Tonawanda is the northwest corner town of Erie county, and is bounded on the north by the river and county of Niagara, on the east by Amherst, on the south by Buffalo, and on the west by Niagara River. It comprises township 12, range 8, of the Holland Company’s survey, and a mile strip along the river lying in the State Reservation, and. contains about 12,555 acres. It was formed from Buffalo on the 16th of April, 1836, and originally included Grand Island, which was set off in October, 1852. The principal stream is Ellicott Creek, flowing through the north part of the town and emptying into Tonawanda Creek, which forms the northern boundary. The surface is generally level. The soil is a clayey loam along the Niagara and a sandy loam in the interior. The western, central and northeastern parts are mainly devoted to agriculture, while much of the remainder is platted and occupied by suburban residences. Large quantities of garden truck are grown for the Buffalo market.
About 1811 a blockhouse was built in Tonawanda at the mouth of Tonawanda Creek, and in August, 1812, was occupied by sixteen soldiers; it was burned. by the British in December, 1813, as were also all the buildings in the vicinity except the house of Mrs. Francis, a daugh ter of Robert Simson. James Burba, who had settled in the southwest part of the town, where he kept a wayside inn, was murdered by three soldiers of the regalar army in 1814, one of whoth escaped; the others, Charles Thompson and James Peters, were tried, convicted and executed at Buffalo in June, 1815. This was the first civil law trial and execution in Erie county. John Foster subsequently purchased the Burba property and also kept a hotel.
In 1816 Edward Carney, father of James, settled on Tonawanda Island. About that time a school was opened in the village, the teacher being Ephraim Kelsey. Soon afterward Peter rraylor opened a tavern there. A contract let by the canal commissioners in 1823 to Judge Samuel Wilkeson and Dr. Ebenezer Johnson, of Buffalo, for the construction of a dam across the mouth of Tonawanda Creek and three-fourths of a mile of the Erie Canal, gave a substantial impetus to Tonawanda village, which was laid out that year; these contractors also built a toll bridge over the creek. The canal was opened in September, 1825.
The Buffalo and Niagara Falls Railroad, the first steam railway in Western New York, was opened through Tonawanda in 1836 and the Canandaigua and Niagara Falls Railroad in 1854; both of these roads are a part of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad system. The Niagara Falls branch of the Erie Railroad was built in 1870. Besides these there is the Buffalo and Tonawanda Electric Railway, built in 1890—91, and the Buffalo and Niagara Falls Electric Railway, built in 1895.
About 1865 Tonawanda began to be an important lumber center, though it did not assume remarkable activity in this respect until after 1870. Col. L. S. Payne erected the first steam saw mill in 1847, and in 1850 Merritt Crandall started another. Soon afterward Simson, Woolson & Whaley built mills, Butts & Co. and others engaged in the stave trade, John A. McDougall & Co. engaged in the timber and lumber business, and Brunson & Co. became dealers in square timber and in 1857 bought a cargo of lumber from Canada, and B. F. Betts interested himself in the lumber trade. In 1865 A. B. Williams and A. G. Kent purchased the mill of Merritt Crandall and later those of Frederick Smith and Robert Koch; Mr. Williams continued in the business many years. William Everson had another early planing mill, which passed to Homer & Daniels, and from them to George E. Hill. By 1875 the lumber business had become the most important industry in the place, and during the past twenty years has grown to enormous proportions. The quantity of lumber handled increased steadily until in its magnitude the “Lumber City “—as Tonawanda and North Tonawanda are sometimes called—now discounts all American points, except Chicago, as a lumber market. Michigan and Canada have long supplied the timber for this important business. Most of it is shipped in by lake, yet since about 1890 large quantities have been received each year by rail.