Today’s subject is the last grain elevator in Mortlach Saskatchewan. In the town there used to be many such structures and in now there is but one. Overlooking a busy railways line, it’s witness to many passing trains. The logos of both the last and that of the previous owner’s, the latter all faded and hard to make out, can be seen on the building’s side. Its current status is unknown, although it appears that it’s still being used to some degree or another, perhaps as a storage facility. Many old elevators are used in this way.
This “prairie sentinel” was the last of seven we’d explore this busy, busy day. We were on a whirlwind tour of the southwest comer of the province, taking in as many such buildings we could in the time we had (5 hectic days). This trip we also explored many ghost towns, old trucks and cars, historic bridges, railway lines and other things. Saskatchewan is a playground for folks like us.
The lineage of this elevator is somewhat spotty and incomplete and it took some time and a lot of phone calls to gather up the information needed to post this report. We spoke with a number of people in the know and most seem to agree that the structure was built around 1916. We were told by one source that the original owner was a company called Forbes Grain, or perhaps T Forbes Grain – they were not completely sure. Another stated that was wrong, although they could not say who owned it otherwise.
In the first decade and a half, the elevator passed through a number of hands. Companies mentioned include Warner Grain, the Dominion Elevator Company and the Canadian Consolidated Grain Company (CCGC). Some of these changes were due to sales, others the result of mergers. In the late 1950s CCGC was acquired by United Grain Growers, aka UGG, whose faded logo can still be seen on the side of the annex. Changes of ownership, as you can see by this example, were very common in the grain industry. It’s always been that way.
Finally, in the early 1980s, the building was acquired by Paterson Grain (officially NM Paterson & Sons or earlier NM Paterson and Company). They only operated it for a few years before it apparently was closed. Oddly however, on the Paterson website there is a Mortlach listing suggesting the building is still used by that firm. I guess for grain storage, as mentioned earlier.
It’s not known when the annex was built. These were a quick and easy (and cheap!) way to add extra capacity and nearly every elevator out there seems to have one or more of these ancillary
structures added to them at some point. Older examples and the most common style seen are wood-cribbed like this one, called balloon annexes, where as more modern ones are made up from metal bins.
It’s not known when the elevator last loaded grain cars. Various locals and those in the know we talked to seem to think it was in the late 1990s or early 2000s, although these same people said by that time the elevator had already been closed. Hmmm…info as you can see is a bit contradictory. That’s expected I guess and we’ll continue researching and will update if and when we know more. We also welcome input from our readers if they are experts on the subject.
On our visit some rail cars were sitting on the elevator siding. These are maintenance of way gondolas loaded with old and worn out ties. An excavator with a grapple hook, seen on the end car, is used to gather up the material. When a tie or group of ties is replaced along the line, they get thrown aside to be picked up later by a train made up of these cars. Loaded with nasty chemical preservatives, the ties then get taken away for proper disposal.
Paterson Grain was founded over a century ago. A somewhat modest player in the Saskatchewan (and Manitoba) grain industries, the company does and never did seem to have much of a presence in our own province of Alberta. They are is still active in the grain industry and own a number of large inland terminals and it appears (at least according to their website) they still use a number of smaller older wood elevators in more outlying areas. Like in Prelate, which we visited earlier this same day.
At one time there was a maximum of five grain elevators in Mortlach, most built in the first two decades of the twentieth century. These were for the most part gone by the 1990s, although one, a former Saskatchewan Wheat Pool facility, lasted until 2011 before it was sadly demolished. One of the other four elevators was an earlier Paterson facility.
As of 2014 there are over four hundred traditional wood-cribbed grain elevators extant in the province of Saskatchewan. That’s about the twice the number found in Alberta. Every year, we loose a few more. Interestingly, one online source makes mention that this elevator was due to be demolished in 2011. That never happened of course, thank goodness. I wonder if it’s still threatened? No one I talked to could say and emails and calls to Paterson have been thus far not been returned.
The track seen in front of the elevator is the CPR’s transcontinental mainline and dozens and dozens of freights pass by the building every day – unit coal and grain trains, mixed manifests and lots of fast moving intermodal movements including one that passed by as we arrived. We hoped to frame it with the elevator but were not quite quick enough. This line was built in the 1880s and this section is known as the Swift Current Subdivision.
The town of Mortlach was incorporated just over a century ago. Today it’s home to some two hundred and fifty people. Like many small towns on the prairies, it has shrunk over the years and in the past had a population much larger then today. We did not have time to stop, regrettably, to admire the very picturesque downtown. Something for next time.
A storm moved in as we arrived, making for some ugly dull grey pictures. I hate that!
To see some other Saskatchewan grain elevators we’ve explored, follow these links…
Prairie Sentinels – Pennant Saskatchewan.
Prairie Sentinels – Prelate Saskatchewan.
Prairie Sentinels – Leader Saskatchewan.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: May, 2014.
Location: Mortlach, SK.