Essay:The Dart Grain Elevator: Remodeling the City of Buffalo

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This essay is an original work by PhyllisS. Please comment only on the talk page.
Figure 1: Portrait of Joseph Dart
The grain elevator emerged in Buffalo, New York in 1842. It was designed by the retail merchant Joseph Dart to handle the large amount of grain Buffalo received in the 1830's. At this time, the grain coming in to the Buffalo harbor via lake boat was unloaded manually – a tedious, time-consuming process. Dart mechanized this process and increased the rate at which grain was unloaded. The grain elevator had immense impact not only on grain transactions but on society; it both remodeled the structure of the working class and remodeled the urban layout of the city.

Prior to the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, there was no efficient transportation route for grain from the Midwest to New York. Any grain that had to travel such a route was either put on horseback or shipped all the way to New Orleans first. Thus, freight charges were expensive, running at about $100 per ton of grain[1]. When the canal was completed, however, it connected the Great Lakes to Albany and enabled grain to travel the route quite easily. Freight cost dropped to $10 a ton[2]. Buffalo, because it was at the juncture of the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes water system, became a mecca for grain transactions. Between 1835 and 1841, the annual amount of grain received by Buffalo rose from 112,000 bushels to over 2 million bushels.[3]

Figure 2A:Marine leg unloading grain from boat
However, there was a great problem. Since the Erie Canal was very narrow, it could not accommodate the large grain-carrying lake boats that came from the Great Lakes. Thus, the grain had to be unloaded in Buffalo and re-loaded on to smaller boats before going any farther. This process was done manually by the working class, comprised mostly of Irish immigrants. The process was not only tedious and dangerous for the workers – the loads were heavy, and grain dust was harmful to the lungs – but also was very time-consuming, which slowed grain transport and clogged the Buffalo harbor.

An entrepreneur by the name of Joseph Dart seized the opportunity to improve this process. Dart had arrived in Buffalo in 1821, searching for business opportunities (Figure 1). He became a Main Street retail merchant in the hat and fur business, but soon recognized that an innovation for the grain unloading process would be more successful. He stated: “It seemed to me, as I reflected on the amazing extent of the grain producing regions of the Prairie West, and the favorable position of Buffalo for receiving their products, that the eastward movements of grain through this port would soon exceed anything the boldest imagination had conceived.”[4]

Since Dart was an entrepreneur and not an engineer, he did not have enough technical capabilities to build the elevator. He thus hired Robert Dunbar, a mechanical engineer who built flour mills; having just completed a flour mill with two impressive elevating mechanisms in 1840, he was perfect for the job.

Figure 3: Model of Dart's Elevator
Dart's Elevator was a house-like structure for grain storage, with an ingenious elevating mechanism called a “marine leg”[5] (Figure 3). The marine leg was a belt-bucket system that protruded out from the front of the structure, consisting of buckets attached to a conveyor belt that scooped, raised, and deposited grain in continuous motion[6] (Figure 2A). Unloading grain by this process was a continuous process, not a batch process. This continuous belt-bucket system was used in flour mills since the late 18th century. It was originally invented by a man named Oliver Evans in 1790, but never applied to unloading grain. Dart's schematic diagram of the grain elevator provided a flow sheet of how the elevator worked[7] (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Flow Sheet of Dart's Elevator
When boats came into the harbor, the marine leg would swivel over a lake boat and into its hull, where grain was stored (1). Grain would then rise up the marine leg (powered by a steam engine) into the grain-storing structure (2). Grain was then gravity-sorted within the structure (3).

Dart, Evans, and Dunbar played very different roles in the development of the grain elevator. Dart was the innovator and entrepreneur, bringing together already existing components such as steam power and the belt-bucket system to make an innovation that met the needs of Buffalo, NY; Evans was the inventor, inventing a new way to move grain; Dunbar was the engineer, helping design and actually building the world's first grain elevator. The interplay between these three people, however, is quite different than the interplay usually seen in other stories of innovation. First, the way Dart credited Evans and Dunbar is unusual – while he freely proclaimed the belt-bucket system was all Evans' idea, he gave no credit whatsoever to Dunbar. This was because Dart aimed to receive a patent with only his name on it. Because Evans was already deceased, he posed no threat; Dunbar, however, was still in the running. In keeping with his methodical and industrious personality[8], Dart gave a speech to argue that he was worthy of receiving a patent. He gave full credit to Evans, stating that “While Mr. Evans was struggling to introduce his Elevator, as an improvement in the manufacture of flour... he had little idea, that at Buffalo creek... the wants of a vast trade... would give rise, some fifty years later, to a new application of his Elevator... for facilitating the transshipment of grain.”[9] Dart then claimed that he singlehandedly built the elevator, stating: “I began the work of erecting the building on Buffalo creek...”[10] Thus, the story of the grain elevator is the classic tale of the innovative or entrepreneurial figure trying to claim credit for the work of the inventor or engineer. It is similar to the story of the telegram, wherein the innovator Samuel Morse tried to claim credit for the findings of inventor Joseph Henry.

The second unique characteristic of the grain elevator story is the timing of the invention and innovation – in this case, the invention (the belt-bucket system) and the innovation (the grain elevator) were spaced apart in time by over fifty years, and the inventor (Evans) died more than twenty years before the innovation. Usually, the invention and innovation emerge at roughly the same time; for example, James Watt's invention of the separate condenser and the innovation of the steam engine both emerged around the 1760s and 1770s. Thus, the interplay between Dart, Evans, and Dunbar is a unique story of innovation.

In order to discover the impact society had on the grain elevator, and the subsequent impact that the grain elevator had on society, one must study the design process Dart and Dunbar went through to build their creation. Dart and Dunbar had to calculate how much horsepower the Dart Elevator needed to use. The horsepower (Hp) is the product of the grain flow (Q) in bushels per minute, the density of grain (w) in lbs. per bushel, and the height the grain is being raised (H) in feet:[11]

Hp = (QwH)/(33,000)

Thus, to determine the horsepower of the Dart Elevator, Dart and Dunbar first had to determine the optimal Q (flow of grain) and H (height of elevator). These two variables are determined by social factors.

Q is determined by how much grain Buffalo is receiving. If Buffalo is receiving an immense amount of grain per year, Q should be large; if it is receiving a small amount, Q should be small. How much grain Buffalo is receiving is determined by the surrounding environment. Since the surrounding environment of 1842 consisted of newly completed canals for grain transport, Buffalo's annual grain receipts rose to roughly 2 million bushels/year[12]. Thus, the Q of the Dart Elevator should be designed to handle, or help handle, 2 million bushels of grain per year. The current Q – the rate at which workers manually elevated grain – was at most 1800 to 2000 bushels a day.[13] This Q was far too small for two reasons. First, even if the men worked 365 days a year, they could only unload 730,000 bushels of grain at this rate – not 2 million. Second, with this Q, a single boat took more than a day to unload since boats typically came to Buffalo carrying thousands of bushels. Dart and Dunbar designed the Dart Elevator to have a Q of 1000 bushels/hr, so that 2 million bushels of grain could be unloaded a year and a single boat could be unloaded in one day. Dart recounts with triumph, “The schooner John B. Skinner came into port, with four thousand bushels of wheat, early in the afternoon, and was discharged, received ballast of salt, and left the same evening...”[14] Thus, the design of the Dart Elevator is determined by social factors; its Hp depends on its Q, its Q depends on Buffalo's annual grain receipts, and Buffalo's grain receipts depend on attributes of the surrounding environment such as the canal system.

H is determined by how much city space is available for a grain elevator. If space is limited, H should be large (and the diameter small); if space is available, H should be small (and the diameter large). In 1842, urban space was occupied by banks, insurance companies, houses, local breweries, and grain storehouses and facilities for the manual grain-unloading process. A fair amount of waterfront space was available – it was not yet completely crowded with grain unloading equipment, since the Erie Canal was fairly new – so the Dart Elevator was built to be fairly short at roughly seven stories tall. Thus, the height of the Dart Elevator is determined by how much urban space is available, and how much space is available is determined by the present businesses and social backdrop of the time.

The Dart Elevator was completed in 1842. It had a Q = 1000 bushels/hr and a H = roughly 70 ft. The density of grain, w = 60 lbs./bushel.[15] It had a steam engine that was capable of 100 Hp.[16] Since steam engines generally run at an efficiency between 1% and 10%, the horsepower available for actual work done by the elevator was between 1 Hp and 10 Hp. As seen in the calculations in the appendix, about 2.12 Hp are required to lift grain at 1000 bushels/hour to a height of 70 ft. Thus, by choosing a Q and H appropriate for the city of Buffalo, Dart and Dunbar built a grain elevator with a horsepower that could successfully handle the city's imports.

Figure 4: Image in Harper's Weekly from 1877, showing a grain elevator near the harbor
Dart's involvement with the Dart Elevator after it was built was limited. Some years after it was completed, he sold it to a man named David S. Bennett. In 1863, the Dart Elevator burnt down, and Bennett had it rebuilt on a much larger scale and renamed it the Bennett Elevator. Grain elevators began emerging everywhere in the city; by 1863, Buffalo had 27 grain elevators, and a total transfer capacity of 2,700,000 bushels/day.[17] Improvements in design had led to a Q of six or seven thousand bushels/hr[18], and Buffalo's grain receipts soared to 12-15 million bushels/year[19]. Most of the elevators were designed by Dunbar himself. At this point Dart, who had not obtained his patent, attempted to get it in order to receive compensation for the profits of the 27 grain elevators in existence. In 1865, he read his paper “The Grain Elevators of Buffalo” before the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society – appealing to his ingenuity and arguing that patents are usually granted not for new ideas but for their application in society. However, he never obtained the patent, and died in 1879. Buffalo's success in grain went on without Dart – Buffalo's grain receipts continued to rise tremendously[20] (Figure 5). The success of the grain elevator began to be noticed by culture; Harper's Weekly featured an image in 1877 that depicts a grain elevator on the harbor (Figure 4).[21]
Figure 5: Graph of Buffalo's grain storage capacity and receipts.

The innovation of the grain elevator had two significant effects on the city of Buffalo, NY. First, the elevator changed Q from a manual 2000 bushels/day to a mechanized 96,000 bushels/day,[22] which remodeled the structure of the working class. Second, the elevators were constructed at a height H, which remodeled the urban layout of the city.

The grain elevator, because it changed Q, remodeled the structure of the working class. Prior to 1842, the working class was employed to elevate grain manually. The work was tedious and dangerous; grain dust was explosive and harmful to breathe, and the pay was low. One of Dart's main competitors, Mahlon Kingman, was quoted as saying that “Irish backs are the cheapest elevators ever built.”[23] However, there were some good attributes of this system. The employment was fairly regular, and the working class had control – if the workers did not like their conditions, they simply stopped carrying grain. The employers were then forced to take action on the workers' behalf, since they wanted the boats unloaded.

The innovation of the grain elevator changed the structure of Buffalo's working class dramatically. The working class was now employed to operate the machinery of the grain elevators rather than manually unload it. They became known as “grain scoopers.” Grain scoopers were subject to irregular employment due to gaps in working hours created by the shorter unloading time. They also lost their freedom because particular members of the upper class began to gain wealth from the more efficient unloading process. These members, called saloon-bosses, were individuals that organized a group of scoopers for work, while temporarily providing them with food, liquor, and sometimes housing from the saloon he owned. The price of the food, liquor, and housing was generally deducted from the grain scooper's paycheck. This system took freedom away from the scoopers; if a group stopped working in protest, the saloon-boss could easily take away their food, liquor, and housing, or put them in legal trouble for not paying their debt to the saloon. A saloon-boss also had great political authority over his district because of his wealth and power over the working class. Thus, he had total economic, social, and political power over a group of grain scoopers. Thus, the innovation of the grain elevator restructured part of the class system of Buffalo, NY.

This restructuring of the class system sparked a change in the social structure within the working class. Since the saloon-boss system oppressed the scoopers, it provided a fertile environment for union organization. In 1882, scoopers were chartered through the Knights of Labor.[24] “The Great Strike of 1899” occurred soon after, wherein grain scoopers and other dock workers protested the saloon boss system. In particular, they attacked a boss by the name of William Connors, who hired men to unload grain on a day-by-day basis with no job security. The strike was a peaceful victory for the scoopers[25]; soon after, the saloon-boss system was abolished. As unions continued to grow, working conditions started to improve. Groups of scoopers still had leaders or bosses, but they merely organized workers rather than controlling them. Thus, the grain elevator, through its change in Q, remodeled the structure of the working class by spurring union organization.

Figure 6: “Bird's Eye View of Buffalo, N.Y.” (Chuck LaChiusa)
Grain elevators not only remodeled the layout of the working class; second, they remodeled the physical layout of Buffalo by being constructed on the shores with a towering height H. Charles Magnus's 1863 painting, “Bird's Eye View of the City of Buffalo, N.Y.”[26], shows how grain elevators drastically remodeled the landscape of Buffalo (Figure 6). Figure 6A shows the Evans Elevator on the waterfront, and the buildings it spawned: the Evans Warehouse, the Evans Office, and even a Bell's Engine Works and a Steam Engines & Machinery. In Figures 6B and 6C, one can see the separate “islands” constructed just for the grain elevators and their related loading docks. In Figure 6D, grain elevators take up nearly all the city space adjacent to the water. Before all these grain elevators were built, the land adjacent to the waterways was occupied by manual grain unloading facilities and other buildings such as banks and insurance companies. These low-laying buildings were supplanted by the towering grain elevators and their “islands”. This change in the layout of Buffalo was symbolic evidence of the change brought about by the grain elevator.

The grain elevator was created by three people: the innovator and entrepreneur Joseph Dart, the inventor Oliver Evans, and the engineer Robert Dunbar. It was the solution to the tremendous amount of grain Buffalo received with the completion of the Erie Canal. The grain elevator was both influenced by society and influenced society. The elevator's design was determined by the grain flow Q that depended on Buffalo's grain receipts, and the height H that depended on the current layout of the city. The grain elevator impacted Buffalo in two major ways. First, by increasing Q, it ultimately remodeled the structure of the working class. Second, by determining H, it remodeled the physical layout of the city. Thus, the innovation of the grain elevator transformed the city of Buffalo in both social structure and physical layout.

Figure 6A
Figure 6B
Figure 6C
Figure 6D



References

  1. Henry H. Baxter. Grain Elevators. (New York, NY: the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, 1980), 1.
  2. Henry H. Baxter. Grain Elevators. (New York, NY: the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, 1980), 1.
  3. Baxter, Grain Elevators, 21.
  4. Speech, “The Grain Elevators of Buffalo”. Joseph Dart to Buffalo and Erie County Hist. Society, 3/13/1865.
  5. Display of Dart Elevator model at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society Museum: 25 Nottingham Court, Buffalo, NY. Photo taken by Chuck LaChiusa.
  6. The Library of Congress: Collection of photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920.
  7. The Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.
  8. 2002 Buffalo Grain Elevator Multiple Property Submission to the National Register of Historic Places.
  9. Speech, “The Grain Elevators of Buffalo”. Joseph Dart to Buffalo and Erie County Hist. Society, 3/13/1865.
  10. Speech, “The Grain Elevators of Buffalo”. Joseph Dart to Buffalo and Erie County Hist. Society, 3/13/1865.
  11. David P. Billington, The Innovators. (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1996.)
  12. Henry H. Baxter. Grain Elevators. (New York, NY: the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, 1980), 21.
  13. Speech, “The Grain Elevators of Buffalo”. Joseph Dart to Buffalo and Erie County Hist. Society, 3/13/1865.
  14. Speech, “The Grain Elevators of Buffalo”. Joseph Dart to Buffalo and Erie County Hist. Society, 3/13/1865.
  15. William J. Brown. American Colossus: The Grain Elevator, 1843 to 1943. (Cincinnati, Ohio: Colossal Books, 2009), 112.
  16. William J. Brown, American Colossus: The Grain Elevator, 1843 to 1943. (Cincinnati, Ohio: Colossal Books, 2009), 116.
  17. Speech, “The Grain Elevators of Buffalo”. Joseph Dart to Buffalo and Erie County Hist. Society, 3/13/1865. Dart cites Mr. E. H. Walker, the commercial reporter of the Board of Trade in Buffalo, for this statistical data.
  18. Speech, “The Grain Elevators of Buffalo”. Joseph Dart to Buffalo and Erie County Hist. Society, 3/13/1865.
  19. Henry H. Baxter. Grain Elevators. (New York, NY: the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, 1980), 21.
  20. Henry H. Baxter. Grain Elevators. (New York, NY: the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, 1980), 21.
  21. Harper's Weekly, 1877.
  22. Speech, “The Grain Elevators of Buffalo”. Joseph Dart to Buffalo and Erie County Hist. Society, 3/13/1865. Dart cites Mr. E. H. Walker, the commercial reporter of the Board of Trade in Buffalo, for this statistical data.
  23. Speech, “The Grain Elevators of Buffalo”. Joseph Dart to Buffalo and Erie County Hist. Society, 3/13/1865.
  24. The grain scoopers were chartered as Local Assembly # 2052. http://www.buffalohistoryworks.com
  25. The Great Strike of 1899 caused the Local 109 of the International Longshoreman's Association to be recognized by Buffalo as a closed shop of the union representing the grain scoopers. This gave the scoopers more power without violence, and caused the strike to be a peaceful victory. http://www.buffalohistoryworks.com
  26. Charles Magnus, “Bird's Eye View of the City of Buffalo, N.Y.”. 1863. On display at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society Museum: 25 Nottingham Court, Buffalo, NY. Photo taken by Chuck LaChiusa.
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