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

Potential for Revitalization

Part III: Potential for Revitalization

Today, farmers have the ability to sell their product to the company offering the best price, as opposed to previously having to sell it through the wheat board. In one sense it is a return to the state of the 1910s, but now, with the invention of the grain truck, farmers can more easily move their product to buyers.

Returning to the system of ‘voluntary engagement’ has brought about vast changes in the Canadian grain industry, and Thunder Bay especially so.

Thunder Bay in the Global Economy

The control room for Manitoba Pool Elevator #3 was the most modern of any I saw in Thunder Bay. Apparently, 25 men were working on the day this elevator shut down.
The control room for Manitoba Pool Elevator #3 was the most modern of any I saw in Thunder Bay. Apparently, 25 men were working on the day this elevator shut down.

Along with the deregulation came the shift in railway traffic and the number of cars allocated and guaranteed to terminals. The decreased number of cars available combined with increased shipping demand has resulted in late deliveries to Thunder Bay. Consequently, vessel transit from Thunder Bay has been repeatedly been out of sync with demand. To add insult to injury, shifts in international trading patterns have taken their toll.

The side of Saskatchewan Wheat Pool #7, still active, is hypnotizingly regular. From a distance, its texture resembles parchment. Its color resembles the color of the wheat in late October.
The side of Saskatchewan Wheat Pool #7, still active, is hypnotizingly regular. From a distance, its texture resembles parchment. Its color resembles the color of the wheat in late October.

Grain that had been previously heading east to Europe and Africa has been redirected to accommodate growing demand in Asia, especially China and India, and South America. Ocean freight rates are less than the cost of transit through the St. Lawrence Seaway, contributing to the Port Rupert and Vancouver’s recent success as a grain port. More and more, grain in central Canada moves westward, rather than east.

As of late, Richardson and Viterra have been spending millions of dollars to develop their West Coast holdings, rather than Thunder Bay. Port Rupert and Vancouver are both in the midst of a major port and terminal upgrade. The goal is that by 2016 Richardson and Viterra facilities will be equipped to handle the new and larger ships that are compatible with the massive and ongoing Panama Canal upgrade. While the Pacific Terminal is poised to be the most efficient port terminal in Canada, there is still hope for Thunder Bay.

Two signatures complement this gorgeous hand-painted sign. 'Bowers' from 1987 and 'Normal' from 1982. The blocking on the letters is still visible!
Two signatures complement this gorgeous hand-painted sign. ‘Bowers’ from 1987 and ‘Normal’ from 1982. The blocking on the letters is still visible!

Can Thunder Bay Make a Comeback?

Though Thunder Bay may never return to its former glory of 36 elevators, it is primed for a comeback.

The end of the Wheat Board means that farmers are not sanctioned to provide wheat to terminals based on Wheat Board demand, it also gives corporations more port options. There is hope that coming stabilization in market will bring new development which may allow for Thunder Bay to divert grain traffic from Churchill, Manitoba.

Along with the potential for diverted shipping traffic, Canadian Pacific Railroad has ensured the Manitoba government that shipping grain to Thunder Bay. This is part of a larger plan to help relieve overwhelmed Manitoba grain elevators.

To accommodate the influx of grain in recent years, a number of mothballed facilities were reevaluated. In November 2013, Viterra C reopened after a long period of disuse, and UGG-M (formerly Government Elevator) is another candidate for reactivation.

Historians are generally poor predictors of the future. So, instead of predicting a Thunder Bay rebound, we choose to watch, and to hope.

Demolition of Saskatchewan Wheat Pool #6