Duluth’s Grainy Memories

The Concrete Age (1900-present)

Peavey Company

The grain world was focused on Minnesota when, in 1899, Frank Peavey—namesake of one of the largest grain companies in the world (also see Globe Elevator)—commissioned engineer Charles Hauglin to design the first circular concrete grain silo.

In 1900, the silo was completed in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and—in spite of the hundreds of onlookers gathered and awaiting an explosion—it was filled and emptied without accident. Hauglin knew that concrete silos would be cheaper to build and, obviously, much less flammable: this silo’s success signaled a sea change in elevator technology.

When Peavey wanted to build a new grain complex in Duluth, he purchased a large plot near Garfield Avenue on Rice’s Point called Grass Island. At the time there were a number of families, mostly Swedish-speaking Finnish immigrants, living nearby. They were soon displaced by construction crews, moving to houses along Garfield and in West End.

In 1900, the experimental silo design was copied onto Grass Island under the name Annex #1. It stood 112 feet tall and could hold a record-breaking 3.5 million bushels of grain, making the Peavey complex the first concrete terminal elevator in the world. Much of its capacity was owed to the fact that grain was not only kept in the tubular areas, but also in the star-shaped spaces between the silos; this way, every space that was not concrete could be used to store more grain.

1906 Peavey Elevator Fire

In February 1906, concrete was put to the test as the conventional elevator alongside the still-experimental concrete silos caught fire.

The 200-foot high flames never spread to the silos themselves while the nearby structure burned for four hours as firemen fought the flames in front of 10,000 spectators. Glass half a mile away cracked from the heat, and ice from the gushing fire hoses built up six feet thick around the outside of the glowing walls.

Newspapers tell of how, “with great labor… small openings were made [in the ice wall] and the hose thrust in.” The nearest fire hydrant was on Garfield Avenue, a half mile away, but, “…minutes after the water was available, six streams were playing on the flames” while the spectators, now numbering over one thousand, watched.

The elevator was destroyed, along with one million bushels of grain, mostly wheat. But the concrete silos of Annex #1 held. Though the silos had developed minor cracks near their tops, they were in good condition. As one reporter put it, “It was the first local test of concrete when exposed to terrific heat, and it may result in the use of more of it hereafter in grain elevator construction,” a prediction that would prove to be an understatement.

Burst Silo Incident

That is not to say that the experimental elevator was without fault. In December 1909, in fact, one of the interior bins of the elevator burst from the pressure of its contents, triggering several more ruptures. The domino effect culminated in a destructive wave of concrete mixed with 75,000 bushels of flaxseed cascading through the walls of Annex #1.

Upon inspecting the concrete, which was made with a gravel mix dredged from Lake Superior, wood chips and other organic material was found. Ultimately, this ‘foreign matter’ was blamed for the structural failure. Engineers recommended that the star-shaped sections between the bins be reinforced with concrete curtains, a solution that kept these Peavey silos out of the news for 40 years.

For Peavey, and the other Duluth elevators, business was good. As put by one Duluthian in the Saturday Evening Post on April 16, 1949,

“[Duluth’s] waterfront is occupied by rows of stately concrete grain elevators…and the value of the grain it handles is not far behind that of its ore. Only three American cities exceed its 50,000,000 bushels of storage capacity, and it is the chief handler of the Northwest’s spring wheat, flaxseed and the macaroni wheat, durum.”

Loading the First Salty

“Salty” is the nickname for oceangoing vessels that visit freshwater ports, and Peavey was the first elevator in the Twin Ports to load such a vessel, the Ramon de Larrinaga in 1959. Peavey was the oldest elevator standing in Duluth at the time.

Consolidated Elevator Co.

At the turn of the century, the future looked bright for the Zenith City, and 1900 was a very busy year for the Duluth grain trade. Not only did Peavey come to town with their fancy world-class elevator, but Lake Superior Elevator Co. and Union Improvement and Elevator Co. merged to become Consolidated Elevator Co. Suddenly, nine of the largest terminal elevators in the region—“B,” “C,” “D,” “E”, “F,” “G,” “H,” “I,” and Warehouse #1—were owned by one company, a Duluth company.

New “D” Rises

An early challenge for the new firm was a devastating fire that took “D” in late June, 1908. It exploded, without explanation, and burned intensely for two hours, and, while some workers were initially missing and assumed dead, they were later located.

While nobody was injured, the blaze did at one point threaten to curve around the slip. On the other side of that slip, a major sawmill linked Rice’s Point with the west side of downtown and a dense industrial district along the bay front. Threatened properties included the Zenith Dredge Co., Universal Flour, and Marine Iron and Shipbuilding.

Reports say, “Valiant work by a dozen tugboats, which aided the fire department is probably all that saved the bay front from being destroyed.” Looking at the historical maps and the chain of highly flammable industries between the elevator and downtown Duluth, however, it seems the potential costs were much greater.

Other than “D,” only one other property was lost, Northern Pacific Railroad’s No. 2 Freight House, which was positioned on the same slip as “D” a few hundred feet away. Today one can still find the pilings of this building in the harbor off the end of the slip.

Both the freight house and the elevator were rebuilt in 1909, and both remain today. Thus, the peninsula where “B” was built—the second elevator in Duluth—has apparently proven the most resilient location for a granary in the harbor. The new “D” has three annexes today, one built in 1909 and one on 1919. Today’s steel annex was built by General Mills.

General Mills

In 1943, General Mills bought the assets of Consolidated Elevator Co., and only wished to retain the more modern, more fireproof facilities. It soon sold most of Rice’s Point’s wooden elevators, including the distant “H” and “I”, to Norris Grain. General Mills began to improve “D” in the 1970s when five steel bins were added to the west side of “D” and ship loading machinery was brought up to date.

Consolidated “D” is now known as General Mills “A,” which is, in my opinion, the prettiest elevator in Duluth. Not only is it made from glazed fireproof tile seated on concrete, but it rises a perfectly proportioned 185 feet above the lake. Its curb appeal is made all the more fascinating by the fact that it shares the foundations of the 1884 “D.”

The big blue and white “A” on the side of the tile tower barely conceals the former “CONSOLIDATED” painted across it, as well as an early advertisement for Gold Medal Flour.

Capitol Burns Out

Capital Elevator didn’t build a concrete silo until 1917, when #6 would rise alongside an extensive cluster of storage tanks extending almost to the end of the slip. It is an imposing sight, and projects quite a different aesthetic than General Mills “A.” While other outdated grain storage facilities were demolished, Capitol #4 and #5 met a more dramatic fate.

On January 22, 1978, a worker patrolling the plant at 3:30 p.m. discovered a small fire below the wooden floorboards of the 80-year-old #4 and immediately called for help.

By the time firemen had arrived, most of the elevator was burning, and the effort shifted to saving #5 and an adjacent ore boat—the Harry L. Allen, a 550-foot long rig carrying thousands of gallons of fuel oil—was wintering adjacent to the elevator. When the firemen saw burning grain through the flaming bins, they feared a grain explosion and pulled back. It was a wise move: at 4:30 p.m., an explosion blew part of the roof off the elevator—the blast spread fire throughout the rest of the building.

When wind blew the blaze toward the deck of the Allen, firemen boarded her at immense personal risk. They moved to the blazing rear cabin and doused the flames as the wooden elevator began to rain flaming debris—a mix of burning wood chips and grain—around them. Just as the fire seemed to be contained, conditions at the elevator forced the firemen to evacuate. At 6:30 p.m., a large section of the elevator collapsed onto the Allen, finishing the chances of the boat being rebuilt.

Thankfully, there was no secondary explosion, and the elevator fire was contained and allowed to burn out. An annex to #6 was built on the footprint of #5 after the burnt shell of an elevator was removed.

Not all elevator related disasters were due to fires, however. In September 1915 the lake freighter Onoko departed from Capital with just under 100,000 bushels in its hold, bound for England. She was not far from Knife Island when engineers spotted a leak in the aft, below the engine compartment.

That leak turned into a flood that soon extinguished the boilers, leaving the vessel stranded and sinking.In less than an hour, the Onoko was resting on the bottom of the lake, 16 miles from the Duluth elevators. All men made it safely onto lifeboats and were picked up by Standard Oil’s Renown and brought back to Duluth.

At present…

Capitol #6 and its annexes still stand, boasting a capacity of  million bushels of grain. Capitol was absorbed by AGP in 1991, which operated the elevator for a decade, after which Riverland Ag purchased the property. Riverland now operates the facility under the name Duluth Lake Port and Storage. At the time of this writing, a simple drive past the property and a sharp eye will catch all of these company’s names in different signage near the gates.

Occidental Elevator Co.

If the name “Occidental” rings a bell, it may be because of the Russell-Miller Company, mentioned in another “Grainy Memory” article covering Minneapolis’ elevator district.

Between 1924 and 1925, Russell Miller built its Occidental Elevator beside the circa-1900 Peavey silos. Occidental could boast about it being the first totally electric grain elevator in Duluth; every elevator that preceded it was powered by steam. It was also the tallest elevator in the harbor, standing at 180 feet. A massive 1930 annex would add 2,000,000 bushels to its capacity. Peavey took over the complex in 1960 and had it razed in the early 2000s.

Closing Thoughts: Skylines Simpatico

The opening of the Duluth Ship Canal brought new waters to Rice’s Point, seeding the grain elevators that would rise for the next century. From those grains, silos like shoots of bamboo would burst from man-made peninsulas flanked by deep shipping canals dredged from the bottom of the Duluth-Superior harbor. The canal and the elevators pulled Duluth out of the Panic of 1873, creating a huge population boom in the 1880s that led to its reformation as a city. It was grain—and not iron ore—that acted as the foundation Duluth was originally built upon.

So the next time you find yourself near Garfield Avenue, look between the Duluth skyline and today’s elevator row and consider that the Zenith City would look much different had there not been a grain trade that caused the population boom of the 1880s and 90s that left us with remarkable landmarks buildings such as the Board of Trade, the 1889 City Hall, the 1890 Police Headquarters, Old Central High School, First Presbyterian Church, and countless others built during that time as well as the Alworth, the Medical Arts building, and many others that followed afterward.

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Story by Dan Turner. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Dan Turner. Or, visit Dan's website, http://substreet.org/.