Nine in a line – a vanished skyline

Prairie Sentinels

The tall silhouette of a wooden grain elevator on the horizon once symbolized rural landscape across the prairies. “Against open space,” in the words of distinguished American photographer Frank Gohlke, “grain elevators were the presence against which that emptiness could be measured.”

A long row of eight elevators had been built at Vulcan by 1924 and provided a backdrop for this harvest scene at Vulcan. (Glenbow Archives, ND-8-218).

A long row of eight elevators had been built at Vulcan by 1924 and provided a backdrop for this harvest scene at Vulcan. (Glenbow Archives, ND-8-218).

Early Elevator Row

In 1891, the Calgary and Edmonton Railway built Siding 19, soon to be named Leduc, on the west side of its mainline. The length of the siding—long enough to build a row of six elevators—showed the railway’s faith in the district’s grain growing potential. By 1905 a row of three elevators lent a vertical silhouette across the tracks from the station. The first grain company to build at a new siding tried to choose the best position for attracting customers, and for loading cars with the greatest ease. Each elevator had sufficient space on the siding to load two grain cars. Elevator construction along the Calgary and Edmonton railway set a pattern followed across Alberta as main lines and branch lines slowly spread their reach.

As elevator rows developed they created a varied sky line: there was considerable difference in size and shape of elevators built from the 1890s to the 1920s. After 1920 many of the early variants were replaced and grain companies built traditional elevators with a gable roof and a gable roofed cupola on top. Wood clad elevators were almost always painted CPR red, and what differentiated each company’s elevator was its name (and its logo, if it had one) painted high up on the walls, emblazoned in white along with the name of the town. In contrast, metal clad elevators were galvanized or painted white.

Elevators Everywhere

Competition between the grain companies resulted in the rapid emergence of rows of elevators at the most significant grain delivery points. By 1911 there were 142 sidings with grain elevators, and 43 of them had three or more elevators. Carstairs, High River and Nanton, along with Edmonton and Calgary, had five elevators, while Westaskiwin had six. Eight years later, in 1919, the total number of elevator delivery points in the province totalled 334, of which 150 had three or more elevators. Barons had emerged as the point with the longest row of elevators, with eight, followed by Nanton with seven. A number of towns had six: Blackie, Bow Island, Carmangay, Chinook, Claresholm, Cluny, Gleichen, Granum, Magrath, Oyen, Provost, Vulcan, and Youngstown. Edmonton and Calgary also had six. The points with the largest elevator capacities were mainly in the wheat-growing area of the southern part of the province, but by the 1940s as farming thrived in the Peace River country, impressive rows evolved at Sexsmith and Grimshaw.  Vulcan in southern Alberta however, holds the record for the longest row—12 elevators in 1956.

The elevator row became a towering beacon for Alberta’s growing hamlets, villages, and towns with bustling commercial main streets and residential areas. Through the 1950s into the 1960s a long unbroken row symbolized prosperity. A town with five elevators rather than three had a more lucrative tax base and better services, all of which could be traced back to its life line—the railway.

Barons, 1913. (Glenbow Archives, NA-2059-27)

Barons, 1913. (Glenbow Archives, NA-2059-27)

Elevator Consolidation Begins

From the 1960s, as paved highways increasingly linked Alberta’s major towns with hamlets and rural districts, and one railway station after another closed in smaller centres and on branch lines that were being abandoned, farmers chose to take their business to larger centres. Farmers benefitted from the competition between elevators at larger centres, and grain companies closed more isolated grain buying points due to loss of business, the threat of further branch line closure and changes in car allocation rules. Grain companies consolidated their elevators making for longer rows at fewer points. Towns that had secured multiple elevators flourished; the more elevators in a town, the greater its prestige and the better its prospects for business and further development seemed to be.

All the Colours of the Rainbow

It was in the 1960s that elevator row began to take on the appearance that many of us remember. The grain companies repainted their elevators when the CPR red began to fade. First came white, adopted by the United Grain Growers. A splash of colour marked the beginning of modern company branding. First came white, adopted by the United Grain Growers. Pioneer Grain Company first painted the shingled roofs of their elevators yellow, and then in 1962 went for bright orange on the elevator walls, complemented by yellow roofs. The story goes that on the Victoria Day weekend in 1962 as a Pioneer engineer and his wife toured the countryside, she suggested orange (the colour of her pants that day) would cheer up the appearance of the elevators on the landscape. The company agreed to the experiment and the first dazzling orange elevators on prairie rows surprised everyone. Federal Grain adopted white by the time it took over Alberta Pacific Grain (1943) Ltd. in 1968. The Alberta Wheat Pool adopted a turquoise green colour, which slowly dominated the rows after 1972 as AWP took over Federal Grain in 1972, painting all the white Federal elevators turquoise-green as well. Parrish and Heimbecker adopted a mustard colour in 1976.

The Fall of the Sentinel

More change came to elevator row as the grain companies began to replace ageing elevators with larger single and double composite elevator designs in the 1970s. The sky line began to transform as holes began to appear in the great Alberta rows. By the 1980s elevator row was gap-toothed. Grain companies rapidly consolidated business on sidings where there was enough room to fill more grain cars at one time. Then in 1995 the federal government ended the Crow Rate that subsidized freight rates to the port terminals, and deregulated the railways in 1996. The economy of scale changed. In 1997 there were still major rows of elevator complexes that sometimes included an older elevator as an annex: six at Hussar, six at McGrath, six at Sexsmith, five at Standard, four at Arrowood, and four at Champion and finally seven at Warner. The same year, scores of unwanted elevators, many remnants of once proud rows began to fall. Finally, at the turn of the 21st century, operating grain elevator rows were completely replaced by large inland concrete terminal silo-style structures. Warner is an aberration: with six of its original traditional elevators (forming four elevator complex facilities) still standing and used to handle the local mustard crop, it is a significant legacy of a vanished skyline.

Written by: Judy Larmour.

5 comments

  1. It is a major travesty that thousands of the iconic buildings have been lost from Eastern BC to Manitoba. Everytime I hear another elevator coming down, I get depressed thinking we have lost another part of our Canadian Heritage.

    Jim A Pearson
    Vanishing Sentinels
    Drumheller, Alberta

  2. My Dad was the last CPR Station Agent posted in Vulcan, I grew up in the station. Some years ago while studying architecture, I was posted in Washington DC for a year, running student programs for the American Institute of Architects. In driving from Calgary out east, I passed row upon row of grain elevators. That memory really stuck in my brain as a reminder of Alberta. It made me feel very homesick. I had this odd feeling that I might never see the elevators again. Then, out of blue, the mail delivered the current issue of Architecture Minnesota – with a cover photo of Vulcan! It was comforting for the rest of my term of office.

    1. Thanks, Darrel. As a child, I remember many of the grain elevators on the route my family took from Calgary to visit my grandparents in Saskatchewan. They’re mostly gone now.

      Do you happen to remember the issue of Architecture Minnesota that you refer to? We might want to track that down. Thanks.

      1. November December 1983. In Chicago, I wrote a column about architecture / planning / transportation for a newspaper that was distributed at commuter train stations, those columns were added to my blog: http://babuk.com/?p=769 which hasn’t been updated in a while.

        The front cover photo extended onto the back cover as well, going just up to where the station would have been. The cover story was a photo essay of wooden grain elevators, mainly Canadian: Vulcan, I recall Champion or Barons, and Maple Creek. One town in Montana as well.

        About ten years ago, I contacted AIA Minnesota, who publish this magazine, and spoke with the editor of this issue. He didn’t think that they had any back issues. If I have this scan, I may have this issue, but I’m thinking that it fell victim to one of our many floods in Chicago. I will look.

        Thanks for the follow up.

        Darrel

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