Grain Elevators of Port Arthur & Fort William Thunder Bay, ON
Authors' Notes and Gallery
Although my family moved a few times when I was growing up in Minnesota, I was always in sight of a silo.
I learned to read them. I could tell the time by reading the shadows of the giant concrete cylinders, and could tell how to get between the grocery store and my home by which elevator I was facing at the time. When I was old enough to question what they really where and what they did, many of the elevators had already disappeared.
Going to Thunder Bay, especially Fort William, is like getting a second chance to be a kid, be curious, and feel at home playing in the world.
For more of my story, check out the ‘info’ page for the Substreet project here.
It started out as “Canadian Curiosity.”
Many mornings were spent traveling southbound from Winnipeg, watching a fireball sunrise over the prairie. As a born and raised New Englander, the only ‘prairies’ that I saw growing up were the ones on scratched, technicolor filmstrips. No amount of editing can accurately portray the overwhelming vibrancy at daybreak. I would procrastinate my return to the States by following dirt roads and a 1970s map to various farming communities. During one of these excursions, I found myself at the foot of a quite peculiar building in Saint Agathe. I had never seen a grain elevator before that moment.
It wouldn’t be until three years later, after an ethereal, late night bike ride out to the prettiest grain elevators in the Twin Ports, that I realized what I had actually stumbled upon in Manitoba. A new-found appreciation for elevator architecture coupled with a rampant desire to devour anything that was even marginally related to Canadian history made Thunder Bay a likely target of my fascination. What Manitoba started, Ontario finished. Once I set eyes on Ogilivie’s, I was hopelessly hooked by the magic.
Gallery: Port Arthur Elevators
An old sign in front of the elevators that used to constitute Saskatchewan Wheat Pool #4. Kodak Pro 100.
Without a conveyor belt, this tripper seems lost. The job of this machine was simply to take grains from the moving conveyor belt and eject it into the silos via the chutes on the sides. Note all the dust collection venting added to the machine to suck up any explosive grain dust.
Looking up the Dominion Elevator’s tower. I especially like this picture because it shows how so much of the electrical conduits wound round through the mostly hollow space.
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.
A chalkboard halfway to the headhouse is untouched since the mill closed. It still has the cheat sheets!
Looking down a manlift on the ore dock side of the elevator. It’s a belt-less belt-o-vator!
The King Elevator is connected by a manlift and this spiral staircase. The manlift was down–can you believe it? Note the cool turns in the vertical railings. Arista 100 on 120.
Let’s play a game called “FIND THE PIGEON”! There is one bird in this photo of dust collectors atop the King Elevator train shed.
The roof of the King Elevator had two small vents and a terrific view of Sleeping Giant Provincial Park. Arista 100 in 120.
The lower floors of King Elevator are scrapped and ruined. Nearly everything that is not concrete has been destroyed. Some time ago it seems that someone built a tarp-roof hovel inside of the ground floor.
A skyway 100 feet above this office crumbled one day. This is what happened when those two met. High-impact love.
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.
One boat comes into port while three wait. The birds, fat from spilled grain, circle overhead. Arista 100.
The newer train barn for the SK Pool 4 complex has a car tipper that would clamp and turn the grain cars to dump them into hoppers. FP-100c.
Dominion was acquired by UGG, which designated the elevator ‘M’. Their offices still have safety signage.
Parrish and Heimbecker (front) Davidson & Smith-AU-S (middle) Government (back)
What appears to be a building once associated with King Elevator is now a defunct scuba company. To the right of the frame you can see how the concrete on the elevator is beginning to show its rebar.
One of the walls of the train shed was growing, thanks to a little bit of sunlight and a constant trickle of rainwater over it. FP-100C.
A me-sized hole in the half-demolished skyway looks about a story down to the ground. Step lightly. Arista 100.
Looking into the half-demolished, half-dismantled conveyor for the sea leg.
Gulls check in on me while I climb around the roof of one of the train shds of SWP #4. FP-100C.
Peering into a remote office at Manitoba Wheat Pool #3. Someone left their to-do list behind.
A great lakes freighter slowly passes SK Wheat Pool 4 with ‘The Sleeping Giant’ in the background. Arista 100.
Beside the half-demolished Thunder Bay Elevator shops and offices (brick building) are some rusting fishing boats. A little bit of SWP #7 is seen in the upper right.
Looking down at the Port Arthur Ore Dock from Manitoba Pool Elevator #3. The conveyor belts are gone and King Elevator is in the far distance.
I wonder if these windows were bricked after the 1950 explosion with the hopes that, if another silos blew, the people in this office would be better protected.
I had to climb into the roof of the half-demolished skyway to see through to the other side of the train shed. That’s my foot in the corner.
The tower of Dominion certainly dominates the elevator row.
All that’s left of the lost annex near Saskatchewan Wheat Pool #4 and #5. Arista 100.
The side of King that faces the lake is stained yellow-green.
A broken window looking through the First Aid Room and into the Control Room in charge of directing grain into ships. You can see one of the large conveyors on the right, clad in green. Chutes and staircases intertwine seemingly randomly through the big empty spaces.
One of my favorite shots of the headhouse at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool #4, with one seagull threading the needle. The socket holes on the frame got blown out thanks to my bad developing, but I like the effect. Arista 100.
Thunder Bay Elevator, now stands without a headhouse. Around the silos, a few shacks still stand.
I love the ‘hats’ on the top of the SWP-4 headhouse. FP-100C.
The top floor of the Dominion Elevator. Acros 100 on 120.
King Elevator sits in the corner of a more recently-defunct lumber mill: Great Western Timber. Perhaps in the future I will write the history of it. Arista 100 in 120.
I am sure even the workers had trouble remembering which pillar hid the phone. Note the “ON” written on the electrical socket, too.
Ruster at The Pool… employee graffiti about 100 above ground.
A closeup of the key to the Dominion (aka Government of Canada) Elevator manlift. That it needed such a guide does not inspire confidence.
The red brick elevator is reflected in the flooded railyard. Note the saturated red square on the elevator, where the ‘4’ was scrubbed off. FP-100c.
The office for the Government (Dominion) Elevator had a nice hat collection left over.
All of the bucket conveyors crashed on this work floor when their casings were scrapped. Note all of the valves to open the grain flow.
The annex casts a long shadow over its old headhouse and the former UGG (currently Vitera C) elevator. Arista 100.
Two signatures complement this gorgeous hand-painted sign. ‘Bowers’ from 1987 and ‘Normal’ from 1982. The blocking on the letters is still visible!
The roof of the elevator was partly lit naturally with six big skylights. The less electricity pumped into a grain elevator, the less chance of a grain dust explosion.
Seagulls circle the roof of King Elevator, the veritable Fortress of the Pigeon Forces.
Looking up at the network of elevators at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool. Its train shed doors stand open under the void where conveyors should be. You can see where they used to connect on the left and right. The outside of the building is covered in racist graffiti.
The stairs of this elevator had their landings removed long ago to keep vandals grounded.
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 great stenciled number on this chute caught my eye.
A closeup of the pulleys atop Manitoba Pool #3 which once pulled conveyor belts full of grain across the cupola building as it was sorted into the silos below.
The gulls wait to eat the next load of spilled grain. Arista 100.
From left to right: Saskatchewan Wheat Pool #7, Thunder Bay Elevator, Dominion, Davidson & Smith, Parrish & Heimbecker. One of four packed elevator rows.
Saskatchewan Wheat Pool #4 looks rough these days. You can tell how high the children of Thunder Bay can throw a rock.
Looking out of the elevators. Canada Malting, Vitera A and Vitera B in the background.
A custom ladder to cross conveyor belts on the work floor.
Gallery: Fort William Elevators (and Ogilvie!)
Looking into the Pool 8 Annex from the original Ogilvie’s elevator.
Two steel hoppers supported by counterweights and springs, which were used to weigh incoming grain loads before being deposited in the silos beneath this floor. Garner is another way to say “big measuring tank”, if you were wondering. I fell in love with all the tubes and chutes on this floor.
From the highest roof of Ogvilvie’s, Thunder Bay looks like paradise.
Ava on an upper catwalk.
The cupola–the space above the silos–is surprisingly original. The building was too unstable for anyone to scrap it out. Seriously, the floor is a deathtrap.
The Western Elevator’s old moniker looks over Fort William (the neighborhood). Snow falls over Mount McKay in the background. This elevator is still active… the only active elevator in Fort William proper.
Looking at the side of the Superior Elevator from the tracks that feed the Western. Note the old flagpole.
Looking across the ruined skyway that connects the two elevators. I wanted to walk across it, but my exploring parter held me back.
When I first saw Ogilvie’s from the ground, I promised myself to look back when i found my way into this little pitched outcropping which seemed to have the best view of Thunder Bay I could imagine. It turns out, though, that there is no floor in that section; it is just extended machine access! Oh well. Mount McKay in the background in the last light.
Looking toward Fort William (Western) Elevator from the top of Superior Elevator. Fort William is bordered on the south and east by this wide, winding railyard. Note the pretty and quaint brick offices of the Western.
The main rail artery for Thunder Bay passes Ogilvie’s.
The Port Arthur elevator row, as seen from the edge of Fort William.
A spring moon stands over the very active former Grand Trunk Elevator, now ‘Superior’. It seems to have gotten more than a few facelifts over the years.
“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.”
A reminder to the manlift riders to get off the belt before they hit their heads on the ceiling. This is the top level of the headhouse, where dust collectors would extract most of the grain bits from the air to reduce risk of explosion.
The floor was a bit too thin for my taste at the top of Superior Elevator. The left hole looks outside; the right hole looks down half a story to the level below.
A century-old ghost sign for Royal House Flour was preserved after a building is built above and through it! Looking from the north annex elevator toward the headhouse.
The train loading tower (left), and elevators. Check out that giant flagpole/lightning rod.
I love the ghost sign across these two elevators, originally built as Superior Elevator. It’s looking pretty rough.
Sunset through a stained window in the headhouse made the floor feel like a heavy industrial Disney movie.
The top of the grain handler of Ogilvie’s. The flagpole serves as a lightning rod. In fact, I would not be surprised if that was its primary purpose.
Two bin signs criss-cross in the North Annex.
Click to see what the mill area looks like now.
The end of the new elevator. Line of bird droppings follow the fire sprinkler pipes and wires in the room.
Looking out from my perch close to the Kam toward the Ogilvie head house. To the left is a newer concrete annex, probably built in the years it bore the name Saskatchewan Pool 8.
At the top of the workhouse, dust collection pipes weave through cross-crossing conveyors.
Train-mounted snowplows pushed the snow through the fence and against the old offices.
On the outside of the steel silos and headhouse is a riveted bulge that does not look like the silos. Inside is this elevator, a rudimentary (read: dangerous) and old (read: dangerous) freight elevator.
A retrofitted dust collector stands out from the geometry of the roofline.
Gallery: Historical Photos
1911 Ogilvies, Archives of Manatoba
A local newspaper’s summary of Fort William and Port Arthur’s grain elevators, 1938.
Grain Growers Grain Company Hospitality Tent
Crew of one of the Canadian Northern Elevators, circa 1900.
Conveyors and Headhouse of Canadian Northern Elevator B, built 1903.
A brochure advertising Western Canadian land offerings, an attempt to populate the new province and its connection with the railroad.
A Saskatchewan Pool parade float, 1950s?
Fort William Elevators, circa 1960. Image credit Thunder Bay Archives.
Saskatchewan Wheat Pool #4-A loading a vessel. Image credit: Thunder Bay Archives.
Port Arthur Row, 1977. Image Credit: Thunder Bay Archives.
The aftermath of the the explosion of the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool #4A headhouse.
Map of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885. Note all the information about Western Canada.