There were once many grain elevators in Alliance Alberta, now there is but one, a huge structure built in the 1950s. It sits alongside an active railway line and while we believe the building was in use up until recently, its current status is to us a bit of an unknown. Join us as we explore this fascinating piece of history.
At the peak there were over seventeen hundred wooden grain elevators in the province of Alberta. The oldest dated from the early 1900s, the newest, from the 1980s (amazingly, the design remained fairly constant the whole time). Now there are just over a couple hundred left. The majority were lost in the last twenty years, most during the great grain elevator massacre of the late 1990s, and have since been replaced by large inland terminals located (far apart) at strategic locations.
A small number of surviving wooden elevators are still being used as they were designed for; to load rail cars. Some are owned by private individuals or farmers and are used to store grain, seeds or fertilizer. A few have been incorporated into museums, some are simply abandoned. Many, like this one, are in some sort of limbo. They’re not being used, but are still owned by someone or some firm and simply remain in place, their future uncertain.
Many wooden elevators, regardless of their status, are threatened. Shoot them while you can.
This main structure dates from 1957. It has one large annex, but we’re not sure when it was added. The elevator was built for the Alberta Wheat Pool (AWP) and joined a couple others in town belonging to that same firm. Beginning in the 1990s, the Pool, as it was called, was involved in a series of mergers. In 1998 it joined forces with the Manitoba Wheat Pool (Manitoba Pool Elevators), becoming Agricore. Later United Grain Growers was added to the mix, the resultant firm being called Agricore United. Wait there is more…
In 2007 another merger took place, with the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, and with that the firm became known as Viterra. This elevator, yet again, had new owners; four in the span of a decade. In 2012 Viterra’s assets were divvied up among some rivals. It’s believe the building remained in operation until that event. It’s not clear who holds the title now, the new owners of Viterra, remains of the Viterra company? Or?
In spite of changing hands many times in recent memory, the elevator was never repainted and still retains its old AWP colours.
That this wooden elevator remained in service as late as it did was something of an anomaly. Small facilities like this are in contrast with the “go big or go home” ideology being practised by grain handling companies these days. I guess the volumes coming out of Alliance were just big enough to keep everyone interested.
Some data found while researching this post shows that in recent times approximately a million bushels were being shipped out of the facility each year. If I’ve done my math right, that translates into roughly two hundred and fifty rail car loads over that time. Not that much really, when you consider a high throughput elevator today can often load a hundred plus cars, in other words a whole train’s worth, in one pass!
It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the building Perhaps a local farmer will buy it for use as storage. As you recall, many old elevators are re-purposed this way.
Grain is still being loaded at Alliance but instead of via the elevator, it done using producer cars. Simply, these are loaded directly by the farmer (using an auger in this case), bypassing any agents or grain handling firms. A string of beat up grain hoppers were spotted at this loading point.
There were at one time three other AWP facilities in town. These were built, variously, in the 1920s and 1950s and were torn down in the 1980s and early 2000s. A couple were inherited from other companies as a result of mergers and acquisitions. Due to this and for a myriad of other reasons, it was not odd for a firm to have more then one elevator at any one loading point.
In recent times there were four elevators in Alliance and at the peak, there was seven. Companies represented, in recent times, besides the AWP, include Pioneer Grain and United Grain Growers. Legacy companies that used to own elevators here, but were then bought out or merged out of existence include Alberta Pacific Grain, Federal Grain, Searle Grain and many others. After 2001, only the elevator that is the subject of this report was left standing.
The track seen belongs to the Battle River Railway and was a former CNR branch (note the old company sign seen in one picture). Constructed in the mid-1910s by a CN predecessor company, the Canadian Northern Railway (Canadian Northwestern Railway charter), the line traveled from Camrose heading in rough southeasterly direction for about 100kms before ending here in Alliance. This town is at the end of track.
Plans were in place to extend the line south of town to join up with a CPR branch coming in from Coronation. I don’t believe any track was laid, although some grading work may have been done. Later, in the early 1930s, the CPR took the initiative and extended it’s branch north so that it connected with the Alliance line. At least we think the two railways met up. In some reports, it’s mentioned that the CPR simply terminated at Berkinshaw, roughly a kilometre away. Others say the two lines connected but that the short section of track between was never really used. Confusing? Absolutely! What ever the case there is an obvious roadbed travelling between the two points.
The CPR line did not remain in operation long.
The Alliance line is noteworthy as there is only a single curve along it’s entire length (at the far north end). That’s close to 100km of arrow straight track!
In looking at the line it’s actually built to pretty high standards and has unusually heavy rail for a grain handling branch (did the CNR once have big plans for it?). The current company took over a few years back. The line did not make enough money for the big railway, but a small efficient operator could make a go of it. Keeping the line was certainly advantageous to area farmers as well and rather then travel huge distances to those large terminals mentioned earlier, they can load locally.
Grain has always been the main commodity hauled on the line. These days some oil products are also handled.
Up the line in Forestburg are a couple wooden elevators that are still in use. Stay tuned for a report on them.
The village of Alliance was founded about a hundred years ago. Today, it’s home to around a hundred and seventy people.
If you like grain elevators, follow these links…
Prairie Sentinels – Hodgeville Saskatchewan.
Prairie Sentinels – Beiseker Alberta.
Dorothy Alberta, the little grain elevator in the valley.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: July, 2014.
Location: Alliance, AB.