In May of this year we found ourselves in southwest Saskatchewan. We were on a grain elevator tour, travelling far and wide in search of these fascinating prairie sentinels. In the short five days we had, we explored dozens of these structures and to fanatics like us, each was as exciting and interesting as the next. Included in that total is the pair seen here, found in Eastend Saskatchewan. Lovely blue skies made for some memorable photos and we had a great time documenting these historic structures.
The first elevator is fairly modern. Built in 1986 for the Pioneer Grain Company, it replaced a number of older facilities in town owned by that same firm. Steel framed, it was for the time a fairly advanced design, albeit a modest one in regards to capacity. In many ways however, it looks like a traditional late model wood-cribbed style elevator more then it does the much larger concrete or steel (or concrete and steel) designs of the 1990s and beyond.
Closed in the 2000s, the building is today owned by a group of farmers. It says Busse Brothers on its sides. It’s used as a producer car loading site – these are filled directly by a farmer or farmer’s group, bypassing any agents, brokers or commercial grain handlers. This saves the “producer” money. Often old and unwanted grain elevators are re-purposed this way, like what we see here.
A photo from 2006 shows it still painted in Pioneer Grain orange. Today, it’s cloaked in John Deere green and yellow.
There two loading tracks in front of the elevator. This allowed more cars to be filled quicker.
The 1980s was a transitional point for the grain handling industry and this structure is one of the last of the old layout elevators built before the wholesale switch to much larger inland grain terminals. The former, often located along sleepy branch lines, could load only a small number of cars at a time. The latter, almost exclusively located along railway mainlines and rarely in small towns like Eastend, can load dozens and dozens of cars in a single pass, if not a whole train’s worth.
This elevator has a bin annex put in place at some unknown date. These sort of additions were an easy and budget minded way to increase capacity.
Pioneer Grain, the company who originally owned this elevator, is a long time player in the Canadian grain industry. Today they are known as Richardson Pioneer. They still own elevators, but most are those huge inland terminals we spoke of earlier. During the switch over, they sold, demolished or abandoned most of their old style, small capacity elevators. Concurrent with that, most grain handling railway branch lines were pulled up.
Down the tracks is an older elevator, a former Saskatchewan Wheat Pool facility, built in 1958. It replaced, or some say was rebuilt from, an earlier elevator at this same location that dated from 1916. Today, it’s owned by a private individual, but it’s not clear if it’s used simply to store his grain, or if is also used to load railcars – the government lists two producer car loading sites at Eastend, so the latter is possible.
The original 1916 structure belonged to the Saskatchewan Cooperative Elevator Company, a farmer owned collective. That firm morphed into the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool (aka the SWP) in the mid-1920s. It was also farmer owned.
The “Pool”, as it was known, closed the facility in the early part of this century.
The two annexes seen are also from 1958. Interestingly more elevators we’ve explored, then not, have an attached annex of some sort. Older ones are typically wood, like this, whereas newer ones are steel like the one attached to that green elevator we just explored.
The SWP was at one time the largest grain handling firm not just in Saskatchewan, but the country as a whole. Nearly every town served by a railway in the province (and that was a lot) had an SWP facility. Today they are no longer farmer owned, nor do they go by their traditional name. They merged with some rivals in 2007 and from then to 2013 they were known as Vittera. The company has since been split up, its assets distributed amongst a number of other firms. Mergers and acquisitions are the norm in this biz.
The SWP rid itself of most small town grain elevators in the 2000s.
Each of the two elevators uses a different system to move cars about as they are loaded. The old SWP facility uses a traditional gravity style method. The siding has a slight grade and releasing the brake allows a car to coast down the track after it’s been filled. An arrow on the elevator, hard to see in our photo, tells the train crew which way the track slopes. The newer elevator uses a winch and cable system to do the same thing.
At one time there were several other elevators in Eastend. Most were built in the early years, so around 1916, or just after the railway came through. Firms represented include Alberta Pacific, Federal Grain and Pioneer Grain, along with some lesser known operators. A couple of the earlier elevators burned down – fire has always been a problem in the business – and one was subsequently rebuilt. By the late 1980s, only the two elevators we see today remained.
At one time there were thousands of grain elevators across the Saskatchewan prairies. Today, there somewhere between four and five hundred traditional ones left. Many are used to one degree or another, many others are abandoned. Each year we loose a few more.
The track seen was once a CPR branch line, built in 1914. This section was called the Altawan Subdivision (ALTA for Alberta and WAN from the end of Saskatchewan) and travelled west from Shaunavon, where it connected with another subdivision, through Eastend, before meeting up with another line west of the Alberta border. This section of track, in the late 1990s was sold to the Great Western Railway. The CPR, by that date was tired of running money loosing, or at best marginal, prairie branch lines. A private operator however, could turn a profit. The GWR still owns the track and I understand trains run a couple times a week. Sometimes more if business is brisk.
Back in the old days, as today, grain is the largest commodity hauled on this line in terms of volume. In addition, the GWR carries products related to the oil and gas industries. They also store surplus cars. Many railway served industries are cyclical in nature and in down times, the car owners need places to temporarily place them until they are called back to duty. A few tank cars, and some grain hoppers were seen on the second or middle elevator track.
Found near the elevators (on Railway Street no less – every town had a roadway so named) is a 1950s vintage International Harvester S Series pickup. The brand of truck was quite popular in rural areas as you could buy and service it at the same place you did your tractor.
Nestled in a picturesque valley, the town of Eastend is home to some five hundred people, and unlike many small Saskatchewan towns, has actually grown a bit over the last few years. It’s home to world class dinosaur museum.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: May, 2014.
Location: Eastend, SK.