The First Ward’s Niagara Elevator

       By Steve Cichon

In the lower right corner of our 1880 map, at the corner of Chicago and Ohio streets, is the Niagara Elevator and malt house.

Niagara Malt House Ohio & Chicago Sts

It was built in 1868 by the Niagara Elevating Co., and expanded over the course of the next 40 years. In 1880, ground was broken on the Niagara “B” elevator, which was called “the most perfect grain elevator in the world” by the Buffalo Commercial when it opened the following year.

Niagara Elevator, 1880

“From present appearances, there will be a revolution in the process of handling grain,” reported the Commercial.

The new elevator had the ability to elevate 200,000 bushels of grain from the hulls of ships every 24 hours, and transfer into boats more than that amount. Tracks connecting to both the Erie and New York Central lines carry cars that could be filled four at a time.

No matter the transfer speed, grain storage was a very dangerous and combustible business—and like many, if not most elevators of the era, the Niagara Elevator was the scene of several fires and explosions, including one fast-moving fire that had the recipe for disaster, but fire tug William S. Grattan was there to knock down the flames immediately.

The Grattan was rechristened the Edward M. Cotter and remains a fixture in the Buffalo River in the shadow of the General Mills plant to this day.

Even without large scale incidents, accidents were frequent and gory. The June 1, 1901, edition of The Buffalo Evening News shared front-page stories about the goings-on at the Pan American Exposition, and announced the regular nightly illumination of buildings would start at 8:15 and the lights would stay on until the grounds closed. It was feared that sudden dimming of the lights might cause panic among the more timid attendees.

Buffalo Evening News, 1901

Next to that article on the front page was the story of James Lynch, the scooper whose “life was crushed out in an instant,” “caught in the leg of the Niagara Elevator and horribly mangled.”

“Scooper James Lynch was walking though Niagara Elevator B between 11 o’clock and noon, full of health and vigor. Five minutes later, he was snatched by a conveyor belt and carried upward 135 feet through an elevator leg, then he was dropped, crushed, bleeding and lifeless, into a big grain hopper.”

The elevator was the site of a “fierce riot” that made national headlines in 1903.

A group of 200 non-union Italian immigrant workers from the Buffalo Union Furnace Co. were walking past the Niagara Elevator, when one of the unionized grain scoopers yelled out, “Scab!”

What happened next, according to The Buffalo Courier, “Bullets flying in all directions, knives, stilettos, cleavers, and weapons very much in evidence, while people in the neighborhood were hunting for cover.”

A melee broke out, and “45 Italians were arrested for fighting with whites,” according to the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle report. Most were allowed to go on a suspended sentence, but one man was sent to jail for 90 days for possessing a revolver – from which he squeezed off a few rounds during the incident. Another man was held for carrying a dangerous knife. “A stiletto, almost two feet long, more appropriately called a sword,” according to another sensationalized newspaper account.

Today, the site where the Niagara once stood is a part of the new building and revitalization of the Old First Ward along the Buffalo River.

From 1880 to Today: The Watson Elevator

By Steve Cichon

Perhaps it has more to do with the building’s location in the foreground of the image, but the Watson Elevator was an important enough part of the City of Buffalo in 1880 that it is the only building that is actually labelled on the map.

It was built in 1859 by Stephen Van Rensselaer Watson, then one of Buffalo’s busiest builders, using mostly white pine that he’d brought to Buffalo from elsewhere on the Great Lakes on the schooner he owned especially for that purpose.

Watson Elevator 1883

It was heralded as the most ambitious elevator ever built. With two sides of waterway access, it could take in grain from a vessel on the Buffalo River side, while unloading a cargo of coal on the side of the City Ship Canal.

It was that unique and completely surrounded by water status that lead to the elevator’s eventual demise. As Buffalo’s importance as a rail hub grew, there was no way for trains to access the Watson.

The old wooden Watson grain elevator spent most of its last decade empty and abandoned, except for the daring swimmers who’d climb up the rickety old building and take a thrilling jump into the surrounding harbor.

When the Watson met the same fate as so many of Buffalo’s early wooden grain elevators — it burned down in 1907 — it was called “one of the greatest spectacles that Buffalo has had in many a day.”

The burning of the Watson Elevator, 1907

Three Buffalo fire boats — the John M. Hutchinson, the George R. Potter and the W.S. Grattan (still serving now as the Edward S. Cotter) — fought the blaze on the water, and firefighters on the city streets fought more than 100 small fires as winds whipped embers across the water into city.

The Mansion House Hotel, which stood in what’s now the Canalside footprint, lost four awnings to the flying sparks. Sheets of flaming wood blew as far away as the corner of Seneca and Michigan streets.

After several years of political rancor, the site was excavated and became a turning basin for ships in Buffalo Harbor.

Grain elevators make Buffalo Buffalo

By Steve Cichon

Our grain elevators are part of what makes Buffalo Buffalo.

Simon Pure ad from 1949 celebrating Buffalo’s milling industry.

More than 15,000 men worked in Buffalo’s flour and feed milling industries in the 1940s and 50s.

No other city in the world processed more grain than we did in Buffalo.
Circumstances changed through the decades, and the grain boats stopped coming.

Those hulking elevator and mill complexes along Buffalo’s waterways served as reminders of what Buffalo had lost for decades.

Now the grain elevators that survive are being adapted to new uses, and serve as an example of how Buffalo can make it’s past– part of its future.

This video from features Buffalo’s lighthouse, waterfront, and various aspects of Buffalo industry.

Our grain elevators are part of what makes Buffalo Buffalo.

What It Looked Like Wednesday: The silos before the six-pack

By Steve Cichon

For decades before the six grain silos at the Ganson Street RiverWorks complex bore the name Labatt Blue, they bore the initials GLF.

The site was home to the then- state-of-the-art Wheeler elevator starting around 1908, replacing the earlier wooden elevator shown below.

Buffalo Stories archives

The Grange League Federation bought the elevators in 1929 and renovated and added to the structures over the next handful of years. At top production, a grain mill built on the site in 1930 was filling 100 rail cars with hog and cattle feed every day.

The GLF C-Annex was built in 1936. Its six main 100-foot tall, 21-feet across bins could hold up to 154,700 bushels of grain.

Buffalo Stories archives

In 1964, GLF merged to combine Agway, and the milling and storage work done on the Buffalo River eventually moved to Tonawanda. The site was abandoned in the mid-1970s.

In 2014, the six silos of the GLF-C annex were painted blue and wrapped with giant vinyl beer can labels. RiverWorks co-owner Doug Swift called it “the largest six-pack in the world.”

Torn-Down Tuesday: The mills of the Black Rock Canal, 1899

By Steve Cichon

When you look at the water when you’re driving along the I-190 between the Peace Bridge and the International Rail Bridge, you’re looking at the Black Rock Canal.

Buffalo Stories archives

In 1899, on this spot, you would have been surrounded by grain storage, milling and malting infrastructure. The photo above shows the foot of Ferry Street looking toward Breckenridge – or in other words, if you’re driving along the I-190 north, this is the area across the water starting at the Ferry Street bascule lift bridge (which was built 14 years after this photo was taken).

This 1894 map shows the mills in the photo at the top, in the area that is now Broderick Park. The I-190 now runs along what is the lower shore of the Black Rock Canal on this map. Rich Products manufacturing and headquarters now takes up the space between West Ferry and Breckenridge on this map.

The Frontier, Clinton and Queen City mills were destroyed by fire in 1901.

Buffalo in the ’60s: Buffalo ‘will remain unchallenged’ as world’s flour-milling center

By Steve Cichon

Fifty-five years later, Buffalonians are growing increasing excited as new and innovative uses are being created for the aging, hulking grain elevators and mills along the Buffalo River.

But this week in 1960, the chairman of International Milling would have “looked at you funny” had you told him the best use for grain elevators might be to wrap them to look like beer cans so people have something interesting to look at while they play outdoor ice hockey.

Charles Ritz — who hailed from Minneapolis, not Buffalo, mind you — said things like “Buffalo’s geographic advantage cannot be matched” and “Buffalo is best situated to supply growing populations of the American Northeast.”

25 aug 1960 buffalo will remain flour giant

Buffalo in the 50s: Buffalo’s 4,500 grain workers idled by elevator strikes

By Steve Cichon

When we think romantically about “Buffalo’s good old days,” when a man could walk into any plant of factory in town, put in a good day’s work and provide well for his family, one part of the equation we often forget is labor strife.

This week in 1950, about 500 grain elevator employees walked out on strike. That decision had an impact on another 4,000 workers who refused to cross picket lines or were idled because their work was reliant on the strikers. These included grain scoopers, grain car coopers, longshoremen, construction workers and railroad switchmen. In many cases, grain stored in the elevators was transferred to nearby Buffalo grain mills for rendering. The mills were also closed down.

As 300 carloads of grain sat on docks a few days into the strike, there was some mild violence and minor injuries. The state also ruled that none of the 4,500 idled workers would be eligible for unemployment benefits.