Manitoba History: Rise of the Concrete Giants
by Gordon Goldsborough
The wooden grain elevator is a widely-recognized and much-beloved symbol of prairie Canada. Most every town in the agricultural areas of Manitoba had at least one, and many had several. This is no longer the case. From a peak in the 1950s, when there were over 700 small country elevators throughout the province, fewer than 200 survive. They have been mostly replaced by massive, concrete elevators—“inland terminals”—located in just a few places. The horse-drawn wagons that farmers once used to transport their grain a few miles to the local elevator have been replaced by large trucks and trailers that extend the range of deliveries to a hundred miles or more from the farm. The origin of this fundamental change in the way that grain is shipped to market is an interesting facet of the history of prairie agriculture.
In many ways, concrete is superior to wood for the construction of grain elevators. It is stronger and therefore capable of being used for much larger capacity elevators. It is durable and requires little maintenance. Compared to concrete, the wood used in grain eleators was highly combustible, and over the years, many wooden elevators were lost to fires. Three early applications of concrete for grain storage facilities in Manitoba are the 1,000,000-bushel Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) elevator on the eastern edge of Winnipeg in the Rural Municipality of Springfield (built in 1912), the 165,000-bushel United Grain Growers (UGG) elevator at Gladstone (1918), and the 2,500,000-bushel elevator built by the federal government on Hudson Bay at Churchill (1931). Technically speaking, none of them was designed as a “country elevator” intended primarily to receive grain from farmers then transport it to market. The ones at Springfield and Churchill were intended as terminal elevators to receive shipments from elsewhere. The one at Gladstone was built as a mill to grind grain into flour. The first concrete structure in Manitoba purpose-built as a country elevator—indeed the first such structure in western Canada—was the one at Swan River. Constructed in 1961 for the Searle Grain Company, it stood 130 feet high and its 31 bins provided a total grain capacity of 100,000 bushels. In 1972, it was purchased by Manitoba Pool Elevators (MPE), becoming the company’s fourth elevator at this point. The elevator underwent major renovations between 1975 and 1976, and a 24-bin wooden annex, built in 1950 and formerly attached to another MPE elevator at Swan River, was moved beside it in 1982.
The watershed year for the concrete elevator trend was 1976. This was when Cargill Grain, the Canadian subsidiary of an American conglomerate that had bought the elevator network of National Grain a couple of years earlier, opened its first concrete elevator at Elm Creek, Manitoba, along with an identical twin at Rosetown, Saskatchewan. The new elevator had a capacity of 460,000 bushels, the largest by far of any country elevator in Manitoba. (The next largest at that time was the 259,000-bushel UGG elevator at Grandview.) It had been built using a “slipform” process that was increasingly popular for the construction of large, concrete structures in Canada, including Toronto’s CN Tower. The forms for buildings made with this novel method sat on hydraulic jacks so they could be raised continually as construction workers at the top placed reinforcing steel and poured concrete within the moving forms to create the bin walls. Construction proceeded 24 hours a day until the structure was done. An entire elevator could be poured in less than a week.
Other approaches to the use of concrete for elevator construction were also being tested in the late 1970s. In 1978, MPE announced that it would build a new concrete elevator at Quadra, a railway siding near the village of Arrow River in western Manitoba. MPE executives described the new elevator design as an experiment that, if successful, would be replicated around the province. Symbolically, it was a nod to the construction methods of the past while embracing technologies of the future. The MPE carpenters who had, for decades, been responsible for building wooden elevators, were given the job of building wooden forms on the ground beside the site where the new elevator would rise. As other workers drove concrete piles deep into the ground to support the weight of the future elevator, the carpenters—overseen by an experienced concrete worker and engineer from the Montreal firm that designed the elevator—built concrete panels from which to make the elevator itself. They placed a frame of steel reinforcing rods in the wooden form then covered it with five inches of concrete. The steel rods protruded well beyond the edges of the concrete on both sides of its long axis. When set, the panels were removed from the form and raised upright by a crane onto a concrete foundation built atop the piles. The steel rods of two adjacent panels were interlaced, then a wooden form was built over them. More concrete was poured into the form to knit the two panels together. In this way, a vertical, six-sided cylinder was created. Sixteen such cylinders, standing side by side in a row of six, sandwiched between two rows of five, comprised the grain storage component of the elevator. The major advantage of this approach was that concrete panels could be made at any time of the year, ahead of actual elevator construction, whereas the slipform method could only be done during warmer months of the year, typically ending in early November.
Everything about the new Quadra elevator was modern. It had two “legs” (or conveyors for transporting grain, versus one leg in most elevators to that time), a large metal “driveshed” attached to the silos for receiving the largest grain trucks, and most of the equipment inside the elevator was fully automated. Most notably, it had a markedly different appearance from the elevators of old, in that the equipment for distributing the grain into the bins—a network of spouts—was on top of the building, fully exposed. (Most new elevators today follow this plan.) Standing about 70 feet high, the elevator had a storage capacity of 150,000 bushels. At an opening ceremony on 23 October 1980, MPE executives informed 200 local farmers and grain industry guests that the total cost of construction was about $2 million, compared to about $800,000 for a wooden elevator of similar size. But they believed that costs for future elevators of this type would be lower because the existing wooden forms for making the concrete panels could be reused.
There were several reasons why grain companies rushed to build large concrete elevators while abandoning wooden elevators. Costs of operating an elevator were rising, so larger, modern elevators meant more efficient operation by fewer staff. Through the 1950s and 1960s, the provincial road network was improving so it was becoming more feasible for farmers to operate larger trucks to transport their grain from the field to the elevator. A related trend, beginning as early as the 1960s and picking up pace through the 1970s, was the abandonment of smaller, unprofitable branch lines by the railway companies. This led to the closure of numerous country elevators that had lost their rail link to the outside world. And perhaps most significantly, the federal government was becoming disinterested in subsidizing the transportation costs for prairie grain. In 1983, the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau eliminated the “Crow Rate” under which the CPR had provided reduced rates for grain shipments for most of the 20th century. MPE representatives admitted that whereas, in the past, a grain elevator handling 200,000 bushels in a year would be economically viable, by 1980 that figure had increased to 400,000 bushels. Justification for an entirely new elevator would require an annual intake of at least 1,000,000 bushels.
Quadra met the standard easily. Its grain intake during the 1984 crop year was 1,078,800 bushels and its threeyear average to that point was 1,254,600 bushels. During the 1987 crop year, Quadra took in 1,590,000 bushels, the second-highest total of all MPE’s elevators in Manitoba. In early 1987, MPE had moved a wooden grain elevator 22 miles from the village of Kenton to sit beside the concrete elevator as an annex, increasing its capacity to 195,000 bushels. But this show of confidence was short-lived. In 1998, MPE merged with its Alberta counterpart to establish Agricore (becoming Agricore United, AU, in 2001 after it merged with UGG), which took a long, hard look at all the elevators it was operating across the prairies. By 1999, there were rumours that the Quadra elevator was among those slated to be closed. In February 2003, the rumours proved true and Quadra shut down, after only 22 years of operation. The wooden annex from Kenton was demolished in December 2003.
The concrete elevator at Gladstone holds the title of the first of its kind in Manitoba to be demolished, sometime after 1999. The first true concrete country elevator, at Swan River, came down between 2007 and 2013. The crown of “oldest concrete elevator in Manitoba” now belongs to the one at Elm Creek or, if one views former terminal elevators as eligible, the one in the RM of Springfield. The Springfield elevator narrowly escaped an early death. Over a period of 12 hours on 18 October 1913, within a year of construction, the elevator’s annex sank into the ground until it listed at an angle of some 30 degrees. Filled with wheat, holes were bored in its silos so the grain could be removed. Engineers were able to construct a new foundation to bedrock under the annex, and it was re-straightened gradually with jacks. The elevator is still in use, purchased from the CPR in 1970 by the agri-food firm of Parrish & Heimbecker.
When Quadra was delicensed as a country elevator, AU had planned to demolish rather than sell it, following a practice common among grain companies. The rationale is that demolition removes potential public safety hazards and also prevents the facility from becoming a competitor. However, Quadra posed a special challenge. Whereas demolition of a wooden grain elevator can be accomplished in a few days or less, the durability of concrete elevators makes them time-consuming and costly to take down. The Quadra elevator stood abandoned for several years as AU executives debated what to do with it. They rebuffed several inquiries from a farmer who wanted to buy it for his own grain storage needs. Finally, faced with demolition costs and opposition to the planned use of explosives to take down the elevator, AU sold Quadra to the farmer. He is still using it today.
In the end, the Quadra elevator experiment was a failure, mostly because it was too small to compete successfully against the larger elevators that were being built around it, including one just 12 miles away at Oakner. The newer concrete elevators have greater capacity, faster loading and unloading capability, and more track space and heavy rails for accommodating the largest hopper cars. As of April 2016, the largest grain elevator in Manitoba—Paterson Grain’s massive terminal on the northwest outskirts of Winnipeg—has a staggering capacity of 4,446,000 bushels, while the average of all country elevators in the province is 650,000 bushels. The days in which a 30,000-bushel wooden grain elevator could be viable are long gone and this once-ubiquitous prairie icon is fast disappearing from the landscape.
I thank Tom Price (G3 Canada), Kevin Mason (Viterra), Lorena Morales (Canadian Grain Commission), John Campbell, Glenn Dickson, and Bruce Cowling for helpful conversations. Grain company files at the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections (UGG/Agricore) and S. J. McKee Archives at Brandon University (MPE) were invaluable sources of information.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 15 September 2020