Here’s a rather rare sight these days, a wooden grain elevator, still in use, sitting along a prairie branch line that still sees trains. Twenty years ago this would be nothing unusual, but today, in times of grain company consolidations, mergers and closings and the wholesale abandonment of lightly used railway lines, it’s down right extraordinary. The term “scarce as hen’s teeth” comes to mind here. Where are we? Golden Prairie Saskatchewan in the southwest part of the province.
Why this line remains in service, where so many others like in the last two decades have been sold off, abandoned and pulled up, is a bit of a mystery. CPR has announced plans to discontinue service in the next couple years but for now at least it’s business as usual. A farmer’s group (those who own the elevator perhaps?) in the not too distant past, but not recently, have stated they’d like to purchase the line. It’ll be interesting to see what happens here.
In the meantime, the trains still run. And the reason for them is the grain elevator that is the subject of this report. It’s what’s called a producer loading site – meaning a farmer, farmers or cooperative firm loads grain directly into railway cars, bypassing any agents, brokers or traditional grain handling firms. Often these sites are simply an auger sitting along a side track. Occasionally, like what’s seen here, “producers” will sometimes reuse old grain elevators for this purpose. It’s a no- brainer really. These buildings can often be had for a song and are already set up for the purpose intended.
On our visit a dozen or so grain hoppers were seen either waiting to be loaded or having been filled already, awaiting pickup by the next train. Not sure which.
It’s not known how often the trains run, but it’s probably variable based on many factors such as commodity prices, grain car availability and so on. It’s far to complex for us to understand.
The elevator seen here is a fairly modern one. Modern as far as wood cribbed grain elevators go. It was built in 1981. The earliest elevators in this general configuration date from the early 1900s or thereabouts. The last ones are from the mid to late 1980s. The design was proven and long lasting but by the 1960s sure seemed dated. Since the early 1990s, huge steel and/or concrete facilities have become the norm – and are almost always located along railway mainlines.
Constructed for the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool (SWP), or simply the “Pool”, the building was closed in the early 2000s. A year or so later it was purchased by RGV Loaders, who continue to use the structure to this day. They are a producer cooperative and from what I have read, successful at it.
You’ll notice the two pipes leading nowhere coming out from each side of the elevator. They must have at one time lead to old annexes? Perhaps? I can only guess. Annex: an ancillary structure used to increase the capacity of an elevator.
The suspended cable contraption seen above the rail car loading spot it safety harness tie-in point. It catches a worker from falling off a car should he trip. That tractor seen next to the building may be used to move the cars as they are filled.
The current structure joined two other SWP elevators here at one time. Both were built in the late 1920s. The first was closed in the mid-1980s and torn down a few years later. The second, originally a Federal Grain facility (until the 1970s) closed not long after the one we’re studying was built.
The Pool was at one time the largest grain handling firm in Canada and was farmer owned. In 2007, it merged with it’s biggest rival, Agricore United, forming the firm Viterra. This resultant company, since split up and sold off, is no longer a cooperative and rather than collecting grain via small town elevators, it now does so using huge inland terminals here and there. The train used to come to the farmer, now the farmer comes to the train.
Pioneer Grain, via the acquisition of an Alberta Pacific Grain facility, and Paterson Grain both had elevators here at one time (late 1920s – 2000-ish). Both companies still exist in one form or another, but don’t do business here.
At one time there were thousands of wood-cribbed grain elevators across Saskatchewan. Today, there is somewhere between four and five hundred left. Some are used by farmers to store grain, some are producer car loading sites (like here) and many are simply abandoned. Each year a few more are demolished.
Seen across from the elevator is a 1957 Mercury one ton. This brand of truck, simply a rebadged Ford, was only sold in Canada, Down the street we found a similar era, and very beat up, Chevrolet Apache pickup. You can always count on finding old trucks in these small towns.
The track here is the CPR’s Hatton Subdivision, a 28km line completed in 1929. It was constructed during the great railway building boom that took place in the early part of the twentieth century (1910-1930 was the peak). At that time, railway lines across the prairies were being laid down at a crazy pace and anywhere there was a town, a rail line would be built to it. In fact on many occasions, the track came before the people! Later the CPR and CNR, who both participated in the madness, would regret building most of these line. The majority have either been closed and pulled up or are under threat of abandonment.
The branch runs from its namesake junction with the railway’s east/west mainline, to Golden Prairie. The rails ends unceremoniously just north of the elevator. There are currently no other loading points on this line. As mentioned, the trains still run, but for how long?
The grain cars seen in front of the elevator are all relatively old. The newest dates from the mid to late 1990s. Included in the group are some “government” grain hoppers. Starting in the 1970s, when the railways themselves were unwilling to purchase cars for grain service, the wheat board stepped in to fill the void. Thirty to forty years later, these cars are still hard at work, but are nearing retirement age.
The town of Golden Prairie sprang to life with the coming of the railway. It never grew beyond village status and today is home to a few dozen people. A look down main streets shows lots of closed and empty businesses, a not uncommon sight in small town Saskatchewan.
To see some of our favourite grain elevators, go here…
Ogilvie grain elevator, Wrentham Alberta. Help save it!
Prairie Sentinels – Hodgeville Saskatchewan.
Alberta’s oldest grain elevator.
Prairie Sentinels – Oberlin Alberta.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: May, 2014.
Location: Golden Prairie, SK.