On the Waterfront

Photographer Thomas Bittner captures the stark, surreal beauty of Buffalo’s grain elevators

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The man behind the camera

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 Sciences.

Essay by Patricia Donovan


To see more photos of Thomas Bittner's work

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 A, Concrete-Central.

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 Seaboard.

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 demand.

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 entirely.

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 we were.

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. 

Relics Reimagined

From public poetry to pop-up cuisine, Buffalonians find creative uses for their historic grain elevators

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.