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September 6: Grain Elevator Danger

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After the Erie Canal was built, farmers found it faster and cheaper to transport their grain. The improved transportation system led to mass production of grain. Over the next ten years, the amount of grain arriving in Buffalo, New York grew from just over one hundred thousand bushels to over two million. A new system was needed to store the grain. The answer was the grain elevator.

Inspired by steam-powered flour mills, Joseph Dart thought that system could be adapted to move grain. In 1842 he hired mechanical engineer Robert Dunbar to help. Dunbar’s construction was built on the Lake Erie shore, and in a few years, Buffalo became the largest grain port in the world.

North Dakotans took note, and local grain elevators began to spring up across the state, constructed next to railroad tracks. They were distinctive structures, towering over the flat Great Plains. They were sometimes referred to as “the People’s Cathedrals.”

Grain elevators, however, were dangerous places. Accidents were not uncommon. On this date in 1906, readers of the Hope Pioneer learned that local resident Ray Umstead had been injured while working at the local elevator, becoming tangled in one of the leather belts. Workers stopped the machinery, but not before the man’s leg was badly broken. The doctor hoped he could save the leg.

Umstead filed a lawsuit against the Farmer’s Elevator Company. The company was represented by a high-powered law firm, but Umstead’s lawyer won the day. Umstead was awarded $5,000 in damages.

Grain elevators remain inherently dangerous places. Grain dust is highly volatile. In 1913, an explosion at an elevator in Buffalo, New York injured at least fifty people. In 1977, New Orleans was rocked by a catastrophic explosion at the Continental Grain Elevator. The tops of the 250-foot towers were blown off in what remains the most devasting elevator explosion in the United States. And while not that extreme, North Dakota has experienced many grain elevator fires.

OSHA safety regulations have decreased accidents, injuries, and fatalities, but the operation of grain elevators still requires care.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher

The Hope Pioneer. “Gets Good Verdict.” Hope ND. 8/1/1907. Page 1.
The Hope Pioneer. “Umstead Injured.” Hope ND. 9/6/1907. Page 1.
AgHires. “Grain Elevators Invented in 1842.” Accessed 8/6/2022.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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