By Roz Hamlett, Portfolio Editor
What’s the story on that abandoned grain elevator in Red Hook at the foot of Columbia Street, adjacent to the Erie Basin, at the mouth of the Gowanus Canal – the one that looms off the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway as a reminder of a different American economic era? After all, a massive 12-story, 430-foot-long grain terminal with silos reaching into the sky didn’t just grow in Brooklyn without good reason, . . . right?
This once magnificent, but doomed Grande Dame of grain terminals is a throwback to the years of the Industrial Revolution (1840 – 1920) on Brooklyn’s waterfront. Once the heyday ended, the terminal was constructed and transferred eventually to Port Authority ownership for 50 years or so from 1944 to 1997, and even managed to generate a profit for a few years.
Alas, not even the Port Authority could salvage the terminal when the barge canal system on which it depended collapsed. Looking back, it’s so easy to read the handwriting on the wall as far back as the 1900s when the original Erie Canal ambitiously was expanded.
So here’s the back story on the New York Port Authority Grain Terminal. . .
To fully grasp what happened, you have to understand the building of the original Erie Canal in 1825 was the first real game-changer in this region. There were no railways yet. No steamships. New York City depended entirely on quadrupeds for food and supplies – that’s horses, donkeys, mules, oh my.
The Erie Canal solidified NYC’s place as economic powerhouse and the financial capital of the world. The canal transported thousands of barrels of grain a day from America’s heartland through the Port of New York. (New Jersey’s glory port days would come later with containerization starting in the mid-20th century.) Other ports like Montreal, Philadelphia and gulf ports such as New Orleans and Galveston couldn’t compete.
Throughout the rest of the 19th century, New York invested heavily to modernize an aging and narrow Erie Canal with a new expanded system of canals.
Fast-forward to 1922: That was the year New York built the grain terminal to serve the new Barge Canal system, which unfortunately by then already was struggling along at a fraction of its capacity – one million bushels of grain compared to 30 million bushels during its heyday in 1880.
“Why on earth would we do that?” a reasonable person might ask, when the canal system was already underwater?
Because the two existing grain elevators in New York City were owned by the railroad, which denied storage privileges to barge operators. The barges would sit for weeks swollen with grain waiting for steamships to carry the cargo across the Atlantic or down the East Coast.
New York’s answer to the dilemma: Build the biggest, most bodacious grain terminal anywhere in the world, what else? Why, a new terminal could move 200 million bushels of grain a day! Giant steamships could take on massive grain, and come and go practically in the wink of an eye!
Yet it soon became painfully clear that the grain terminal would never be as successful as first imagined. On the terminal’s opening day, then-New York Governor Nathan Miller made the most of the magnificent boondoggle remarking, “Even if the barge canal were never used in normal times, it’s a good thing to have in case of emergencies.”
Now under private ownership having been divested by the Port Authority, plans discussed include reusing it as a recycling plant, a concrete storage facility and a movie studio. But for now, the building sits abandoned, an aging but fascinating monument to an earlier age of commerce.