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.

Grain Scoopers and a Marine Leg
(Mark Maio)
In 1864, another important mechanical advancement was made in the quest to unload grain more economically. That year a steam shovel was patented, a kind of drag line, to be used in directing grain to the hungry buckets. The shovel was a large metal scoop operated off of the grain elevator's power supply through a complicated system of ropes, which were rigged in the hold of the ship and operated by men who became known as "grain scoopers." The elevator and power shovel contributed greatly to reducing the cost of shipping wheat from the farms in the Midwest to the markets of the east.

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.

Grain Scoopers working on a freighter.
(Mark Maio)
The conditions under which the grain scoopers worked at the turn of the century were characterized by irregularity of employment, low wages, and the saloon-boss system. The employment was largely seasonal, during the mid-April to mid-November shipping season. Even during those seven months, the actual periods of work were irregular, dependent on the often unpredictable arrival of particular ships. Even though the normal working day was 10 hours, a scooper might be required to work anywhere from 4 to 5 hours to as much as 30 hours at a stretch. Sunday was a regular work day.

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.

Holding the Line.
(Mark Maio)
A saloon-boss came to fill three functions. He was, of course, a purveyor of liquor (and prepared food). He also organized men to unload grain, becoming a "scooper boss," and with this title becoming an employer of labor. Finally, being on top of the social and economic pulse of a large section of the populace, he became a political operative in his neighborhood or district, and part of the machinery which he directed voting and dispensed favors. With these three functions, he was able to exercise political, economic and social control of those men -- scoopers -- who came within his sphere of influence.

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.

Shovel Against the Hold.
(Mark Maio)
Scoopers, 90% of whom were Irish, worked all day at heavy labor and naturally enjoyed a beer of two after work. The only logical place to stop and unwind would be at their boss's saloon. As long as a scooper was associated with a particular saloon, the boss or bartender was happy to extend credit. When the man asked for a five-cent beer, the owner would persuade him to accept, on credit, "beer-checks," totaling fifty cents and redeemable only at his bar. The more the scooper owed the boss, the better his chance was of continuing to work. Credit was extended to six days a week and all debts had to be repaid on the seventh. Each Saturday the scooper received in the boss's saloon his week's wages minus whatever the boss said was owed for the week's beer and fare.

The Dakota crew.
The Crew of the Dakota Elevator. (BECHS/ARCADIA)
Should the scooper also happen to be a border, the boss enjoyed the right to double dip into the worker's wages, first for his bar bill and then for his rent. It was in the saloonkeeper's interest to prefer single men who drank heavily. Finally, because two men who might earn $4.50 a week could physically drink more than one man who earned $9.00, it was to the benefit of the saloon boss that the number of men in his scooping gang should be as large -- not as small -- as possible. The artificially high number of scoopers also acted as an implicit threat to toe the boss's line or be replaced.

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 Scooper's Union Building.
The Grain Scoopers Union, Local 109, at 110 Louisiana Street.  (A.T.H.)
In 1896, the grain scoopers' union split into two factions. Both factions continued to fight for control of the grain scoopers business. As a result of the "Great Strike of 1899," Local 109 of the International Longshoreman's Association was recognized as a closed shop of the official union representing the grain scoopers of Buffalo. The agreement called for major changes in working conditions for scoopers. The saloon system was finally abolished for good. Payment of wages was to be at the elevator office with no deductions for liquor. No boss scoopers was allowed to have an interest in a saloon. Each scooper gang now appointed its own timekeeper to see that no "dummies" were put on the payroll. Timekeepers had free access to all bills of lading to ensure that the men were paid for all the work they did.

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.

(Mark Maio)
During the shipping season, the union would be divided into twenty-one gangs of 25 to 28 men each. Each gang had one boss scooper and one committeemen who would represent his gang on the Executive Board of the union. Seven gangs constituted one division, and for each division there would be one timekeeper.

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.

Grain Scooper gang.
A complete grain scooping gang consisting of shovelers and sweepers. The gang is pushing the grain into the path of a marine leg. (BECHS)
Each man in a gang had a particular job to perform. A scooping gang consisted of one boss, fifteen shovelers, two sweepers, four shovel-followers, and four brakemen. The shovel-followers and brakemen attended to the rigging and adjusting of the steam shovel. Sweepers were responsible for removing grain from crevices.

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.

F. Brill Picture.
(Mark Maio)
Advancing technology brought shifts in trade and transportation patterns which made Buffalo's position in the grain industry increasingly vulnerable. By the 1890s, the railroads were acquiring an increasingly large share of grain shipments. Tolls were eliminated on the Erie Canal in 1883 in an effort to regain some of the grain trade (and the State Barge Canal was built in 1905 to 1918, superseding the Erie Canal, in a last ditch effort). In 1898, 30.4 percent of all grain moving east from Chicago went via the Great Lakes and Buffalo; by 1913 had dropped to 9.4 percent. In 1898, 221 millions bushels were stored here and 108 million bushels passed through the port; in 1913, the elevator held 160 million bushels and lake shipments had dropped to 32 million bushels.

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.

View along the Buffalo River
(Mark Maio)

Article and photographs by Mark Maio. Used with permission. More information on Mark Maio's photographs can be found

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.

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