Buffalo Waterfront - Table of Contents

Buffalo, NY, Water Intake Building
(Emerald Channel Water Intake Building)

Built: 1907
Operational: 1913
Architect: Robert A. Wallace

On this page, below:
2007 photos

Bob Dearing, "Cobwebs Can't Hide Intake Beauty"

Helen Brady, 2019 photos

Sean Kirst, A Touch of Lonely Awe Amid Beauty and Spiders at Buffalo's Water Intake
2007 Photos

Lower right:  Erie Basin Marina Observation tower

2011 Photo From the Liberty Building

Backup water intake located near the Peace Bridge

Water from the Intake is sent through underwater pipes to the Ward Pumping Station where it is pumped throughout the cit

The 1907 building takes in 125 million gallons of drinking water for Buffalo every day. Because the intake operates by gravity, the building is rarely visited.

Water rushes into the round brick and concrete building through grates and collects in a circular pool. The water drops 60 feet to a 12-foot diameter, mile-long concrete tunnel burrowed under the river bed. It ends up at the Col. Ward Pumping Station at the foot of Porter Avenue, where it is treated at the filtration plant and sent throughout the city.

Atop the red roof is a guard light for passing ships. Around the exterior wall is a balcony embroidered by curving wrought iron.

- "Cobwebs Can't Hide Intake Beauty," by Bob Dearing, Courier Express

October 2019 photos by Helen Brady

Partial reprint

A touch of lonely awe amid beauty and spiders at Buffalo's water intake
By Sean Kirst
The Buffalo News, October 11, 2019 (online October 2019)

The round brick-and-stone structure is surrounded by water, at a point where Lake Erie squeezes together its great shoulders and muscles toward Niagara Falls. The intake, maybe three stories tall, sucks in the 70 million daily gallons of gravity-fed water that sustain Buffalo. It began operating in 1913, after workers spent years blasting through more than a mile of bedrock to create a 12-by-12-foot tunnel that links to the Col. Francis G. Ward Pumping Station at the foot of Porter Avenue.

For generations, the intake has inspired fascination in those admiring it from dry land in Buffalo, just as its long-closed predecessor – vaguely resembling the ruins of some Jules Verne submarine – triggers curiosity with its endless vigil near the Peace Bridge.


Capt. John Sixt gently brought the Cotter alongside the intake’s dock, where pumping plant superintendent Bill Appenheimer and his crew climbed off.

Appenheimer said the city does not allow casual tours because of security concerns. Still, the place was not always so lonesome. Going back a century or so, Appenheimer said, workers once stayed there around-the-clock. Old clippings indicate two workers had to be there at all times until 1924, to operate a chlorinator.

Today, the only lingering signs of residency are ghostly metal lockers, some knocked to the ground, in what might have been a bunk room – not far from a battered sink, an ancient toilet and an almost fossilized pair of shoes.

Nothing matters more to a city than clean water.

In the 19th century, Buffalo paid dearly for the way it treated such a gift. Raw sewage went straight into the river, leading to outbreaks of cholera. According to documents at the Buffalo History Museum, that crisis triggered the use of a new intake near what is now the Peace Bridge – until Dr. Ernest Wende, a Buffalo health commissioner who made the struggle a crusade, discovered that intake was responsible for typhoid.

The city desperately needed a safer water source. Col. Francis G. Ward – the Buffalo commissioner of public works – saw an answer in the Emerald Channel, beyond that flood of 1890s sewage, where on still days even now the lake shines a distinctive green.

In the first few decades of the 20th century, a legion of everyday laborers – eight of them killed in a disastrous collapse at the pumping station – helped build a system whose magnificence reflects “a celebration of water,” in the words of Paul McDonnell, former chair of the city’s Preservation Board.

Architect Robert A. Wallace designed the intake, with an exterior walkway circling the stone base.

McDonnell hoped to see those buildings, including the intake, given landmark status by the Preservation Board. Amid passionate debate last January, the effort failed to win enough votes. Oluwole McFoy, chairman of the city's Water Board, said he was concerned about the potential impact on plant operations, expenses and flexibility.

"Our primary reason for being is pumping water," McFoy said. "We're all on board with the historic nature, the landmark nature, of the facility, but we're not necessarily on board about an entirely different level of approval."

Photos and their arrangement 2007 Chuck LaChiusa
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