Grain Elevators of
Port Arthur & Fort William
Thunder Bay, ON

Intro

Part I: Grains, Trains & Pool Parties

The Colony Becomes The Dominion

The office for the Government (Dominion) Elevator had a nice hat collection left over.
The office for the Government (Dominion) Elevator had a nice hat collection left over.

In 1879, when Canada enacted its landmark “National Policy” to help unite the provinces in the wake of British colonialism, railroads were seen as the principal tool of unification. Only 12 years before were Quebec and Ontario carved from ‘The United Province of Canada’. With the colony’s independence came immense pressure to develop regional populations and resources that had been foolishly ignored by the crown.

The new country established itself as ‘The Dominion of Canada’, and it looked west to expand itself territorially and economically. This is the namesake for the still-giant Dominion Elevator, renamed ‘Government Elevator’ which was later renamed ‘Dominion’.

To facilitate this, the policy provided for the creation of a transcontinental railroad.

Map of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885. Note all the information about Western Canada.
Map of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885. Note all the information about Western Canada.

Trains and The Prairie

When the ship loaders were added, a doorway was cut through the metal silo to make a room for the grain handling equipment. Note the dust sensor in the corner of the torch-cut archway.
When the ship loaders were added, a doorway was cut through the metal silo to make a room for the grain handling equipment. Note the dust sensor in the corner of the torch-cut archway.

It so happens that new potential provinces were as hungry for trains as The Dominion was for new land. The idea was that, by establishing transcontinental railroads, it would enable tariff-based goods to find markets throughout Canada. Additionally, immigration was encouraged with the promise of free and discounted land in the hope that it would afford a stimulus to eastern-based industry and railroads by providing customers and employees.

The side of King that faces the lake is stained yellow-green.
The side of King that faces the lake is stained yellow-green.

Boundary lines began to move west, beginning with the acquisition of what was then called ‘Rupert’s Land’, from the British-owned Hudson Bay Company in the early 1869. Interestingly, it was the plan of Hudson Bay Company to sell the land to America in an Alaska-like manner, until the British government intervened. Much to the landholder’s chagrin, the nearly bankrupt company was forced to accept the incredibly low price of $1.5 million for the land.

I love the 'hats' on the top of the SWP-4 headhouse. FP-100C.
I love the ‘hats’ on the top of the SWP-4 headhouse. FP-100C.

A large part of Rupert’s Land was re-established as the province Manitoba in 1870, right as it was on the brink of an agricultural explosion. British Columbia was invited to join the Confederation, but unlike Manitoba which was the “Gateway to the West” British Columbia had terms. They would join only under the condition that a transcontinental railroad be completed within ten years.

Rail access became a principal leveraging tool in Parliament, despite the fact that rail companies were privately owned. British Columbia would join the Confederation in 1871.

A brochure advertising Western Canadian land offerings, an attempt to populate the new province and its connection with the railroad.
A brochure advertising Western Canadian land offerings, an attempt to populate the new province and its connection with the railroad.

Birth of the Sentinels

In 1881, Ogilvie Milling Company built its first “country elevator” in Manitoba, the ‘Prairie Sentinel’. Soon after, Ogilvie started building copies of the Prairie Sentinel at regular intervals along the rail line.

1911 Ogilvies, Archives of Manatoba
1911 Ogilvies, Archives of Manatoba

Not only would the style of the Sentinel become synonymous with grain trade in the Canadian Prairies, but the new Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) began encouraging the construction of Sentinels at 7 to 10 mile intervals, a distance that purely based on the successful line elevators of Minnesota and North Dakota.

These lines of elevators became conveniently known as ‘Line Elevators’.

As the grain from the Sentinels emptied into CPR grain cars, the need to store it as it moved eastward became more pressing. Thus in 1883, almost twenty years after The Dominion of Canada enacted its National Policy, CPR built its first terminal elevators in Fort William.

Crew of one of the Canadian Northern Elevators, circa 1900.
Crew of one of the Canadian Northern Elevators, circa 1900.

Fort William was a prime candidate for industrial development. The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1885 breathed new life into what had once been a hub of the fur-trade. It wasn’t long before CPR elevators began to pop up all over Fort William, to receive the influx of surplus Manitoban grain. The city began to flourish as it developed a downtown.

A second wave of elevators would be built in Port Arthur in 1902, following the end of CPR’s 20-year “Monopoly Clause” with the Canadian Government. The end of the clause brought the arrival of competitor Canadian Northern’s Port Arthur: The Manitoba Line. It wouldn’t be long before Port Arthur developed into its own competing grain port and city.

Despite being in constant competition with one another, both cities experienced steady and similar development.

Pool Party!

1925 would bring the rise of the “Pool Party,” a period in which industry would be dominated by co-operative farmers organized into pools. Competing pools would open up their own elevators to house their own grain. Alberta Wheat Pool, Manitoba Pool Elevators and Saskatchewan Wheat Pool would take up residence in both cities. This period would also be the height of Thunder Bay’s elevator population, totaling 36 ‘residents.’

Looking out of the elevators. Canada Malting, Vitera A and Vitera B in the background.
Looking out of the elevators. Canada Malting, Vitera A and Vitera B in the background.
From left to right: Saskatchewan Wheat Pool #7, Thunder Bay Elevator, Dominion, Davidson & Smith, Parrish & Heimbecker. One of four packed elevator rows.
From left to right: Saskatchewan Wheat Pool #7, Thunder Bay Elevator, Dominion, Davidson & Smith, Parrish & Heimbecker. One of four packed elevator rows.

Even though there had been talks of combining the two cities around 1910, Amalgamation didn’t occur until 1970. Not only did the joining of Fort William and Port Arthur create one city, Thunder Bay, but it also created the world’s largest grain port.

Some have come and gone, others have fallen into disrepair. With the continued evolution of the grain trade, others have been repurposed for the future. Like every building, grain elevators also have a story. Thunder Bay just happens to be home to more elevator stories than anywhere else in the world.