Full paper–Chicago’s Grain Elevators, 1838-1957

Santa Fe Elevator, Damen and the Chicago River,

It’s small beer compared to everything else going on in the world today, but I’m pleased to report that “Chicago’s Other Skyscrapers: Grain Elevators and the City, 1838-1957” will be in print in the next issue of the Journal of Urban History and is online now on SAGE Journal’s website (possibly requires registration and/or subscription…the raw version is here on ResearchGate and here on Academia.edu).

This has been a happy rabbit hole over the last five years or so–a chance discovery of a paper on concrete grain elevators from 1902 left me curious about what a non-fireproof elevator might have looked like, and the mention of Chicago engineers’ and contractors’ roles in perfecting both timber and concrete elevator construction led me to dig into the history of elevators in the city. I can’t claim to be the first one to be interested in these–agricultural historian Guy Lee and environmental historian William Cronon have both pointed out the importance of elevators to Chicago and the midwest. But neither of their histories looked at the construction of elevators themselves, and neither presented a comprehensive study of elevator construction and operation during the era.

So, while this has been something of a running joke among colleagues and friends (‘you’re studying what?’ has been a common refrain), the finished paper is one that I’m particularly happy about, because it demonstrates many of the same lessons that Chicago’s ‘real’ skyscrapers have done–that buildings can be thought of as the resultants of complicated networks of economics, finance, politics, and geography (among others), that the actual fabric of building can be interpreted to reveal broader narratives about who built them, where their material came from, and why they were built, and that zooming out and looking at building types over time inevitably suggests that they evolve in a process similar to what Steven Jay Gould called “punctuated equilibrium,” in which long periods of stasis are ‘punctuated’ by moments of rapid adaptation and change–speciation, in the world of paleobiology.

Concrete Elevator construction on the MacDonald System. From the astonishingly comprehensive Milo S. Ketchum, C.E., The Design of Walls, Bins and Grain Elevators.  (2d ed., New York: Engineering News Publishing Company, 1911).

The change from tiber elevator construction to concrete is a clear example of this–nearly every grain elevator in the country before 1900 was built out of timber, and nearly every one after was made of concrete. There are good reasons for this at the macro-level (fire, e.g., meant that elevator builders were constantly looking for ways to build in anything but timber), but it also demonstrates the importance of innovation–three experiments in particular, in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis, around the turn of the century provided proof-of-concept, and a patented system of construction (sort of an early version of slip-forming) meant that within ten years it was not only more effective to build out of concrete, it was also cheaper and faster. Instant speciation and the birth of a new, now-ubiquitous type, the concrete elevator.

While this all makes for a great case study in construction history, elevators also, like commercial skyscrapers, tracked the growth and development of Chicago and its infrastructure–but on a larger scale. Their reliance on rail and water connections meant that they sprung up wherever these two transport systems connected–first along the main branch of the River, and then farther south as better rail connections were built to the west. An elevator complex on Goose Island rose in response to rail connections to the particularly rich grain belt of the northwest–Minnesota and the Dakotas. And, finally, when new harbor facilities at Calumet replaced those of the congested main branch, the elevator industry moved, wholesale, to take advantage of better facilities there.

Chicago River, ca. 1890. New York Public Library Digital Collections

So, lots of resonance with familiar themes. And, fortunately, some really fascinating anecdotes that involve corruption, skullduggery, and construction as financial weaponry. Some of the city’s best known figures had unexpected–but, in hindsight, obvious–connections to the elevator industry, in particular meatpacking titan P.D. Armour, who entered the grain trade almost as a hobby and emerged as one of the city’s most feared commodities buccaneers. Elevators and the fortunes they represented also underlay some of the city’s great institutions and monuments, and names from the industry now appear on Chicago landmarks ranging from IIT to Buckingham Fountain and the Art Institute.

An enjoyable ride, in other words. I’m back more or less full time on those ‘other’ skyscrapers now, but this has been a fruitful interlude…


Calumet Terminal Elevator (Armour Grain Co., Chicago and Northwestern), the “largest single unit grain elevator in the world.” 122nd St. and Calumet River. John S. Metcalf, 1917. [Concrete Engineering and Cement World].

One thought on “Full paper–Chicago’s Grain Elevators, 1838-1957

  1. Great job to document the elevators from the architectural side of things, and interesting to see the attention Adler and other Chicago architects of the day paid to their construction.

    A footnote to Leiter’s misadventure in trading is that he owned the land where the Schlesinger & Mayer/Carson, Pirie, Scott store eventually stood. The business scheme gone bad is said to have forced his sale and made the southeast corner of State and Madison available. Executives at Marshall Field and Company helped facilitate the transaction, intended to benefit Field’s personal interest by adding to State Street’s profile as a retail district. And Louis Sullivan got a plum commission.

    Liked by 1 person

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