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They’re Still There

The Last Of The Scoopers

Spring 1999 | Volume 14 |  Issue 4

THIRTY FEET BELOW AN OPEN HATCH IN THE grain carrier Kinsman Independent , at anchor in Buffalo, New York, men are in constant motion on a sea of wheat. Four of them stand in a corner of the 50-by-100-foot-long bin, alternately pulling and releasing ropes hanging down from overhead. Others catch and position 4-foot-wide metal shovels strung to ropes running overhead; the ropes pull the shovels the length of the hold, carrying wheat along with them. Still other men wield hand shovels and brooms to move wheat toward the paths of the big shovels. Altogether 13 men are working here.

These are the last of the scoopers, most of them doing a job that their forebears have done since it was invented when Lincoln was President. Their purpose is to get all the grain underneath them moved to where it can be scooped up by the marine leg, a 100-foot arm containing a conveyor system that hangs down into the ship’s hold from the General Mills grain elevator alongside.


The technology goes back to Oliver Evans, who in 1786 designed a fully automated flour mill. Powered by a complicated network of belts and shafts, it would take grain to the top of a building by an endless bucket-and-chain mechanism and then feed it downward through the various machines that would make it into flour. In 1842 a Buffalo businessman named Joseph Dart adapted Evans’s concept to build the first grain elevator. After the Erie Canal opened in 1825, Buffalo had boomed as the place where cargoes from lake ships had to be transferred to canalboats. Dart eased the resulting bottleneck by agglomerating grain storage towers and equipping them with Evans’s chainand-bucket lifting device inside a movable arm that could swing out and down into a ship. This was what he called a marine leg.

Once a ship was mostly empty, men had to climb in and shovel and sweep the remaining grain toward the leg. That work was partially automated in the 1860s, when three men in Buffalo came up with the idea of big shovels on ropes or chains. And there the technology remains today—at least on this one ship.

After the marine leg has pulled all the grain it can on its own, the scoopers descend. The four men in the corner of the hold clasp one hanging rope apiece; those ropes work clutch mechanisms to control forward and backward motion for the two shovels. Two more ropes looping down from above pull the shovels.

The rest of the men work by hand, aiming the two shovels toward higher grain, pushing and sweeping grain toward the shovels, and rehanging pulleys. When the job begins, the two shovels run the entire length of the hold. Ultimately the shovels sweep only the very last of the grain right around the leg.

Except for electricity replacing steam power and the shovels being made of lighter material, almost nothing has changed. Or at least nothing on the Kinsman Independent . Most bulk cargo ships everywhere now have fully automated self-unloaders. But in Buffalo conversion hasn’t been worth it. The volume of grain coming in has plummeted since the 1950s, when the St. Lawrence Seaway system enabled ships to bypass the port. The only grain that arrives now is destined for local mills.

The Kinsman Independent is the Great Lakes’ last working non-self-unloader. It is also George Steinbrenner’s last commercial vessel, all that remains of the shipping empire his great-grandfather started. And few scoopers remain to do the now occasional work. Local 109 of the Grain Shovelers’ Union, AFL-CIO, has about 75 members. Most have other jobs. “You can’t live on what we make,” Fred Brill, the local’s president, says. “The ship only comes in every couple of weeks. We had 500 members once.”

The union hall is a room in a house nearby with an aging green linoleum floor, a newspaper photo of a winking Steinbrenner over the bathroom door, and a REMEMBER IRELAND bumper sticker on the front door. “Scoopers were always Irish,” Brill says. “My great-grandfather worked the guidelines in the hull. My father scooped for 35 years. It’s a long tradition around here.

“It’s very tough work. Everything happens faster than it looks from on deck. The shovels weigh about 60 pounds and move 20 miles an hour. I’ve always been surprised more people aren’t hurt.

“We’re witnessing the tail end of it. When I started as a scooper in 1970, the old-timers told me there were maybe five years left. They’re finally installing equipment to handle self-unloaders in Buffalo now. We just hope Steinbrenner can keep it going a little longer.

“It’s very difficult work, but when it goes, it will be a big loss for everyone in it.”

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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