Early grain-storage leader Buffalo experienced the boom in full

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By Ronald Ahrens

“Silent crowd watches through the long night hours as workers search mill ruins for more missing bodies,” the Buffalo Times blared in 1913.

As an early leader in grain storage and milling, Buffalo, N.Y., was also a test site (of sorts) for elevator mishaps.

This report, culled from a firefighting blog, shows how the explosion even hit a passing train: 

An explosion devastated a grain elevator, killing at least 17 men and injuring 60 more. The elevator, located at the Husted Milling and Elevating Co. at Elk and Peabody streets, was left in flames after the dust explosion. The engineer of a passing train was killed by the blast that shattered windows, injuring many passengers. A dozen boxcars loaded with grain were also destroyed. Every ambulance in the city responded, but there were so many injuries that the flatbed section of the damaged train was used to transport many of the wounded grain elevator workers. Firemen poured tons of water on the volatile remains all day and into the night, hoping to cool things enough to allow a complete search. Losses were estimated at a half-million dollars.

Grain dust is explosive. After the electrification of elevator mechanisms in the late-1890s, it took a while to figure out that electric motors should be shielded to suppress sparks.

Static electricity can build up around conveyor belts.

Machinery can overheat.

And of course, there’s a reason “No Smoking” warnings are now everywhere in an elevator.

Tillotson Construction Company’s first reinforced concrete elevator, which was built in 1939 at Goltry, Okla., had a dust collection system. Notes in the company records say, “3 H.P. fan, 42″ collector dust bin.”

We lack any more details but are striving to increase our knowledge of dust collection inside elevators.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

Book report, Part One: Cargill’s first elevators and the blind-horse phenomenon

By Ronald Ahrens

Good fortune has led to my acquiring a copy of Cargill: Trading the World’s Grain, by Wayne G. Broehl, Jr., published in 1992. I got a like-new copy on Amazon for (he goes to the closet to consult credit card records) $7.99—a screamin’ deal.

The massive, 1,007-page book is just part one of Prof. Broehl’s ambitious and masterful history of Cargill—the company let him look at everything, and the reader is left with a detailed account that’s also based on public sources as specific as records on local water wells.

Reading this behemoth will be like skinning a whale with a pocket knife, but as I progress you can look for periodic posts showing what I’ve learned.

Cargill 01In this volume Prof. Broehl starts with Will Cargill’s reaching his majority after the Civil War. As a young man, Cargill showed a disposition for trading grain. It led to a few elevators but also many “flathouses.” These single-story warehouses proliferated along the railroad tracks in northeastern Iowa and southern Minnesota, where Cargill got his start; they could hold a lot of grain but of course they were subject to fire.

Not only could a flathouse burn down in an instant, but other misfortunes could strike.

“This particular spring of 1874 produced a string of bad luck for Will Cargill; in May, his Albert Lea [Minn.] warehouse collapsed, spilling some 2000 bushels of grain,” the professor tells us.

If that had been the season’s lone calamity, Cargill would have gotten off easy. “It had hardly been cleaned up when reports reached Will that another warehouse, at Ridgeway, Iowa, had burned to the ground, ‘the only piece of property which he had neglected to insure…”

Near Austin, Minn., Cargill lost another flathouse “after a couple of years by overloading.” He built an 18,000-bushel elevator with an eight-horsepower steam engine providing the power.

Screen shot 2018-08-06 at 10.49.59 AM

Screen shot from the Northwestern Miller. Wikimedia Commons say, “The Northwestern Miller (1880–1973) was a periodical founded by the Miller Publishing Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota. A trade publication for the grain and flour industry, it also published short fiction.”

Yes, besides flathouses, we learn of “elevator[s] with power machinery for elevating grain, like the large Cresco [Iowa] operation of Beadle & Slee. “By this time, however, elevating mechanisms were more widespread, sometimes simple ‘cup and belt’ devices run by a horse led in a circle, a ‘blind horse’ elevator, so-called. An old-timer recounted how one elevator ‘had a whip attached above the horse, and there was a hole in the wall where the men … could holler down and the horse … and a string attached to the whip so they could pull and hit the horse.”

Seeking more information about blind-horse elevators I went online and found this passage from the Northwestern Miller as reported in Volume 47, published May 24, 1899:

“By some happy, or otherwise, chance, it was discovered that a blind horse will keep on in his circular path, never seeming to know that he isn’t going anywhere, nor can he tell when the man in charge is out of sight. The poor brute will follow his halter around his little circle from noon till night, thinking all the time that he is getting along in the world.

“This set the elevator men thinking with the result that the blind-horse market immediately began to pick up. Poor old blind nags in the Dakotas, Minnesota, and Iowa were surprised to find themselves in demand. Instead of being allowed to die peacefully in pastures and their bones to be forgotten, they were sought after with an eagerness that made them feel there was really some distinction in being blind. It was not unusual, a few years ago, for an elevator company to buy up a carload of blind horses in Iowa and ship them into Minnesota or the Dakotas. But that time has passed and the day of the blind horse is nearly over. Even now, in the odor of gasoline he can smell, if he can’t see, his finish.”

Blind horses happily acceded this odious role to power machinery. Steam engines producing up to 10 horsepower were used to drive the machinery, and they allowed for construction of larger elevators. In 1873—the year of a financial panic as well as a grasshopper plague—Cargill “decided to increase his operations along the McGregor Western tracks and contracted for a large elevator at Cresco. Its total cost eventually came to over $12,000.”

Anyone who wants to read along will find passages of the book online, thanks to Google Books.