Coauthored with Ava Francesca Battocchio.
Part I: The Ogilvie Story
Even in Thunder Bay, land of the grain elevator, each new opening was heralded in the local press. At least one way, then, Ogilvie’s was no different than its grainy neighbors.
Duke Tested, Mother Approved
Prior to the company’s arrival in Fort William, the flour milling company had achieved major success in Winnipeg and other parts of Manitoba. A reign of western industrialization had not only helped solidify the development intended by National Policy but it also earned William Ogilvie the nickname of “Miller King.” Despite the passing of William and his brother Alexander, the company continued its forward momentum.
In 1902, the Duke and Duchess of York toured one of Ogilvie’s Winnipeg mills. A very successful visit lead to a Royal Warrant declaring Ogilvie’s “Flour Millers to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.” The company would hold an additional warrant from 1912 to 1939 that designated them as “Purveyors of Flour to His Majesty.”
If Ogilvie’s was good enough for the Royal Household, after all, it was good enough for every household.
Shortly after the connection of the Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Railway that Ogilvie’s also rolled into town. After buying a subdivision of farmland, they proceeded to close and cover several roads that once served as public highways.
The plan was to construct a flour mill and elevator. And build they did, on the banks of the Kaministiquia, in 1904. Like several other elevators in Fort William and Port Arthur, Barnett-McQueen was the employed contractor. After the completion in early 1906, the 9-story elevator was lauded in the press as:
“Second to none in the world, and is now in successful and profitable operation.”
A Foundational Misstep
The elevator did function, quite successfully in fact, until May 26th of that year.
Ogilvie’s would again make the press but this time under headlines such as, “DESTRUCTION OF GRAIN: An Elevator Mishap”. Papers across Canada and the United States and as far reaching as London made note of the incident. The “smallest foundation” that had once yielded much praise was ultimately her undoing. Rising floodwaters washed away the minimal foundation.
During that evening, as the foundation slipped further, the elevator began to tilt towards the Kam River.
It was not long before the steel support beams snapped under the pressure causing the grain bins along with their contents of 350,000 bushels of grains to spill into the river. Though this was a period of constant competition in the grain trade, the unfolding drama instilled temporary camaraderie. Aid was sent from other grain companies and CPR, and the community banded together to save the grain.
Despite this catastrophic setback, Ogilvie’s would go onto rebuild a terminal that was double the capacity of the lost elevator. 1912 would bring the completion of the main processing plant on the edge of the Kam. This would complete the silhouette that is still associated with the property.
Ogilvie’s would carry on without any major hiccups. The plant would be equipped for wheat starch and gluten in 1943 allowing for a licensed capacity of 70,160 metric tons.
Ogilvie’s Becomes Saskatchewan Wheat Pool 8
When Saskatchewan Wheat Pool acquired the elevators in 1959, the famous Household Flour sign fell into disrepair, and was eventually painted over (see right).Now the plant would be known as Saskatchewan Wheat Pool 8, joining the “Thunder Bay Pool Party”. The late 60s would bring the addition of a steel dock with an estimate lifespan of 70- 80 years. Interestingly, the dock would be in service longer than the elevator itself.
Changes in international trading patterns and shifts in grain car allocation were contributing factors that lead to the final closure of the plant in 1996.
Abandonment Takes Ogilvie’s
The days of Saskatchewan Wheat Pool 8 had come to an end. The property would sit derelict until 1998 following the November 1997 sale of the property. ADM Agri-Industries would sell the property to Riverside Grain Products INC for $5 million CDN.
When the plant reopened in 1998, it would do so under the name ‘Riverside Grain’.
But the vitality of Riverside Grain was ultimately short-lived, Riverside Grain would close in 2000 and the property would be transferred into the possession of the City of Thunder Bay. Today, the land is owned by the province.
The Abandoned Flour Mill Burns
After a year of abandonment, the property would fall victim to teenage vandals on October 26th, 2001. A small fire set in the flour mill quickly erupted into a several alarm fire, with the encouragement of high winds. As the fire moved throughout the building, explosions lead to structural collapse. Burning debris was as far reaching as the Jackknife Bridge, which sustained minimal damage. As the fire quickly spread to a second building, the neighborhood was alerted to the possibility of evacuation in anticipation of a grain dust explosion, if the fire reached the silos.
There would be no such evacuation and the fire eventually burned itself out.
Demolition of the Flour Mill
Following the fire, the property would sit in disrepair; nobody wanted to take responsibility for demolishing the unstable shell of the mill.
Finally in 2003, a bylaw authorized the transfer of land from the City of Thunder Bay, to Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Ontario and Public Guardian and Trustee (“The Crown”). However, the remains of the flour mill had not been attended to. During a Ontario Legislative Assembly meeting, the city would push for the Province to cover the cost of site clean up as it was now Crown Land.
Demolition finally began in 2005.
Since 2008, Ogilvie’s has received very little news coverage. April of that year would bring the discovery of a missing Mishkeegogamang man’s body on the property. The cause of death was determined to be hypothermia.
What started out as a newspaper notification of an operational elevator developed into a century-long love affair with the media. In the end, Ogilvie’s press coverage outlived its flour milling days.
Part II: The Ogilvie Experience
The first thing you would notice about Ogilvie’s is that it is an island—no—it is caught in an undertow, between the river and the railroad. Cut off from the city and, in some ways, from time.
Against the blue sky, its rusting central silos look like rising smoke meeting the last minutes of a sunset. These give way to a corrugated night sky of blue gray, punched-through with staggered four-pane windows, all glassless. Patterns like these betray the chaos within, which is as colorful as it is convoluted.
Humphrey Man-Lifts (aka Belt-o-Vators) link the floors of the mismatched buildings, chasing numbered chutes between levels and equipment. The main workhouse floor is still thick with grain dust, and as the sun lowered in the sky beams of yellow light and shadows skirmished below a maze of tubes and conveyor belts. On the side of one conveyor, a worker by the name of Sam Grady signed off his last shift, August 5th, 1986.
Opposite Sam’s signature sit two stripped scales. Once, a system of springs and brass weights could measure the steel hopper’s contents within a few kilograms, but the price of brass outweighed the worth of history to a thief, and now the pedestals are empty.
The Wind and The Undertow
Where the number of missing windows is great enough to move the grain dust from the wooden floors, footsteps give the space a strange echo. Sounds bounce unpredictably off otherwise unremarkable equipment and vestiges of abandonment: buckets, filters, vents, motors, belts, ladders, bolts, cones, and pigeon bones. Then the wood floor turns to grain and all is quiet once more.
It was not until the wind whipped round the roofline that I was reminded of the undertow that this place, and now I, was caught in.
On one side, a Canadian Pacific locomotive lowly hummed its way toward Mount McKay, while on the other side a box truck clanked across a stretch of rough road on the other side of the Kaministiquia River. Nearby, almost below my perch, the fascinating circa-1913 Jackknife Bridge reflected on the water, which would soon be full of industrial traffic.
Unaffected by the flow of the water or the bend of the track, Ogilvie’s will continue to be a placeholder for the city’s future hopes.
Until such a time comes, Thunder Bay will enjoy a permanent sunset on the river.