the air via Google Maps I quickly found that there was only one possibility for the location.
  On the edge of Red Jacket River Front Park and just south of South Park Avenue, two side-by-side railroad bridges cross the Buffalo River.  It’s the only place where two bridges cross the river at such close proximity to each other.  Could this be the place that Burchfield painted 80 years ago?  I couldn’t really tell from the Google Maps pictures.  All I could really see was that they were drawbridges, and that the one on the left (the west) was locked in an upright position.  Railroad tracks no longer cross that one, and it’s been up for as long as I can remember (even though I’d never seen the bridges up close until I started this story, the raised drawbridge is visible from a distance, and can be seen from the highway when driving in to the city).  In order to know for sure if these bridges were the ones featured in Black Iron, I would have to see them up close.
I traveled to Red Jacket River Front Park on a warm and sunny day a couple of weeks ago and made my way to the bridges, which are located at the easternmost edge of the park.  One thing I noticed right away was how much plant growth separated me from the river.  Burchfield’s painting was done right from the river’s edge, and the view from the park’s path was different.  As I approached the bridges, I could see the operational one clearly, but the raised drawbridge was completely overgrown, obscuring the details of it from my current location.  The one bridge looked right but I couldn’t see enough details on the raised bridge to know if I was in the right place or not.  I was going to have to get closer.
The view of the bridges from the park. The passing train was a happy coincidence.
I retraced my steps a little and found a small clearing (not really a path per se) that led right to the water’s edge.  I made my way down there and was happy to see that there was a fairly substantial layer of driftwood and old plants that made a path of sorts along the river.  It was a little squishy in places but was solid enough for me to make my way towards the bridges.  When Burchfield was working on Black Iron, he got stuck in the mud so badly a railway worker had to pull him out.  I didn’t want to suffer the same fate so I proceeded carefully.  As I made my way towards the bridges, I started to get a better look at the raised bridge and started to see signs that I was in the right place.  For starters, the pattern of trusses on the bridge seemed to match what Burchfield had painted.

This was encouraging, but I needed to get closer to the bridge to try to see more if it.  The bridge is almost completely overgrown and I still couldn’t see much more than the raised deck.  I continued to make my way to the base of the structure.  I was soon close enough to the bridge and could finally glimpse some of it through the thick underbrush.  Peering over a short concrete wall I found myself face-to-face with the bridge’s massive counterweight.  Even though it isn’t in the same position as in the Burchfield painting, I could see that it was clearly the same shape.  I could also see an elevated catwalk that’s also visible in Black Iron.  I was now convinced that this was the same bridge.  

I looked around at some of the other pieces of bridge architecture I could see from my position.  To my right there was a platform made of steel girders.  I knew that this was the platform that once held the shed next to the bridge in Black Iron.  The shed (probably some sort of control room) is long gone, but the platform that held it is still there, as are the steel structures above the platform, also visible in Burchfield’s painting. 

I could see by comparing the bridge to the painting, Burchfield created an incredibly accurate depiction of the bridges.  The placement of the big and small architectural details of the structures is pretty remarkable.  It’s also remarkable that enough of the unused bridge is still there in order to make a positive identification.

As I searched for more information on the bridges, I came across the following picture.  This photo shows the same bridges and further confirms the location.  This picture was probably taken in the 1940s or 50s (judging by the look of the cars) and at that time the little shed on the side of the west bridge is still there and looks pretty much the same as it did when Burchfield painted it years earlier.  Also, you can see the hint of a water tower looming over that bridge in the background.  This tower is still there too (you can't see it in any of the pictures I took but it's definitely still there).  You can make your own comparisons:

After slogging through the underbrush to get closer to the bridges I feel closer to Burchfield, too.  I’ve always felt close to him spiritually due to our shared residency in West Seneca, but now I feel closer to him physically as well.  I was able to stand in almost the exact spot he did, and that made him more real somehow.  The bridges in Black Iron weren’t generic or anonymous, but these bridges.
When Burchfield painted Buffalo’s industry, he was painting a landscape that was changing.  By the 1930s, the greatness of Buffalo’s shipping industry was already starting to fade a little, and his paintings show this transition.  Black Iron shows two bridges that were still being used, but other paintings depicted rusting and decaying structures.  My visit to the bridges reinforces this idea of change and transformation.  In future posts I hope to find more of the places and buildings Burchfield painted while he was one of Buffalo’s most famous residents.

Next time, a new topic.  It might be someplace you've never been.