Monuments of a Vanished Prosperity - Table of Contents

Part II

Monuments of a Vanished Prosperity: Buffalo's Grain Elevators and the Rise and Fall of the Great Transnational System of Grain Transportation
Published in
Reconsidering Concrete Atlantis:  Buffalo Grain Elevators. L. Schneekloth (ed.). 
Buffalo, NY: The Urban Design Project and the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier, 2007, 17-42.

By Francis R. Kowsky

Note: This reprinting of the 2002 nomination excludes footnotes and includes some bold text and brown color text for easier reading.

Part II: Increased Grain Trade and the Evolution of Grain Elevator Design, 1860s-1890s

The Post-Civil War Era, 1865-1890: The Decline and Rise of Buffalo as a Center of Grain Transshipment

By 1860, the breadbasket of America had moved from the Ohio Valley to embrace the entire Great Lakes basin. New York and Pennsylvania bordered this vast expanse of wheat production on the east, Iowa and Missouri on the west, and Wisconsin and Michigan on the north. (Corn production had taken over the area to the south, including Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee.)

Much of the grain produced in these areas now found its way north across the Great Lakes to Buffalo. By 1860, American vessels on the lakes totaled over 450,000 tons of carrying capacity. From Buffalo, the grain of the lakes basin traveled by canal or railroad to the Eastern Seaboard. In 1861, Buffalo, which before 1825 had shipped local grain to market via the Ohio and Mississippi to New Orleans, was home to twenty seven grain elevators and did an annual grain business that totaled more than 50,000,000 bushels. The busiest time of the year for the port was from the middle of September, when the grain harvest began, until the middle of November when the lake traffic ceased due to ice and cold weather.

From the time of the Civil War to the closing of the American frontier in 1890, Buffalo experienced declining and rising fortunes as a center of grain and flour transshipment. Buffalo's fortunes were in large measure determined by developments in national transportation patterns and the shift of the nation's main wheat growing region from the Mid West to the Northwest.

From the middle of the 1860s to the middle of the 1870s, Buffalo maintained a strategic point in the movement of grain from the West to the Atlantic seaboard. But rivalries between the ever growing railroads and the lake vessels for the transport of grain eastward soon threatened the role of the city as a major point of transfer of grain from lake vessels to canal and rail transport.

In the ten years between 1875 and 1885, Buffalo was severely affected by the diversion of western grain shipments to railroads from lake steamers. During this period Midwestern railroads were able to siphon off a major portion of the grain transport business from the lake steamers. This was made possible by the consolidation of shorter lines into through lines, the laying of steel rails that permitted heavier loads to be carried than before by bigger engines, the construction of terminal facilities and railroad grain elevators and the manipulation of transshipment fees.

Shipping by rail became attractive to farmers because it was faster and cheaper than by boat and they could avoid transshipment charges because trains went directly to ports, bypassing Buffalo. By 1872, ninety-nine per cent of the flour and sixty-seven per cent of the grain shipped eastward from the Midwest went by rail rather than over the lakes. Insurance costs were also much lower to shippers and they could be assured that their grain would not be subject to heating the way it was on slower moving vessels and canal boats.

At the same time, the shipment of grain on the Erie Canal steadily declined. Chicago surpassed Buffalo as the leading center of Great Lakes grain trade during this dark period for Buffalo. From 1868 to 1875, Buffalo accounted for over half of the grain that arrived in New York City; after 1875, this amount was reduced to less than thirty per cent. To many observers, Buffalo seemed doomed to shrink into insignificance in the landscape of the American grain trade.

But the situation turned around dramatically after the middle of the 1880s. Buffalo was given a new lease on life as a result of the expansion of the hard spring wheat belt across Minnesota and the Dakotas. This major agricultural phenomenon (which was matched by a similar growth of grain farming in Kansas and Nebraska) was to restore the city to its position as the strategic transfer point in the westward to eastward movement of grain and flour.

These new grain fields of the Northwest were west of Lake Superior and far to the north of the central Midwestern rail system that was centered on Chicago. At the head of Lake Superior, Duluth now became the great collection point of grain for this new region as well as a major flour-milling center.

To get their products to markets, shippers restored wheat and flour traffic on the lakes. The journey by steamer from Duluth at the head of lakes navigation to Buffalo at the foot was about the same distance as from Duluth to Chicago.

In addition, new rail lines in Minnesota allowed millers and grain shippers to bypass the congested freight yards of Chicago and to shorten the distance to Atlantic ports by placing grain cargo on lake freighters bound for Buffalo at Gladstone.

"The ascendancy of the Northwest," observes Sweeney, "put Chicago off, and Duluth on, the direct line between the wheat areas and the Eastern markets; it also produced adjustments in the location of flour milling industry which passed the leadership in place and traffic from the Chicago lake and rail routes to the Duluth-Superior lake route."

As a result of these geographic shifts, Buffalo was back in business. By 1893, Buffalo handled two-thirds of the grain and over fifty per cent of the flour moving eastward from the thriving Lake Superior region. Moreover, by century's end, Buffalo enjoyed a stronger position than ever before in the advancing saga of west-to-east transport of grain and flour.

In actual volume, this meant that 128 million bushels passed through the port in 1891; by 1898 this amount had nearly doubled to 221 million bushels.

In 1885, a reporter informed the readers of Harper's Monthly Magazine of the marvel of Buffalo's nearly mammoth grain elevators. They formed "an elephantine procession a mile long, with a combined storage capacity of 9,250,000 bushels and a transfer capacity of 3,102,000 bushels, or, in other words, the power of receiving lake vessels and transferring to canal-boats and cars daily 3,000,000 bushels of wheat, a rate unequaled by any port in the country."

Optimistically facing the new century, Buffalo's extraordinary collection of thirty four grain elevators, in the words of industrial historians Thomas Leary and Elizabeth Sholes, "could unload, weigh, sort, and transfer huge amounts of grain from and to ships, or into storage for local use or for future transport to hungry Eastern cities."

The Decline of the Erie Canal

Despite the boost that Lake Superior grain trade gave to the port of Buffalo, it had little effect in arresting the decline of the Erie Canal. Already during the Civil War, the volume of wheat and flour shipped from Buffalo to New York City via the canal began to fall off. And after the war, the amount declined precipitously from a high of ninety-six per cent in 1868 to a mere twelve per cent in 1898.

Closed by cold weather in winter, often impassable due to repairs, and generally plagued by mismanagement, the canal fell victim to the superior advantages of speed, reliability, and economy offer by the railroads. New York and Midwestern rail companies experienced great expansion after the War. They now began to erect terminal facilities and even their own grain elevators which served as intermediaries between rail lines and railroad-owned steamboat companies.

To capture business away from the canal (and from each other), they would guarantee shippers through freight rates and unbroken shipment from western grain fields to the East Coast. They were also not above practicing rate discrimination to garner business from competitors. Under these circumstances, by the time it was fifty years old, the Erie Canal -- that glorious enterprise that had bestowed the gift of prosperity on Buffalo -- was doomed to obsolescence as a feature in the booming eastward transport of grain from America's heartland to the Atlantic seaboard.

By the end of the nineteenth century, rail cars had replaced canal boats on the land side of Buffalo's many grain elevators. "To win the heart of this queen city today," wrote an observer in the mid 1880s," you must court her in the role of a railway king."

By the 1890s, railroads were also delivering grain to Buffalo elevators, in competition with lake steamers. In fact, so much grain arrived by train that there were often 1000 cars waiting to be unloaded in Buffalo's freight yards. Often, it took over two months for a boxcar to be unloaded. By 1885, the situation had become so bad that it posed a threat to Buffalo's position as a grain depot; railroads began to divert grain shipments to other places rather than have their rolling stock mothballed for long periods here.

Led by S. F. Sherman, the Buffalo grain transshipment industry took significant measures to improve the situation. In 1886, two new large elevators, the Lake Shore and the International, were constructed expressly with rail freight service in mind.

The International Elevator was the first important elevator to go up outside of the Buffalo harbor area. It was erected on a site along the Niagara River served by the new Belt Line railroad and near the International Railroad bridge. A tall, narrow structure with a 1700-foot-long track side loading dock, as well as an internal rail loading dock, the International Elevator stood between the railroad and the Erie Canal. With a daily capacity of 320,000 bushels, it received grain from Canada's Union Pacific Railroad and the Grand Trunk and Michigan Central roads. It could transfer this grain to canal boats or to the cars of seven other eastward bound rail lines.

To unload boxcars filled with grain, handlers developed a system of mechanized shovels. In 1891, a writer in the Scientific American visited Buffalo and described this process, which employed a large shovel or scraper suspended from a rope, as follows: "The rope is attached to steam apparatus by which it is taken in at the proper time, as if on a windlass. The operative draws the shovel back into the car of grain and holds it nearly vertical and pressed down into the grain. The rope draws along the shovel with the grain in front of it and a number of bushels are delivered at each stroke. In this way a couple of men can very quickly empty a car."

The men who worked these shovels were comparable to the scoopers who unloaded the hulls of grain freighters. And like their marine counterparts, the boxcar laborers were under pressure to maintain a brisk pace. "The movement of the shovels," observed the Scientific American reporter, "succeeds one another with sufficient rapidity to keep the men in active movement."

Lake transport also underwent significant changes during the post-Civil War period. Chief among them was the shift from wooden hulled ships to steel-hulled vessels. The Spokane, the first such steamer on the Great Lakes, went into service in 1886. It heralded a new fleet of vessels that could carry increased loads of raw materials, including grain, iron ore, and coal.

The new freighters also called for improvements to Buffalo's harbor facilities. Docks and slips were enlarged to accommodate their greater size and the enlarged quantities of their cargoes.

In the middle of the 1880s a major expansion of Buffalo's port facilities was undertaken. A 4000' breakwater was constructed about a half mile from the shoreline, beyond the Buffalo River. By 1903, several miles of new lakeshore dockage had been created behind the breakwater. This area came to be called the Outer Harbor, while the original port facilities that lay inland along the Buffalo River henceforth were known as the Inner Harbor.

With this new anchorage in view (and that provided in the Erie Basin, which the city had created in the 1850s behind an earlier breakwater), Buffalo, by now commonly referred to as the Queen City of the Lakes, would soon, claimed a contemporary, "rival the traffic of the river Mersey and vie with that of Liverpool in number of docks and warehouses."

Advances in Grain Elevator Design, 1860-1890

Dart and Dunbar had established the grain elevator as the structure essential to Buffalo's success as a grain transshipment port.

In 1861, the British novelist Anthony Trollope visited the Queen City and recorded his impressions of the flourishing grain trade he saw there. "As ugly a monster as has been yet produced," said Trollope, of the elevators that crowded the busy Buffalo waterfront. He likened them to dinosaurs with "great hungering stomachs and huge unsatisfied maws." Yet he admired the efficiency with which these modern-day industrial brutes processed enormous amounts of grain (which, in English parlance, he referred to as "corn.")

Trollope found especially fascinating the operation of unloading grain from a lake steamer and depositing it into the hold of a waiting canal barge moored alongside. After observing the performance of the loose leg -- which he compared to an elephant's trunk or a mosquito's proboscis that is thrust "into the very vitals and bowels of the ship" -- Trollope went inside an elevator. His careful description of the inner workings of these extraordinary structures is the best firsthand account we have of how these early elevators functioned:

Thus the troughs [the loose leg conveyer belts], as they ascend, are kept full, and when they reach the upper building they empty themselves into a shoot, over which a porter stands guard, moderating the shoot by a door, which the weight of his finger can open and close. Through this doorway the corn runs into a measure and is weighed. By measures of forty bushels each, the table is kept. There stands the apparatus, with the figures plainly marked, over against the porter's eye and as the sum mounts nearly up to forty bushels he closes the door till the grains run thinly through, hardly a handful at a time, so that the balance is exactly struck.

The teller standing by marks down his figure, and the record is made. The exact porter touches the string of another door, and the forty bushels of corn run out at the bottom of the measure, disappear down another shoot, slanting also toward the water, and deposit themselves in the canal boat. The transit of the bushels of corn from the larger vessel to the smaller will have taken less than a minute, and the cost that transit will have been–a farthing.

And these rivers of corn are running through these buildings night and day. The secret of all the motion and arrangement consists, of course, in elevation. The corn is lifted up; and then lifted up can move itself, and arrange itself, and weigh itself, and load itself.

Trollope also remarked on how the grain arrived in Buffalo loose, in bulk, not in sacks. "We in England," he said, "are not accustomed to see wheat traveling in this open, unguarded, and plebeian manner. Wheat with us is aristocratic, and travels always in its private carriage."

After the Civil War, Robert Dunbar continued to design and build elevators on the Buffalo waterfront. He constantly made improvements over those Trollope had known. By the middle of the 1880s, the largest elevators could stow 1,000,000 bushels of grain and elevate stores from boats to bins at a rate of 19,000 bushels an hour.

A significant development that made such speed possible and which actually changed the outward form that later elevators would take was the introduction of horizontal transfer systems to move grain to the internal storage bins. The horizontal conveyor system allowed grain to be distributed to bins some distance from a fixed elevator leg.

The heads of elevating legs and related weighing equipment were housed in a tall cupola or monitor (often containing windows to light the interior) that ran the length of the structure above the storage bins. And economy dictated that the bins now be lined up in straight rows so that "grain might be distributed to them from the least number of horizontal conveyers." Thus, the long, lateral form of the twentieth-century concrete elevator, with stacks of silos lined up beneath an upper "headhouse" began to replace the tall, vertical shed form of the earliest elevators.

Conveyor belts also were added to the basement level of elevators, which eliminated the need for elevating legs down the length of the structure. By means of this innovation, grain being removed from a bin "could be spouted onto the basement conveying system and taken to some convenient point in the house where elevator legs were located. Fewer legs were required per unit of storage as outgoing grain from any bin could be directed to a single elevator leg."

Now elevating legs could be grouped at one end of the elevator only, in a "workhouse." From the workhouse, a "headhouse" or low gallery extended across the top of the elevator and housed the bin floor conveyor system. This headhouse replaced the tall cupola of older elevators. The now demolished Lake Shore Elevator, erected in 1886, was regarded as the first fully evolved example of this forward-looking system. At the same time, the loose leg became housed in a tower that nearly stood separate from the elevator itself.

From this, soon developed the "marine leg tower," a moveable structure set on wheels housing loose legs that could be moved along the length of the elevator to unload grain from waiting vessels moored alongside. By 1894, four of these moveable marine towers were working parts of Buffalo elevators.

"It was my felicity to catch a grain steamer and an elevator emptying that same steamer," wrote Rudyard Kipling during a visit to Buffalo in the late 1880s. His colorful description of the operation of these mighty new marine towers continued:

She was laden with wheat in bulk from stem to stern, thirteen feet deep lay the clean, red wheat. . . . They maneuvered the fore-hatch of that steamer directly under an elevator . . . 150 feet high. Then they let down into that fore-hatch a trunk, as if it had been the trunk of an elephant . . . And the trunk had a steel nose to it and contained endless chains of steel buckets.

The captain swore, raising his eyes to heaven and a gruff voice answered him from the place he swore at. Certain machinery, also in the firmament, began to clack and the glittering, steel-shod nose of the trunk burrowed into the wheat and the wheat quivered and sunk upon the instant as water sinks when the siphon sucks, because the steel buckets within the trunk were flying upon their endless round, carrying away each of its appointed morsels of wheat.

The elevator was a Persian well wheel - a wheel squashed out thin and cased in a pipe, a wheel driven not by bullocks, but by much horsepower, licking up the grain at the rate of thousands of bushels the hour. And the wheat sunk into the fore-hatch . . . till the brown timbers of the bulkheads showed bare. Then men jumped down through the clouds of golden dust and shoveled the wheat furiously around the nose of the trunk and got a steam shovel of glittering steel and made that shovel also, till there remained of the grain not more than a horse leaves in the fold of his nose bag.

By the early 1890s, Buffalo's wooden elevators had evolved away from Dart's barn-like structure to a form that, internally, anticipated the classic concrete elevators that would soon replace them. The elongated arrangement of rows of bins, the vertical workhouse at one end, the low headhouse extending across the top of the row of bins, and the moveable marine leg tower already were characteristics of Buffalo grain elevators erected by the early 1890s.

With Dunbar's Bennett Elevator [Illus.] specifically in mind, architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock observed that while "the battle of styles was fought out uptown and downtown, Dunbar continued to build great elevators along the lake front. . .. Their vast, unornamented surfaces, bold cantilevers and clearly organized functional forms suggest architectural possibilities for America which even Sullivan hardly grasped."

The marine towers of late nineteenth-century elevators might be said to have been anticipated by Arunah B. Nimbs's invention of the floating elevator [Illus.]. Nimbs, a Buffalo entrepreneur inspired by the Dart Elevator, built the first of these curious structures in 1866, thus adding another chapter to the unique history of grain transshipment on the Buffalo waterfront.

Nimbs's wooden floating elevators, and others built following his example, could hold up to 5000 bushels of grain. They were seldom used, however, to store grain for any length of time. Rather these floating elevators, which, like their stationary sisters, were equipped with steam-powered marine legs and conveyor systems, were used to transfer grain from one ship to another or, in some cases, to unload grain from vessels calling at stationary elevators and mills that lacked their own mechanical grain moving equipment.

According to historians Thomas Leary and Elizabeth Sholes, the huge C. and J. M. Horton floating elevator could handle 72,000 bushels of grain each day, an amount that rivaled the efficiency of some of the city's larger stationary elevators. The heyday of these unusual and picturesque structures, however, was short lived. Few if any apparently survived into the twentieth century.

Monuments of a Vanished Prosperity - Table of Contents
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