Heritage Moments: Dart, Dunbar and the Colossus in the Harbor

Nov 20, 2017

For more than 150 years they have loomed over the river, gigantic and monstrous. Silent gray canyons lining the waterway, they form a concrete Atlantis, whispering of the wealth they once generated, the ships, the throngs of workers, the noise and traffic and bustle. Long ago, they were made of wood.


These are the grain elevators of the Buffalo Harbor – this city’s greatest commercial and architectural contribution to the world. The first one went up in 1843, two men’s dream made real. Soon after, others sprung up in harbors all across the globe.

The two men were Joseph Dart and Robert Dunbar. Dart, originally from Connecticut, was a wealthy businessman in his 40s who profited from a trade then in its infancy: the transshipment of grain from the Great Lakes to the Erie Canal. Dunbar, not quite 30, was a Scottish-born engineer from Upper Canada who lived in Black Rock, where he designed two water-powered flour mills of impressive size.

Dart and his business partners owned a site on the Buffalo River between Commercial Street and the Evans Ship Canal. There he planned to build a grain warehouse. But not the usual kind, which required teams of workers to scoop grain, shovelful by shovelful, from ship’s hold to bin – a process that took a week to finish. No, the warehouse Dart envisioned would harness a miraculous young invention: steam power. For that, he hired Dunbar.

Dunbar designed a warehouse of great height, to accommodate the steam-powered conveyor belt that stood at the center of the scheme. The belt ran in a continuous loop. The idea: a ship would moor beneath the building, and the belt would dip down into the hold. Men in the hold would shovel grain into large buckets on the belt, which would carry the grain up to the top of the warehouse, seven stories high, and dump it into bins. From there the belt ran back down to repeat the process – at the pace of a thousand bushels an hour. In this way, a boat could be emptied in just one day. Dunbar called this new kind of building a “grain elevator.”

“Dart, I am sorry for you,” a grain dealer dubious of the idea reportedly said. “It won’t do. Remember what I say – Irishmen’s backs are the cheapest elevators ever built.”

They started building what would be called Dart’s Elevator at the end of the 1842 shipping season. It was finished in spring 1843, and on June 12 unloaded its first boatload, from the schooner Philadelphia, in a single day. The elevator’s crew chief was William Wells, son of one of Buffalo’s first European settlers.

Dart’s Elevator was an immediate success, proving the doubters wrong, and after a short while the idea caught on. In 1846 and ’47 nine more steam-powered elevators, bigger and faster, were built in Buffalo, as well as one in Toledo and one in Brooklyn. Dunbar built several of them, and soon he was building elevators as far afield as Liverpool, England; Odessa, Russia; and elsewhere across North America and around the world.

The Bennett Elevator, built in 1863 on the site of Dart’s Elevator, which burned down the year before. Like the Dart, it was designed by Robert Dunbar. No photograph or contemporaneous drawing of Dart’s Elevator is known to exist.
Credit (From Frank Severance’s “A Picture Book of Earlier Buffalo,” published 1913

But nowhere was the grain elevator as transformative as it was in Buffalo, which by the mid-1850s had become perhaps the largest grain-handling port in world, and would remain among the leaders for many decades. They were an industrial marvel, “as ugly a monster as has yet been produced,” the British novelist Anthony Trollope wrote in 1861, with “great hungering stomachs and huge unsatisfied maws”; “rivers of corn,” he noted, “are running through these buildings night and day.” In the early 20th century the enormous concrete monoliths that replaced Dart and Dunbar’s wooden giants inspired a generation of European designers to invent new, often frightening forms of architecture: Bauhaus and modernism. 

Today the Buffalo waterfront is largely quiet, a place of recreation rather than mad commerce. But the grain elevators, immense vertical behemoths, still line the river -- towering monuments to the enterprise and ingenuity of a bygone era.

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Several books and essays accessible online detail the history of Dart’s Elevator, including “American Colossus: The Grain Elevator, 1843 to 1942,” by William J. Brown (Colossal Books); “Buffalo’s Grain Elevators,” by Henry H. Baxter (The Buffalo History Museum); and the Joseph Dart entry from the Buffalo Architecture and History website, by Chuck LaChiusa.

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Cast (in order of appearance):

Workman: Dylan Mayberry

Joseph Dart: James Stoddard

Robert Dunbar: Roy Durward

Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Brodie Spies (Niagara College Canada, Welland)

Sound editing: Micheal Peters

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)

Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project

Written by Jeff Z. Klein

Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director

Omar Fetouh, WBFO assistant news director

Robin McCulloch, professor and program coordinator, acting for film and television, Niagara College Canada, Welland

Bruce Gilbert, professor of broadcasting -- radio, television and film, Niagara College Canada, Welland

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)