One Thing Leads To Another

The nature of almost human effort is that it grows branches. Sometimes the original effort dies and the branches continue. I was giving a tour of lower Manhattan to a colleague from Europe last week, and one of the buildings we looked at briefly is a 1910s skyscraper built by American Express. That company began, as the name suggests, in the freight delivery business. Delivering freight has a tendency to lead you towards some rudimentary forms of banking (What if the recipient is paying rather than the sender? What if the sender wants to pay in installments?) and eventually the freight business died off and only the banking remained. Another example that is reasonably well studied by historians but not so well understood by the public is the construction of all sorts of buildings by railroads. We expect railroads to construct stations for people and for freight, and maintenance buildings for the rolling stock, but they constructed a lot more. They built hotels, for example, and grain elevators.

The photo above shows Grain Elevators A and B of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in Newport News, Virginia. This picture was taken around 1906; in 1915 a fire leveled elevator A. The really famous grain elevators – the ones that modern architects “discovered” and promoted as “honest” buildings – were reinforced concrete. The most famous examples are in Chicago and Buffalo, but they are all over the place, including Brooklyn. The C&O elevators were constructed in the late 1800s, too early for American concrete practice, and appear to have been some combination of steel, masonry, and wood.

Railroads are in the transportation business, but transportation of both people and freight is inherently lumpy. People don’t all show up exactly at boarding time for a train and don’t necessarily all have someplace to go when they get off a train. So stations need waiting rooms and restaurants and toilets, and in extreme cases, stations need hotels built by the railroad to make the station viable or profitable. Similarly, grain deliveries don’t all happen just as the hopper cars are loading, and the cars can’t discharge to their final destination (ships for export, in the case of Newport News) on the other end the minute the train arrives. So having elevators for storage at both ends of the journey makes sense. In grain-producing areas, there may be many companies that want to build elevators; at a dock it’s going to be one of the two transportation companies: the railroad or the shipping line.

In other words, a transportation company will build structures not directly to transportation in order to make their main job easier.

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