For more than a year, Thomas
Bittner, associate professor of philosophy and geography at UB,
took thousands of photographs of grain silos along the Buffalo
River. His atmospheric images soon filled two photography books and
commanded a solo exhibition at a Toronto gallery. “As I came
back again and again, I discovered how things change,”
Bittner says. “It is this interplay of constancy and change
that to me reveals the essence of the place.” A native of
Germany, Bittner also is a research scientist at UB’s New
York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life
Essay by Patricia Donovan
Though we refer to them today simply as “the grain
elevators,” their names are etched into our history. Names
like Perot, Lake & Rail, Great Northern, Cargill Pool, Marine
Towering over Buffalo’s waterfront and eponymous river,
the remains of these 14 steel, brick and concrete behemoths are
monuments to the industrial shipwreck that from 1954 to 1975 laid
waste to our identity. But they created that identity too, and
their importance to the city from the mid-19th to mid-20th century
cannot be overstated.
Buffalo emerged as an important center for grain shipment in
1825, when it became the western terminus of the newly opened Erie Barge
Canal. Since it was also the eastern terminus for shipping on
the Great Lakes, the tiny city now provided a straight, fast route
for the delivery of midwestern grain to the hungry Eastern
At that time, wheat, corn and flour were shipped over the lakes
to Buffalo, manually unloaded into storage facilities by immigrant
laborers, then loaded into canal barges for shipment east. Though
the lake-canal connection increased shipment capacity, the manual
transfer of grain was time-consuming and back-breaking work; it
also left the stored product open to vermin and water damage.
Without a better transshipment process, the industry here would
have remained a limited operation.
Enter the grain “elevator,” developed in 1842-43 by
Buffalo entrepreneur Joseph Dart and Buffalo engineer Robert Dunbar,
based on an earlier invention for an automatic flour mill. The
first grain elevator was a tall, wooden, shed-like structure with a
unique “marine leg”—a long, steam-powered
conveyer, lined with a series of buckets that could be directed
into the hold of a ship. Through continuous operation, and assisted
by a team of scoopers, the leg would scoop up and
“elevate” the grain along the conveyer to the top of
the building, where it was weighed, dried, cleaned and distributed
into bins according to quality.
Not only could the grain be unloaded quickly, putting the ships
back into operation in short order, but because the bins were
suspended above the elevator floor, the grain was kept dry, cool
and free of vermin. When it came time to reload the grain for
shipment, gravity drew it through chutes and spouts that emptied
into the holds of canal barges (or, later, railroad cars) for
transport east. It was a brilliant innovation.
By 1863, the city had 27 grain elevators with a capacity of
nearly six million bushels and a transfer capacity of almost three
million bushels an hour. Grain elevators were so efficient, they
began to appear in virtually all grain shipment centers throughout
the U.S., Canada, Europe and South America. Over time, elevator
technology was vastly improved: Buckets gave way to pneumatic
marine legs; wooden structures to brick, iron and steel, ceramic,
and finally, reinforced concrete (examples of all can be seen in
Buffalo). They also grew increasingly massive to accommodate
The industry served by the elevators impacted people’s
lives in myriad ways. The explosions, fires and accidents are
legends unto themselves. New technologies, ships, practices and
shipping routes wrought constant change—and brought enormous
personal wealth to owners and shippers, by virtue of a long work
week and underpaid laborers.
The scoopers themselves, largely Irish immigrants, worked to
usher in an era of strong unions, ultimately joining with freight
handlers and other dock workers in the “Great Strike of 1899.” This massive but
peaceful uprising ended the hated saloon-boss system of hiring and
paying scoopers, and helped precipitate the union-generated
development of the city’s middle classes.
To understand the elevators and the fascination they hold for so
many today, it is important to know that for more than a hundred
years, Buffalo and her silos traveled in tandem, their common
fortunes ebbing, flowing and ebbing again until the opening of a
vast new agricultural region in the Midwest made them the largest
suppliers of grain in the world. That groundswell of success
carried them into a new century, through World War I and its
aftermath, Midwestern agricultural ruin, the Great Depression and
the Second World War.
Then, in 1954, in almost one fell swoop, Buffalo and its
elevators went down together, victims of the newly constructed St.
Lawrence Seaway, which permitted grain ships to bypass the city
Today, and from a distance, the elevators maintain a powerful
presence. Three are still in use, but the remainder, close up, are
rusted, broken relics of a lost industry—reminders of the way
The elevators have, for decades, represented the city’s
fall from high ground to Rust Belt. They’ve stood for more
than themselves, conjuring the massive shuttered steel mills and
coke ovens, the shrunken auto parts industry and the city’s
dwindling population. Many Buffalonians could not look at them
without a sense of profound loss, because, of course, there was a
profound loss, and nothing stepped in to fill the vacuum.
Early on, there were suggestions that they be resurrected as
grand hotels, office buildings or art museums, but century-old
grain elevators are tough to reuse; they are often unstable and
pose notoriously difficult construction issues. That said, other
cities have upcycled their elevators into unique apartment and
office buildings, individual homes—even, in Marseille, an
opera house. A new plan in Buffalo would turn one property into a
massive recreational and entertainment complex featuring, among
other things, a rooftop bar 90 feet in the air and an artificial
sand beach. Eventually, it is to include a $25 million hotel.
Whether or not that vision will become reality is hard to tell.
But there is already a tremendous amount of energy going into the
elevators’ reuse in some form. Their very presence has helped
make Buffalo a prime location for industrial heritage tourism. Taking visitors
through the almost otherworldly environment of “elevator
alley,” historians and tour boat captains tell the
elevators’ story in such vibrant detail they seem to come
alive with the imagined groan and crash of industrial equipment and
the calls of thousands of scoopers, longshoremen, harbor bosses,
dock hands, steamer crews and barge captains.
Simultaneously, the city’s creative classes have been
engaged in a sort of communal meditation on the aesthetics of these
giant, rusted-out ruins. The elevators are endlessly photographed,
sketched, painted and filmed, the results published and exhibited
around the world. They are the subject of detailed histories and of
poetry; the backdrop for everything from avant-garde theater to
literary readings to pop-up restaurants. Next year begins their
incarnation as the site of a multimillion-dollar waterfront lighting
project, as well as a large-scale lighting display employing 3D
video projection, fire and pyrotechnics.
So here we are. On the very soil upon which the grain industry
rose and fell, the partnership of a once-eminent, then-disheartened
city and a once-celebrated, then-ravaged industry serves up the
products of a resurgent urban creative energy that is changing the
way we see ourselves in the mirror of our own past.
Patricia Donovan is senior editor for UB’s Office of Media Relations, where she covers the arts and humanities.
Most of the 800-plus activities and events reviving the waterfront around the grain elevators have appeared within the past three years—and many involve UB students, faculty and alumni.