In the 1800s, Buffalo grew as a steam-powered grain-transfer center

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By Ronald Ahrens

Early in the 19th century, surplus grain could be a problem, whether for the farmer or grain traders. It was better to turn it into hooch rather than let it rot.

The advent of grain elevators changed all that, as we learn from Henry H. Baxter’s essay explaining how Buffalo, N.Y., became one of the world’s leading grain storage and processing centers.

Baxter’s essay, published by the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, explains that the Erie Canal changed everything when it opened in 1825. “Thus, grain had to be unloaded from lake boats and transferred to canal boats at Buffalo,” Baxter writes.

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Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

By 1842, Joseph Dart had figured out how to build a steam-powered bucket elevator to raise grain from lake boats to storage bins. There the grain stayed until it was needed for milling, malting, or moving to another location.

“Dart, I am sorry for you,” one skeptic said. “It won’t do. Remember what I say–Irishmen’s backs are the cheapest elevators ever built.”

Within just 15 years, Buffalo’s harbor had 10 wooden elevators with capacity of more than 1.5 million bushels.

Years later, Dart credited Oliver Evans with devising the mechanical operation for that first 55,000-bushel elevator.

Elevators solved problems in keeping grain “dry, cool, free from vermin, and safe from pilferage,” Baxter writes. “Moreover, elevators make it possible to weigh and sample grain to determine the quality, quantity, and grade as a basis of payment. Elevator-stored grain can be improved by drying, cleaning, grading, and blending.”

By 1865 Buffalo could boast some 29 elevators, including two “floaters”–elevators that “could travel to a lake boat in the outer harbor or in the Erie Basin.” They would unload the lake boat’s cargo into the string of canal boats that followed behind.

The next big innovation would come around 1900 when electric power replaced steam. And soon, slipformed elevators of reinforced concrete would start to replace the wooden grain houses.

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