Buffalo, New York earned the nickname “The City of Light” due to its early embrace of electric power and widespread electric lighting; since Canalside started their Light Shows, though, the nickname seems even more fitting. Each night of the year, from sunset until midnight, the Connecting Terminal bursts onto the Buffalo skyline with an illumination art show that flows from one colorful scene to the next. Their canvas? The city’s historic grain elevators lining the Erie Canal.
In 1843, Joseph Dart and Robert Dunbar constructed the world’s first steam-powered grain elevator in the city of Buffalo; known as “Dart’s Elevator,” the wooden silo-like structure allowed for faster and more efficient unloading of lake freighters and for the transshipment of grain in bulk from barges, canal boats and rail cars. By the end of the nineteenth century, Buffalo was the largest grain transfer port in the world: more and more grain elevators were being built along the canal and, over time, the designs were modified to use steel–and, later, concrete–instead of wood.
Buffalo has two types of grain elevators: those that store grain and those that transfer grain to and from lake vessels or rail cars. Storage elevators are, essentially, bins full of grain, but they also include machinery for weighing and moving the grain within each bin and an apparatus for cleaning and drying the grain. Transfer towers have movable “legs” that each contain buckets attached to a rotating belt; the buckets scoop the grain into the leg, and the grain is then transferred into a storage elevator or a transportation vessel. Machinery and methods have developed over time since the first steam-powered grain elevator was constructed in 1843, but the design and process has largely remained the same since the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Buffalo’s grain elevators were last occupied by the Buffalo Malting Corporation in 1986; today, there are only fifteen left along the Erie Canal. Many of the old steel and concrete towers are abandoned and falling apart, but there has been a recent campaign to restore and preserve the city’s grain elevators and to share their history with current generations. Canalside hosts Grain Elevator Light Shows, as well as festivals and concerts, to draw individuals to the area and to ensure that the city does not demolish the elevators. Some of my favorite summer memories of visiting my family in Western New York are of watching the fireworks and the Light Show on the 4th of July–it’s a really creative way of preserving the past.