The small southern Alberta community of Milk River is home to three very photogenic traditional-style wood cribbed grain elevators. It’s almost a “row”, which I know is technically four or more, but does it really matter here? Trivialities aside, finding this many elevators in one spot in 2014 is pretty darn rare. Even more unusual, one of the buildings is still used by a grain firm to load rail cars Few wooden elevators left standing today are used in such a fashion.
A wonderful blue sky with white puffy clouds made for some great photos. The day was perfect!
Before we discuss the elevators in detail, I have to point out that for some reason information about them is both somewhat lacking and depending on who we talk to, contradictory. As such we have to make some assumptions in this report. If any experts spot an error or inconsistency, we’d love to hear from you.
The first building seen is the former Alberta Wheat Pool (AWP) facility built in 1970. This massive double composite elevator (meaning it has two large capacity side extensions making it wider then a non-composite version) replaced an earlier structure, believed built either in the 1910s or 20s, that the year prior burned down. Research is ongoing in regards to this disparity.
The AWP, or the Pool as it’s often called, in the late 1990s merged with a rival, the Manitoba Wheat Pool (officially Manitoba Pool Elevators), forming the company Agricore. A painted over sign on the side of the elevator reflects that ownership. The colour of the building itself however is older and is in the traditional AWP blue/green. We think the elevator was closed by Agricore in or around 2001, just before they merged with another company, United Grain Growers, becoming the firm Agricore United. Later AU merged again and has since been split up. But that’s another story.
At some point after closing the building was acquired by a private individual or a local farmer and presumably is used to store grain.
The Alberta Wheat Pool, at one time, was the largest grain handling firm in the province and they had elevators in nearly every town that had rail service. It was, up until the Agricore merger, a farmer owned cooperative.
The second elevator is owned by a firm called Parrish and Heimbecker or P&H. They are a long time player in the Canadian grain industry, but are rather modest is size. The company was founded just over a hundred years ago. I understand P&H bought this elevator from its original owner, United Grain Growers, sometime around 2001.
This elevator, like its AWP neighbour, was built in 1970 and replaced an earlier structure that also went up in flames, in the same fire. It’s thought the older building was from the 1910s but information as you recall is a bit sketchy in regards to that. You’ll notice that this elevator, modern additions aside, is a near carbon copy of the AWP facility. That makes sense since they were built at the same time.
This elevator is also rather unusual, in that it’s still being used as designed. A wooden elevators still in use? Now that’s rare! That it was not replaced with a more modern structure is likely because the building itself it fairly new and up to date, and that it has sufficient capacity to meet the needs of the company for this area. Let’s hope they continue to use for some time to come. You notice that the loading station for the elevator has been modernized, in an effort to make it more efficient.
No rail cars were being loaded on our visit.
The next elevator also belongs to P&H and it’s believed it was built in the late 1950s. It was originally an AWP facility but it’s not known when it changed hands. It looks like it’s being used as satellite storage facility for the other P&H, since a conveyor connects the two buildings.
This third elevator has one wood-cribbed annex and two steel bin annexes, but when each was added is not known (the wood one is definitely much older then the others). An annex was a cheap and easy way to add extra capacity.
You may notice some metal towers near the rail car loading point. These hold cables that workers tie into when filling cars, which will arrest a fall should they trip. They also become handy perches for birds (we saw lots of doves) who often congregate around these buildings in search of spilled grain to eat.
In the past there used to be other elevators in Milk River. Some the firms represented include Alberta Pacific Grain, Ellison Milling and Ogilvie Four Mills. Given the lack of information out there, when each was built and torn down is not known.
You’ll notice a town’s names was often displayed on the side of an elevator (demonstrated here on the AWP). This was done for the train crews so they knew where they were, but also became handy for those travelling by car in unfamiliar areas. Quickly looking at an elevator would tell you where you were.
At one time there were just over 1700 wooden grain elevators in the province. Today, around two hundred and fifty remain. Some have been converted to museums, many are used by farmers to store grain, a number are abandoned and a handful, like one seen here, are used as designed and load rail cars. Milk River is one of only a few towns in Alberta that have three standing elevators. Today, there are few places in the province where can one can look down main street towards the railway line (or what was the railway line) and see a row of elevators still standing. This makes Milk River a very special place in regards to that.
By the way, nearby Warner has the most extant elevators of any town in Alberta. They have six. Watch for a report on them coming soon.
Most wooden grain elevators were destroyed in the mid to late 1990s to the early 2000s. Their replacements were large inland terminals spaced far apart – farmers often have to travel dozens and dozens and sometimes even a hundred kilometres or more to send their grain to market. In the old days, the trains came to the farmer, now the farmer comes to train. Progress I guess?
This Canadian Pacific Railway line that passes through Milk River runs from Lethbridge to Coutts on the US border. This section is called the Montana Subdivision (former Coutts Sub – thanks Ben). The line was built around 1890 by the Alberta Railway & Coal Company, a subsidiary of the North Western Coal and Navigation Company. It was built to a non-standard 3 foot gauge. The main commodity hauled at the time was coal mined in the Lethbridge area, heading to the US. Just after the turn of the twentieth century, the line was converted to standard gauge (4ft 8 1/2”). The CPR took over the AR&CC in the early 1910s.
This line has a rather roller-coaster profile, and rather then using cuts and fills when constructed, they simply followed the lay of the land as best they could. As such, even today, there are lots of dips and rises along it’s length. This line is moderately busy.
The railway accesses the elevators via a short stub ended spur. This section was once the main track, but at some unknown date they did a realignment and moved things over to the other side of the highway.
A nice 1948-52 era Ford F series pickup was found across the street from the elevators. You always find old trucks, it seems, in these small towns. If this battered old war-horse could only talk, what stories it would tell. A still attached licence plate tells us it was last used in the early 1970s.
Milk River is located deep in the southern part of the province, almost at the US border. The town has a population of about 800. While people lived in the area for well over a hundred years, Milk River was not incorporated as a village until the mid-1910s.
This adventure we were accompanied by our friends Jason and Rebecca Sailer, who also sent some pictures for use in this article. They were kind enough to take us on a guided two day tour of the area, where we took in many old buildings and abandoned places. We owe them big time.
To see some other grain elevators we’ve explored, check out these reports…
Prairie Sentinels – Alliance Alberta.
Prairie Sentinels – Admiral Saskatchewan.
Prairie Sentinels – Queenstown Alberta .
Wynndel BC grain elevator – then and now.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: August, 2014.
Location: Milk River, AB.