Grain Elevators
Small Elevator Image A History

They serve as a monument to a bygone era; monolithic structures standing on water's edge waiting for lake and canal freighters that will no longer come. Today all except a few of these enormous buildings are abandoned and no longer serve the industry for which they were designed. As they stand in their decrepit state they remain a mystery to those who view them. Few venture close to investigate their design and operation. At one time in Buffalo's history, the grain elevators dominated the skyline of the waterfront and served as a symbol of Buffalo's industrial importance as the largest supplier of grain in the world.

In the Beginning

Prior to the year 1827 there was no grain handled in Buffalo. Surplus grain grown in the American Midwest reached markets in the East only after transportation over long and often impossible routes. Grain from the midwest was shipped on flatboards down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans where it was then loaded onto sailing vessels that carried it to its eventual destination in the East or in Europe. Oftentimes the grain was carried by wagon on rough roads that passed through the rugged terrain of the Appalachian Mountain chain. In short, getting the grain which grew abundantly in the midwest to markets in the east was nearly impossible. More often than not when the grain reached its destination, it had spoiled and was unusable.

Although the vessels of that day were small, the unloading of grain as a cargo usually consumed many days. Storms often forced complete stoppages of shipping over water, and dirt roads became unpassable in wet, muddy conditions. Costly delays and harbor congestions were becoming increasingly intolerable as the volume of grain needed in the eastern part of the United States increased as the population continued to rise.

The Buffalo Harbor, 1877
A view of the Buffalo Harbor from Harper's Weekly, 1877.

Since Buffalo was situated in the middle of the land/lake transportation route, grain would arrive in the city and then be transferred either to waiting ships or wagons for continued shipping. When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, a new revolution in transportation had suddenly developed. The Canal was the first efficient transportation system to breach the Appalachians. Now midwestern grain could be shipped by lake boats to Buffalo where the Canal was waiting to take the grain further to New York.

This new revolution soon made the freight charges drop from $100 to $10 a ton for grain shipment. The only major problem with using the Erie Canal was the fact that this man-made waterway was narrow and not very deep. Even the smallest of lake boats were too large for use on the canal, and canal boats were too small for the lakes. Thus, grain had to be unloaded from the lake boats then loaded onto canal boats at Buffalo. Handling the grain by hand was slow and arduous work that caused delays and congestion of people and boats in Buffalo Harbor.

In 1830, workers handled 146,000 bushels of grain at Buffalo. Little more than a decade later, the total handled was ten times as great. At least 500 workers, most of them Irish immigrants, were required to unload or load this volume of grain by hand. The work was hard and dangerous. Grain dust was explosive and was suffocating to those men who were surrounded by it day in and day out. Notwithstanding, the entire process was still slow.

Joseph Dart
Joseph Dart
Joseph Dart
During the first five years between 1835 and 1841, when grain was literally unloaded on the backs on men, Buffalo's grain receipts rose from 112,000 to over 2 million bushels. This tremendous increase in grain traffic saw the need for a faster and more efficient method of loading and unloading grain from the ships that arrived in Buffalo. In 1842 Joseph Dart, a Main Street retail merchant, constructed what came to be known as the first grain elevator at the foot of Commercial Street on the Buffalo Creek.

Dart's invention consisted of a wooden structure that served as storage bins for the grain. Loading the grain into this structure was a steam-driven belt which had buckets attached to it. As the belt with the buckets was lowered into the hold of a ship, the buckets would scoop up the grain and hoist it up into the structure where it was dropped into tall bins. This is where the term "elevator" originated because this is exactly what the process did. It elevated the grain from the ship and stored it in bins until it was lowered for transshipment or for milling purposes.


Dart's first elevator had a capacity of 55,000 bushels of grain. Three years later, this was doubled. Even though this process was indeed labor saving and cost effective, it was not without its critics. Perhaps the most popular legend of the grain elevator involves Joseph Dart and a competitor of his by the name of Mahlon King. King was a forwarding merchant and took every chance to scoff at Dart and his grain elevator. King was quoted as saying, "Dart, I feel sorry for you. I have been through that mill and it just won't do. Remember what I say; Irish backs are the cheapest elevators ever built." Soon after Dart's elevator was built and in operation, King returned with his head hung low saying, "Dart, I find I did not know it all."

Dart's Elevator
This lithograph shows the Dart Elevator, located at the foot of Commercial Street. (BECHS)
As Dart's grain elevator came into its own, it was allowing ships to be unloaded at the rate of over 1,000 bushels per hour. It soon became common practice to have a ship arrive at port, unload, then leave the very same day. This was unheard of before Dart's elevator. Soon Dart's efforts paid off by the building of ten other grain elevators in and around the Buffalo Harbor. All totaled had a storing capacity of more than one and a half million bushels of grain. Buffalo had become the world's largest grain port.

Surprisingly, Joseph Dart never claimed to be the inventor of the grain elevator -- just the one who perfected it. In a speech delivered to the Buffalo Historical Society in 1865, Dart paid tribute to Oliver Evans as the person who first worked out the principles for handling grain mechanically. During the 1780's, "Evans developed a simple machine that consisted of a series of buckets attached to a leather or canvas and rubber belt revolving upon pulleys." It was Evan's desire to create some sort of Conveyor that could "remove flour or grain in a horizontal direction to the point where the elevator could receive it. Evan's process was ingenious in that the flour was kept in motion and exposed to the air until thoroughly dry and ready for packing."

Dart's Elevator-flow chart
This flow chart shows the operation of Dart's elevator. The same operating principle was true for most other elevators. (BECHS)
While basically the same principle as Dart's elevator, the Evans invention was used primarily for flour mills. Of his elevator, Dart stated "I believe it was the first steam transfer and storage elevator in the world. It was the first successful application of the valuable inventions of Oliver Evans to the commercial purpose for which it is now extensively employed."

In his speech to the Buffalo Historical Society, Dart described the operation of his elevator. "I began with buckets 28 inches apart, holding about two quarts and raised without difficulty a thousand bushels an hour." He then placed the buckets closer together and was then able to achieve 1800 or 2000 bushels an hour. "In some or the elevators now in use, buckets hold eight quarts and are only one foot apart and will raise 6,000 to 7,000 bushels and hour, weighing it correctly."


Elevator Characteristics
The Watson Elevator.
The Watson Elevator. Notice the distinctive cupola situated at the top of the structure; a feature noticeable on many grain elevators. (BECHS)
Dart discovered that grain elevators made ideal storage facilities for grain. In each of the elevator's bins the grain was kept dry, cool and free from pests such as rats, birds and worms which could wipe out the entire load. The grain elevator also made it possible to weigh the grain as it was being stored. It was also possible to take samples of the grain to check for purity and contaminants.

By 1863, Buffalo had 27 grain elevators in operation with a total capacity of 5,835,00 bushels and a transfer capacity of 2,700,000 bushels per hour. One major characteristic of each of the earliest grain elevators was that they were all made of wood; a plentiful building material in the Buffalo area. These elevators were all located on or near the water and served only lake and canal boats.

The elevators also developed interesting architectural highlights such as a cupola on the roof. The Watson Elevator was unique in that it had a slip directly underneath it allowing canal boats to dock under the bins and have the grain dropped directly into the boat's hold using only the force of gravity.

The Erie Elevator burning in 1913
The dangers of an elevator made of wood are demonstrated in this photo from 1913 as the Erie Elevator, on Ganson Street, is completely engulfed in flames. The Erie exploded and burned in 1883 killing five men. It was rebuilt in 1913 only to be destroyed by fire later in the year.
Fires have always been a great threat to the grain industry and certainly caused the demise of Buffalo early wooden elevators. Since grain dust is a highly explosive substance, a careless spark would cause an explosion that would not only destroy the elevator, but neighboring property as well. Some early grain elevators had no tops on their bins, only a roof to keep out the rain. Explosions and fires easily spread from one elevator to the next since many of them were closely grouped together.

The Great Northern elevator
The Great Northern elevator, built on the City Ship Canal the Great Northern railroad's owner, James J. Hill (BECHS/ARCADIA)
In 1897, the Great Northern and Electric elevators were constructed as an answer to the explosion/fire threat. Both of these elevators were constructed of steel and brick and as a testament to its sturdiness, the Great Northern elevator still stands only now no longer in use. As the 20th century dawned in Buffalo, new safety standards appeared in the construction of grain elevators. The wide-spread use of concrete and steel was accompanied by revolutionary ventilation and dust-control measure until the industry was no longer victim to fires so prevalent in Joseph Dart's day.

Winter Shutdown
Ships marooned in Buffalo for the winter
These lake freighters are waiting out the Buffalo winter. Loaded with grain, the freighters will sit until late winter or early spring before they can be unloaded.
Buffalo, due to its climate, had a definite navigational season. When the winter months approached, both lake and canal boats hurried to their destinations to unload their cargo of grain or else face the risk of getting stranded at a port that was not home. Buffalo was often the lay-over port for many boats that could not risk making a journey with the rapid onslaught of winter. Nothing could have been worse for a ship's captain than to be on route when ice closed in around the ship, stranding the vessel until the spring thaw. Even worse was the fact that the Erie Canal was nearly drained in the winter time. To many canal boat captains it was a fate worse than death to be caught on the canal in the winter.

When snow and ice put an end to the navigation season, Buffalo's grain elevators were usually full to capacity. Therefore, lake boats making their last run to Buffalo in the fall kept their grain on board until elevator space became available. Known as the "winter fleet," these boats made Buffalo Harbor a busy place even in the winter and spring as they were shuttled around for unloading.


The 20th Century
The George Urban Milling Co.
Located at 200 Urban St. on the city's East Side was the George Urban Milling Co., one of the first elevators/mills to utilize the "new" electric power. Urban Milling was also the first to introduce steel rollers for the milling of flour. Previously, this process was done using burr millstones. (BECHS)
The 20th Century brought many changes to the grain industry in Buffalo with an abundant arrival of flour mills. Also, the animal feed industry became a large part of the overall grain trade. Inexpensive electrical power, made available from Niagara Falls, was a major reason for this expansion. The fact that electrical power was relatively inexpensive permitted electrification of the grain elevators, which had formerly operated with steam power.

The newer source of power encouraged grain processing. In addition to flour mills and animal feed industries, cereal mills and oil seed crushers became significant contributors to Buffalo's reputation as a grain processing center. By the 1930's, Buffalo stood as first city in the United States in flour milling and in the production of animal feeds and grain. The first elevator to use this "new" electric power was the George Urban flour mill in 1895.


The Electric Elevator.
The Electric Elevator, built in 1897, existed until 1967 when it closed its doors. However, in 1968, an abundant crop of midwestern corn and soybeans sent 14 millions bushels of surplus to Buffalo which gave the Electric Elevator a temporary reprieve. (WNYHI)
Then in 1897, the Electric and Great Northern elevators were built with the sole intent to use electric power. In this way, the newer, electrified elevators were able to eliminate steam boilers, engines, chimneys, and the necessity of bringing fuel to the elevator for burning. As you can see, electrification greatly reduced the risk of fires.

Perhaps the biggest change in Buffalo's grain industry was the emergence of another industry that was making its presence not only in Buffalo but in the rest of the country as well. During the early part of the the 19th Century grain trade, most of the grain arrived in Buffalo from the lower midwestern states. However, after 1850, a new contraption called a railroad was beginning to bring grain into the city from other grain growing areas of the country. Initially, grain shipments by rail were limited due to the fact that the Erie Canal had precedent over all freight shipments to and from Buffalo. But in the early years of the 20th Century, more and more grain began arriving in Buffalo from the northern prairie states and the Canadian provinces across the border from them.

The railroad proved itself faster and more reliable than the lakes and canals; it didn't freeze in the winter and was more direct. Railroad tracks eventually were built right up to the elevators and as the years of the 20th Century increased, shipping grain by water was almost non-existent.

Decline of the Grain Trade

Buffalo reached its peak as a grain center in the 1920s and again during the years of World War 2. However, since that time the decline has been steady and severe. In 1932, the Welland Canal opened in Welland, Ontario and this spelled the beginning of the end for Buffalo grain industry. The canal was able to accommodate full-sized grain boats coming from the upper Great Lakes ports thus bypassing Buffalo as these boats delivered their cargo to Prescott, Ontario or Oswego, New York, for transshipment. This act eliminated any shipments of Canadian grain that may have been destined for Buffalo for transshipment.

The Bennett Elevator.
After the Dart elevator was destroyed by fire, the Bennett elevator was built on its site. Located at the foot of Commercial Street, the elevator was the watchdog of the Buffalo Harbor. Also seen are the D.L.& W. coal docks. (BECHS)
The final blow was dealt in 1959 with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway. This waterway gave moderate size ocean vessels passage into the interior of North America by way of the Great Lakes. This cut Buffalo off completely in the shipping chain. There was no longer a need to dock at Buffalo to load or unload grain. While the transshipment business was coming to an end, Buffalo's animal feed industry was likewise declining. Between 1955 and 1970, decentralization brought about a virtual halt to any animal feed ingredients being shipped to the large feed mills in the city. Instead, smaller mills were being constructed within trucking distance of the regions in which cattle, hogs, and horses consumed the animal feed. With the feed industry gone, Buffalo suffered still another drastic decline.

The end of transshipment and the closing of the animal feed industry meant much more than just the decline of the grain trade in Buffalo. it also meant a serious loss of jobs. At one time thousands of men and women were employed one way or another with the grain industry. Now their jobs were gone.

Today

Although a shadow of its former self, the grain industry is still hanging on to a slight degree. Cereal is still manufactured in the elevators and plants owned by General Mills, and flour is still produced in several of the elevators that are dedicated to milling rather than transshipment. But like many of the industries that once thrived in Buffalo, the grain elevators remain as a testament to an industry that once flourished -- and then moved on into history. The same can be said for the other industries associated with grain trade -- the Erie Canal and the railroads. Victims of changing times.

H.O. Oats
The 130 foot elevator of the H.O. Oats company located on Perry Street. The H.O. company was formed in New York in 1893 and later moved its facilities to Buffalo in 1895 and manufactured two different oat cereals. During the 1950's, the plant was producing over 6,000 cases of cereal a day. The cereal plant closed in 1975 and the brick manufacturing building burned in 1987 yet still stands to this day.

Some of the photographs contained on this page were from
The Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection,
The Library of Congress, Panoramic Photographs Collection,
The Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society
The Western New York Heritage Institute and
Lower Lakes Marine Historical Society.

Additional photographs were from the book "Buffalo's Waterfront", another volume of Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series; written by Thomas E. Leary and Elizabeth Sholes. This book is available at most bookstores in the Western New York area, or through the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

Portions of this section were reproduced from the book "Grain Elevators" by Henry H. Baxter; Volume 26 in the "Adventures in Western New York History" series, published by the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

Additional photographs provided by sources indicated. For more information on Mark Maio, refer to the Site Credits.