Waking up bright and early on a cool May morning in Shuanavon Saskatchewan, we make our way to the nearby railyards to see what we can find. We’re not disappointed and find some old boxcars and other vintage railway equipment to document along with two massive old school wooden grain elevators to explore. Now that’s a perfect start to the day (well, for us anyway).
While we wander about a storm threatens, it rains a bit and then stops, the sky opens up and turns a wonderful pale blue. We’re doing what we love to do, on a wonderful day. It was magical.
On to the elevators…
Over the years more then a dozen grain elevators have called the town of Shaunavon home. It was a huge grain shipping point. Today, two of these buildings are left. One is used for grain storage and the other, which makes it a real rarity, still loads grain cars. What, like in the old days? Yup!
The two elevators sit opposite each other across the railyard. The first one, on the town side, was built in 1957 and is a single composite style – so called for the integral wing addition on the one wall, which adds extra capacity to the building. This structure was built for the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool and was closed sometime in the late 1980s (not completely confirmed). At some unknown date, but believed to be in the early 2000s, the building came under control of the Shaunavon Elevator Company who operates the facility to this day. A string of grain cars sit out back, awaiting pickup after being loaded here.
The second building was also built for the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, in 1977, making it a late example of the traditional style wood elevator. It’s a single composite style, like it’s neighbour, with a 1960s era annex salvaged from an earlier elevator that once stood nearby added to it. This building was closed in the early 2000s and subsequently sold to a private individual or firm who it appears uses the building to store grain. It’s does not look as though railcars are loaded here even thought a string of grain hoppers is parked under the loading area.
You’ll notice some strange metal supports the where the cars are filled. These hold a safety line which the person filling the cars ties into, which will catch them if they fall. From a car top it’s a long way down to the ground. Both elevators use gravity to move the hoppers as each is filled. The siding is built on a slight grade – empty cars are spotted so that as each is filled, they simply release the brakes and roll the next one under the loading spout. Simple, eh? In big and modern elevator winches or locomotives are usually used to move the cars about.
The Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, or simply the Pool, was formed in the 1920s, was a farmer owned cooperative and traditionally the largest grain handling firm in the country. It evolved from the earlier Saskatchewan Cooperative Elevator Company. It ceased to be in 2007 when it was folded into the firm Viterra. By that time, it had disposed itself of most small town elevators it once owned.
Beside these two, the Pool once owned a number of other elevators in town. It was not unusual for a firm to have multiple facilities at any one grain point. Some of these elevators were built for the firm while others were inherited when they took over other grain companies.
Recall, we mentioned there were once many other elevators here besides those belonging to the Pool and the firms that operated them included (variously): Alberta Pacific Grain, Federal Grain, Pioneer Grain, Searle Grain and a bunch of smaller outfits. In the old days, that elevator row must have been a sight to behold.
From a peak of a several thousand old style grain elevators in the province there are just under five hundred left. Most are farmer owned and are used simply to store grain whereas others, like the one seen here, are still used to load cars. Finally, a number are just abandoned. Wood elevators were built from the early 1900s to the mid to late1980s (the overall design was that long lasting) and at least one was located in every town that had rail service. Today, most grain travels via huge trucks to large concrete or steel inland terminals located on railway main lines (most branches having long been abandoned). It’s done on a huge scale now, quite the contrast with how it was in the old days – back then it was a couple cars filled per elevator per week picked up by a local freight and today an entire train, fifty or a hundred or more cars at a time, gets filled at a single terminal.
The tracks here belong to the Great Western Railway (or Railroad depending on you consult) a “short line” firm (if 470km of track can be considered short) that took over this line, just before the turn of the twenty first century, from the CPR. This section of line was built a century ago and meanders across southwestern Saskatchewan. Major commodities hauled include grain (of course) and oil. They also store surplus cars for who ever owns them, which I am told is a profitable sideline. The railway is owned by local farmers and municipalities.
Trains run as required depending on business levels, typically a couple or few times a week.
If you like wood grain elevators, this railway line is home to a good number of them, many still in use (now that’s rare). None are owned by grain firms and instead belong to farmers or a group of farmers. I believe the railway itself owns many of the facilities and then leases them out to these groups.
Wandering about the small yard, we come across a strange looking piece of maintenance equipment, a small self propelled rail car with a boom on one end. It’s a tie insterter that takes old rotten ones out and replaces them with new.
Not far way is an old 40ft boxcar, ex-CPR, built in the late 1950s. This is likely used by the railway for storage or to move materials about.
Just down the track is a caboose. While these were once common, they’re typically are not needed anymore, except in very special cases, This one is used during backup moves to a nearby oil loading station. This car came from the CPR, only recently, and was built in the 1970s.
Next we look at a curious string of vintage rail cars. There are three old boxcars (late 1950s/early 1960s) and two 1960s era covered hopper cars. What their purpose or function is, has me stumped. They are too old to be in service, yet here they are. Strange.
Shaunavon is just over a hundred years old and dates from the time the railway came through. Today, it has a population of some seventeen hundred souls.
Check out downtown Shaunavon on the 1940s and today…
Shaunavon Saskatchewan then and now
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: May, 2014.
Location: Shaunavon, SK.
Permission should be requested prior to visiting the places we’ve shown here.