Cuyahoga River’s last grain mill to close; mill’s fate uncertain

The Grain Craft Inc. flour mill located on the Cuyahoga River
and next to the Detroit-Superior Bridge is due to close in July,
leaving two dozen workers and the mill’s fate in doubt (NPS).
CLICK IMAGES TO ENLARGE THEM

The last grain mill left on the Cuyahoga River is due to close in July, leaving 24 workers to wonder about their employment future and the fate of the mill property. Those lost jobs include seven trucking and two railroad jobs who serve a mill that’s stood in the 1600 block of Merwin Avenue for more than 150 years.

According to an article published at World-Grain.com, Chattanooga, TN-based Grain Craft Inc., the largest independent flour miller in the nation, informed employees on April 22 that it will close its Cleveland operation at mid-year. The mill primarily grinds hard winter and spring wheat. Company officials said the mill has seen its business decline in recent years.

Grain Craft, which will no longer have any flour mills east of the Mississippi River and north of Tennessee/North Carolina, blamed the closure on “challenging market dynamics and long-term supply chain obstacles,” the World Grain article noted.

Ad.

Specifically, the company said access to the mill has become difficult. A source close to the situation but who was not authorized to speak publicly about it said Flats Industrial Railroad notified Grain Craft that it will no longer serve the flour mill after July.

The flour mill is the last of a dozen grain mills and one of the
few remaining large industries still operating along the north-
ern part of the Flats near downtown Cleveland. The surround-
ing areas are being redeveloped with housing, restaurants and
active sports and recreational facilities (KJP).

But there may still be a glimmer of hope for the mill, the source said. Grain Craft representatives reportedly reached out to the Ohio Rail Development Commission for assistance in keeping the railroad operational.

Since railroads are a public service industry, similar to a utility, they operate under state or federal certificates of convenience and necessity. Thus a railroad is legally obligated to provide service if a customer requests it. A railroad cannot legally withdraw an unprofitable service on its own. However, railroads sometimes intentionally provide such bad service that a shipper closes or turns to trucks.

Flats Industrial Railroad provides grain in bulk and at a lower cost than trucks can provide it. Without railroad service and with declining business, the mill would no longer be cost-effective to operate, the source said.

Also, the rail access relies on significant, aging infrastructure including a massive, 72-year-old movable steel bridge over the Cuyahoga River, linking the Scranton and Columbus Road peninsulas. The latter is where the flour mill is located.

Looking west on Merwin Avenue, the Grain Craft mill at right
and its offices at left cover several city blocks (Google).

The flour mill is the railroad’s dominant customer. The Flats Industrial Railroad also operates a sand transloading facility on Scranton Peninsula as a side business to switching cars to and from the flour mill.

Ad.

If the mill closure goes through, the company said it will provide financial assistance and outplacement services for employees affected by the closing. The Cleveland mill has a daily processing capacity of 476 tons of flour, according to World Grain, but is producing far less.

The mill is located on a site with remnants of an 1856 buhrstone mill. A rounded buhrstone has “teeth” carved into it to aid in crushing grains into fine powder. This mill facility has been operating since the 1870s although the oldest existing structure, a seven-story brick building, dates to 1882 according to a 2013 National Register of Historic Places filing. The 5×9 concrete grain elevators built in 1937 are about 155 feet tall, equal to a 14- to 15-story-tall building.

The entire Columbus Road peninsula was registered as an historic place. It was originally envisioned 200 years ago as a mixed residential and mercantile development called Cleveland Centre. Today it is the site of increased real estate investment and redevelopment activity centered around active sports including indoor and river rowing as well as a skate park.

Flats Industrial Railroad lift bridge over the Cuyahoga River,
located along Columbus Road in the Flats (Google).

According to the World Grain article, an important chapter in the mill’s history took place in 1972 when it was purchased by Fred Merrill from International Multifoods Corp. The Cleveland mill was Merrill’s starting point for the launch of Cereal Food Processors, Inc. (CFP) which eventually grew to become the fourth-largest milling company in the United States. CFP was bought in 2014 by Milner Milling and Pendleton Flour Mills and renamed Grain Craft.

Flats Industrial Railroad was started in 1996 by shipping investor Arthur Fournier Jr. of South Portland, ME. He acquired a former mainline track that became surplus under Consolidated Rail Corp. (Conrail). Previously, it was owned by Penn-Central Co., then New York Central Lines, which acquired the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis (Big Four) Railway.

The right of way, which runs from the Flats and through Walworth Run to the southwest, was Cleveland’s first railroad. Its development was shepherded by Cleveland’s first village president, Alfred Kelley who was also the father of the Ohio & Erie Canal. The canal established Cleveland as a major port city on the Great Lakes.

Map of Cleveland Centre in 1835 (WRHS).

But Kelley saw the future was in railroads and in 1847 he helped hand-build a stretch of railroad in Walworth Run in order to retain a state franchise charter for the proposed railroad that began operation in 1849.

Today, that same line serves as an industrial switching operation for major railroad Norfolk Southern Corp. (NS). Flats Industrial Railroad owns and/or operates 2.5 miles of track but owns another 2 miles of unused right of way that parallels a busy NS freight line to the southwest side of the city, near to West 91st Street and north of the Clinton Avenue industrial area.

Flats Industrial Railroad founder Fournier passed away in 2013. Three years later, ownership of the railroad in the form of stock went to his widow and four children. One of his children won a lawsuit in a Maine court in 2018 to affirm his standing in determining the value of his ownership interest in the railroad.

END