The central structure in the large complex seen here is a vintage wooden grain elevator. Located in Coaldale Alberta, it dates from the 1930s while the metal bins that flank either side are much newer. Today a specialized firm works out this facility and they store grain, feed, fertilizer and other granular agricultural products for various clients and also oversee the transloading of these materials to and from railway cars and trucks.
Coaldale, a modest sized community home to some seven thousand plus people, is located just east of the city of Lethbridge. A fairly busy section of train track passes through the town and in front of the elevator. This is the CPR’s southern line running from British Columbia to a connection with the company’s mainline near Medicine Hat.
This grain elevator was built in 1937 for the Ellison Milling Company and replaced another older structure that was destroyed by fire not long before. The history of the earlier building is a bit sketchy but it’s believed to have been built in the 1920s and once belonged to another firm before being acquired by Ellison.
Ellison was based out of Lethbridge and had a big flour mill in that town. They also had at least one other elevator in Coaldale – it was not terribly unusual for a firm to have multiple facilities at any one loading point.
In the 1970s Ellison was taken over by Parrish and Heimbecker, a long established private grain handling firm. They clad the building in their company colours, which are still seen today, all worn and faded. At some unknown point, but likely the 1980s or later given their relatively modem construction, two large metal bin annexes were added to the building, on the east side.
Annexes are nothing new and these were a quick and easy way, and a common one at that, to increase the capacity of an elevator. Older ones were made of wood.
It’s not known when P&H closed the elevator but it’s believed to have remained in use well into the 1990s. In the mid-2000s, a firm, Five Suns Transloading, purchased the structure and shortly after erected that long row of metal bins on the building’s west side, which expanded the facility’s capacity many fold. The main elevator contains the loading and unloading stations for both trucks and rail cars, and the distribution machinery that feeds all the internals bins and those annexes.
Five Suns is simply a storage and transfer station. One product handled in bulk is inbound animal feed. On the track side a modified excavator with a specialized pole shaped probe attachment is used to help unload the rail cars quickly (a little poke or shake frees any stuck grain).
On our visit, a good sized string of cars were seen sitting on the elevator siding. Not sure why there was a tank car in that group.
In the past there used to be other elevators in Coaldale belonging to such firms as the Alberta Wheat Pool, Alberta Pacific Grain, an earlier P&H facility and at least one other belonging to Ellison, which we spoke of earlier. All of these were built in the 1910s and 1920s and most were gone by the 1980s, save for the one seen in this report and an Alberta Wheat Pool facility which seems to have stood until at least the late 1990s.
The rail line here today belongs to the CPR and dates back to the 1880s. It was originally built as a narrow gauge line belonging to the North Western Coal and Navigation Company and was an outlet for Lethbridge coal (they mined right under the town) heading east to a connection with the CPR near the Alberta/Saskatchewan border. The NWC&NC was purchased by the CPR in the early years of the twentieth century and soon after was standard gauged and extended west.
Today, as it was when built, the line is a conduit for coal heading eastbound, although now that product originates from huge strip mines in southeastern BC and not the Lethbridge area. Trains traveling to and from the US, grain trains and general freights also use the line.
It sure is nice to see a traditional wood grain elevator still in use, a pretty rare occurrence these days. This structure is one of some two hundred and fifty-ish old style prairie sentinels left in the province down from a peak of some eighteen hundred in the 1930s. Many of those still standing are used by farmers to store grain or fertilizer (some have even been moved to farms), a few belong to museums, some are simply abandoned and a small number, like this one, are still in use by grain handling firms.
Most wood grain elevators were lost in the 1990s, concurrent with the wholesale abandonment of railway lines all over the prairie provinces. The overall design of these iconic buildings remained fairly constant over the decades and ones from the 1910s and those from the 1980s, when the last were built, are in appearance and construction, along with operationally wise, very similar.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: September, 2014.
Location: Coaldale, AB.
Permission should be requested prior to visiting the places we’ve shown here.