The Northern Central Elevator, completed in 1922 but with parts that dated back to 1905, was lauded for both its scope and its modernization of the process of importing, storing, and exporting grains. The Northern Central Elevator had a staggering capacity for five million bushels and was built almost entirely of concrete, so as to minimize areas in which dust could collect. It was the largest elevator on the East Coast, and boasted a number of extraordinary features including massive freight unloaders that could pick up railcars full of grains and tilt them about to empty out their cargo. The list of features was breathlessly described in the article “More Than Modern, The Northern Central Elevator at Baltimore: A Structure That Is Ahead of the Times” by Jay Williams, and included a facility-wide phone system that could automatically activate the emergency response systems.
Northern Central Railroad sold the silos to Central Soya in 1970, and President Carter’s 1980 grain embargo against the Soviet Union for their invasion of Afghanistan drastically reduced the grain export business. Central Soya became Mississippi River Grain Inc., which was then sold to ConAgra Inc. in 1994 when the Italian holding company that owned Mississippi Grain collapsed and was forced to liquidate its assets. By this time the grain shipment industry had been relocated from the East Coast to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. ConAgra decided the Northern Central Elevator would remain closed after the sale, and so the building was left abandoned for over a quarter of a century.
When I visited the Northern Central Elevator in 2019, demolition of the silos was already underway but most of the main building remained intact. Filthy water the color of stout beer poured through the building, forming disgusting, foamy pools on the floor and leaking down from stairwells and holes in the ceiling. Keeping my camera lens dry was a challenge, and I felt like I had been soaked in sewage after I left. It was not an entirely bad experience, however: for example, the pipes inside were like nothing I’d ever seen. They stretched from the floor to the ceiling at odd angles, resembling vast steel arteries. The view from the top of the building was satisfying, and the blackened, monolithic exterior seemed more like something from a half-remembered dream than a real building. Demolition of the site concluded in 2021, with no future plans for the property that I am aware of as of this writing.
Matthew Christopher MD Baltimore Jan 31, 2022 History