The Grain Elevators: Then

Prior to the Erie Canal, grain traveled on land from the Midwest to the East, resulting in long journeys and often spoiled grain. The Erie Canal is known for connecting the Midwest to the East, allowing goods to travel along the Great Lakes, and then transfer in Buffalo from the Lakes to the Canal, reaching its final destination on the East Coast.

The grain industry quickly grew in Buffalo, as ships brought in thousands of bushels a day to be stored and/or immediately transferred from lake boats to canal boats. From 1835 to 1841, grain was manually transferred by “scoopers,” who were mostly Irish immigrants spending long days moving the grain from one boat to the next. Capacity quickly grew from 112,000 bushels in 1835, to over 2 million bushels in 1841, creating an immediate need for a faster, less back-breaking system.

In 1842, Joseph Dart created a vertical conveyor belt of buckets, strung 28 inches apart that lifted the grain up and dropped it into tall bins – thus introducing the first grain elevator. The first grain elevators were able to transfer 1,000 bushels of grain an hour. Talk about efficiency. As Dart continued to master the elevator, he eventually moved the buckets closer together, achieving 6,000 bushels per hour.

First elevator buckets on display at a recent “Silo City” event

It’s also important to note that with the introduction of the railroad system, the transfer of grain from the Midwest to the East became even more extensive. Large freight boats and railcars were now able to meet at a centralized port in Buffalo to unload and load grain, expanding the industry exponentially.

By 1863, Buffalo had 27 grain elevators in operation, with a total capacity of 5,835,000 bushels and a transfer capacity of 2.7 million bushels per hour. These first grain elevators were all made of wood, causing unforeseen problems. It was soon found that grain dust was highly explosive, as fires broke out and destroyed many of the wooden elevators. These fires would transfer from elevator to elevator, and even neighborhood homes, because buildings were grouped so closely together.

Buffalo grain industry at its peak

In order to resolve this issue, the Great Northern and Electric elevators were constructed in 1897, introducing the first brick and steel grain elevators in Buffalo. These elevators were also powered by electricity, as opposed to the previously used steam power, which allowed for higher productivity. This new productivity level led to Buffalo expanding into the flour, animal seed, cereal, and oil seed industries.

Great Northern Elevator

The largest, most productive grain elevator was constructed between 1915 and 1917 along the Buffalo River. The Concrete-Central Elevator stretches for a quarter mile, and at that time, was the longest transfer elevator in the world. It is also the largest elevator ever constructed in Buffalo, and had the capacity to handle 4.5 million bushels of grain per season. Crews were able to load and unload three lake freighters at a time, and 20 railroad cars an hour.

Concrete Central Elevator

Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, Buffalo dominated the grain industry. By the 1930’s, Buffalo was the only centralized location producing, transferring, and milling grain. This industry, like many others, was able to utilize Buffalo’s asset as a central hub between the Midwest and East, employing thousands of workers, allowing accessibility to the predominant forms of commercial transportation (boats and rail cars) and stimulating growth in this once sleepy town.

Find out what becomes of Buffalo’s grain industry by visiting here.


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