It’s the spring of 2014 and we’re on a grain elevator tour of southwest Saskatchewan. We have a short five days to take in as many of the structures as we can. This stop we’re in Portreeve, exploring the last remaining prairie sentinel in town. This was the third elevator we’d see this trip, but it was by no means the last and and there would be many more to come, both this day and in those that followed. This province has a much larger percentage of still-extant elevators than say Alberta, and this makes it a natural destination for us. We’ve been hoping to explore the area for some time now.
In spite of the hectic pace – we need to see as much as possible in the time we have – we found the whole experience amazingly relaxing. I love Saskatchewan! It’s good for the soul.
The building seen here was built for the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool in 1957. In the past there used to be a second earlier Pool elevator in Portreeve, a former Saskatchewan Cooperative Elevator Company structure, I believe, It’s not known when it was torn down – the last mention I found of it was in the 1970s and at that time it still stood.
At some unknown point, some steel bin annexes were added to the elevator. This was an easy way to increase capacity as business grew and these supplementary structures were quite common. In fact, based upon our own observations, the vast majority of elevators we’ve explored have at least one annex, some have many. Older ones are typically wood, whereas newer ones are like those seen here, and are of steel construction.
The Saskatchewan Wheat Pool (from here on known as SWP), earlier the Saskatchewan Co-operative Wheat Producers, was a farmer owned collective founded in the mid-1920s. It evolved from the Saskatchewan Cooperative Elevator Company mentioned earlier. Since 2007, the company has been called Viterra and is no longer owned by those who use it. Instead of a chain of small town elevators, those days are done, they own larger inland terminals that can load a whole train at one time.
It’s not known exactly when the SWP closed this elevator, but it was likely not terribly long ago – I’d guess sometime between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s – most small town elevators were closed around these times. Research continues, however. The building is, I am told, privately owned now and is perhaps used for grain storage by a local farmer. That’s not been confirmed, but it appears so.
At one time there used to be other elevators in Portreeve. An old picture seen by this author, undated, but probably early in the town’s history, shows four in a line. The history of these buildings, and of those that came after them (which I am sure there was some of) and what happened to them and when, is spotty at best. We’ll continue our research and as always welcome input from our readers. From what little we found, most were gone by the 1970s.
Sitting in front of the elevator is an old grain truck, a 1970s or 1980s era GMC C-series medium duty. It’s common to see these old timers, and the Chevrolet equivalent, still in service. This trip we saw, I am certain, dozens of them.
The rail line that passes through Portreeve belongs to the Great Sandhills Railway, a short-line operator founded in 2009. Prior to that the track belonged to the CPR and was one their last grain-gathering branches in the province. While the line was likely profitable under their ownership, it was probably not enough and so they sold it. A short-line operator can run a railway more economically then the CPR ever could.
This section was formerly known as the Empress Subdivision branch and was one in a series of lines that once travelled all the way from Bassano Alberta east to Swift Current Saskatchewan, roughly paralleling the CPR’s mainline in the south. Along its length were a number of other feeder branches that split off from it in various places. The section through Portreeve was built in 1913.
Most of the lines spoken of in the paragraph above have been abandoned and only the section from Swift Current to a point near the Alberta border at a town called Burstall, remains. The GSR is some 180km long, give or take a bit. The railway, of course, handles a lot of grain and also hauls commodities related to the oil and gas industries. Trains run a couple times a week, according to the some locals we spoke with. We even caught an eastbound GSR freight this trip (fodder for another report).
In the past considerable coal was handled along this line, heading east from the mines located in the Red Deer River valley in Alberta.
Seen on the elevator siding is a string of stored tank cars. The GSR, like many short-line railways, makes money this way and nearly every siding along the line we saw was filled up with these cars. These particular one were almost brand new (build dates of 2011-2013) and I guess have yet to be called into service.
Portreeve was incorporated in 1913, with the coming of the railway. A small handful of people call it home today. In ‘downtown” (haha) we found one post office building, still in use it appears, along with an old curling rink (or so it looks to be) and a small unidentified building of which we’ve included a picture of below. That’s pretty much all that’s left, along with the grain elevator of course.
We took some photos showing the railway and east facing sides of the elevator, but for some reason they did not turn out and were scrambled. Thank goodness no other pictures ended up that way! Time to test the SD card.
We hope to return to the area to explore it more. There is so much to see, and we only scratched the surface.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: May, 2014.
Location: Portreeve, SK.