Saskatchewan Pool Elevators #4 and #5
Thunder Bay, ON

Coauthored with Ava Francesca Battocchio.

I have three bits of advice if you find yourself at Saskatchewan Four.

First…

One of my favorite visual feature of grain elevators, especially big ones, is how they repeat.
One of my favorite visual feature of grain elevators, especially big ones, is how they repeat.

…brush up on your cleromancy, as the bone-littered floors may hold the secrets of your future. As we climbed higher, the layer of bird skeletons at our feet grew thicker.

Second…

…grab a railing when you take in the view from the top, as up here there is nothing to cut the harsh Lake Superior wind. Looking across the icy water, the ‘Sleeping Giant’ never seemed closer, and the ground so distant.

Third…

…watch your step, as the elevator’s been stomaching carbs so long that now it craves protein. Walls and floors are a schizophrenic mix of brick, sheet metal, concrete, and holes to nowhere. “It almost looks like this place exploded and was put back together,” I thought, looking out onto one floor.

Then, I remembered–

That happened.

My own color treatment of one of the historical photos of Pools 4A (left) and 4B (right). Taken before the construction of Pool 5, which would have been right behind this boat's smokestack.
My own color treatment of one of the historical photos of Pools 4A (left) and 4B (right). Taken before the construction of Pool 5, which would have been right behind this boat’s smokestack.

The Story of Pools 4 and 5

Built in 1923, it was one of the latest projects of the Barnett-McQueen Company, which had made its name in the construction and design of elevators around the Fort William and Port Arthur. Like most of their other elevators, Saskatchewan Co-Op 4-5 was also constructed in the slip-form concrete style. As the demand for terminal elevators increased, so did the capacity of new constructions.

Saskatchewan Wheat Pool 4, as it would come to be called, would be equipped to handle an incredible (for the time) 8 million bushels.

Grain elevators, for the most part, are not structures that typically have elaborate backstories or dramatic lives. Following the adage “No news is good news,” when elevators are known by name to the general public it is often because of some terrible catastrophe. This was surely the case for Pool 4’s neighbor, Saskatchewan Wheat Pool 5, which was added in 1927 as a 1 milion bushel annex for Pool 4.

How Pool 5 left the world, though, is a little more dramatic.

The ruined workhouse of Pool 5, after the 1945 explosion.
The ruined workhouse of Pool 5, after the 1945 explosion.

Saskatchewan 5 Explodes

Reports of the atomic explosion at Hiroshima, Japan were just reaching Port Arthur when it, too, trembled under the force of a shock wave. On that day, August 7th 1945, Pool Elevator 5 suffered a massive grain dust explosion. A terrified city watched as a ball of fire rose over its waterfront.

At first, some citizens were convinced that the explosion was a sneak attack by the enemy. Emergency crews were dispatched, not yet knowing the heroic stories which they would write that day.

One such story is of a firefighter who climbed up an unstable 110 foot ladder to deliver a rescue rope to five men who were trapped atop a burning annex.

He and another firefighter, who similarly risked his life to save others, were awarded medals to commemorate their actions. Even though the Port Arthur and Fort William were mutual rivals, when it came to elevator accidents, the communities banded together. Both cities’ fire crews responded to the calls for help.

Despite these acts of heroism, 25 men lost their lives. Saskatchewan Wheat Pool 5 would be a total loss.

A view of the ground-level damage in the aftermath of Pool 5's explosion.
A view of the ground-level damage in the aftermath of Pool 5’s explosion.

One positive consequence that would arise from this disaster was a growing awareness and a public call for safety regulations that would help prevent further accidents.

Saskatchewan Wheat Pool 4 narrowly escaped being caught in the destruction of its neighbor. The only scar that the Pool 5 explosion left on Pool 4 was a burned-in outline on its southern face in the outline of its ruined sibling.

However, Pool 4 did not remain a spectator for long.

On September 24th 1952, shortly after the workers’ lunch hour, an explosion ripped the heart out of 4A. Thankfully, circumstance limited the death toll. Most workers were on their lunch break and not in the elevator itself. Only a small crew was working the grain spots, loading the SS Layton, at the moment the largest section of the elevator, Unit 5, exploded. Had the timing been different, it’s estimated that the death toll could have been as high as 50.

When the smoke cleared, four workers were dead and 14 were hospitalized. Of the four victims, three belonged to the Saskatchewan Pool staff. The fourth was a watchman aboard the Layton who was struck by flying concrete. As a fireball boiled around the north side of Pool 4A, the ship’s crew let loose the ropes tying it below the burning elevator. Though it sustained damage, the SS Layton survived. In addition to the loss of life and injury the blast caused an estimated $3 million in damage.

Vignette: Worker Graffiti at Sask Pools 4 and 5:

Just seven years earlier the explosion at Saskatchewan Wheat Pool 5 raised public awareness to the danger of grain dust explosions. After these disasters, Saskatchewan Pool agreed to install cutting edge grain dust monitoring equipment

After repairs, Pool 4 carried on until its closure in 1995.