The Grain Elevators Of Buffalo.

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The Grain Elevators Of Buffalo.

Read Before The Society, March 13, 1865.

By Joseph Dart.1

HAVING been invited to present to you some facts and recollections in regard to the introduction of Grain Elevators at this port, I would respectfully submit the following:

This subject has a bearing, not only on the citizens of this community, but also upon an immensely larger number of people, whose grain productions are sent, and whose bread supplies are received through our hands. In fact, whatever facilitates the movement of bread-stuffs, directly affects one of the first interests of mankind. It might, perhaps, be said, that the ready production of food is a question of greater importance than its easy transportation. The first great care of men commonly, is to produce food, not to know what to do with it when produced. The road from hand to mouth is short and easy enough with men at first, but as society grows, and division of labor is made, producers and consumers of food become widely separated, and the question of transportation becomes exceedingly important. When the hands of producers and the mouths of consumers are distant by the space of half a continent and even half a globe, the road from hand to mouth is a long one, and oftentimes "a hard road to travel." Whatever smooths the roughness of that road cheapens food, and benefits mankind. Some of the first inventors have devoted themselves to the various questions which this important interest has raised. It is somewhat noticeable that the three great mechanical minds who gave to our country, near the commencement of the present century, so great an impulse, not only in the leading mechanic arts, but, also, through them, almost every material and moral interest of the land and the world,--Fulton, Whitney and Evans,--appear to have been chiefly useful in the three great interests of transportation, clothing and food. To the question of transportation, Robert Fulton directed his thoughts, and by one stroke of success, he shortened the length of all rivers, and the width of all seas and lakes, and brought producers and consumers everywhere into easy and cheap communication, as we see to-day in the rapidity with which grain is hastened forward across our lakes to the waiting and hungry East. Eli Whitney, by the invention of the "cotton gin," made the culture of upland cotton profitable, thus giving a new staple to near half a continent, and greatly cheapening the fabric most used as clothing throughout the world.

Oliver Evans, who deserves a place by the side of these distinguished men, was the person, who, more than any other man, simplified and perfected the processes by which grain is converted into food. Among his valuable improvements for the manufacture of flour, were the Elevator and Conveyor, inventions designed only for use in flouring mills, but which have been adapted, by an improvement originating here, for the easy and rapid transfer of grain in its movement towards a market. The Elevator and Conveyor thus applied, are the simple means by which the immense and innumerable cargoes of grain, constantly arriving at this port, are readily transferred from vessels into canal-boats or cars, and quickly sent forward on their eastern course. It is now in use for this purpose at all the principal grain depots in the land, and has become absolutely essential to the economical handling of large quantities of grain.

Before stating, as far as I can, the way in which this new application of the Elevator came to be made, it may not be inappropriate to present some facts in regard to the first introduction of the Elevator into mills.

Prior to 1785, the universal custom in manufacturing flour, was to take the meal, as it came from the mill-stones, and hoist it into the bolting room by hand. The flour was also taken from the bolt to the drying and packing rooms in the same way. In 1812, when there was an effort to set aside Mr. Evans' claim, as the inventor of the Elevator, Mr. Niles, editor of Niles' Weekly Register, stated that the practice in his boyhood, at the celebrated Brandywine mills at Wilmington, Delaware, near which place he was born and spent his boyhood, was to hoist the meal to the bolt, in the upper part of the building, in large tubs, by means of a rope and pulley worked by hand. A man was also required to feed the hopper which supplied the bolt. In this way, every single step in the process of flouring grain required separate attendance, and also involved in the frequent handling of the flour in such cumbrous methods, considerable loss by waste.

In 1780, Oliver Evans completed his apprenticeship and joined his brothers, who were carrying on a small mill. He had already shown great taste for mechanical pursuits, studying by night by the light of burning shavings when refused candles by his employer, and preparing himself, by thorough mastery of his trade, to write, as he did some years afterwards, "The Young Miller's Guide and Mill-wright's Companion," a book which is still a standard work on the matters of which it treats. It was not long after he commenced business, before he had completed the several improvements in mill machinery, on which his fame chiefly rests. Among these, as already stated, was the Elevator, a simple apparatus with which all are now familiar, consisting merely of a series of buckets attached to a leather or canvas and rubber belt revolving upon pulleys. At the time already mentioned, when the attempt was made to break Mr. Evans' claim as patentee of the Elevator, it was alleged that a Mr. Stroud, a neighbor of Mr. Evans, was the originator of it, and that it was suggested to his mind, by observing that a buckle of a band in a wheat cleaner, caught up, on each revolution, and carried over with it a few kernels of grain. On enquiry, however, it was ascertained that Mr. Stroud never thought of an Elevator till Mr. Evans had talked with him on the subject, and that Mr. Evans assured him of the possibility of the thing, before the time when the action of the buckle on the cleaner strap had been observed.

Another of the improvements, introduced at the same time, was the Conveyor, for removing flour or grain in a horizontal direction, to the point where the elevator or bolt could receive it. Mr. Evans also contrived a very ingenious and almost automatic process, by which the flour was kept in motion and exposed to the air till thoroughly dry and ready for packing. Previously the custom had been to kiln-dry the grain, making the husk so brittle, that in grinding it became mixed with the meal, and the small particles would pass through the superfine bolt with the flour. By these various improvements it was estimated that the saving, in the increased yield of superfine flour from a given quantity of grain, amounted to fifty cents on every barrel of flour produced.

And yet it is remarkable with what extreme difficulty Mr. Evans brought his inventions into general use. He traveled through Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, offering his improvements gratis to the first party in each county who would introduce them, and found scarcely an individual willing to accept his offers. The question usually asked him was, "Have your neighbors, the Brandywine millers, adopted them?" He was obliged to say "No," which generally finished his prospects for securing a trial. After long importunity a delegation of these millers waited on Mr. Evans, and gave him their reply in the following words: "Oliver, we have had a meeting, and agreed if thou wilt furnish all the materials, and thy own boarding, and come thyself to set up thy machinery in one of our mills, thee may come and try it, and if it answers a valuable purpose we will pay thy bill; but if it does not answer, thee must take it all out again, and leave the mill just as thee finds it, at thine own expense."

They knew he was too poor to comply with their terms. When he had introduced his improvements into his own mill, and they were working so admirably that he could tend it easier alone than he had done before with two men and a boy, he invited these millers to come and see his inventions work. It happened the day they came he was engaged not only in tending his mill alone, but also in making hay in an adjoining clover lot. As he saw the company approaching, he quietly withdrew to his meadow and went to work with his hay. He thought, when his visitors went into the mill and saw it in full operation, cleaning, grinding and bolting, and no human hand near, they would be convinced his improvements were of some use. They went over the mill by themselves, and then came out to him with the request that he would go in and explain the process. He went in with them, but took care to say it was "an uncommon busy day" with him, as he had to tend mill and make hay too. He showed them his mill, however, and, as the account states, "they saw that the Elevators and Conveyors brought the meal from the two pairs of stones, and the flour from the bolts to the apparatus called the hopper-boy, which spread it over the floor, stirring, fanning and gathering it, and attending to the bolting hoppers at the same time, without the help of a single hand, in any part of the process;" and when the inventor expected they would believe the testimony of their own eyes, one of them exclaimed, "It will not do, it cannot do, it is impossible that it should do." The delegation went off, and reported that "the whole contrivance was a set of rattle traps, not worth the notice of men of common sense."

A few years afterwards, when it was proved in Ellicott's mills, near Baltimore, which turned out three hundred and twenty-five barrels of flour a day, that Mr. Evans' improvements made a saving of some five thousand dollars a year, in cost of attendance, and of fifty cents a barrel in increased yield of superfine flour, amounting in that one mill in a single year, to over thirty-seven thousand dollars clear saving, the Brandywine millers concluded that their neighbor's "set of rattle traps" had rather an agreeable rattle after all. But no sooner was the immense value of these improvements manifest, than these same men combined to destroy Mr. Evans' claim as the patentee; and when, after oppressive litigation, the inventor's rights were sustained, these liberal gentlemen contrived to avoid responsibility themselves, and a comparatively poor man, whom they had adroitly put forward, was left to pay the bill, to whom Mr. Evans, from motives of humanity, remitted nearly half the amount.

While Mr. Evans was struggling to introduce his Elevator, as an improvement in the manufacture of flour, on the banks of the Delaware, about the year 1785, he had little idea, that ' at Buffalo creek, in the distant wilderness, at the foot of Lake Erie, then without a white inhabitant on its banks, the wants of a vast trade, at that time entirely unknown, would give rise, some fifty years later, to a new application of his Elevator, and that another effort would then be necessary, in order to introduce it, as a commercial rather than a manufacturing appliance, for facilitating the transhipment of grain.

In noticing this new use of the Elevator, it is worthy of remark, that some of the most useful inventions have not been discoveries of new principles or methods of mechanical action, but new applications of methods and principles already known. Some inventions consist of entirely new ideas. Such was Arkwright's invention of spinning by rollers; a thing probably never thought of in the history of the world, till it entered his mind. Such were some of James Watt's discoveries in perfecting the steam engine. The invention of the high-pressure steam engine by Oliver Evans, who has been styled the "Watt of America," was another instance of a new principle, successfully introduced.

But, on the other hand, Fulton's steamboat involved no new principle. It was only a new application of a force already familiar. So Evans' Elevator was an old idea. In the efforts which were made to dispossess him of the fruits of his improvements, it was successfully shown that the idea of raising substances by a revolving chain of buckets, was not original with him. Thomas Jefferson wrote a very learned paper against Evans, in which he quoted from ancient scientific books, showing that this was a method of lifting which had come down from a very remote antiquity. Travelers in Egypt had seen rude wheels revolving on the banks of the Nile, over which passed ropes hung with buckets, lifting water for the irrigation of the soil. Mr. Jefferson argued that it made no difference in principle, that the ancient Elevators consisted of circular buckets, strung through their centers, on a connecting rope or chain. The attachment of the cups to a leather strap was not deserving a patent, for a strip of hempen webbing would do as well. Nor was it material, that Mr. Evans' Elevator was used to raise wheat and flour, rather than water; for, in that case, Mr. Jefferson argued; it would require a new patent, if anyone should use an Elevator to lift corn or peas, and should claim a sole right to that use. It was also proven that a Mr. Martin, of Maryland, had actually constructed, and some time used a grain Elevator attached to a seed-planter, and consisting of a leather strap, one and a half inches wide, armed with little thimble-like cups, each lifting three or four kernels of seed, and carrying them over the upper roller, eighteen inches higher than the lower one, and dropping them regularly into the furrow in the soil, over which the planter was drawn.

Yet the ingenuity and learning of Mr. Jefferson, and of the wealthy millers who sought his aid, failed to invalidate Mr. Evans' rights as a patentee. It was justly held, that though the Elevator was not a new idea, Evans was the first person who had made a successful application of it to the manufacture of flour, and his right to the sole use of that application was sustained. An inventor's merit consists not merely in conceiving an idea of a machine, but also in overcoming the practical difficulties in its successful operation.

Robert Fulton's fame as a benefactor to his race is not destroyed by showing that other men were before him in propelling boats by steam. Nearly twenty years before Fulton succeeded, James Rumsey moved a steamboat on the Potomac, near Sheppardstown, at the rate of five miles an hour. John Fitch, at Philadelphia, about the same time, built a steamboat which ran eight miles an hour. But Fitch's power was applied by upright paddles worked at the sides of the boat, and Rumsey took in a charge of water through an opening in the keel, and shot it out again near the rudder, after the manner of a syringe. Fulton's application of steam to paddle-wheels was the first practical success in this line.

In view of such facts as these, the statement is made with some confidence, that the first practical success in handling grain by machinery for commercial purposes, a success which was attained in this city, was a step in advance.

It was a step in advance, because it was an entirely new use of the Elevator. It was not new to raise grain into a mill by an Elevator. This had been done from wagons, near fifty years previous to the erection of my Elevator, in 1842-3. I am informed, by our worthy townsman, Mr. John T. Noye, that, in 1824, his father rented a flouring mill on Bronx river, near King's Bridge, New York, for the manufacture of flour; attached to which was an Elevator for the unloading of grain from vessels, for the use of the mill. Mr. Noye thinks this mill was erected about ten or twelve years previous to its occupation by his father. But the commercial Elevator grew out of the wants of the grain-shipping interests of this port.

It was not till after 1830, that grain, in any considerable quantities, began to pass through this place to the markets of the East; and, in 1835, at which time Ohio was the only state sending us grain, the entire annual receipts were only one hundred and twelve thousand bushels, including all kinds of grain. From that time, however, there began to be a very rapid increase, rising from half a million bushels in 1836, to near two million bushels in 1841; an increase of four hundred per cent. in five years. It began to be evident that there was to be a very speedy and immense increase in the future grain business of this port. 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. The report of Hon. Samuel B. Ruggles, Chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means, in the New York Assembly of 1838, had spoken in the most hopeful and confident terms of the future growth of the West, and the commerce which was destined to be carried on through this state, to and from tidewater and the lakes. His language was deemed, by many, extravagant, and his ideas visionary.

A series of letters in 1839, on internal improvements and the commerce of the West, by General Dearborn, of Massachusetts, temporarily residing in this city, took the same encouraging view.

None of these statements, however, were equal to the results which a few years produced. Mr. Ruggles has since declared that his predictions, which were considered as extravagant, were considerably below his confident expectations, but that he did not dare to put his figures as high as he felt he might, and as time has since shown he could have done, for fear his views would be altogether rejected as unworthy of trust. These estimates of the growth of our inland commerce bring to mind the remark of Mr. Burke, on the population of the American Colonies, in 1775. "State the numbers as high as we will," said he, "while the debate continues, the exaggeration ends."

It seemed very clear to me, that such an increasing trade demanded largely increased facilities for its accommodation at this point.

Already, with the near two million bushels received in 1841, unavoidable delays in the transhipment at this port were frequent, and were the occasion of much vexation and expense. Up to this time, the universal method of transfer was to raise the grain from the hold of the vessel, in barrels, by tackle and block, to weigh it with hopper and scales swung over the hatchway of the canal boat, or carry it into the warehouse in bags or baskets, on men's shoulders. This method, even at this present day, is largely in use in the cities of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston, which illustrates the force of habit; as a small army of men may be seen with baskets on their shoulders, unloading vessels, at immense cost of muscle and time, to say nothing of pecuniary loss. Only ten or fifteen bushels were commonly weighed at a draft; and the most that could be accomplished in a day, with a full set of hands, was to transfer some eighteen hundred or two thousand bushels, and this only when the weather was fair. Everything was at a stand in bad weather; and, on an average, one-fourth of the time was lost by rain or high winds. The harbor was often crowded with vessels, waiting for a change of weather. In these circumstances, I determined, in 1841, to try steam power in the transfer of grain for commercial purposes.

There were various obstacles to the successful execution of such a plan, and predictions of failure were somewhat freely expressed. I believed, however, that I could built a warehouse, of large capacity for storage, with an adjustible [sic] Elevator and Conveyors, to be worked by steam; and so arranged as to transfer grain from vessels to boats or bins, with cheapness and dispatch. Amid many difficulties, discouragements and delays, I began the work of erecting the building on Buffalo creek, at the junction of the Evans' ship canal, in the autumn of 1842, on the spot where now stands the stately Elevator of Hon. D. S. Bennett, which has risen, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of its parent. Indeed, the building I then erected may perhaps be called the parent, not only of the Bennett Elevator, but of all others; for I believe it was the first steam transfer and storage Elevator in the world. It was the first successful application of the valuable invention of Oliver Evans to the commercial purpose for which it is now extensively employed. It is, however, but justice to state, that an effort in this direction was made a short time previous, by Mahlon Kingman, Esq., then a forwarding merchant of this city, now deceased; and, that an Elevator designed to be operated by horse power, was constructed, in a warehouse previously built for ordinary storage purposes, on the Evans' ship canal; but I am informed by Mr. Charles W. Evans, whose warehouse was adjoining, that Mr. Kingman never unloaded a vessel with it, although he made the attempt. To illustrate his opinion, that the plan was impracticable, I will mention here, that a short time before my building was completed, Mr. Kingman, in passing it, said to me in a familiar manner, tapping me on the shoulder: "Dart, I am sorry for you; I have been through that mill; it won't do; remember what I say; Irishmen's backs are the cheapest Elevators ever built." Soon after my Elevator was in operation, he came to me, about two or three o'clock in the afternoon, to get two canal-boats loaded that day. I reminded him of the speech he wished me to remember. His reply was--" Dart, I find I did not know it all."

My experiment, from the very first working, was a decided and acknowledged success. Within a month after I started, a leading forwarder, who had confidently predicted that shippers could not afford to pay the charges of elevating by steam, came to me and offered double rates for accommodation, but my bins were all full. The great saving of time by the use of the Elevator was immediately seen. To give an instance that occurs to my mind, 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; made her trip to Milan, Ohio, brought down a second cargo and discharged it; and, on her return to Milan, went out in company with vessels which came in with her on the first trip down, and which had but just succeeded in getting, rid of their freight in the old way. ' In this case, the freight work of two vessels was done by one, and instances approaching this have not been uncommon. It had been said that eight hundred bushels an hour was the extent to which an Elevator could be driven, and grain correctly weighed. I began with buckets twenty-eight inches apart, holding about two quarts, and raised without difficulty a thousand bushels an hour. I soon put the buckets some twenty-two inches apart, and then sixteen or eighteen inches, till eighteen hundred or two thousand bushels an hour were raised. In some of the Elevators now in use, the buckets hold eight quarts and are only one foot apart, and will raise six or seven thousand bushels an hour, weighing it correctly. The storage of the first Elevator was fifty-five thousand bushels--its capacity was doubled three years after.

During the twenty-two years that have now elapsed, the rapidly increasing receipts of grain have made a demand for continually increasing facilities for its transfer and storage, and there are now twenty-seven Elevators, besides two floating Elevators; storing, some of them, six hundred thousand bushels, and all together fully six million bushels, and capable of moving in a single day, more than the entire annual receipts at this port at the time my Elevator was built. To give, at one view, an idea of the extent to which elevating facilities have been provided at this port, I annex a statement of all the Elevators, that have been erected here, including those that have been destroyed by fire:2

The annual grain product of the partially developed Great West, has already attained a magnitude numbered by nearly one thousand millions of bushels, and the surplus moved eastward by the several routes to market, has during the last four years, ranged from eighty to one hundred and forty millions of bushels, and of this more than one-half has been received at Buffalo.

In 1862, about seventy millions of bushels of grain were passed through the Elevators at Oswego and Buffalo. This large amount of grain could not have been transferred at these points by the modes in use twenty-five years ago; and if it were possible to do it, the expense would have been augmented to more than twenty fold the present cost.

The annual saving in expense to lake commerce, by this simple, cheap and expeditious process for handling grain, can only be numbered by tens of millions of dollars.

The population of the Lake Basin states, has, during each ten years of the last thirty, been augmented in a ratio equal to fifty-five per cent. The present population exceeds nine millions; and if a corresponding ratio of increase shall be maintained during the remaining portion of this century, there will be, in the year 1900, a population of upwards of sixty millions, in the states bordering upon and commercially tributary to the great lakes.

The increase in the grain product of the West for the last thirty years, has been in a ratio equal to the increase in population. The cereal product of the West and Southwest, was, in 1860, about six hundred millions of bushels, against one hundred and sixty-six million bushels in 1840. If this ratio of increase shall be maintained during the remaining portion of the century, the grain product in the year 1900, will exceed two thousand five hundred millions of bushels. Of the surplus over and above the wants for domestic consumption, about fifteen per cent. has been forwarded to Eastern markets. Provided a like ratio of the surplus crop of the year 1900 is sent to market, then there will be a movement of five hundred millions of bushels. Not all the product of the gold mines of California will equal the value saved to the internal commerce of the Western and Northwestern states, by those labor-saving Elevators, with only the improvements in them now in use. Oliver Evans had a religious idea, that he was raised up by Providence to confer important benefits on his fellow-men; and, certainly, could he now be aware how extensively his improvements are used, how wonderfully, by their means, trade has been extended, commerce increased, food cheapened, and the general welfare of mankind advanced, he would be satisfied that his laborious and perplexing life had not been in vain.


1. Died, September 28th, 1879, in his 81st year.

2. For valuable statistical information in this paper, relative to receipts and transhipment of grain, I am indebted to Mr. E. H. Walker, commercial reporter of the Board of Trade [i]n this city.



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From the nineteenth century publications of the predecessor of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.