Weekly Feature

2014-07-30 / Lifestyles

River tour shows off Buffalo’s historic side


The Agway, or GLF Elevator, sits on the bank of the Buffalo River as a symbol of the waterway’s history. The Agway, or GLF Elevator, sits on the bank of the Buffalo River as a symbol of the waterway’s history. Across from the popular Canalside venue in downtown Buffalo stands a gold mine of local history.

While many know of the Cheerios aroma wafting through the city, fewer know of the history behind the historic grain industry buildings along the Buffalo River.

Due to the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, Buffalo suddenly flourished as a large center of grain traffic, processing more than 2 million bushels a year by 1841. In 1842, Joseph Dart built the first steam-powered grain elevator on the Buffalo River to help process the incoming and outgoing grain, which was previously loaded and unloaded by hand. Dart’s elevator catapulted Buffalo into position as the top grain port in the world.

“[The elevator] was really the key factor of Buffalo becoming the Queen City,” said Lorraine Pierro, president of the Industrial Heritage Committee. “It was really the beginning of Buffalo. That whole area lived right on the waterfront.”

The Great Northern Elevator received grain shipments on the City Ship Canal. This photo was taken circa 1900. The Great Northern Elevator received grain shipments on the City Ship Canal. This photo was taken circa 1900. The Industrial Heritage Committee, a nonprofit organization, was formed 29 years ago with two purposes: to help with the waterfront planning in downtown Buffalo and to give people a perspective of the Buffalo River and its deep history. The committee has performed a number of riverboat tours every summer since its beginning. The tours originally traversed the Buffalo River using small motor boats that held five people.

“The tours were only intended to go for a short time, but they kept selling out,” Pierro said. “We wanted to show the public what is down there. Most people who have taken our tour said that they’ve been in the area all their life and had no idea about the history of what was down there.”

In 1989, Pierro made the decision to switch from the motor boats to forming a partnership with Buffalo Harbor Cruises to use its larger Miss Buffalo sightseeing passenger boats. The double deck Miss Buffalo boats have the capacity to accommodate approximately 200 people, with the capability of playing music and videos through screens and a speaker system to enhance the tour.

“People thought I was crazy when I made the switch,” Pierro said. “It sold out, though, and we had to put three more tours on the schedule.”

The two-hour, multimedia tours begin with introduction material about the Erie Canal. The tour then continues down the Buffalo River and shifts its focus to the rich history of the many wood, tile, steel and concrete bin grain elevators and mills on the waterfront.

“A lot of cities capitalize on their history, like St. Louis and the arch, or Pittsburgh and the steel industry, so why shouldn’t we?”

Although the grain buildings are dated and some are abandoned, activity is still strong on multiple sites.

“Most people think that nothing goes on anymore, but it’s not true,” Pierro said.

Two major operations still thriving on the Buffalo River are a General Mills plant, the source of the Cheerios smell downtown and supplier of Gold Medal flour and multiple cereal brands to the northeastern United States and eastern Canada, and Archer Daniels Midland, which produces about 4 million pounds of flour per day for companies such as Pillsbury.

The grain district attracts attention from many countries that consider it an architectural accomplishment. Many international students come to Buffalo to study the elevators and learn the importance of their invention.

While the grain industry is an international attraction for some, it’s also family heritage and background for others. Many families in Buffalo, and even present employees of plants on the river, connect their family history with the history of the grain industry.

“[The history] is important to know on so many levels,” Pierro said. “It imparts a sense of place and history, which is like no other place on earth. You need to know where you come from as a city before we can know where we’re going.”

The next boat tour is scheduled for 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2.

To make reservations, call 856-6696, or for more information, visit www.buffaloindustrialheritage.com. Tickets cost $18 for adults and $12 for children 4 to 11. They are free to younger children.

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