Thursday, March 19, 2009

Frontispiece, continued

From p. 256 of American Colossus:

If we compare the photograph that George Barker took of the entrance to Buffalo’s harbor in 1883 and the anonymous illustration that was based upon it in 1885, we see a clear slide towards darkness. In Barker’s photograph, it is daytime, and the sky is partly sunny. There is plenty of light to see the words WATSON ELEVATOR written upon the immense, cupola-topped combination grain elevator and small island of that name, and to see that a smaller elevator (the unmarked Union Transfer Tower) stands upon dry land in the foreground. There is a lot of thick, dark smoke in the air, but it is clearly coming from the various steam-ships that are in the water. But in the illustration, it is a very cloudy day: neither “blue” (clear) sky nor sun can be seen. In this darkness, all one can see of the Watson Elevator is huge blurry slab of oddly shaped darkness (the Union has become part of it) from which black smoke is billowing and mixing with or causing the equally dark clouds in the sky. One is immediately put in mind of William Blake’s “dark, satanic mills.”

Barker's photograph was not included in the book because I didn't think it would look good enough.

Note the other two grain elevators that are visible: in the center, we see the Marine Elevator, and on the right, we see the Bennett, both of which were designed by the mechanical engineer Robert Dunbar, the designer of the Dart, the world's first steam-powered grain elevator.

Built in 1848, the Marine exploded and was rebuilt around 1881. The rebuilt Marine Elevator would remain standing until the 1920s, when the grain elevator now known as the Marine "A" was built. Because it seems small in comparison with its neighbors, the Marine Elevator captured here is probably the first one, that is, the one that exploded, not the one built as a replacement. This suggests that the dating of the picture as "1883" (which is based on a notation concerning this photograph I found in the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division) is mistaken, and that it was more likely taken in 1879 or 1880.

Built on the site of the "old" Dart Elevator (which was built in 1843 and exploded in 1862), the Bennett was one of the greatest elevators ever built in Buffalo. It was immense, well-built and symmetrical, and thus "appealing" to "the artistic eye." It would remain standing until 1912, when it was finally taken down.

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