** Disclosure: Do Not Attempt Yourself. This excursion was not for the faint of heart or someone afraid of heights. Buffalo City Life does not endorse the performance of such events without proper supervision and guidance.**
This past spring I had the opportunity to take a visit to Cargill’s grain elevator. Slightly cold with winds whipping around, the outside feeling wasn’t that much different than what we experienced here last week. Although this was a new challenge for me, I decided to rise to the task and climbed right in.
The Grain Elevators’ History
If you are unaware, Buffalo’s grain elevators, which still stand tall, are a once-proud part of the city’s prosperous industrial history. They once stood for economic prowess, undeniable growth and the brink of innovation. However, as the years have come and gone, their time came and went. Today, they stand as ghosts – crumbling monuments and the faint hint of what once was.
Cargill, a company that still exists and makes billions of dollars in food processing commodities, once owned and operated this particular grain elevator, located just south of downtown Buffalo on the Buffalo River.
Take a trip on the water through elevator alley and you soon realize how much importance these former giants played in Buffalo’s opulence. From below, they look decrepit, hollow and mourning for better days, but beyond their outward appearance is an amazing story everyone should experience. They tower over the river, winding along from Buffalo’s Canalside to the final stop at Concrete-Central elevator right before Buffalo’s new and hopeful economic poster child, Solar City.
Exploring the Remnants
My exploration did not start or end with a trip along the Buffalo River, though. To my surprise and excitement, it went much more up close and personal than that. A friend asked me if I wanted to explore some of Buffalo’s abandoned buildings and get a glimpse of what they looked like from the inside. I could not pass up the opportunity.
So, we decided to head out and make our way over to Cargill’s. All he told me to bring were some clothes I did not mind getting a little dirty and jeans, so if I got a rip in my pants it wouldn’t be a huge deal. OK, no problem – couldn’t be that bad.
Once we started getting close to the pull off on Ohio Street, he told me to just stay on the path and not make any other turns. I was a little suspicious at first, but I had never ventured over here, either, so why would I question it? As we pulled up to Cargill’s, immediately the impressive sight took me back. The grain elevator looks like a scene from a horror movie or the most well-designed haunted house in Erie County. Either way, any normal person would be hesitant to just run right up to it and check it out.
I had two things working in my favor. One, my friend and guide had done this before, so I trusted his knowledge and confidence. Two, I signed up for this and couldn’t back out looking like a wimp, so we headed inside.
Getting Past Expectations
I had no idea what to expect. Would it be trashed, broken down and inhabited by homeless? I wasn’t sure, but I wanted to see what it looked like from the inside out. That was my goal. What did everything look like from this building’s perspective?
Inside, the walls are painted with graffiti. We saw all types of street art – from the simplest tags to thought-out, colorfully designed murals. It’s an amazing thing to see. Turn around another corner and you see rusted out gears, machinery and the tanks that used to make this thing move, work and produce. You realize the gravity of this place pretty quick. It’s an eerie sense of ghost-like proportions, but not in a haunted way. You can picture the scene from 90 years ago when these mighty grain elevators roared.
We continued our exploration upward, climbing a few ladders to get a few more levels up. Then, the trip took an unexpected turn for me. We were going higher, but there no more ladders, no visible stairs. How were we going to get up there? He walked me over to a former stairwell, but the stairs were missing. All that was left was the railings going higher and higher.
“Hey man, how are we going to do this?” I said.
“Just put your feet on the sides of the railings and pull yourself up,” he explained.
Easier said than done. I was nervous as hell, but once we finally got going, I found out it was not as physically difficult as it looked. Don’t get me wrong – the old adage, “don’t look down” still applied.
The Adventure of Reaching the Top
Finally, before I realized it, we were about seven or eight stories higher and I decided to look down. Without a doubt, one slip or misplacement of a foot or hand and you would fall to a not-so-pleasant ending.
We made our way to another level, the first where you could go and be outside. It was the roof of the silos. This lookout is where I wanted to be, and it didn’t disappoint. I had a perfect vantage point and could see for miles.
To the right was Central Terminal off in the distance, behind us was South Buffalo and Our Lady of Victory Basilica. Straight ahead was the Buffalo skyline with cranes up in multiple locations, adding to the horizon. Immediately behind us was the Tifft Nature Preserve, another reminder of what Buffalo has to offer. There are few places in the city where you can look out and see such a dichotomy of visuals. I felt very lucky in that moment.
Leaving the Storied Past, Seeing the Bright Future
I walked around the roof, where there were more, larger pieces of graffiti, and it was the strangest feeling. Here we were, sitting atop a ruin of Buffalo’s once-great past. Straight ahead were Buffalo’s present – the skyline, neighborhoods, waterfront and community.
The coolest thing to see was the cranes in motion. HarborCenter was still being erected, the Medical Campus was expanding. It was the future, the great symbols of progress we have been craving for so long.
There has been a lot said about what the construction cranes in Buffalo mean. Some say signs of hope, growth, development and money. That’s what I was looking at, but I was looking at it atop the old structures that stood for the same thing. It puts the culture of Buffalo in this unique position that other cities across America don’t experience. We face an amazing juxtaposition that allows our people to build a future and see a past simultaneously.
I hope others get to experience and see the same thing as I did that day – safely, of course.