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Prairie wood-crib grain elevator (2002)
A prairie icon

Federal Grain Elevator at Clearwater, MB

Railways, inextricably linked to the development of agriculture in the great North West, brought considerable change to the virgin plains of the western interior. They provided the means for settlement on a large scale. Further, settlers were no longer compelled to freight in their provisions by wagon overland over long distances. Railways were the vital link for the community, taking the agricultural produce of the region to market and bringing in the necessities of life that could not be produced locally.

Alberta Wheat Pool elevator at Big Valley, AlbertaThe typical prairie town was a collection of unpainted false-fronted clapboard business and wood-frame houses huddled around a railway depot and dominated by one or more grain elevators.

The vertical grain elevator — of wood crib construction — was proven to be the most efficient means of handling grain. The concept was imported into Canada from the United States.

As in the United States, lacking the capital to develop the grain handling system, the Canadian railways relied on elevator companies to erect and operate line-side grain elevators. In the early 1900s, a yearly production of 35 000 bushels (950 t) in a district was considered the absolute minimum threshold for the establishment and economic operation of a grain elevator. The standard granary of the period had an average capacity of 25 000 bushels (680 t). This had increased to 30 000 (820 t) and 35 000–40 000 bushels (950 t to 1090 t) by the 1910s and 1920s, respectively. In the early 1930s elevators of 60 000-bushel (1600 t) capacity were being constructed. The capacities of rural elevators were also increased, either by rebuilding or by constructing annexes.

Saskatchewan Wheat Pool elevator at Floral, SaskThe number of elevators at a given station was usually a good indicator of the fertility of the surrounding area, and the community’s importance and economic well-being. At its peak in 1938, there were 5758 licensed elevators in western Canada. Most survived the mergers and consolidations of the elevator line companies in the following years. But after the abolition of the Crow’s Nest Pass Grain Rate Subsidy in the late 1980s, the number of grain elevators and grain delivery points has dwindled at a rapid pace. The resulting rationalization of the western grain handling system has seen the large-scale removal of line-side elevators and the consequent devolution of many rural towns.

Grain Elevators at Roblin, ManToday, few of the surviving wood-crib elevators remain operational; most are museums or have been acquired by private interests for storage, on or off their original sites. Although now relegated mostly to the pages of history, the grain trade in the West will always be symbolized by the prairie sentinel, the wood-crib elevator.

 

An early Grain Elevator at Viking, AB


Photos: 1,2 & 3 - Shawn Smith; 4 & 5 - CN

 
    © 2006 The Canadian Railway Hall of Fame. All registered trademarks are the property of their respective owners.