Around 1900, electricity and concrete were advances for Buffalo’s elevators

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Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

By Ronald Ahrens

Yesterday we looked at the rise of Buffalo, N.Y., as a grain storage and processing center, one that developed after the the Erie Canal opened in 1825. Buffalo was the port where grain was unloaded from lake boats to canal boats. A bevy of steam-powered bucket elevators sprang up.

Today we consider the advances made in Buffalo after the introduction of electricity and electric motors to replace coal and steam engines. We also look at the rise of slipformed concrete to replace wooden elevator houses.

In his essay on the history of Buffalo’s elevators, Henry H. Baxter notes that inexpensive electric power permitted the electrification of elevators. It also encouraged grain processing: the milling of cereal, flour, and animal feed.

Buffalo 05The first electric elevator–a retrofitting, we assume–was soon after a large-capacity generating station started up in 1895. Two years later, the Electric and  Great Northern elevators were built solely around compact electric motors.

“In this way they eliminated steam boilers, engines, chimneys, numerous workers, and the necessity of bringing fuel to the elevator or mill site,” Baxter explains.

Nevertheless, grain scoopers were still needed, and the Irish from South Buffalo dominated the International Longshoremen’s Association Grain Shovelers Union Local 109 as late as 1940. During Buffalo’s heyday as many as 3,000 men were employed scooping grain from the holds of lake carriers. By 1996, the Buffalo News reported only 80 scoopers remained, the last of their kind in the United States.

A Facebook page offers revealing photos of scoopers at work.

The corresponding advance was the use of reinforced concrete. Baxter explains: “At first, bins were built of wood and usually lined with iron. After 1890 steel bins were built in a number of different arrangements. Since that time reinforced concrete has been used.

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Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

To get up to the headhouse, workers used a man lift. “This is an endless moving belt stretching from basement to the top with 12-inch square platforms attached every 25 feet or so. To go up or down a worker has only to step on a wooden platform going in his direction and hold on.”

Baxter does not specify what a worker might hold for security. Of course, a worker could  fall–that’s why enclosed cages replaced the more primitive method.

A reinforced-concrete elevator was built at Buffalo in 1907. Baxter’s understated description of the method is worth quoting at length:

At the beginning, a form usually four feet high was built on the foundation slab. Screw jacks placed at intervals of about seven feet were used to raise the form. Workers operated the jacks at a rate calculated to raise the form about six inches an hour. This rate gave concrete time to set at the bottom before being exposed by the slowly rising form.

Using this method it took about ten days for the Standard Elevator to reach the height of 125 feet. This was the average height of the bins. After completion of the bins, the workhouse was slipformed up until the structure reached a height of about 200 feet.

The top or deck of a grain elevator under construction was an extremely busy place. Placement of steel rods, pouring of concrete, and jacking of the form were continuous processes. Generally, each jack man had twelve jacks to tend to. A whistle sounded as a signal for each man to make one turn on each jack. Raising the form six inches required 24 whistle signals each hour. During that time a jack man would make 288 turns–almost five a minute–on his jack. Understandably a jack man occasionally got tired enough to miss a few turns. This caused his section of the form to be lower than the rest, resulting in a considerable stress on the form. Such an imbalance brought distress to the job superintendent.

 

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