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Visiting North Tonawanda, New York: the Wurlitzer Building and the effects of the 1890 McKinley Tariff

Updated on March 9, 2012
State flag of New York
State flag of New York | Source
Wurlitzer Building, North Tonawanda, New York
Wurlitzer Building, North Tonawanda, New York | Source
William McKinley
William McKinley | Source
Map location of North Tonawanda in Niagara County
Map location of North Tonawanda in Niagara County | Source

Heritage feature recalling the history of Protectionism

This building, which features on the Tonawandas' Talking Heritage Tour (1), dates from 1908. For more than a century, the entrance tower of the building, with its two-storey bay window feature, has been a prominent landmark near Niagara Falls Boulevard. The former Wurlitzer Company, responsible for the building's inception, had been present in North Tonawanda, New York (previously known as Martinsville), since 1892.

With NAFTA and the efforts of successive, recent US Administrations towards international trade liberalization, the period of history characterized by an officially acknowledged Protectionism may sometimes seem like a remote era.

The American Civil War period was characterized by the raising of tariffs by the Federal government to generate income. After the Civil War, it proved hard to commit influential industries, which were benefiting from the competitive advantage derived from tariffs, to reconcile themselves the permanent lowering of tariffs.

The Buffalo, New York area has often noted, significant associations with William McKinley (1843-1901), President of the United States 1897-1901, since it was at the Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo that he was assassinated. This tragic event in September 1901 naturally overshadows the many other aspects of Mr. McKinley's career, not least, that of US Senator. In 1890, Senator McKinley sponsored the Tariff Act, sometimes referred to as the McKinley Tariff, which had a profound effect upon commercial activity. Some US manufacturers were jubilant, because of the competitive advantage which this gave them over foreign importers. Other companies were far less happy with this measure and one of these was the Wurlitzer Company. Rudolph Wurlitzer was an Ohio businessman, of German extraction, whose family had been involved for generations in the manufacture of organs: these continued to be manufactured in Europe, and shipped for sales purposes to the US part of the family business. However, with the McKinley Tariff, which made a virtue of Protectionism, it became uneconomic for these organs to be shipped from Europe, because of the heavy duty which they incurred, as finished products.

Thus, with commercial lawyers interpreting McKinley's Tariff precisely, the Wurlitzer business decided to import the materials used for the organs, but to assemble them in the United States.

So it occurred that the Wurlitzer Company located to this part of North Tonawanda. Organs were thus manufactured here for several decades. During the years of the Depression, attempts to cut costs by the use of more inexpensive materials were adopted, but oragn production ended finally in 1942. During World War Two, the building was used for the manufacture of components for US Navy contracts. Various business are today housed in different parts this extensive building.


(1) Commentary is available at 1640AM frequency.

Also worth seeing

Wheatfield (distance: 5.6 kilometres) the war memorial on Ward Road features the display of a Bell helicopter and a tank.

Bergholz (distance: 9 kilometres); this hamlet is a 19th century German settlement with the 'Das Haus' museum, Lutheran churches and a small nature habitat.

How to get there:

A number of airlines fly to Niagara Falls International Airport (distance from North Tonawanda : 9.7 kilometres) from various destinations in the Southern United States. Continental Airlines flies from New York Newark to Buffalo Niagara International Airport (distance from North Tonawanda : 21.9 kilometres). Niagara Falls Boulevard intersects the I-290, which links with I-190 to Downtown Buffalo, NY and with I-90 to Albany, NY. From Canada, accessible via the Rainbow Bridge, the QEW links Niagara Falls, ON with Hamilton and Toronto. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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