Last June, I posted an exploration of the Charles Burchfield painting called Black Iron. I’m fairly certain I located the two railroad bridges Burchfield painted in 1935 and documented the similarities between the painting and the existing bridges that still span the Buffalo River (although only one is still operational). This examination of Buffalo’s industrial past was illuminating, and I decided to look into another Burchfield painting. I chose the oil painting called Grain Elevators, 1932-38, currently in the collection of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY.
If there is one type of structure that immediately reminds one of Buffalo’s past as a shipping and transportation behemoth, it’s the grain elevator. At one point, dozens of grain elevators crowded the waterfront, constantly being filled and emptied as countless freighters and canal boats traversed Lake Erie and the Erie Canal. The elevators were essentially temporary storage units. Large freighters coming from the Great Lakes couldn’t travel down the narrow Erie Canal, so their cargo would be offloaded into the elevators, and then loaded on to smaller canal boats for transit to the eastern part of the state. The process could also be reversed for cargo coming the other way. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the Buffalo waterfront witnessed a constant flow of grain and oats that helped feed the country.
Early grain elevators were made of wood or brick. This material limited their size, so was later replaced with concrete. Concrete grain elevators were made much larger, and massive groupings of silos sprouted up on the waterfront, capable of holding much more product. Concrete was also much more durable. Many concrete grain elevators still exist in Buffalo (although most of them aren’t used anymore), but the wood and brick ones are mostly gone.
Burchfield’s painting shows sort of a microcosm of this development. The two large silos on the right are made of brick covered with rusting metal panels. In the center is a squat grouping of six cement silos, and on the left a tall building with the silos built into the side is visible. Closer to the viewer (also on the left), another elevator lifts grain off a canal boat. The large scooper arm is extended over the deck of the boat and a cloud of grain dust partially obscures the boatman.
As I started my explorations, there was no doubt that the painting showed a scene from Buffalo, since it was made while Burchfield was living there. The question was where the view was taken from. Did any of the silos still exist? Could I identify where Burchfield stood as he created it? Not to spoil anything too soon, but the answers turned out to be “No” and “Sort of”.
First, I had to track down the location, which wasn’t as easy as one might expect. Buffalo’s waterfront is an interesting place. Some areas haven’t been touched by development in decades, and other have seen huge upheavals and now look completely different. At the height of the Erie Canal’s dominance of Northeast shipping, the waterfront was a maze of canals and industrial buildings. Aside from the main canal, dozens of slips and smaller canals perforated the landscape, intersecting each other as well as flowing in to natural waterways like the Buffalo River and Lake Erie.
There was a good chance that the canal or tributary Burchfiled painted wasn’t there anymore, so historical photos seemed to be my best bet. Looking at photos of Buffalo grain elevators on line didn’t yield much, since so many of them looked the same or similar. I was looking through one of my books on Buffalo history when I caught a break. A photo I found of what appeared to be the two large silos on the right of the painting was labeled as the Evans Ship Canal. Now that I had a name, I could pin down the location. I found an old map of the waterfront and the Evans Ship Canal immediately seemed like the place.
The Evans Ship Canal, located to the northeast of Buffalo’s canal structures, wasn’t a straight rectangular slip (like many were). It had a bend in it. This definitely aligned with what Burchfield is showing, since two canals appear to be interesting in the work. One canal in the foreground is intersecting another that runs in front of the silos in the distance. So I was pretty sure I had found the right location, but what about the silos? A quick check of Google maps assured me the canal and silos weren’t there anymore (more on that in a bit), but what did they look like when they were still standing? Had Burchfield depicted them realistically? When I investigated Black Iron, I came to the conclusion that even though the painting was abstracted, Burchfield had created a fairly accurate document of the bridges at the time. I wanted to see if the same was true of Grain Elevators.
Searching through historical photos and old maps showed me what I was looking for. Two photos in particular showed that area of the canal, and sure enough all of the buildings Burchfield painted are grouped together, looking like they do in the painting.
In the above photo from 1930, the group of buildings is clearly visible, though shot from the back (I’ve highlighted the area in red). To the left in this photo are the two large brick silos, then the shorter concrete silos are next to them. As in Burchfield’s painting, there appears to be a large rectangular structure over these silos (the birds are using it as a perch in the painting). The tall structure on the end is also visible here. This photo is also interesting because it shows how the Evans Ship Canal was positioned in relation to the main Erie Canal (visible to the right in this image).
This photo, which appears to be from around the same time, also shows the buildings in situ (also outlined in red). Not as much is visible, due to the camera angle, but this photo gives a sense of what the canal looked like at the time, as well as how the area was situated in relation to the downtown core of the city of Buffalo.
I wanted to visit the site where Burchfield painted the elevators, and now I knew where it was, but as I wrote earlier in the post, the structures (all buildings and the canal) aren’t there anymore. So where did they go, you might ask? The answer lies in the decline of the Erie Canal. The whole canal itself was necessary due to the presence of Niagara Falls. Ship freight through the Great Lakes as far as Lake Erie, and you’re fine, but try to go any further and you run into a little bit of a problem.
The Erie Canal avoided the Falls by routing traffic over land. It worked extremely well until the nearby Welland Canal (in southern Ontario, Canada) was restored and expanded in 1932. This route made it possible to travel directly from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, then further east right to the Pacific Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway. Freighters didn’t have to be unloaded (and reloaded) onto canal boats. The time consuming task of transferring goods through grain elevators became somewhat obsolete. By the time Burchfield started painting this work , the Welland Canal was open, and shipping goods by train was gaining momentum. The writing was, as they say, on the wall. The era of the mighty grain elevators (as well as the prominence of the city of Buffalo in world commerce) was coming to an end.
As traffic on the canals slowed to a crawl, many of them were filled in and turned into roads for a growing form of transportation- automobiles. Even the main Erie Canal itself, widely celebrated and for a time the main driver of economic growth for the entire region, was scrubbed from the landscape. It was filled in and became an ordinary and totally unremarkable street.
|Behold the mighty Erie Canal|
With the canal gone, grain elevators lost their raison d’etre. Many smaller silos were torn down to make way for other developments. I should note at this time that many of the great concrete elevators survive to this day. Abandoned for years, many are now finding new life as tourist attractions.
The silos Burchfield painted weren’t so lucky. They were torn down, along with several nearby blocks, to make way for the Marine Drive Apartments, a multiple-building housing complex that was built in 1951. I don’t know if the grain elevators were torn down right before construction of the apartments started, or if they had been torn down earlier, but by 1951 they were gone.
|The Marine Drive Apartments are visible here at the lower right. The Evans Ship Canal is still watered in this photo, though it was later filled in and turned into a street.|
So the landscape had changed, but would it still be possible to figure out where Burchfield stood when he viewed the structures in the 1930s? I examined the painting further and noticed something odd. It seems to have been painted while standing in the water. Although there’s a little strip of land to the right, the canal comes right towards the viewer in the center on the painting. I started examining the canal more closely to see if there were any features that might account for this specific view. The Evans canal was sort of shaped like an upside-down “V”, and only one arm intersected with the river. The other arm terminated at a dead end. If Burchfield stood right on the bank of that arm and looked forward, he would have been able to see the intersection between both of these sections. By cropping his view slightly in the final work, it gives the appearance that he’s standing in the water.
That gave me a pretty good sense of where Burchfield observed the silos from, but what was there now? I found a historic diagram of the waterfront and overlaid it over a contemporary aerial view of the same area. I saw when comparing the 2 images that the place where the Evan Ship Canal ended is now a parking lot. Sorry if that’s a little anti-climactic, but it’s true.
|This is a historic map of the canal system showing the Evans Ship Canal to the left.|