In 1842, Joseph Dart, a Buffalo grain merchant, built the world's first grain elevator in a slip off the Buffalo River. Dart came up with the idea of unloading grain ships by means of an endless belt of buckets, a system already used inside mills for moving about grain and flour. Dart's genius was in placing the belt inside a "marine leg" which would project out of a grain warehouse and be lowered into a ship's hold to scoop up the grain. Having been lifted to a great height, the grain could be weighed and sorted and distributed to ant number of tall grain bins within the granary by means of gravity. Dart's "elevator," which he described as substituting modern ingenuity for the "backs of Irishmen," was small but highly successful, and it paved the way for later elevator technology that could have unloaded an 1840s lake boat in less than seven minutes, a process that at the time, using bushel baskets, sacks, and block and tackle, could take seven days.
The grain merchants and elevator owners came to be among the most respected members of the community. Somewhat lower in status in the economic and social life of the city were the grain scoopers themselves. Despite all the modern technology on display on the waterfront, human labor was still necessary to operate the machinery and to clear nooks and crannies inaccessible to mechanical equipment.
Wages were on a piece rate basis and were paid in a lump sum to the gang of men (sometimes 50 strong), who scooped and elevator the cargo. An individual scooper's earnings varied with the size of the cargo and the number of men in the gang. In 1895, when the rate paid was $1.85 per thousand bushels, the average annual earnings for a grain scoopers amounted to about $292.
Low wages and irregular employment were not the only disadvantages of working as a grain scooper in Buffalo. What made grain scooping different from other forms of manual labor was the saloon-boss system. In 1890, Buffalo had 7.81 saloons per thousand population. With saloons lining the canal and harbor populated by a large pool of unskilled laborers, came the emergence of the saloon-boss.
Gangs of scoopers worked under the general supervision of the saloon boss and were paid weekly in his saloon. The saloon, not unloading grain, provided the boss his major source of income. Yet, one depended on the other. The saloons in their multitudes, were clustered along the waterfront from Erie Street to the present Ohio Street Bridge. The scoopers, if not actually rooming above the saloon itself, generally lived in proximity to it.
Faced with such a system of social and economic control, grain scoopers were driven to union organization. Labor organization on the Buffalo waterfront can be traced back as far as 1863, with scoopers, lumber shovers and longshoremen all trying to gain some control over their lives. Their efforts met without much success against the stevedore and saloon-boss system until 1882. In that year, the grain scoopers were chartered as Local Assembly # 2052 of the Knights of Labor. In 1888, the Union started to show its strength against the saloon-boss system. In August of that year, some 1200 scoopers reported to their union hall to join in a mass protest against the elevator operators. Yet real progress was slow and sporadic.
The way in which the grain scooping business was conducted also affected the size of the work force in Buffalo. In the 1890s about 1200 to 1600 men were engaged regularly at scoopers. In 1899, directly after the strike, the union reported a monthly membership of 1700. With the establishment of stable relations with the elevator owners came a rapid decline in the number of grain scoopers. In 1901 the number was 540, with some of those holding on for political or sentimental reasons. New members were admitted when there was a decrease in members or an increase in the volume of work. An applicant would be required to secure an endorsement from a member in good standing and the application need approval by the Executive Board of the union.
The boss scooper was responsible for supervising and directing the actual work of the scooping gang. The timekeeper would visit the gang within his division and maintain a record of the men who were at work. He would also inspect the bills of lading to assure the men received full payment for their work. The boss scooper and the timekeepers received the same share of pay as the scoopers in the gang.
One of the most unusual aspects of the Grain Shovelers Union is its policy of equal work and equal wages. A routing system is followed so that no gang works twice until all the other gangs in the division have worked once. The money paid for unloading a ship is divided equally, not among the members of the gang that actually did the work, but among all the members of the gang in the division. The earnings of each division are balanced by giving the lowest paid division first choice at the next opportunity to work. If, toward the end of the shipping season there were still gangs earning less than most of the others, those gangs worked the remaining ships until there was equity within the union.
The opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959 was the final dagger -- Buffalo had lost its importance as a grain transshipment point. For the first time since the opening of the Erie Canal, geography had taken Buffalo off the beaten path. The new route, which opened a direct link from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic for ocean-going ships, put Buffalo at a dead end. Buffalo has a small eastward hinterland which doesn't produce grain, and it is cheaper to transport by rail to east coast ports from here. Anything originating to the west went right on an ocean-going ship. After the Seaway opened, grain shipments at Buffalo dropped 45 percent below the average of the previous 25 years. In 1959, Buffalo received 73,263,509 bushels of grain, an amount far below the earlier average of 135 million. The last time grain was shipped in large quantities to Buffalo from the interior of the Great Lakes for storage and eventual re-sale was in the 1960s. (All grain coming into Buffalo today is associated with milling, rather than transshipment.)
Today, there are still 85 men scooping in Buffalo, using the same technology developed almost 150 years earlier. Once the shipping season begins, two boats, the Kinsman Independent and the Kinsman Enterprise, continue to make the seven-day round trip to Duluth or Thunder Bay twenty four times a year. Most scoopers work two jobs to make ends meet.
Article and photographs by Mark Maio. Used with permission. More information on Mark Maio's photographs can be found here.
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.