The grain elevator seen here is located in the tiny hamlet of Admiral Saskatchewan. It’s the biggest thing for kilometres around and stands out not only because its unique, it’s the last of it’s kind in town, but also due to its large size and bright orange colour. You can’t miss it! Happily, the building is still used today and sitting on the elevator siding is a string of rail cars which appear to have been recently loaded. A fully functioning traditional style wood-cribbed grain elevator in 2014. Wow, now that’s something pretty rare!
This building dates from 1967 (some reports say ’66) and replaced an earlier structure that was destroyed by fire. In fact this is the third elevator to stand at this very spot. The first was built in 1915 and burned down two years later. The second lasted from 1917-1966 before it too met a similar fate. It’s not known what caused each fire. Lightning maybe? I know of many elevators lost this way.
As far as wooden grain elevators go, this one is a biggie, much larger then the earlier elevators it replaced. It has a huge annex which most seem to agree was built in 1977. This sort of addition was an easy way to increase capacity. The elevator went through some sort of rebuilding in the mid-1990s according to some locals I spoke with.
The structure is painted in the company colours of Pioneer Grain, who once owned the elevator (and all the previous ones at this same spot). It closed in the late 1990s. At one time Pioneer had two other elevators in town. Both were built in 1914 and passed through a number of hands (Federal Grain was one owner you may recognize) before being purchased by the company in the early 1950s. Both closed in the 1980s and presumably were torn down not long after. By the way, it was not unusual for a company to have more than one facility at any one loading point. There are many reasons for this, which are beyond the scope of this article.
In 2001 this elevator was purchased by a private individual or company (called Admiral Grain) and ever since has been used as a “producer” site. What’s that? Simply, it’s where grain is loaded directly into cars by a farmer or farmers, bypassing any agents, brokers or larger scale commercial grain handlers. Producer sites are often simple operations, a few grain bins and a loading auger. Other times operators will reuse old elevators, like what’s been done here.
It’s so nice to see the structure still being put to use.
Among the rail cars seen are some old government grain hoppers – two are visible in our pictures – the one with the wheat sheave symbol and the other with the large Canada lettering. Using taxpayer’s money, these were built in the 1970s and 80s during times when there were grain car shortages. Originally numbering just over thirteen thousand, the fleet has shrunk to around nine thousand cars today.
You may ask, how do we know the grain cars are loaded? Not easily seen in our photo is an arrow on the side of the elevator, it points to the right (so east). The railway siding has a slight slope in that direction. Empties are spotted up-slope of the arrow (so to the left of the building in this case) and as each car is loaded the brakes are released allowing the next car to move under the loading spout. By the time the last car is loaded, all are to the right of the arrow. Like these ones.
Gravity assist such as this was common during the small town grain elevator era but rarely seen today. Most facilities now use some form of winch and pulley system to move cars one at a time under the loading area. Others may use a tractor to push the cars, whereas very large facilities may have an attendant locomotive or specialized railcar mover.
At the peak there were a total of five grain elevators in town. Beside the three we’ve already spoken of, two others once belonged to the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool (via some earlier companies). One was gone by the 1930s but the other was the second last elevator to stand in Admiral and was only demolished in the the early 2000s. That last SWP dates from 1967 and replaced an earlier building on the same land that was destroyed by fire. You recall the Pioneer that burned down? The fire spread to the SWP facility, destroying it too.
Pioneer Grain is a long time player in the industry. Today they are known as Richardson Pioneer. Mostly they operate large inland grain terminals built in the last couple decades, In outlying areas they still own and run a few small wooden grain elevators, but for the most part have divested themselves of this style of facility. The bright orange seen is their company colours. You could always spot a Pioneer elevator, even far off.
At one time there were thousands of wooded grain elevators, much like this one, across the Saskatchewan prairies. This example is one of just under five hundred left. Yikes!
The railway seen in front came through Admiral in 1913 and used to belong to the CPR. Along here it was that company’s Shaunavon Subdivision. This line meandered across southwest Saskatchewan, connecting with a larger number of grain branches that headed off in every direction of the compass. Most of these are now gone.
Like many lines that relied mostly on grain for traffic, it was by the 1990s at best a marginal operation. It was put up for sale and since since 2000, the tracks has been owned by the Great Western Railway. A small efficient short line operator they could make a go of it where the big company could not. The GWR operates several hundred kilometres worth of track in the area. I understand that trains operated a couple times a week on average.
In addition to grain, the Great Western Railway also carries products related to the petroleum industry. They also store surplus rail cars, a profitable sideline I understand.
Admiral was founded in the early 1910s, just before the railway came through. Today it’s home to perhaps a few dozen people. In the past, it was a bustling place and much, much bigger then it is today.
Thanks to pro photographer John Sharpe who’s been teaching me Lightroom and who assisted in the processing of these images.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: May, 2014.
Location: Admiral, SK.