Grain elevator: Wikis


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Saskatchewan Wheat Pool No. 7, Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Grain elevators are buildings or complexes of buildings for storage and shipment of grain also refered to as elevators. They were invented in 1842-43 in Buffalo, New York, by a local merchant named Joseph Dart, Jr. and an engineer named Robert Dunbar. Using the steam-powered flour mills of Oliver Evans as their model, they invented the marine leg, which scooped grain out of the hulls of ships and elevated it to the top of the marine tower.[1] Older grain elevators and bins often were constructed of framed or cribbed wood and were prone to fire. Grain elevator bins, tanks and silos are now usually constructed of steel or reinforced concrete. Bucket elevators are used to lift grain to a distributor or consignor where it flows by gravity through spouts or conveyors and into one of a number of bins, silos or tanks in a facility. When desired, the elevator's silos, bins and tanks are then emptied by gravity flow, sweep augers and conveyors. As grain is emptied from the elevator's bins, tanks and silos it is conveyed, blended and weighted into trucks, railroad cars, or barges and shipped to end users of grains (mills, ethanol plants, etc.).

Prior to the advent of the grain elevator, grain was handled in bags rather than in bulk.



Typical "wood-cribbed" design for grain elevators throughout Western Canada. A common design used from the early 1900s to mid 1980s. Built in 1925, the former Ogilvie Flour Mill elevator in Wrentham, Alberta, Canada.

It was both necessity and the prospect of making a lot of money that gave birth to the steam-powered grain elevator in Buffalo, New York, in 1843. Ever since the construction of the Erie Canal in 1825, Buffalo had enjoyed a unique position in American geography. It stood at the intersection of two great all-water routes: one extending from New York Harbor, up the Hudson River, to Albany and, beyond it, the Port of Buffalo; the other constituted by the Great Lakes, which could theoretically take boaters in any direction they wished to go (north to Canada, west to Michigan or Wisconsin, south to Toledo and Cleveland, or east to the Atlantic Ocean). All through the 1830s, Buffalo benefited tremendously from its position. In particular, it was the recipient of most of the increasing quantities of grain (mostly wheat) that was being grown on farms in Ohio and Indiana, and shipped on Lake Erie for transshipment to the Erie Canal. If Buffalo hadn't been there, or when things got backed up there, that grain would have been loaded onto boats at Cincinnati and shipped down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.[1]

The site of the first steam-powered grain elevator at Erie Canal Harbor in Buffalo.

By 1842, it was clear that Buffalo’s port facilities weren’t keeping up. They still relied upon techniques that had been in use since the European Middle Ages: work teams of stevedores would use block and tackles and their own backs to unload or load each and every sack of grain that had been stored or was to be stored in the boat’s hull. It would take several days, sometimes even a week, to service a single grain-laden boat. Grain shipments were going down the Mississippi River, not over the Great Lakes/Erie Canal system. A merchant named Joseph Dart, Jr., is generally credited as being the one who adapted Oliver Evans’ grain elevator (originally a manufacturing device) for use in a commercial framework (the transshipment of grain in bulk from lakers to canal boats), but the actual design and construction of the world’s first steam-powered “grain storage and transfer warehouse” was executed by an engineer named Robert Dunbar. Thanks to the historic “Dart Elevator” (operational on 1 June 1843), which worked almost seven times faster than its non-mechanized predecessors, Buffalo was able to keep pace with – and thus further stimulate – the incredible growth of American agricultural production in the 1840s and 1850s, but especially after the Civil War, with the coming of the railroads.[1]

1928 Burrus Elevator, slipformed concrete silo construction in Lubbock, Texas. A steel reinforced concrete elevator with 123 silos shown just prior to demolition in 2004

It wasn’t by accident that the world’s second and third grain elevators were built in Toledo, Ohio and Brooklyn, New York, in 1847. Fledgling American cities, they were connected through an emerging international grain trade of unprecedented proportions. Grain shipments from farms in Ohio were loaded onto ships by elevators at Toledo; these ships were unloaded by elevators at Buffalo that transshipped their grain to canal boats (and, later, rail cars), which were unloaded by elevators in Brooklyn, where the grain was either distributed to East Coast flour mills or loaded for further transshipment to England, the Netherlands or Germany. But this eastern flow of grain was matched by an equally important flow of people and capital in the “opposite” direction, that is, from East to West. Because of the money to be made in grain production and, of course, because of the very existence of an all-water route to get there, increasing numbers of immigrants in Brooklyn came to Ohio, Indiana and Illinois to become farmers. More farmers meant more prairies turned into farmlands, which in turn meant increased grain production, which of course meant that more grain elevators would have to be built in places like Toledo, Buffalo and Brooklyn (and Cleveland, Chicago and Duluth). It was precisely through this “feedback loop” of productivity – set in motion by the invention of the grain elevator – that America itself became an agricultural and economic colossus on the world stage: the planet’s single largest producer of wheat, corn, oats and rice, a distinction it claims to this day.[1]

Silos connected to a grain elevator on a farm in Israel.

Today, grain elevators are a common sight in the grain-growing areas of the world, such as the North American prairies. Larger terminal elevators are found at distribution centers, such as Chicago and Thunder Bay, Ontario, where grain is sent for processing, or loaded aboard trains or ships to go further afield.

Buffalo, New York, the world's largest grain port from the 1850s until the first half of the 20th century, once had the nation's largest capacity for the storage of grain in over thirty concrete grain elevators located along the inner and outer harbors. Many of those that remain are presently idle, but a new ethanol plant started in 2007 will use some of the elevators to store corn. In the early 20th century, Buffalo's grain elevators inspired modernist architects such as Le Corbusier, who exclaimed, "The first fruits of the new age!" when he first saw them. Buffalo's grain elevators have been documented for the Historic American Engineering Record and added to the National Register of Historic Places. Currently, Enid, Oklahoma, holds the title of most grain storage capacity in the United States.

View of corrugated steel grain bins and cable guyed grain elevator at a grain elevator in Hemingway, South Carolina

In farming communities, each town had one or more small grain elevators that would serve the local growers. The classic grain elevator was constructed with wooden cribbing and had nine or more larger square or rectangular bins arranged in 3 × 3 or 3 × 4 or 4 × 4 or more patterns. Wooden cribbed elevators usually had a driveway with truck scale and office on one side, a rail line on the other side and additional grain storage annex bins on either side.

In more recent times with improved transportation, centralized and much larger elevators serve many farms. Some of them are quite large. Two elevators in Kansas (one in Hutchinson and one in Wichita) are half a mile long. The loss of the grain elevators from small towns is often considered a great change in their identity, and there are efforts to preserve them as heritage structures. At the same time, many larger grain farms have their own grain handling facilities for storage and loading onto trucks.

Old wooded cribbed grain elevator and livestock feedmill in Estherville, Iowa.

Grain elevator operators buy grain from farmers, either for cash or at a contracted price, and then sell futures contracts for the same quantity of grain, usually each day. They profit through the narrowing basis, that is, the difference between the local cash price, and the futures price, that occurs at certain times of the year.

Before economical truck transportation was available, grain elevator operators would sometimes use their purchasing power to control prices. This was especially easy since farmers often had only one elevator that was within a reasonable distance of their farm. This led some governments to take over the administration of grain elevators. An example of this is the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. For the same reason, many elevators were purchased by cooperatives.

These houses in Halifax, Nova Scotia, were constructed in the 1990s long after the elevator had been constructed and are valuable due to their location. In the summer of 2003, there was an explosion at this elevator, sparking a fire that took seven hours to extinguish. [


A recent problem with grain elevators is the need to provide separate storage for ordinary and genetically modified grain to reduce the risk of accidental mixing of the two.

An interesting problem the old elevators had was that of silo explosions. Fine powder from the millions of grains passing through the facility would accumulate and mix with the oxygen in the air. A spark could spread from one floating grain to the other creating a chain reaction that would destroy the entire structure. (This dispersed-fuel explosion is the mechanism behind fuel-air bombs.) To prevent this, elevators have very rigorous rules against smoking or any other open flame. Many elevators also have various devices installed to maximize ventilation, safeguards against overheating in belt conveyors, legs, bearing, and explosion-proof electrical devices such as electric motors, switches and lighting.

View of jumpformed concrete annex silos on the left and slipformed concrete mainhouse at an elevator facility in Edon, Ohio.

Grain elevators in small Canadian communities often had the name of the community painted on two sides of the elevator in large block letters, with the name of the elevator operator emblazoned on the other two sides. This made identification of the community easier for rail operators (and, incidentally, for lost drivers and pilots). The old community name would often remain on an elevator long after the town had either disappeared or been amalgamated into another community; the grain elevator at Ellerslie, Alberta, remained marked with its old community name until it was demolished, which took place more than twenty years after the village had been annexed by the City of Edmonton.

Elevator row

In Canada the term elevator row refers to a row of four or more wood-crib prairie grain elevators.

In the early days of Canada's Prairie towns, many once boasted dozens of elevator companies all in a row. When there was a good farming spot being settled, many people wanted to make some money by building their own grain elevators, bringing many private grain companies. With so much competition, almost immediately, consolidation began and many small companies were merged or absorbed. In many elevator rows there would be two elevators of the same company. Small towns bragged of their large elevator rows in promotional pamphlets to attract settlers. If a town was lucky enough to have two railways, it was to be known as the next Montreal. With the cost of grain in the 1990s so low many private elevator companies once again had to merge causing many of the "prairie sentinels" to be torn down. Because so many grain elevators have been torn down, Canada only has two surviving elevator rows, one located in Warner, Alberta, and the other in Inglis, Manitoba, making them the last surviving "elevator rows" in Canada.

Elevator companies


United States

Notable grain elevators

During the Battle of Stalingrad, one particularly well-defended Soviet strong point was known simply as "the Grain Elevator" and was strategically important to both sides.

Panorama of the Warner elevator row with a total of six elevators still standing, Warner, Alberta

This is a list of grain elevators that are either in the process of becoming heritage sites, museums, or have been preserved for future generations.



Home Grain Co. wooden cribbed elevator at the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village in Alberta, Canada.
Alberta Wheat Pool elevator Ltd. wooden cribbed elevator at the Scandia Eastern Irrigation District Museum in Scandia, Alberta, Canada

British Columbia



United States

Historic Cooperative Elevator, a row of corrugated steel hopper bottom bins on the left and cribbed annex bins on the right, Crowell, Texas

Elevator explosions

Given a large enough suspension of combustible flour or grain dust in the air, a significant explosion can occur. An example is the 1998 explosion of the DeBruce grain elevator in Wichita, Kansas, which killed 7 people. [19 ]. A famous historical example of the destructive power of grain explosions is the 1878 explosion of the Washburn "A" Mill in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which killed eighteen, leveled two nearby mills, damaged many others and caused a destructive fire that gutted much of the nearby milling district. The Washburn "A" mill was later rebuilt and continued to be used until it was shut down in 1965.

Almost any finely divided organic substance becomes an explosive material when dispersed as an air suspension, hence a very fine flour is dangerously explosive in air suspension. This poses a significant risk when milling grain to produce flour, so mills go to great lengths to remove sources of sparks. These measures include carefully sifting the grain before it is milled or ground to remove stones which could strike sparks from the millstones, and the use of magnets to remove metallic debris able to strike sparks.

The earliest recorded flour explosion took place in an Italian mill in 1785, but there have been many since. The following two references give numbers of recorded flour and dust explosions in the USA in 1994[20] and 1997[21]. In the ten year period up to and including 1997, there were 129 explosions.


Alberta's disappearing wooden grain elevators, which once numbered over 5000, are the subject of a 2003 National Film Board of Canada documentary, Death of a Skyline.[22]

See also


External links

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