Friday, April 24, 2009

The Great Northern Elevator(s)

On pages 204-209 of American Colossus, I discuss the two steel-binned grain elevators that the Great Northern Railway built in Buffalo, New York, and West Superior, Wisconsin, between 1897 and 1901. Poor Reyner Banham, author of A Concrete Atlantis (MIT Press, 1986), believes that the Great Northern Railway built three such elevators:

all were designed by Max Toltz, the bridge builder and presiding engineering genius of the Golden Age of the Great Northern Railway, which served Minnesota and the western Great Lakes area. One of them was in Duluth, Minnesota; one in West Superior, Wisconsin; and the third was at the other end of the lake-shipping trade, at Buffalo, New York. All were enormous, with capacities of better than two million bushels, and were housed in brick shells of handsome architectural aspect.

But there were only two of these elevators (one in West Superior and one in Buffalo), and Banham himself provides the proof, in the form of a quotation from Engineering News for August 1, 1901:

Perhaps one of the best, and certainly one of the latest examples of elevator construction which deserve mention, is the 3,00,000 bushel terminal elevator put in operation at West Superior, Wis., in February of this year. This elevator was built by the Great Northern Railway and is designed to eclipse in every way the mammoth steel elevator built by the same company at Buffalo, New York, in 1897-98.

Banham's mistake no doubt derived from thinking that Duluth and West Superior are two different places, when in fact they are one (twin port-cities on the St. Louis Bay).

Of course the Great Northern Railway built a great many grain elevators prior to and long after 1896. (In 1958, the railway still serviced more than 900 "country" elevators, that is, small houses that collect grain and then ship it out by rail to much larger elevators further down the "grain stream.") But by building and operating "terminal" grain elevators in key port-cities on the Great Lakes, the Great Northern Railway could dominate two major flows of grain in bulk: not only the one that came from Western Minnesota, the Dakotas and Montana to flour millers in Minneapolis/St. Paul, but also the flow that came to Duluth/West Superior and then traveled by lake vessels to Buffalo, New York, where it was transshipped to either railcars or barges for (semi-final) transportation to New York City.

The Great Northern Elevator in Buffalo was built two or three years before the Great Northern "S" in Duluth/West Superior (pictured above). Furthermore, the elevator in Buffalo has received a great deal of attention since it was closed down in 1981 (precisely because of plans to demolish it), while the Great Northern "S" has received little or no attention (perhaps because it remains in use). And yet, Duluth/West Superior (not Buffalo) is the place to begin this story.

It was in the St. Louis Bay, around 1895 or 1896, that the Great Northern Railway first started building and operating terminal elevators: the Great Northern "A" and the Great Northern "X" (see picture above), both of which were capable of storing 1.5 million bushels of grain in their respective bins, which were made of wood and rectangularly shaped.

The Great Northern Elevator in Buffalo (see picture above) was a revolutionary elevator for a number of reasons:

1) it was equipped with three electrically powered automotive ("loose") marine towers. Previous elevators had both fewer towers and towers powered by coal-burning steam-engines, not electricity off the grid;

2) its grain bins were made of steel, cylindrically shaped and capable of storing 2.5 million bushels of grain. Previous elevators (except for those designed and built by George H. Johnson) utilized rectangular bins made out of wood, not steel. Bins made out of steel -- especially in storage warehouses that were four times larger than those built by Johnson in the 1850s and 1860s -- were too heavy to support without recourse to a system of arches and columns, which took up space that would normally be occupied by grain-handling machines (hoppers, spouts and horizontal conveyor-belts);

3) its steel frame was so strong and well-designed that it supported the entire structure (the headhouse as well as the grain bins, which of course included both interstitial and main bins), which meant that the brick walls that surrounded the building could be "curtain" walls, that is, "decorative" walls that do not bear any loads.

But the Buffalo Great Northern was also a grain elevator with a couple of serious problems (remember: it was an experiment, not the continuation of a well-established tradition).

1) its "loose" marine towers were top heavy, and one or several of them were toppled during a storm in 1922; they had to be replaced with two brand-new towers;

2) despite its fantastic steel chassis, raised high above the ground, the elevator still required a basement in which to place its "boots" (grain pits), from which grain was scooped up by eight internal lofting "legs" that raised it to the top of the structure. In this case, the boots had to be placed below water level, which meant that they became flooded during storms;

3) it stopped being used as a transshipping elevator (transferring grain from lake-to-rail or rail-to-lake) in the 1920s, when a large flourmill was built next to it. Transformed into a receiving elevator for this flour mill, the Great Northern soon became dependent upon it. In 1981, when its then-owner, Pillsbury, decided to close the elevator because it no longer needed such a large amount of storage space, the Great Northern could not be used as anything else. Furthermore, once it was closed down and allowed to deteriorate, it could no longer be re-opened as a grain storage warehouse.

As for the Great Northern "S," which was "designed to eclipse in every way the mammoth steel elevator built by the same company at Buffalo, New York, in 1897-98." Did it in fact eclipse the elevator in Buffalo? In hindsight, the Great Northern "S" wasn't nearly as experimental as its predecessor.

1. Because it was designed to collect grain from railcars and transship it to lake vessels, the Great Northern "S" no marine towers at all. All it needed was a conventional system of spouts that could conduct grain down into the holds of such vessels.

2. Its grain bins (though made of steel) were shaped like grain bins that were made out of wood: rectangularly, not cylindrically. This meant that the "modern" problem of interstitial space wasn't even posed. After the widespread acceptance of reinforced concrete in the 1910s and 1920s, grain bins (no matter what the material used to construct them) have been built in cylindrical shapes.

3. Its walls were built in the conventional fashion: they were load-bearing walls, made of iron and steel, resting upon a solid foundation of masonry.

4. Because there was no basement into which to burrow or, rather, a strong desire not to have any basement become flooded, the elevator's nine lofting legs had to rise that much higher above ground level. This is why they "stick out" above the roof of the mainhouse itself. The result, at least to my eyes, is not "handsome," but strikingly ugly.

What made the Great Northern "S" a better elevator than the Great Northern Elevator in Buffalo is that the former encountered so few problems. Indeed, the Great Northern "S" was so well-designed and well-built that it could remain viable, even after 1909, when two large grain elevators made out of reinforced concrete were constructed right next to it (see below).

It should not go without mention that the Great Northern Railway erected grain elevators in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was where the company's headquarters were located. Below is a picture of one such elevator, which was built before 1899, could store 1.5 million bushels and was apparently made out of wood and wrapped in corrugated iron.

Note well, at ground-level, the two open doors, through which railcars could be driven; and, right next to those doors, the two vertically arrayed, rectangularly shaped boxes in which the elevator's lofting legs were installed.


  1. On the last picture of the Minneapolis elevator, the rectangular boxes on the side of the plant more than likely contained a manlift, stairwell, or both. There would have been several legs inside the house on each side of the driveways feeding garners and scales, that would have been located above the bins directly above the middle rail track.

    The Great Northern elevator in Superior has another set of legs concealed by the workhouse cupola. The recieving legs are the ones that can be seen on the exterior. The interior contained when originally constructed, 9 shipping legs and 9 cleaner legs.

    There are a couple of old books that I came across in University that contain a wealth of information on these older terminals. One is called "Plans of Grain Elevators" published around 1918 and the name of the other escapes me unfortunately, but it was published in the 1920's.

    Interesting blog.

  2. one of the "boxes" on the end of main structure probably enclosed the power transmission z elevators of that era were typically engine-driven [that's what the steam plant in foreground is all about] z large multi-sheave pulleys at bottom and top connected rotary motion to the leg drives via line shaft across top of headhouse z each leg was engaged with a friction clutch