The History of the Grain Elevator
by William J. Brown
I was born in a place where a huge grain elevator stood and, indeed, still stands. The elevator was built back in the 1920s. As a child, I used to see it often, riding in my parents' car on the way to Grandma's house. Many years later, I went to graduate school in a place where there were (and still are) over a dozen grain elevators, one or two of which are among the most active facilities in the USA. I became fascinated by grain elevators, and spent several years reading about them, looking at old pictures of them, exploring the abandoned elevators and getting guided tours of the ones that were still working. Eventually, I wrote American Colossus, which is a book about the history of the American grain elevator between 1843 and 1943.
Now, without reading any more, you might assume that I was born and went to graduate school somewhere on the prairies, in the American Midwest or Canada. Certainly somewhere in or near the great wheat/corn/soybean belt that is the geographical center of our great nation and this extraordinary continent. But in fact I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and went to graduate school in Buffalo, New York. If you are surprised by this -- and clearly I am hoping that you are -- it is probably because Brooklyn and Buffalo are big cities, not small towns or villages, and because both cities are centers of industry, not agriculture. To give this hoped-for surprise a voice: "What would a city boy know about grain elevators?"
Now, generally speaking, city boys and girls know very little or nothing about grain elevators; indeed, the very words "grain elevators" are often foreign to their ears. And this is because city folks on the West, East and Gulf coasts of the USA live at the terminals of the torrential streams that bring hundreds of millions of bushels of grain (and all of the many products that are derived from it) from farms in small towns in the American Midwest to supermarkets, bakeries, liquor stores and gasoline stations everywhere else. By the time all or any of that grain has reached the city folks, the grain elevators have already done their work, and so they escape notice. Of course, there are grain elevators in the big cities (port cities, especially), but these facilities generally ship grain overseas, and so the average big-city coast-dweller doesn't know or doesn't need to know what those huge, odd-looking buildings are, or how they fit into the international "grain stream."
OK, so I'm "unusual" for a city boy: I know all about grain elevators; in fact I wrote "the book" about them! Humorous though it might be, this little pleasantry isn't the real punch-line of my story. My real punch-line is the fact that the grain elevator itself was invented in a major city (in Buffalo, New York, as a matter of fact), and not in a rural town. Despite our expectations, the grain elevator was invented more than 160 years ago in an urban transshipping hub and in the middle of the grain stream, and not at the beginning or the "well-spring" of that stream. How and why did this happen?
Technically speaking, the first grain elevators -- that is to say, the first steam-powered bucketed conveyor-belts -- were used by Oliver Evans, an inventor and businessman in Maryland who started using them in his flour mills in the mid-1780s. The idea was both simple and brilliant. Evans could have used the new invention (the wood-burning steam engine) to move grain to and from the millstones on horizontal belts, which would have required his flour mills to be big and wide enough to encompass all that machinery. Instead, Evans used his conveyor belts to "elevate" the grain vertically, to the top of the mill, from which the force of gravity alone was needed to conduct the grain down to the millstones and then down from the millstones to the barrels in which the flour was sealed. Not only did Evans' top-down flour mills function much more rapidly and efficiently than "traditional" mills (which were powered by water currents, the wind, or teams of horses), but they also didn't take up as much space as their predecessors. They were tall buildings, not wide ones, and thus well-suited for locations near water (rivers, lakes or oceans), where the demand for space is always much higher than elsewhere.
In 1865, looking back on the history of the invention that he claimed was his, and his alone, the Buffalo-based merchant Joseph Dart, Jr. was paradoxically explicit in his debt to Oliver Evans. In his address to the Buffalo and Erie Historical Society (BECHS), Dart stated: "Indeed, the building I then erected [in 1843] may perhaps be called the parent, not only of the Bennett Elevator [built in 1863 on the site previously occupied by the Dart Elevator], but of all others; for I believe it was the first steam transfer and storage Elevator in the world. It was the first Elevator in the world. It was the first successful application of the valuable invention of Oliver Evans to the commercial purpose for which it is now extensively employed."
For Dart, who had been out of the grain business for years before the historic elevator that bore his name burned down, this acknowledgment of Oliver Evans had two purposes. Dart not only wanted to help historians trace the history of the invention that, by 1865, had transformed Buffalo into the biggest grain port in the world. He also wanted to lobby in favor of granting a patent for the device called "the grain elevator" to one Joseph Dart, Jr., of Buffalo, New York. Oliver Evans had been awarded a patent, and so should Joseph Dart, Jr., too, because "an inventor's merit consists not merely in conceiving an idea of a machine, but also in overcoming the practical difficulties of its successful operation [...] It is worthy of remark that some of the most useful inventions have not been discoveries of new principles or methods of mechanical action, but new applications of methods and principles already known."
But Dart was never granted a patent for the "grain transfer and storage elevator." One can easily see why. Despite his claim to personally "overcoming the practical difficulties of [the elevator's] successful operation," Dart's address to the BECHS contains nothing about the construction, mechanics or day-to-day functioning of "his" grain elevator. The people who really knew about these subjects were Robert Dunbar, the mechanical engineer who both designed and built the Dart Elevator, the Bennett Elevator, and many others in Buffalo and elsewhere in the USA, and William Wells, the superintendent of the Dart Elevator and several others in Buffalo.
Far from being without interest, Dart's self-serving address to the BECHS is full of information about the rapid increase in the grain trade through Buffalo between 1831, when the first grain-bearing brig arrived from Chicago, and 1845, when the Dart Elevator was doubled in size and capacity to accommodate the ever-rising demand for "transfer and storage" services in that city. Why was Buffalo so important? Because of its unique geographical location: at the eastern end of Lake Erie, and thus reachable from anywhere on the Great Lakes, which is the single biggest system of lakes in the world; and at the western end of the Erie Canal, and thus reachable from Albany (and points east, such as Boston), the Hudson River and New York's Harbor. Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal was, at first, an east-to-west route for immigrants, pioneers and settlers who were heading out to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Soon afterwards, and thanks to the great productivity of the farms in the new "West," the Erie Canal became a two-way conduit: people and manufactured goods traveling from East to West; but also grain (flour in barrels, and wheat in sealed sacks) being shipped from West to East, that is to say, from farm to market.
An in-land port city, Buffalo also had a problem. The vessels that navigated the Great Lakes were too large to sail through the Erie Canal, and the boats that traveled the Erie Canal were too small to sail on the Great Lakes. And so, the grain that came into Buffalo had to be transshipped, that is, unpacked from the lakers, temporarily stored on the docks, and then packed up into the canal boats. As late as 1842, this transshipping was accomplished by the oldest and most labor-intensive of technologies: a block-and-tackle, and teams of stevedores, who would do most of the carrying of the barrels and sacks on their very backs. It was a very slow process, and often times required as much as a week to transship a single shipment of grain (approximately 3,000 bushels). But by 1842, when Buffalo began to receive a million bushels of grain from in-coming lakers, it was clear that this method had become obsolete. The answer, certainly, lay in mechanizing the transshipping process, just as agriculture had been mechanized by such inventions as Cyrus McCormick's steam-powered reaper (1831), the Pitt Brothers' steam-powered thresher (1834) and John Deer's steel-tipped plow (1837).
Here Joseph Dart, Jr. had no choice but to turn to Robert Dunbar, who had been working on the problem in nearby Black Rock, New York. A trained mechanical engineer, Dunbar had tried water mills to power his elevators. (A miller from Black Rock named Mahlon Kingman had tried teams of horses.) But these were only experiments. Over the winter of 1842-1843, Dunbar -- working under the auspices of Joseph Dart, Jr. but using his own designs, his own iron foundry and his own hands -- constructed what came to be known as the world's first "marine tower." Called marine because it faced the water (Buffalo Creek), this tower was a tall, thin box made of heavy wood timbers. Inside of it, the conveyor-belt was stored horizontally, just as the elevators at Evans' flour mills were. Powered by a wood-burning steam engine and enclosed in its own wooden tube, the elevating device was called a leg because, when lowered out of the marine tower, the apparatus appeared to "step" out, down and into the hull of the grain ship that was docked in front of it. The buckets that were attached to the conveyor belt (later called "Buffalo buckets") could each store a quart of grain. Dunbar did some experimenting before he finally got the number and spacing of the buckets right. When the leg was lowered into a ship's hull, these buckets bit into the piles of grain in bulk stored therein, and elevated it to the top of the marine tower, where the grain was expelled from the "leg" and collected separately. Because it had been elevated in this fashion, the grain could then be sent -- using nothing but the force of gravity -- to a canal boat, which was docked underneath the structure, or to the top of the "mainhouse" of the elevator, where the grain was stored temporarily in tall, rectangular bins. When it was needed, the stored grain was conducted by gravity down from the bottom of the bin into a "boot," from which the grain was then elevated by another steam-powered leg (called a "lofting leg" or simply a "lofter" to distinguish it from the marine leg) to the top of the tower. From the tower, the grain was then conveyed by gravity down into a canal boat or horse-driven wagon, depending on who the ultimate purchaser was. (Later, with the coming of the railroads, the marine tower could also dispatch grain into a shed and the cars of the trains that had pulled into it.)
On 12 June 1843, the Dart Elevator serviced its first vessel, the schooner Philadelphia, which brought 4,515 bushels of grain in bulk from Chicago. A cheap but remarkably indirect route, which took as long as a month to complete: all the way up Lake Michigan, all the way down Lake Huron, and then all the way across Lake Erie! The grain from Chicago was transshipped from the Philadelphia to canal boat in a single day, which was almost seven times faster than a "traditional" grain warehouse could manage. Over the course of the 1843 shipping season, the Dart successfully unloaded a total of 229,260 bushels of grain from more than 70 different vessels. Indeed, the Dart was so successful that, just two years after its opening, its storage capacity was doubled (a total of 110,000 bushels) and a second marine tower was added. It was clear: Buffalo's transshipping problems could be solved if another half-dozen of these elevators were built there. Together, they could easily accommodate the millions of bushels that the Port of Buffalo was receiving every year. By 1852, Buffalo's harbor was indeed filled with such elevators, as well as floaters (grain elevators placed on small ships) and transfer towers (elevators without storage bins accompanying them).
But the grain elevator was not an invention that was adopted immediately and universally. Indeed, it wasn't until 1846 that other grain elevators were built in Buffalo, and it wasn't until 1847 that "Buffalo-style" grain elevators were built outside of that city. What accounts for the delay? It seems there were a great many factors, including the costs of construction, the difficulty of obtaining credit, the absence of plans or designs for constructing a good grain elevator, the limited demand for grain in bulk, the different ideas of what a "bushel" meant, the resistance in the local community to "time-saving devices" that put people out of work, the absence of a local flour-milling industry, and the uncertainty and chaotic nature of the grain trade itself (no telegraph lines, no "to arrive" contracts, no futures markets, no standardized grain-grades, etc). In fact, it was only in the 1850s that the basic conditions for the widespread adoption of the transcontinental grain elevator system were finally met. The key development was the universal adoption of the switch-over from shipping grain in sealed, burlap sacks to shipping grain in bulk. Once this switch-over was accomplished, grain elevators weren't merely helpful in dealing with exceptions (shipments that weren't in sacks or shipments of grain other than wheat); they were necessary for conducting business on an everyday basis.
The beginnings of the interlinked grain elevator system of today can be seen in the locations of the world's second and third steam-powered grain elevators, which were constructed by Robert Dunbar in 1847 in Toledo, Ohio, and Brooklyn, New York. The line that stretched from Toledo to Buffalo to Brooklyn moved grain along an all-water route from the interior of the country to one of its primary coastal marketplaces. Along this line, the grain had to be transshipped three times: from horse-driven wagon or canal boat to lake vessel at Toledo; from laker to canal boat at Buffalo; and from canal boat to wagon, rail car or ocean-going vessel at Brooklyn. In time, this line would be extended west to Chicago, Illinois, where a steam-powered elevator was built in 1848, and east to Oswego, New York, where one was built in 1851.
Thanks to this interlinked system of grain elevators, America was able to develop its enormous agricultural potential. Grain that was grown for profit could now be transported more easily, more cheaply and much further than ever before. These advances in transportation meant greater profits for both grain growers and grain dealers. Greater profits in turn meant that more land could purchased and turned into farmland, and more and bigger markets for grain products could be constructed. Both enterprises required human labor, which meant that more people would be able to move "out west" and find jobs . . . as grain-growers, grain-transporters or grain-dealers. As a result, more grain was grown and . . . the cycle began anew. And so let us say, in word: America had grain, but it was the grain elevator that turned that grain into power: grain power.
It was through the British that American grain elevators came to dominate the transshipping practices of the world. Because it had long nourished itself on bread made from wheat, and because it was becoming increasingly dependent on American wheat after the abolition of its Corn Laws in 1846, England was one of the first countries to start switching-over from grain shipped in sealed sacks to grain shipped in bulk. It appears that the first American-style grain elevators to be used in England were floaters: one of them was in fact towed clear across the Atlantic Ocean in the 1880s. Once in England, this elevator was studied and copied by British engineers, who began building their own floaters. Thereafter, the "American Elevator," as it was known, was sold off to the Belgians, who successfully used it in their harbors. Around 1905, floating elevators were first introduced in Holland. But it wasn't until the 1910s, when reinforced concrete became the primary material out of which grain bins were made, that huge land-based elevators were built in Western Europe, Russia and India. At first, their bins were shaped like rectangles, not cylinders. Eventually, or rather, after ravages of World War II, truly American-style elevators (cylindrical silos and all) were built in Europe and elsewhere in the world.
Between 1843 and, say, 1943, grain elevators in America underwent several significant changes. With the change-over from wood to coal as the source of fuel, the steam engines inside these elevators became more powerful and the machines they powered became even faster and more efficient. Storage capacities grew from around 100,000 bushels to nearly a million bushels per elevator. Another major change-over came at the end of the 1890s, when the availability of electrification brought about the obsolescence of the steam engine. To answer the challenge of this new, "cleaner" and more-modern form of energy, and to take advantage of the lowered insurance rates that were offered to operators of electrified grain elevators, designers and builders experimented with a number of building materials other than wood and iron: tile, steel, and reinforced concrete. As a result of all this experimentation, grain elevators -- or, rather, the buildings that enclosed them, as well as the buildings that stored the grain -- began to look very different from the Dart Elevator and the ones that were built in the 19th century. The chief difference was the visual appearance of the grain bins: they were no longer stored within a larger structure (the "mainhouse"), but instead stood alone, on their own.
During and after World War II, the construction and technology of grain elevators changed once again. At some grain elevators, the storage bins were no longer compartments, as they had been since the time of the Dart Elevator, but single rooms capable of storing a million bushels each. At other grain elevators, the machines were no longer housed in buildings of their own, but were -- like the grain tanks they serviced -- freestanding structures, fully visible to the eyes of passers-by. At still other elevators, external conveyor-belts were no longer necessary, because some sailing vessels had machines aboard that did the unloading themselves. Indeed, some "grain elevators" were no longer grain elevators, but grain blowers (or grain suckers, if you prefer): machines that transship piles of grain in bulk by vacuum cleaners and pneumatic tubes, not buckets and belts.
Generally speaking, the old American classics of the 1843 to 1943 era have been destroyed, either to make room for newer facilities or to simply remove a troublesome eyesore or "attractive nuisance," as the lawyers say. In some places, especially in small rural communities with a strong sense of municipal pride, the old classics (the "country elevators") have been turned into museums. In other places, the old classics of the reinforced-concrete variety have been transformed into climbing gyms, planetaria, hotels, and condominiums. Paradoxically, it is only in poor communities -- places like Chicago, Cincinnati and Buffalo -- that classic elevators still stand, but only because they haven't been demolished yet, not because they have been "saved" from demolition.
Quite obviously, we can learn from a great deal from the past. In the course of my research, I have compiled this list of "lessons" that might be useful for the future.
1). In America, the order of development has not the same as it was in Europe, where the rural village existed long before before the big city. In America, the small town and the big city were built at the same time. A "big city" could spout up anywhere, even in the middle of the wilderness. Likewise, big cities collapse and end up looking like wildernesses again.
2). Unlike the production of grain, the grain trade doesn't necessary originate with or even follow the contours of the land. Generally speaking, the grain trade follows the opportunities offered by current business conditions. And so, the grain trade can embrace or abandon a place -- even the very same place -- with equal rapidity and coldness once an opportunity arises.
3). Though the "givens" of the natural environment play a large role in determining the success or failure of a local enterprise, one shouldn't forget that the natural environment can be modified, sometimes quite substantially. And so the question isn't, "Who has access to the best resources?" but "Who can imagine how those resources could be put to use?"
4). There is no such thing as a "pure" invention. All inventions are built upon the work of others. There is certainly something "original" in an invention, but it lies in its imaginative use of something else, something that pre-exists it. This suggests that there are no solitary inventors, no "isolated geniuses," and that inventions are always the work of a team of individuals (at least two of them).
5). The beginnings of modern industry, globalization and other apparently contemporary phenomena are much earlier than we might believe. They all seem to start in the 1840s, not later (the 1880s, the 1920s, or the 1940s). This might help us today, when it global capitalism is undergoing its worst crisis since the 1930s.
6). Despite the widespread notion that most industries strive to produce just enough "quality" or "excellence" to survive, but never strive to produce real excellence for its own sake, many of the grain elevators of the classic period were truly excellent architecture. They were very well-built, and they were very striking to look at, even if the viewer couldn't decide if they were spectacularly beautiful or spectacularly ugly.