Saturday, May 2, 2009

Brobdingnagian-sized words

On page 237, in the context of my discussion of Charles Magnus' "Bird's Eye View of the City of Buffalo, N.Y", I note that the illustrator has taken great pains to show that each elevator has the last name of its owner and the word "elevator" printed upon it "in Brobdingagian-sized words." My reference was not only to Jonathan Swift's satire Gulliver's Travels (1726), in which Gulliver visits the island of Brobdingag, which is populated by gigantic people who are 72 feet tall, but also to Frank Norris's novel The Pit (1903), in which the narrator proclaims that, "on all sides, blocking the horizon, red in color and designated by Brobdingagian letters, towered the hump-shouldered grain elevators [of Chicago]."

Norris' novel has come up once before, and it will (or, rather, should have) come up again, on page 258 of American Colossus, in which I mention several writers who anthropomorphicized grain elevators: Rudyard Kipling, who spoke of the "high-shouldered" elevators in Buffalo; Carl Sandburg, who referred to the "hunched shoulders" of grain elevators in the Midwest; and the anonymous author of "Ugly but Profitable: The Grain Elevators of Buffalo: Examples of Hideousness in Architecture" (1891), who claimed that Buffalo's elevators "rear their ungainly heads" above the skyline.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Bird's Eye View of the City of Buffalo, N.Y.

I mention Charles Magnus' illustration, "Bird's Eye View of the City of Buffalo, N.Y.," several times in American Colossus. The most important references occur on pages 235-236, in the context of a discussion of the (in)visibility of Buffalo's grain elevators to the city's residents, partisans, and boosters. Prior to 1860, in similar illustrations by J.W. Hill (1853) and J.H. Cohen (1859), grain elevators -- despite their number, great size, and unusual appearance -- were strangely absent from representations of the city in which they were invented, back in 1843.

Things began to change in the early 1860s, during the Civil War, when Buffalo's elevators became "newsworthy" as the result of being targeted by arsonists (commandos from the Confederacy, torches hired by the Western Elevating Association, or anti-American rebels from Canada). By 1863, when Magnus' "Bird's Eye View of the City of Buffalo, N.Y." was published, the elevators were "suddenly" as visible as they should have been, that is to say, as they were all along.

If we "zoom" into certain sections of this remarkable image/map, which was originally photographed and placed on-line by Chuck LaChiusa, we can see many significant grain elevators.

In the detail provided below, we can see the Erie Basin (built in 1854) and the Exchange (1863) elevators.

Below, the Cutter & Austin (date unknown), the C.W. Evans (original 1847, rebuilt 1863) and the Reed (original 1847, rebuilt 1862). Note: a part of the Bennett (built 1863) appears at the middle left.

Below, the Watson (1863) and an unnamed transfer tower, possibly the Excelsior (1862).

Below, the Watson, the Excelsior(?), the Corn Dock (date unknown), and the Main St. (1848).

Below, the Sturges (1863) and the Marine (1848).

Below, in the foreground (south side of the Buffalo River): the Marine and two unnamed elevators, probably the Richmond (1863) and the Hazard (date unknown). In the middle (north side of the Buffalo River), moving from left to right: the Seymour & Wells (1855), the Wadsworth (1846), and the Sternberg "A" and "B" elevators (original 1847, rebuilt 1862).

Below, in the foreground (south side of the Buffalo River): the Evans (date unknown). In the middle (north side of the Buffalo River), moving from left to right: the Sternberg "A" and "B," and the City (original 1859, rebuilt 1863).

Thursday, April 30, 2009

John S. Metcalf, continued

On page 224 of American Colossus, I mention the grain elevator that John S. Metcalf designed and built for the Sante Fe Railway in Chicago, Illinois. Completed in 1906, the Sante Fe was one of the first elevators in North America with bins that were built out of reinforced concrete.

Above, we see two photographs of the Sante Fe, both taken by Jet Lowe of the Historic Engineering Record at the same time (circa 1985). In the upper photo, we see the side of the elevator that faced the Chicago River. Note the simplicity of the ironworks: a single marine leg, with barely any covering; three canal spouts; the zig-zagging staircase that climbs the outside of the all-reinforced concrete workhouse; a single spout that sends grain down into a small feed or seed mill next door.

In the lower photo, we see the "other" side of the Sante Fe: the "annex" of cylindrical grain tanks, made out of reinforced concrete, that receives grain from the main house through two horizontal conveyor-belts that appear in the upper right-hand corner. (It is likely that, below ground-level, one or two horizontal conveyor-belts were installed in trenches to carry grain from the annex back to the main house.) The two houses were kept separate from each other so that, in case of fire or explosion, the damage would be limited to one, and would not affect both.

Below is a photograph of the complex as it is today.

The Story So Far. . . .

With a single exception, all of the tasks announced last month have been accomplished. With the posting of yesterday's entry, the last remaining task -- providing "new" images and texts that illustrate or otherwise enrich individual ideas in the book -- is at the half-way-done mark. In the next few weeks, I will attempt to complete this "final" project, and then move on to others.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reinforced-concrete grain bins

On pages 224-225 of American Colossus, I note that the industrial archaeologist Robert M. Frame III has offered the following useful guidelines for historians of the use of reinforced concrete in the construction of the bins in grain elevators in North America:

1) a period of experimentation (1899-1906);

2) a period of development and eventual mastery (1906-1912); and

3) a period in which the building-material received widespread, if not universal acceptance (1912-1928).

Adopting and slightly altering these guidelines, I have discerned:

1) a period of experimentation (1899-1908);

2) a period of development and mastery (1909-1919);

3) a period of widespread acceptance (1920-1928); and

4) a fourth period, one that lasted between 1929 and 1943, and marked the end of the line begun in 1843 with the Dart Elevator, the world's first mechanized grain elevator.


For a good text about the "third" period -- universal acceptance (1920-1928) -- see The Literary Digest, August 20, 1921, page 21:

An almost complete change in the methods of constructing country grain elevators, with the employment of concrete in place of wood, has recently taken place, we are told by A.T.R. Curtis, writing in "Concrete" (Detroit). Seldom, he says, has one material of construction replaced another is so short a time. Only a few years ago, the concrete country elevator was a rare xception; to-day in many parts of the country scarcely a wooden elevator less than five years old can be found.

For a photograph that captures the first two-and-a-half periods, see the one below, which shows the grain elevator district in Buffalo, New York, as it was in 1925.

Upper left: the Superior (three stages: 1915, 1923, and 1924). Upper right: the Dellwood (1914-1917). Dead center: the Marine "A" (under construction). Left to right in front row: the Perot (1908), the American (1907), the malthouse associated with the American (1922), and the Electric (1897, steel bins).

For a photograph that captures all four periods, see the one below, which shows Buffalo's grain elevator district as it was in the 1950s.

Virtually all of the elevators visible here were made out of reinforced concrete. Lower left: the Standard (built in two stages: 1928 and 1942). Extreme lower right: Portland Cement (not a grain elevator). Lower right: the Annex to the Electric (built 1942) and towards the middle the Electric itself (steel, not reinforced concrete). Between the Electric and the Lake & Rail: the American (built 1906) and the Perot (1907). Middle left: the Lake & Rail (stages between 1927 and 1930). Middle right: the Marine "A" (built 1925). Upper middle: the Concrete-Central (stages between 1915 and 1917).


At the center of or, let us say, the driving force behind the fourth period (1943 to the present) was Cargill, the large, ever-growing and now dominant grain-trading company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Between 1929 and 1933, Cargill stopped leasing or buying grain elevators built by other companies, and started designing and building its own, according to its own lights, not "tradition." At first there were three of these elevators, and they were built in a "line" that traced out the long trip from farm to market: from Omaha, Nebraska (by rail) to Chicago, Illinois, and then from Chicago (by lake vessel) to Albany, New York, where the grain was transshipped to barges for transport down the Hudson River to New York City. Though it might have been more direct to ship grain (by rail) directly from Omaha to New York City, it was cheaper to ship and transship it in this roundabout fashion. Note well: the "flow" of grain is not a natural one; it does not necessarily follow the geographical terrain; it strictly follows the route that is the least expensive, and thus the most profitable, for the shipper (in this case, Cargill).

Cut out of this "line" or "flow" was Buffalo, New York, which Cargill -- believing the place to have fallen "outside" the primary flows of grain from farm to market -- had abandoned at the end of 1920s. During World War II, when international demand for American grain was at an all-time high, and there was money to be made in storing exportable surpluses, Cargill returned to Buffalo, where in 1942 it built an annex to the Electric Elevator, a classic steel-binned elevator that Cargill had purchased in the interim.

In each case, the four new elevators that Cargill built weren't especially large, at least in comparison to other elevators built out of reinforced concrete in the 1910s and 1920s, some of which could store as many as 10 million bushels of grain. The elevator that Cargill built in Chicago in 1932 could only store 1.3 million bushels; the elevator built in Buffalo could store 6 million. Only the Omaha and the Albany elevators (built in 1931 and 1933, respectively) were truly colossal.

What made these four elevators (but especially the elevator in Buffalo) different from their predecessors wasn't their large or small size, but the fact that they didn't use or shifted the emphasis away from large groups of "bins" or "compartments." Instead, they contained huge undivided rooms in which large piles of grain in bulk were dumped and then moved around by front-loading gasoline-powered vehicles with rubber wheels, not by electrically powered horizontal conveyor-belts and lofting legs (as in previous elevators).

There was a single such "room" at Cargill's Chicago elevator; four of them at both the Omaha and Albany elevators; and six at the elevator in Buffalo. In each case, these grain rooms could store a staggering one million bushels. Previously, grain bins had never been designed to store more than 80,000 bushels each!

The elevator that Cargill built in Chicago (see photo above) had short and flat, box-like walls that intersected at right angles, and a pitched roof. Some have said that it resembled a tabernacle. It certainly didn't "look like" a modern grain elevator. If anything, it resembled an old-style "flathouse" (a cavernous barn in which sacks of grain and barrels of flour were stored).

Below is a picture of the elevator Cargill built in Albany. Counting the "traditional" looking cylindrical grain tanks that are arrayed in three parallel rows across it, the facility could store a total of 12 million bushels of grain, making it one of the biggest in the world.

But the Annex to the Electric Elevator seemed to be a deliberate throw-back to the elevators of the 1910s and 1920s (see picture at the top of this entry). From the outside, the six-million-bushel annex appeared to be a collection of cylindrically shaped, self-contained silos (grain bins) surrounded, when feasible, by interstitial "fillers" such as quarter-bins and half-bins, which were also curved like cylinders. But it was not.

As we can see from the picture above, which shows the machine room inside the Electric Annex, the cylindrical shape of the walls was not necessary: the walls could easily have been "flat." The walls or, rather, the reinforced concrete forms that composed them, were in the shape of a series of cylinders for purely aesthetic reasons, not for reasons that concerned physics, efficiency or profitability. The complete breaking of the connection between form and function was intended to be a way of saying, "Here at Cargill, we are doing everything differently, and this even includes the way of our retaining walls are built." Cargill had changed all the rules back in the early 1930s, and the Electric Annex -- built in the very place in which the grain elevator was invented, almost exactly a hundred years previously -- was in part built as an ironic, self-congratulatory testament to those changes and the end of an era.

What happened after 1943? Grain elevators changed so fundamentally that one must start a completely new history, i.e., the history of self-unloading grain ships, sealed storage containers, pneumatic grain-transfer systems, grain storage rooms, et al.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

John S. Metcalf, continued

The Missouri Pacific Railway Elevator, located in Kansas City, Missouri, was designed and built by John S. Metcalf in 1904. Note there are two sets of bins: on the left, bins made out of tile, and, on the right, bins made out of reinforced concrete. This suggests that the facility was built in two separate stages. (The photograph above was taken in the early 1940s.)

In the center foreground, there appears to be a freestanding pneumatic dust collector. Its tubes are positioned to "suck" the dust out of the basements (the areas under the grain bins) of each of the silo-buildings. The top of the elevator's workhouse (apparently made of reinforced concrete, not steel and iron) can be seen above and directly behind the dust collector.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

John S. Metcalf, continued

To paraphrase the Canadian researcher and author Scott Garrett, the Tiffin Grain Elevator, commonly known as Tiffin No.2, was constructed in 1907-08 by John S. Metcalf Company for what was then the Grand Trunk Railway. A smaller grain elevator, the Aberdeen Elevator, was located about a half-mile away, operated by the Aberdeen Elevator Company and served by the Grand Trunk Railway. The Tiffin was initially constructed with a capacity of two million bushels. An annex, added in 1923-24, pushed the capacity to some 4.6 million bushels. Grain arriving by ship was transshipped to railcars for transportation to Halifax. Like Metcalf's elevator at Port McNicoll (aka Victoria Harbour), the Tiffin had three automotive ("loose") marine towers, each about 120 feet high. Once again like the elevator in Port McNicoll, the Tiffin was closed in 1990; demolition began in 1997. Housing and park areas now dot the area where Tiffin and Aberdeen elevators stood.

Above: the Tiffin Elevator, photographed on 24 August 1982 by Viktor Kaczkowski.