by Chris Clemens
If you take any time at all to explore the history of the Old First Ward of Buffalo, it’s nearly impossible to avoid gazing at the enormous concrete industrial cylinders that shape the skyline along the Eastern edge of Lake Erie. The seemingly desolate collection of grain silos that scatter the area have been fueling the curiosity of people all over Western New York for decades. Adventurous trespassers who don’t heed the posted warnings have been breaking and entering for years now as part of the popular ‘Urban Exploring’ boom but a few preservation and activist groups have made it possible to experience the silos up close both safely and legally. Explore Buffalo is a small not-for-profit tour group that takes aim at bringing folks on a myriad of different opportunities to adventure through history, architecture, art and development around the city. I had previously been on the Architectural Masters tour and had been curious about checking out their “Silo City: Vertical Tour” which takes attendees on a two and a half hour jaunt through the American and Perot Grain Silos. Brad from Explore Buffalo invited me out to join a tour group and I convinced my blogging buddy Sarah of the Mindfully Frugal Mom site to join me.
In the early 1800’s grain would make its way to New York by all sorts of different means, each of them increasingly more cost prohibitive and laborious than the last. The installment of the Erie Canal meant boats now had the upper hand in carrying grain in larger quantities and in quicker times to avoid spoiling product. Unfortunately, large lake boats couldn’t really navigate the narrow canal and the canal boats were small enough where they’d just get tossed around on the lakes. With both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario in the region, Buffalo became a transfer spot for grain shipments coming in from the West. Larger boats would bring in the freight and it would get transferred to the smaller boats to haul product Eastward. The First Ward became a settlement for Irish immigrants seeking work and the back breaking job of removing grain from one boat and putting it on another became a secure method of income.
In 1842 Joseph Dart, a local merchant in Buffalo, constructed what many believe to be the first grain elevator. A simple wooden building that utilized a belt system with buckets attached would immediately change the industry forever. His system exponentially increased volume while cutting costs and additionally, provided a structure for grain storage. Similar grain elevators sprung up in the area, but each and every one met the fate created by combustible grain products being stored in a wooden structure. The solution for a fire resistant design was found in using cement and steel.
In 1906 the American Malting Company elevator was constructed and was the first in the city to be built with reinforced concrete. More importantly, it’s believed to be the first structure in the country to have been constructed using a ‘Slip Form Technique‘ whereby a large circular mold would be filled with cement and then raised as it settled to pour more cement. Even today striations on the cement facades can be seen indicating the use of the unique method. The American Malting Company used the building to make regional beers until Prohibition when production came to a halt. It had a fixed marine tower but received an additional tower in 1922 when the flour manufacturer Russell-Miller took over. It’s pretty wild to think about even for a building created with today’s technology, but this new marine tower was actually built on tracks and the entire structure could move to meet the boats!!
Our tour began in this American silo and it starts with viewing the bottom of the grain hoppers before going up. It’s a shame, because I wish everything was, but I’ll disclose now that this tour is NOT handicapped accessible and might even be tough for those in top physical condition (alright, maybe not tough, but it ain’t easy!) The group climbs 100 feet of a rusted steel spiral staircase and though it’s affixed to the wall, it definitely sways a bit here and there. I never once felt in danger, but the dizzying views of looking down multiple floors of spiral stairs made for an interesting start to the morning!
At the top floor of the American building there’s a few opportunities to get some amazing views in all directions. I stood looking out over Lake Erie and the City of Buffalo revelling in the opportunity that each of us were getting on this tour, and wondered if any of the countless numbers of mill workers who spent countless hours collecting a paycheck in that very spot ever thought that people would be grateful for the chance to be standing there.
Just a year after the American Malting Company built their silos, the Perot Malting Company set up shop next door. While they built the silo next to their competitor in 1907, the company actually dates back to 1687 when founder Anthony Morris originally set up shop in Philadelphia. Even though they built their silo on the water, it was never built with a marine tower and that meant there wasn’t any real direct access for grains from boat to building. When the American building switched over to flour the two neighbors were no longer competitors and they struck an agreement that allowed boats to deliver to the American silo, and product to be shifted overhead by a conveyor belt. From the ground, you’ll see a red ‘skywalk’ at the top level between the two buildings–the conveyor is located in there. And, if you’re taking the tour you’ll be walking across it and then climbing down in a hole (it took some convincing for Sarah to be okay with that climb) that lets out near the roofline of the one of the Perot silos. If you’re wondering how American Malt didn’t survive the Prohibition Era and Perot did, it’s because Perot continued production for medicinal and industrial use alcohol until the country was free to get drunk again.
For over two hours our group climbed up and around and down the American and Perot silos learning the history of the buildings and seeing firsthand how grain was transported and stored, all the while catching some of the most unique views of the region that you could possibly get in that area. Once we made it back to the ground our guide Jason Mendola brought us around the ground floor of some of the other nearby buildings. What I found interesting about being on this tour is that I looked at least 20 grain silos and nearly as many hoppers, but it didn’t seem to get old at all. Each building’s nooks and crannies had their own personality and being able to marvel up close at each one was a really fantastic experience. I kinda felt like a kid exploring the woods behind the house I grew up in–it was all an adventure in history and discovering new spaces.
So if you’ve determined that you’re 1) interested in taking the ‘Silo City: Vertical’ tour and 2) not afraid of heights, there’s one last tour for the remainder of this year on October 25. Head on over to Explore Buffalo’s website and grab your tickets before the last one sells out! Tickets are a reasonably priced $45.00 per person and even includes lunch at the end. If keeping your feet on the ground is more your style, they have a whole bunch of other really cool options to checkout here. Also, if there’s a tour that you’re really interested in but can’t make the schedule they have, Explore Buffalo can accommodate your needs in most cases. This is a great option for folks like professional photographers who may need a few more minutes in each spot and don’t want to hold up a group. If you go exploring with them as a group or on a personalized tour, be sure to tell them I say hello!!
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens