The face of railways in Western Canada changed in the mid 1990s. Prior to that time the two major carriers were required to maintain most prairie branchlines, even if that line was a money loser (most were, even with subsidies). The government felt it was essential that they be kept in service so that grain could be sent to market.
Then the regulations changed and within short order mass abandonments took place and lines were being pulled up as fast as crews could get to them. Concurrent with that, old grain elevators were torn down just as fast, with little thought given as to their historical value. It was like a tsunami hit, the line was torn up, the elevators demolished and as a result the town was poorer for it.
Around that same time I was driving for an oil field delivery company and I witnessed the death of many grain branch lines and the elevators that formerly supported them. What I hate to admit is at that time, while all what we see here interested me, I really didn’t take as many pictures as I should have. I always brought my camera along on each delivery but rarely used it. I’ve since learned my lesson and take plenty of pictures.
These images, taken in the late fall or early winter of 1997, were scanned from 35mm prints and show the grain elevators in Torrington Alberta being town down.
On this day I was doing deliveries north of this town, near Wimborne. It was the last drop off of the day, so on the way home I decided it would be fun to drive along the recently abandoned CPR Acme subdivision, which happened to pass very near the gas plant I was now leaving. It’s sounded like a good idea!
The line was only just abandoned and the ties had left depressions that made travel very rough and slow. One time I had to tip-toe across a very narrow trestle and another I had to back up for perhaps 2kms before finding a place to turn around. A farmer had laid claim to the roadbed and had just fenced off the right of way leaving me no choice but to retreat. Needless to say this it was fun and very interesting.
This was not the only time I travelled down an abandoned rail line and on a number of occasions I did the same. However I soon quit that practice as most lines became impassible for long distances as bridges were often removed and farmers reclaimed the land. It was fun while it lasted!
On arriving in Torrington something caught my eye and a demolition company was making short work of the towns two grain elevators. The Alberta Wheat Pool elevator was already in ruins, a pile of splintered wood and not much else. Not far away, Pioneer elevator (in AWP blue!) was facing the same fate. Equipment was busy tearing it apart and while I had the chance I took a number of pictures, what you see here. What a sad event, yet it’s strangely fascinating at the same time. I am glad I caught it.
At the peak in the 1930s, there were over 1700 traditional style wooden elevators scattered throughout Alberta. By the time I visited Torrington, there were under 400 with the numbers quickly shrinking. By 2012, that there were perhaps a hundred and fifty…or less – we’re only counting traditional wooden elevators that do or once sat along a rail line – most were either abandoned, unused or owned by local farmers for grain storage. Not counted: seed cleaning plants, modern concrete or steel high-throughput elevators, farm elevators or feed mills.
Of course, grain still moves by train – it’s the most efficient way after all – but now giant terminal elevators, massive concrete structures that can be seen from kilometres away, now dish out the grain. And instead of loading a few cars at a time, they fill a hundreds or more in one fell swoop.
The Pioneer elevator seen in the photos is odd as it’s in Alberta Wheat Pool colours. Perhaps there was a deal on paint as normally it would be orange. In any case, it’s believed this structure dates from the early 1930s. At one time, two other Pioneer elevators stood here, some of them inherited from or purchased from other companies. These were gone in the 1980s.
The gouge in this elevator allowed us a good look at how one was laid out and constructed and the storage bins and such could be easily seen.
The other elevator that existed in Torrington in 1997 was an (I believe) AWP from 1978 – making it a late example of the traditional wooden grain elevator – a few were even built into the 1980s. This one had a short life, having been closed a few years before my visit. At one time, a second older (from 1930) AWP elevator stood in town as well, but it was gone by the late 1980s. This one was inherited from a predecessor company (Federal Grain, nee, Alberta Pacific Grain).
If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!
Date: Early winter 1997.
Location: Torrington, AB.