Grain elevator

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

A grain elevator is a tower containing a bucket elevator, which scoops up, elevates, and then uses gravity to deposit grain in a silo or other storage facility. In most grain-producing countries, the term "grain elevator" is a pars pro toto which also covers facilities attached to the elevator itself, such as receival and testing offices, weighbridges, storage facilities and/or complexes of such buildings. It may also mean organizations that operate or control several individual elevators, in different locations. In Australia the term grain elevator refers to the lifting mechanism only (see "usage" below).

Prior to the advent of the grain elevator, grain was usually handled in bags rather than in bulk (large quantities of loose grain). The elevator was invented by a merchant named Joseph Dart and an engineer named Robert Dunbar during 1842–43, in Buffalo, New York. Using the steam-powered flour mills of Oliver Evans as their model, they invented the marine leg, which scooped loose grain out of the hulls of ships and elevated it to the top of a marine tower.[1]

Early grain elevators and bins were often 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, from where it falls through spouts and/or conveyors and into one of a number of bins, silos or tanks in a facility. When desired, silos, bins and tanks are emptied by gravity flow, sweep augers and conveyors. As grain is emptied from bins, tanks and silos it is conveyed, blended and weighted into trucks, railroad cars or barges, and shipped to grain wholesalers, exporters and/or local end-users, such as flour mills, breweries and ethanol or alcohol distilleries.


Usage and definitions

In Australian English, the term "grain elevator" is reserved for elevator towers, while a receival and storage building or complex is distinguished by the formal term receival point or, more commonly, as a "wheat bin". Large-scale grain receival, storage and logistics operations are known in Australia as bulk handling.

In Canada, the term "grain elevator" is used to refer to a place where farmers sell grain into the global grain distribution system, and/or a place where the grain is moved into rail cars or ocean-going ships for transport. Specifically the there are several types of grain elevators under Canadian law, defined in the Canadian Grain Act, Section 2.[2]

  • Primary elevators (called "country elevators" before 1971) receive grain directly from producers for storage, or forwarding, or both.
  • Process elevators (called "mill elevators" before 1971) receive and store grain for direct manufacture or processing into other products.
  • Terminal elevators receive grain on or after official inspection and weighing and clean, store, and treat grain before moving it forward.
  • Transfer elevators (including "Eastern elevators" from the pre-1971 classification) transfer grain that has been officially inspected and weighed at another elevator. In the Eastern Division, transfer elevators also receive, clean, and store eastern or foreign grain.


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. 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]

In the early Twentieth Century, there was concern about monopolistic practices in the grain elevator industry, leading to testimony before the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1906.[3] This led to several grain elevators being burned down in Nebraska, allegedly in protest.[3]

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. [4]

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.

In the past, grain elevators sometimes experienced 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.

One of the major historical trend in the grain trade has been the closure of many smaller elevators, and the consolidation the grain trade to fewer places and among fewer companies. For example, in 1961 there were 1642 "country elevators" (the smallest type) in Alberta, holding 3,452,240 tonnes (3,397,720 long tons; 3,805,440 short tons) of grain. By 2010 there were only 79 remaining "primary elevators" (as they are now known), holding 1,613,960 tonnes (1,588,470 long tons; 1,779,090 short tons).

Elevator row

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

In the early pioneer days of Western Canada's Prairie towns, when a good farming spot being settled, many people wanted to make money by building their own grain elevators, this brought in droves of private grain companies. Towns boasted dozens of elevator companies which all stood in a row along the railway tracks. If a town was lucky enough to have two railways, it was to be known as the next Montreal. In many elevator rows there would be two or more elevators of the same company. Small towns bragged of their large elevator rows in promotional pamphlets to attract settlers. With so much competition in the 1920s consolidation began almost immediately and many small companies were merged or absorbed into larger companies.

In the mid 1990s with the cost of grain so low many private elevator companies once again had to merge. This time causing thousands of "prairie sentinels" to be torn down. Because so many grain elevators have been torn down, Canada has only two surviving elevator rows, one located in Warner, Alberta, and the other in Inglis, Manitoba. The Inglis elevator row has been protected as National Historic Sites of Canada, while the Warner elevator row remains unprotected.

Panorama of the Warner elevator row with a total of six elevators still standing. A common sight throughout many small towns in Western Canada up until the mid 1990s.

Elevator companies


Canada All companies operating elevators in Canada must be licensed by the Canadian Grain Commission, which maintains a list of all licensed companies currently operating in the country.[5]

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.

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
  • Acadia Valley - Prairie Elevator Museum, former Alberta Wheat Pool converted into a tea house / museum.[6]
  • Alberta Central Railroad Museum - former Alberta Wheat Pool, second oldest standing grain elevator in Alberta, moved from Hobbema.[7]
  • Andrew - former Alberta Wheat Pool, restored into a museum.
  • Castor - former Alberta Pacific, restored into a museum.[8]
  • Big Valley - Alberta Wheat Pool used as a museum complete with a train station and Roundhouse.[9]
  • Edmonton - Ritchie Mill, former flour mill converted into restaurants, law offices and condos.[10]
  • Ellis Bird Farm, built in 1937 oldest standing seed elevator in Alberta.
  • Esther - former Alberta Wheat Pool, restored into a museum.
  • Haselwood Mill Haselwood Inn Bed & Breakfast - Alberta's oldest seed cleaning mill, 2nd on the site, privately owned, not protected, operated from the 1930s to 1960's near Bittern Lake, Alberta
  • Heritage Acres Farm Museum - restored United Grain Growers elevator moved from Brocket.[11]
  • Heritage Park Historical Village, former Security Elevator Co. LTD. moved from Shonts [12]
  • Kinuso - United Grain Growers with Original UGG Logo.
  • Leduc - former Alberta wheat Pool saved from demolition now a museum.[13]
  • Lougheed - Former Pioneer Elevator now part of the Iron Creek Museum
  • Mayerthorpe - 1966 Federal Grain Co. now an interpretive center.[14]
  • Meeting Creek, a refurbished Alberta Wheat Pool, Pacific Grain elevator and CN train station.[15]
  • Nanton - Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Centre, three elevators saved from demolition and preserved to educate visitors about the town's, and Alberta's, agricultural history.[16]
  • Radway - Krause Milling Co. restored into a museum.[17]
  • Raley - oldest standing grain elevator on its original site in Alberta, built in 1909 maintaining many of its original features.
  • Rowley - a United Grain Growers, and Alberta Wheat Pool elevators saved from demolition by locals and now fully restored.
  • Scandia - Scandia Eastern Irrigation District Museum, 1920s Alberta Wheat Pool and stockyard now a museum.
  • South Peace Centennial Museum, United Grain Growers moved from Albright.[18]
  • Spruce Grove - Spruce Grove Grain Elevator Museum, former Alberta Wheat Pool, now used as a Farmers Market.
  • St. Albert - St. Albert Grain Elevator Park,[19] a 1906 Alberta Grain Co. and 1929 Alberta Wheat Pool Elevators now restored as a historic park.[20]
  • Stettler - 1920 Parrish and Heimbecker grain elevator / feed mill and coal shed, last to stand in Alberta now protected and restored as a museum.[21]
  • Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village - Former Home Grain Co. moved from Bellis[22]
  • Warner - Warner elevator row, last surviving elevator row in Alberta with a total of six elevators. Currently unprotected.

British Columbia


Inglis elevator row, Inglis, Manitoba, Canada.
  • Inglis - Inglis elevator row, last surviving elevator row in Manitoba with a total of four elevators. Now designated and protected as a National Historic Site of Canada.
  • Niverville - Western Canada's first grain elevator, erected by William Hespeler in 1879 [23]
  • Plum Coulee - grain elevator refurbished as a restaurant and meeting rooms.


  • Edam - former Saskatchewan Wheat Pool now a museum.
  • Fleming - oldest standing grain elevator on its original site in Canada, built in 1895 and maintaining many of its original features.
  • Gravelbourg - Former Saskatchewan Wheat Pool saved from demolition and now a museum.
  • Indian Head - experimental farm grain elevator refurbished as a Café, coffee house.
  • North Battleford Heritage Museum - former Saskatchewan Wheat Pool moved from North Battleford.
  • Sukanen Ship Pioneer Village and Museum - former Victoria - McCabe moved from Mawer.[24]
  • Val Marie - former Federal and 1967 Centennial Saskatchewan Wheat Pool now museums.
  • Western Development Museum, former Saskatchewan Wheat Pool moved from ??.
  • Wood Mountain - former Saskatchewan Wheat Pool now a museum.

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. 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.) Another example occurred in 1998, when the DeBruce grain elevator in Wichita, Kansas exploded and killed seven people.[25] The most recent example is an explosion on October 29, 2011 at the Bartlett Grain Company in Atchison, Kansas. The death toll was 6 people. Two more men received severe burns, but the remaining four were not hurt.[26]

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[27] and 1997.[28] In the ten year period up to and including 1997, there were 129 explosions.


Canadian Prairie grain elevators were the subjects of the National Film Board of Canada documentaries Grain Elevator[29] and Death of a Skyline.[30]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d American Colossus: the Grain Elevator 1843-1943 (Colossus Books, 2009)
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b Testimony taken by Interstate Commerce Commission, October 15--November 23, 1906, in matter of relations of common carriers to the grain trade, 59th Congress, Senate Document #278, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907, pg 28, 34-35. (available on
  4. ^ "Grain elevator explosion rocks Halifax". CBC News. 2003-08-08. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Acadia Valley elevator
  7. ^ Alberta Central Railroad Museum
  8. ^ Castor elevator
  9. ^ Big Valley elevator
  10. ^ Ritchie Mill - Edmonton
  11. ^ Heritage Acres
  12. ^ Calgary Heritage Park
  13. ^ Alberta Legacy Development Society - Leduc
  14. ^ Mayerthorpe elevator
  15. ^ Meeting Creek elevator
  16. ^ Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Center - Nanton
  17. ^ Radway elevator
  18. ^ South Peace Centennial Museum
  19. ^ St. Albert Grain Elevator Park
  20. ^ St. Albert elevator
  21. ^ Stettler elevator
  22. ^ Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village
  23. ^,M1
  24. ^ Sukanen Ship Pioneer Village & Museum
  25. ^ "June 8, 1998 - DeBruce Grain Elevator Explosion". City of Wichita. City of Wichita. 1998. Retrieved 2007-06-22. 
  26. ^ Sutton, Joe (October 30, 2011). "3 killed, 3 missing after Kansas grain elevator explosion". 
  27. ^ "A report of grain dust explosions that took place in 1994". Archived from the original on 2007-01-24. Retrieved 2007-06-23. 
  28. ^ "A report of grain dust explosions that took place in 1997". Archived from the original on 2007-01-24. Retrieved 2007-06-23. 
  29. ^ "Grain Elevator". Documentary film. National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 22 July 2010. 
  30. ^ Smith, Bryan (2003). "Death of a Skyline". National Film Board of Canada. Retrieved 2009-03-19. 

External links

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