"Traces Left Behind"

Traces Left Behind

Traces Left Behind pays tribute to the role Buffalo’s elevators and grain silos played as strategic economic infrastructure, technology innovators, and architectural icons in America’s industrial heritage

Economic Infrastructure:

Through a combination of a favorable geographical location, local engineering innovation and ingenuity, and entrepreneurial businesses, Buffalo gained a strategic economic role in the transshipment and distribution of grain from the great plains of the US and Canada. Located at the eastern end of Lake Erie, and thus at the eastern-most point of navigation on four of the Great Lakes, in the first half of the 19th century Buffalo developed as the major transshipment point for the grain from the Great Plains heading for the East coast and overseas.

This development was kick-started by the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, linking Lake Erie and Buffalo with Albany and the Hudson River to New York. Previous to the opening of the canal, grain from the mid-west had to be floated on barges down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans where it was loaded onto ships for transport to New York or overseas — a long, unreliable and time-consuming journey. The Erie Canal transformed this 3000-mile odyssey into a 500 mile trip.

In 1825 Buffalo was a small town of 2,500 people; with the opening of the canal it boomed — in 1832 it incorporated as a city and by 1846 more flour and wheat was shipped through Buffalo than down the Mississippi through New Orleans. By 1855 the railways had developed to the stage where they were carrying twice as much traffic as the Erie canal. At the end of the Civil War, Buffalo was the world’s largest grain port, surpassing ports such as London and Rotterdam — and by the 1880s the railway transfer yards and associated storage facilities in Buffalo were the largest in the world. In 1918, the opening of the upgraded Erie Canal as the New York State Barge Canal redressed the balance and by the 1930s the canal again handled a significant part of the traffic.

The economics of grain shipping and handling meant that Buffalo also became a premier flour-milling center for North America (and for other grain-processing functions, especially malting barley). Since grain had to be transshipped and stored in Buffalo in its movement from lake steamers to canal barges and railway wagons, it made economic sense to mill it there rather than incur the cost of a second handling at another venue purely for milling. This further increased the demand for silos in Buffalo for grain storage and sorting.

Initially, all of the transshipment and storage of grain in Buffalo (and elsewhere) was handled manually until, in June 1843, a local merchant, Joseph Dart, and an engineer, Robert Dunbar, put the world’s first steam-powered grain elevator and silo into service. The "Dart Elevator" would remain standing until 1862, when it burned down. The “elevator” name came from one of it’s primary functions — to mechanically lift the grain out of the hold of a lake steamer (using a bucket conveyor), raise it to the top of the silo, and there deposit it onto a conveyor to be moved to a specific bin. During the 1840s and 1850s, more than a dozen grain elevators and silos were built around Buffalo's harbor and along the Buffalo river, most of them designed by Dunbar.

Through to the Second World War, Buffalo maintained it's leadership position in the grain trade: but alternatives increasingly diverted traffic away from it's facilities — improved rail links to the west coast; barge traffic on the Mississippi; improvements to the Welland canal, finally culminating in the opening of the St Lawrence Seaway in 1959, allowing ocean-going ships to directly access the Great Lakes and by-pass Buffalo. Consequently the majority of Buffalo's elevators and silos closed down in the 1960s and 70s, abandoned and left to slowly decay: nevertheless, there are still a number of operational silos along the waterfront in Buffalo.

The development and enhancement of the elevators and silos, and of the increasingly sophisticated grain-handling machinery within them and in the associated mills and other processing facilities in Buffalo, was a critical element in the economic infrastructure of American nation-building. The grain elevators and silos were the nodal point in the national food-distribution network, enabling the rapid, efficient, reliable movement of grain and its products from the farmers of the plains to feed the expanding population in the rapidly-industrializing and rapidly-growing big cities of the east coast.

Technology Innovations:

Following on from Dart’s original invention, innovations and improvements in speed, capacity and functionality of the Buffalo elevators and silos proceeded apace through the rest of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th, maintaining it's pre-eminent position. While other cities in America (and worldwide) are home to grain elevators and silos, what makes Buffalo unique is not only the number still standing, but also the ability to “read” the various stages of elevator and silo design, as the functional problems of grain storage and distribution resulted in the development of new building systems, technological innovations, and new methods of construction.

Buffalo’s mid-19th century steam-driven wooden elevators and silos were less than ideal: they were very susceptible to fire and burned down on a regular basis (grain dust is explosive and the average life of the wooden silos was only 12 – 15 years); they weren’t totally weatherproof; and nor were they proof against rodents and other vermin. At the same time engineers were gaining greater experience in and understanding of the fluid-like characteristics of grain in handling and storage, and the changes in pressures it exerted on the sides and bottoms of the silos at different degrees of loading. Also grain’s varying behaviors when static or in motion were being better understood and analysed – it could behave like a solid or a liquid, and the change in state could be extremely sudden, unpredictable, and devastating.

Experiments with alternative stronger, fireproof building materials started in the late 1860s, but cost was an inhibitor, and it wasn’t until steel became economically competitive in the 1890s as a result of its broadening use as the construction material of choice, especially in the new skyscrapers, that the shift from timber to steel silos occurred rapidly. The Electric and Great Northern elevators and silos both came into operation in Buffalo in 1897. Both were constructed using steel bins and in both silos the bins were circular, rather than the rectangular format used in the earlier wooden silos – the circular bins were stronger and could better handle the stresses when grain was rapidly loaded into or out of them.

In the case of the Electric silo the bins were exposed to the elements, initiating the stark outline of tall cylinders that was to become a defining hallmark of Buffalo’s skyline (Great Northern’s bins were hidden by immense brick curtain-walls, 300 feet long and 10-stories high). The final major innovation in both was the use of electric motors to power the elevators, rather than steam, using electricity generated by the plant at Niagara Falls, which had opened the previous year — one of the very first uses of electrical power in an industrial setting. The original steel bins of the Electric elevator and silos were demolished in 1984, though the later concrete annex remains; the Great Northern elevator and silo still stands.

Following this initiative, at least four more large steel elevators and silos were constructed along the Buffalo River in the first five years of the 20th century, none of which survive today. Ironically, it turned out that steel wasn’t as advantageous a construction material as expected — the grain still caught fire from time to time (typically from the dust) and, though the steel didn’t burn as readily as the timber structures, the fires did get hot enough to distort the steel, resulting in severe structural damage and, in at least one case, causing it to melt.

Thus engineers continued their quest for a strong, fireproof construction material. Their initial interest focused on silos constructed using ceramic tile bins: their advantages were that they were fireproof; they better insulated the grain stored in them; and they were lighter, reducing the load on the foundations. However, they also had the disadvantages of being expensive to build and, especially, to maintain, because of the very high number of mortar joints between each of the tiles. Consequently only a few were built and they were soon superseded by what turned out to be the ideal construction material – reinforced concrete.

The climax of this evolutionary and innovative development process, going from timber to steel to tile and finally concrete in silo construction, also benefited from the engineering lessons learned from the past half-century. In particular, structural engineering had matured as a profession and there was a much greater analysis and understanding of the physical properties of grain, both when stored and when in motion into and out of silos. As a result, structural engineers were now typically put in charge both of design and construction of the new elevators and silos.

1906 saw the construction of the American elevator and silo, incorporating Buffalo’s first tall (~125 feet) cylindrical silos, using slip-formed reinforced concrete, which rapidly came to define and characterize the Buffalo skyline. Within ten years this became the dominant form of silo construction — reinforced concrete had multiple advantages: it really was fireproof (the new silos didn’t require fire insurance, previously a significant cost); it was sealed from the elements and kept the grain dry (so effectively that concrete silos were used at Buffalo to store cement); it provided complete protection against rodents and insects; it was strong enough to enable much taller bins to be constructed; and, by using the slip-form process, construction could be completed quickly and economically for multiple silos in parallel. The strength of reinforced concrete is what has preserved so many of Buffalo’s silos — it’s very difficult and expensive to demolish!

The slip-form process was based on a concentric double-ring of wooden forms as the circle of each of the bins in a silo, into which the concrete was poured continuously for all of the bins in the silo in parallel — for example, the American elevator and silo comprised 48 concrete bins (12 bins in 4 parallel rows), with tangential contact between the bins. The forms were raised by jacks leveraging special rods in the reinforcement at a steady rate — typically 6 inches per hour, which allowed the concrete to set at the bottom before being exposed (at this rate it took about 10 days to reach a height of 125 feet, the average for most bins). The diameter of the rings could be adjusted to provide thicker walls at the base versus the top of the silo, and construction of a silo ‘grown’ in this way could be started in the spring and the complete facility finished in time to receive that autumn’s harvest — very economical, efficient and fast (construction of the bins themselves could be completed in two weeks).

Although the bins of the silos were constructed from reinforced concrete, the elevators (marine legs) that raised the grain from the holds of the lake steamers to the top of the silos continued to be constructed in steel, often clad in corrugated iron, as they were mobile and ran on rails along the side of the silo. The machinery housing on the top of the silos (the Headhouse, the conveyors and machinery used to distribute the incoming grain into a particular bin) was also usually a steel construction, though in some cases it was formed in concrete at the same time as the silos.

Under the bins there was a broad gallery, usually a dark basement, but in some silos (most notably Concrete Central and Cargill Superior) a high, well-lit, rather impressive semi-basement, where an inverted conical steel hopper at the base of the bins discharged outgoing grain onto another set of conveyors for delivery into canal barges or railway wagons. As the bins were circular, there was in effect ‘wasted space’ in the angles between the bins — to make use of this, smaller diameter bins were inserted between the major bins (known as interstitial bins), and in a few cases, even smaller diameter bins in the remaining spaces — in the Concrete Central silo, this plan of inserting ever smaller diameter bins in the spaces resulted in a 90% utilization of the footprint of the overall silo.

During the next two decades a succession of structural engineers constructed a series of monumental silos along the Buffalo River and waterfront — in total, some forty-two reinforced concrete silo projects were completed (some were extensions of earlier constructions). Fifteen of these now remain, still lining the waterways, forming the striking skyline of the immense, circular, austere forms of the concrete silos, interspersed with the pillars of the rusting steel marine legs of the elevators.

Architectural Icons:

At the time of their construction at the beginning of the 20th century, leading European architects cited these monumental edifices as icons of modernist functional design, uncluttered by un-necessary ornament or embellishment, “the essence of pure form of use”. In 1913, Walter Gropius (founder of the Bauhaus movement) included drawings and photographs of two of Buffalo’s grain elevators in his ‘Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbunder’, sparking international interest in these buildings (though Gropius didn’t visit America to view the buildings himself until 1928).

On the basis of these drawings and photographs, Gropius compared the elevators and silos to the “work of the ancient Egyptians” as majestic icons. Le Corbusier reproduced Gropius’s illustration of the steel-bin Dakota silo and elevator in his manifesto, ‘Vers Une Architecture’, acknowledging the engineering feats in their construction: “Thus we have the American grain elevators and factories, the magnificent FIRST FRUITS of the new age. THE AMERICAN ENGINEERS OVERWHELM WITH THEIR CALACULATIONS OUR EXPIRING ARCHITECTURE” (capitals by Le Corbusier).

In 1924, the German architect Erich Mendelsohn was the first of the European modernist architects to actually visit Buffalo, specifically to photograph and draw the grain elevators and silos at first hand, which were then published in his book on American industrial architecture, ‘Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten’. Writing home to his wife after his visit to Buffalo, Mendelsohn excitedly reported: “Mountainous silos, incredibly space-conscious, but creating space. A random confusion amidst the chaos ….. Then suddenly a silo with administrative buildings, closed horizontal fronts against the stupendous verticals of fifty to a hundred cylinders, and all this in sharp evening light. I took photographs like mad”.

Also in 1924, the leading Russian architect of the time, Moisei Ginsberg published : ”Stil’i epokha” (Style and Epoch), where he noted, “[the] vigorous spirit of the new pioneers manifested itself, brilliant structures teeming with unexpected poignancy and force were created spontaneously in an absolute organic manner. I have in mind the industrial structures of America”. Ginsberg included many illustrations in his book, including several of the Buffalo elevators and silos which appear to be unique, not being reprints of the work of Gropius, Le Corbusier or Mendelsohn.

The history of these structures and their importance to the development of modern architecture, especially their influence on the Bauhaus and European modernists, is particularly well documented in the English architect, Reyner Banham’s, 1986 masterwork: ‘A Concrete Atlantis: US Industrial Building and European Modern Architecture’. He comments: “They do have an almost Egyptian monumentality in many cases, and in abandonment and death they evoke the majesties of a departed civilization”; and asserts that they were: “the protestant work-ethic monumentalised”.

The attraction of the Buffalo grain elevators and silos to the European modernist architects of the early 20th century lay in their absolute embodiment of “form follows function” — a narrowly circumscribed, well defined, specific function, resulting in a single-minded, very focused response in the design and construction of the elevators and silos and the eventual standardized form that they took. Once the final engineering innovations enabling rapidly constructed, fire-resistant, weather- and vermin-proof, strong reinforced concrete cylinders of immense capacity had been made at the beginning of the 20th century, this final form was in essence fixed and codified for all subsequent elevators and silos as it so perfectly fit the required functions.

The elevators and silos are pure function, no embellishments, architectural flourishes or decoration are necessary. The geometry of cylindrical bins and vertical marine legs provides a strong, simple form of immense scale and great visual impact — for example, Concrete Central, constructed in three phases from 1915 to 1917, is a quarter of a mile long, can store 4.5m bushels of grain in its 268 bins, and was the largest in the world on its completion. Hidden out of immediate sight is the complexity — the mechanics of the marine legs; the multiple grain conveyors and the systems for directing grain to and from a specific bin; integrated railway loading bays; milling, malting and other processing equipment; workshops, laboratories, offices, etc. — which actually delivered the functionality. As Banham says: “they represent the triumph of what is American in American building art”.

From a photographer's point of view, Buffalo’s grain elevators and silos are a paradise for visual archaeology: the simple, austere, monumental forms are very dramatic subjects against the skyline and Buffalo River. Inside, 50+years of decay alongside chaos — in a dark labyrinth of derelict grain-handling equipment, machinery and workshops — produces powerful photographic testimony to the original functions. Because of the difficulties and dangers in climbing 125 feet up rotting staircases (with multiple treads and often complete landings missing), traversing workspaces with dangerously derelict machinery and fragile floors, and dropping into basements, all in semi- or near-total darkness, all of the interior photographs were taken using the minimal necessary equipment and using the available light in long-exposures.