A Row of One – Vulcan, Alberta

Grain elevators—often called prairie icons, vanishing sentinels, or prairie cathedrals on the horizon—once symbolized the rural landscape across the Canadian prairies.

Grain elevators signalled the location of the region’s villages and towns. Particularly prosperous communities had multiple elevators which provided better services and a stable tax base.

The town of Vulcan is located along the Canadian Pacific’s Aldersyde Subdivision, a secondary mainline between Lethbridge and Calgary, that opened for traffic in October 1911. During the construction of the railway, the grain elevators were erected at the various sidings along the line to receive grain from the surrounding district.

Vulcan’s first elevator, built by the Terwilliger Grain Company in 1911-1912, boasted a capacity of 25,000 bushels. It was joined in 1912 by the Alberta Grain Company’s (forerunner to Alberta Pacific Grain) 40,000-bushel elevator, and Taylor Milling’s elevator and warehouse, with a combined capacity of 12,000 bushels.

The makings of “Nine in a Line” at Vulcan. In addition to eight elevators (soon to be nine), adding to the skyline was the CPR’s mechanical coaling plant, erected in 1928 in the far distance. (Glenbow Museum & Archives) – W.J. Oliver

Vulcan was typical of the sidings located every six to ten miles by the railways in the West, the practical distance that grain could be delivered from the farm by horse-drawn means in a day.  The railways provided sites at these points at nominal rental where the line companies could erect their elevators. 

Elevators at the time were standardized at 25,000-bushel capacity—recognized as the minimum economical size—but some companies built 30-40,000-bushel elevators anticipating the growth of the local market. At these elevator sites, the companies often offered other services including coal sales, farm supplies, chemical and fertilizer, twine, and other agricultural products.

Soon, other grain companies flocked to Vulcan with familiar names – National, Alberta Farmer’s Cooperative, and Pioneer – taking advantage of the high-quality grain produced in the region.

By the 1920s, Vulcan’s “Nine-in-a-Line” grain elevator row was publicized far and wide, promoted in photographs that appeared in postcards, newspapers and magazines. With a combined storage capacity of around 750,000 bushels. Vulcan was dubbed “the largest grain handling in point in Alberta”, though the claim was sometimes aggrandized as the largest in Western Canada or the world, depending on which newspaper you were reading at the time.

“Nine in a line” in all its glory. A view of the Vulcan grain elevator row looking southwest – April 1965. From left to right: Alberta Wheat Pool, Alberta Pacific Grain, United Grain Growers, National Grain, Searle Grain, Parrish & Heimbecker, Pioneer Grain, Alberta Wheat Pool, and another Pioneer Grain.(Ken Hooper Collection, Great Canadian Plains Railway Society)

When the second photo was taken in April 1965, Vulcan still had an impressive elevator row. Most of the wooden-sided elevators appeared in the standard brown, though the United Grain Growers elevator was in its white and blue paint scheme. The Pioneer elevators with their yellow-painted roof annexes, though the rest of the elevator is still in the railway colours (though after 1962, Pioneer would start painting the walls orange). 

As these wood-clad buildings were located near the railway track,s they were susceptible to catching sparks from passing trains so,they were often wrapped in galvanized shingle plate, also known as “Manitoba Siding”, which was sometimes painted.  

Some elevators included corporate logos, and some had advertisements. Later, the towns’ names began to appear on their flanks. Some sported numbers identifying the local cooperative or group responsible for that particular elevator.

Most of the elevators had a wide variety of annexes which were a cheap way to add extra capacity. Note the position of the last Pioneer elevator in the row.

In March 1956, the Federal government passed the “Temporary Wheat Reserves Act”, to relieve the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) and producers of burdensome storage charges on wheat. In essence, the farmers were paid to store their harvested grain when wheat stocks surpassed a given threshold, allowing the CWB to sell the stored grain “at the right time, for the right amount”. Some of these payments trickled down to the grain companies, which either built new annexes or repurposed older/smaller elevators. With maxed-out storage space and guaranteed payments from the CWB, the grain companies saw little reason to stop using their older assets.

Approximately in the same location as the second photograph about 55 years later – February 2020 (Jason Paul Sailer)

Grain elevator consolidation between 1968 and 1975 reduced the number of lineside elevator companies.  At locations where multiple elevators were owned by the same company, the duplicate ones were sold to a competitor, used for additional grain storage, or closed/demolished.

Despite all of the commissions (MacPherson – 1961, Hall – 1977), acts (National Transportation Act -1967) and investments (government hopper cars fleet – 1972; Prairie Branchline Rehabilitation Program – 1977), the grain-gathering branchlines of western Canada remained anachronistic and unremunerative for the railways. 

Profound changes came in 1983 with enactment of the Western Grain Transporation Act, modifying the old Crow rate, by paying the railways actual costs for moving grain from the western interior to tidewater: the producer paid the former statutory freight rates, while the Canadian government paid the railways the balance.  This stimulated massive changes in the the western grain industry: Incentivizing rates for multi-railcar loading and quicker turnaround and better utilization of the hopper fleet; resulting in the construction of larger, more efficient grain elevators at centralized points, making most of the traditional elevators redundant.

A closeup of the remaining Pioneer wooden grqin elevator in Vulcan, AB – October 2020 (Jason Paul Sailer)

Fast forward to 2020, and there is but a single structure along the tracks at Vulcan. It is amazing how much has changed in 55 years.

By June 1982, Pioneer Grain opened an 80,000-bushel elevator. The original 1927 Pioneer elevator and the west annex were dismantled, and the former east annex was moved beside this new elevator. The older Pioneer elevator was used for grain storage, but by the early 2000s, it disappeared leaving only the 1982 elevator. In the mid-1990s four large steel bins were added on the west side of the elevator. Meanwhile, just south of town high-output concrete grain elevators,  were erected by Parrish & Heimbecker (1994) and AgPro Grain (2000 – currently owned by Richardson Pioneer Grain). Each of these modern granaries has a storage capacity that rivals or even surpasses all the elevators seen in the 1965 photo combined!

“Grain elevators were the central point of commercial activity for all the small communities. People would come in, bring their grain, and get a payment waiver. The women would be waiting to take the waiver to the grocery stores or the mercantile outlets to do their shopping,” said Hans Huizinga, the President of the Alberta Grain Elevator Society, a private organization that raises awareness to save these historically significant structures.

“Now farmers go to these larger terminals, get their waivers, and pack off to go to the big city to go to Walmart. As soon as you deprive the community of the elevator, a large basis for the commercial venture is gone.”

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