Buffalo River History Tours passengers learn about the SS Columbia, which is docked in the Buffalo River next to the historic grain elevators at Silo City. <span class='image-credits'>Dan Cappellazzo</span>

History of Queen City comes alive through tours on Buffalo River

She sits proud and majestic, right next to her namesake. The USS Little Rock LCS-9 arrived in the Queen City on Dec. 16, 2017, joining the U.S. Navy fleet already stationed in the Buffalo River (or is it Buffalo Creek?) where she was commissioned. The event was historic for our city and the broader community as this was the first time in the more than 240-year history of the Navy that a new ship was commissioned alongside her namesake. The USS Little Rock LCS-9 rests at Canalside, adjacent to the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park.

And what about her namesake? The USS Little Rock, the first Navy ship to be named for Little Rock, Ark., was commissioned in mid-1945 but completed too late to see combat duty during World War II. So what happened to her before she became an icon at the military park?

Looking off into the horizon, a large, twisting caterpillar arm stretches over the river. It looks as if it’s going nowhere, but it has stood gallant throughout time. The Buffalo Skyway is a limited access highway with exits to Ohio and Tifft streets and Fuhrmann Boulevard. From where is it coming? Where is it going? What historical significance does this concrete slab have to the city? What part of the city’s future includes the Skyway?

Looming large against the cityscape are multiple structures, behemoths of beauty that long to tell stories of olden days, even while entertaining present-day activities like book readings, tours, private parties, and festivals. Silo City is a destination all its own as part of the great backdrop of a once-industrial city that has been and is being revived, reimagined, reenergized. Stories of coal-fired kilns and being a powerhouse of the grain trade for 100 years cry out from the Buffalo grain elevators and yearn to be told and carried on from generation to generation.

Rich Hilliman knows these stories and more. He has been sharing stories about Buffalo’s rich history for the past 10 years from the helm of a boat. “I love the outdoors and I love boats,” he said.

Born on Buffalo’s West Side, Hilliman spent his childhood in Kenmore and Tonawanda, the eldest of three children born to hard-working people. From owning a bike shop or a dance studio—and other businesses in between— Hilliman’s parents modeled hard work, perseverance, and patience. When they had free time, the family spent weekends sailing Lake Erie, the Kinzua Dam, and Allegheny Reservoir.

Before settling down in the City of Light, Hilliman was out of state, experiencing adventures of his own. In college in Colorado, he majored in business and recreation. He recalls family and friends weren’t too sure of his choice of major, wondering what in the world he would do with that. But he persevered, and skied. After graduation, he headed to Key West, Fla., to see what weather without snow looked like and to run tall ships up and down the East Coast. During a stint in Baltimore, he met his future wife: They were both captains in the same tall ship company.

When an invitation came from Hilliman’s father to start a business together, it was an invitation that he couldn’t resist. At the time, Hilliman’s dad, Ric, was a captain of Miss Buffalo, Lockport canal boats, and the Moondance, and he “told me of the concept of Canalside before it was even conceived,” Hilliman said.

Together, Hilliman and his father charted a course called Buffalo Sailing Adventures, a family-owned and operated business that launched in 2008. The Spirit of Buffalo is a 73-foot coastal sailing vessel that is the only square rigged, topsail schooner sailing out of the historic Buffalo harbor. Just having celebrated 10 years in business, they continue to offer public sails or private chartered excursions from May through September. In the off-season, the senior Hillimans sail Sea Dragon around the western Caribbean.

Read about another entrepreneur who shares the history of the Erie Canal here.

Following in his father’s waves, the young Hilliman wasn’t content with owning just one business: In 2010, he launched Buffalo River History Tours, a totally separate entity from Buffalo Sailing Adventures. Through this venture on water, he is telling the marvelous stories about Buffalo’s coming of age in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“How cool is it that I get to be part of the growth of Buffalo?” he said. “I am so excited to be part of the rejuvenation here. This job allows me to satisfy my need for the outdoors, too.”

With two boats in his fleet, he is able to offer water tours—most of them are narrated by knowledgeable and friendly docents—and host private parties like reunions. The Harbor Queen holds 149 passengers and runs seven days a week from May through October. The River Queen holds up to 49 passengers and takes adventurers out two times daily.

“I am thrilled to have this great opportunity in my hometown,” said Hilliman. “I’m proud to be home and to have the opportunity to tell others about the key facts of our city, especially as they relate to the water.”

Hilliman believes that Buffalo is a destination. He says the entrepreneurial climate in the city is showing up in wonderful ways throughout the food service industry, the arts, and services. He hasn’t forgotten the early struggles of starting a business, like borrowing money to make his dream a reality, the mounds of paperwork, acquiring a liquor license, and overcoming perceptions about safety in the neighborhood and where was this new place—Canalside—anyway?

But he says it was all worth it. And each day it is worth it. Besides being able to do what he loves and support his family, he enjoys seeing the smiles on his passengers’ faces when they take in the beauty of the Buffalo River and learn something new about the region.

He credits his father, especially, for being a role model for a positive attitude in the face of struggle—you have to be willing to not make much money at first, said Hilliman —and for never giving up. And he hasn’t. If reviews on TripAdvisor are any indication, he is certainly cruising up the right river.

“Our tour guide was excellent,” wrote a reviewer. “This was our first trip to Buffalo/Niagara Falls. We enjoyed the escape from the Texas heat and learned so much about the Buffalo area and its history. I would highly recommend this tour.”


A local passenger had this to say: “As a native WNYer who never had access to a boat growing up, I have always been fascinated by the history of Buffalo during its heyday. The Buffalo River is a huge part of that history and this tour did not disappoint. The grain elevators are enormous and almost a bit eerie. Our guide was awesome. Enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable... If you are a tourist from outside Buffalo, you will be impressed with this tour. If you are from WNY, you must travel the river to really grasp an important part of its history….”

Hilliman is thankful for the success of Buffalo River History Tours and the 10-year anniversary of the Spirit of Buffalo. In the future, he envisions adding a trivia night cruise, themed parties, and pub crawls to his tour's menu of options. As water traffic increases—kayaks and more boats—it’s a challenge to claim space, but it is a challenge he gladly accepts.

Read more articles by Cynthia Machamer.

Cynthia Machamer earned a B.A. in writing from Houghton College and has more than 15 years of experience writing in the nonprofit sector. She moved to Buffalo in 2005, and her happiest moments are spent with her two grown children and her niece.
Signup for Email Alerts