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Rural grain elevators — CPR provided free land along its tracks to build standard wooden elevators
Jan 24, 2013
by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
Patricia Vervoort, a professor of art history at Lakehead University, wrote in Towers of Silence: The Rise and Fall of the Grain Elevator, that the CPR didn’t consider elevators important enough to undertake their construction. “However, the CPR did use photographs and other artwork representing elevators in its pamphlets encouraging immigration and travel. Settlers were attracted by offers of free land, 160 acres each; once this land was cultivated, the farmers needed elevators.
“On the Prairies, elevators signalled the location of towns; particularly prosperous communities (and richer farm land) possessed multiple grain elevators.”
Flat warehouses at first outnumbered elevators. In 1890, there were 90 elevators and 103 warehouses —  which were significantly cheaper to build than elevators — at 63 delivery points in Manitoba and the North-West Territories (today’s Saskatchewan and Alberta, which didn’t become provinces until 1905). By 1899, there were 41 elevators and 116 warehouses at 192 delivery points. 
The initial flat warehouses were storage facilities for farmers and grain brokers in which grain was stockpiled in bags. When the grain was shipped, it was emptied from the bags over a grain door into the waiting railcar. The typical flat warehouse could hold approximately 4,000 bushels of grain, while the elevators built to standards set by the CPR had a minimum capacity of 25,000 bushels.
The Manitoba Free Press of November 2,1878, carried a short item about the erection of a new grain warehouse by “Messrs. Lapp & Shantz on Jemima Street,” just behind city hall. “The building is about 50x30 ft. with 24 ft. posts, and has a capacity of from 25,000 to 30,000 bushels. It is solidly built, the timbers being of oak, and there being double floors on both flats. On the ground floor are an office, three large bins and a storeroom. On the upper flat there are six large bins, from all of which grain can be delivered by means of spouts either on the exterior or in the interior of the building. The grain is elevated to the upper storey by means of a block and tackle, and a car will convey it to the different bins as required.”
In Grain: The Entrepreneurs (1991), Charles W. Anderson wrote that the typical flat warehouse then in use was divided into bins into which sacked grain was dumped after being weighed. “The bins were arranged on each side of a central alley that provided access for loading and unloading. Unloading was accomplished by shovelling the grain first into hand carts to box cars. This procedure, requiring about a day to load a car, was later improved with the addition of overhead bins into which the grain could be loaded mechanically and then spouted by gravity into the waiting car.”
Grain was becoming such an important crop that there was a flurry of activity in Winnipeg and St. Boniface to erect flat warehouses. Even the former Royal Opera House in Winnipeg was converted into a grain warehouse in 1878. That same year in September, A.S. Malloch called for tenders to build a grain warehouse, with a capacity of 15,000 bushels, along the railroad track in St. Boniface. At the time, the tracks for the Pembina Branch of the CPR only reached as far as St. Boniface.
Winnipeg’s rush to take advantage of the growing importance of wheat grown on the prairies resulted in the city becoming the prominent grain trading centre of the continent. Among the first grain trading entrepreneurs was Nicholas Bawlf, who was called “one of the fathers of Western Canadian grain,” and was a founding member of the Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange (founded 1887 and became known solely as the Winnipeg Grain Exchange). By 1900, there were 26 major grain companies based in the city.
Another community that was becoming noted as a grain centre was Brandon (founded in 1881 when the CPR designated it as the location of the main rail crossing over the Assiniboine River), which soon earned the nickname of “Wheat City.” It was a fledgling city surrounded by farms, villages and towns made prosperous by wheat. A circa 1888 photo shows dozens of horse-drawn wagons lining up on mud-covered Pacific Avenue to deliver sacks of wheat to three elevators standing in a row.
The Free Press on November 1, 1879, reported that Walter J.S. Traill was erecting a two-storey-high, 20-by-40-feet “wheat warehouse” near the corner of Morris and Sixth streets in Emerson. By the description of the facility, it only “partially” fits the design of the  grain elevators that would come to dot the prairies. According to the newspaper, “A driveway will run to the second storey, so that wheat can be unloaded from teams and dumped through spouts into (rail)cars (using gravity). A spur line will run from the main track to the warehouse.”
But, it is conceded by historians that the first true standard-type wood grain elevator, based on an American design, was erected at Gretna, Manitoba, in 1881 by A.W. Ogilvie & Company. Unlike Traill’s warehouse, the Olgivie elevator used a steam-powered endless cup conveyor, known as a leg, to raise grain to the top of the storage bins, which, similar to Traill’s design, could then be unloaded using gravity by spouts into railcars. 
The brief 1879 Free Press article commented that Traill wanted to put up a larger building, but could not purchase the necessary land. To make room for the new elevator, Traill tore down a grain warehouse that he had earlier built.
In an Emerson Notes column, the Free Press on December 6, 1880, mentioned that  Traill had completed a “grain warehouse” a week earlier at Two Little Points, a settlement along the Red River north of St. Jean Baptiste. “The building is 20x40 and is located on the bank of the river, on Mr. Wright’s place, who will buy grain for Mr. Traill.
Traill, a former Hudson’s Bay Company employee, is noted as being the first Manitoban to be exclusively a grain buyer in the province. Up until 1880, other grain buyers were usually general merchants or were involved in some other retail trade.
Operating a flat warehouse relied heavily upon manual labour, and thus was a rather inefficient method of handling grain that begged to be replaced by a better method. As a result, warehouses were soon being abandoned in favour of the improved handling capabilities of elevators, which eventually dominated the prairie landscape. Today, the only remaining example of a flat grain warehouse is found in the tiny hamlet of Brookdale, Manitoba.
It was William Cornelius Van Horne, the general manager of the CPR, who in 1883 first offered incentives, such as free sites along the railway tracks, to milling companies and grain dealers to build  wooden elevators, provided the elevators were built to CPR specifications. It was a provision that could be enforced, as the CPR had a monopoly on railroad construction in Manitoba until 1888. It did extend lines to crop regions, such as to Gretna to connect to an American line, an east-west branch line between Emerson and Manitou, a line on the west side of the Red River from Winnipeg to Selkirk and another line to Stonewall, but it was not enough to satisfy farmers who wanted more branch lines to serve more communities.  
In 1888, the then financially solvent CPR voluntarily dropped its monopoly clause with the federal government in return for an issuance to the CPR of a $15-million bond guaranteed by the Canadian government. The money was used to  purchase two American railways that were linked by a new CPR branch line to Sault Ste. Marie.  
With the removal of the CPR monopoly clause, other railway companies were finally able to build their own railroad branch lines in Manitoba and across the prairies.
In addition, the CPR had a monopoly on grain handling at the Lakehead (Thunder Bay), as it controlled all the Canadian grain terminals at Port Arthur and Fort William (now Thunder Bay) until 1902.
“Unable to finance construction of its own line of elevators, but anxious to realize the very significant benefits in terms of box-car turnaround that elevators made possible, the railway offered a free rail site to anyone prepared to build a ‘standard’ elevator of not less than 25,000 bushels capacity, powered by a steam or (later) gasoline engine, and equipped with a grain cleaner,” wrote Charles W. Anderson in his book, Grain: The Entrepreneurs. 
John M. Egan, the general superintendent for the CPR in Winnipeg, wrote to the Manitoba Farmers’ Union on August 29,1884, that the railway company  was continuing its policy of providing free sites for elevators to grain companies, including sites where other elevators already existed, such as “Morden, Manitou, Gretna, etc.”
Egan said that if the farmers’ union wanted to erect flat warehouses, it would only be allowed at sites where elevators were not present and at locations approved by the CPR from a list provided by the union.
Earlier, the CPR had promised the grain companies that it would not allow grain to be loaded on to its railcars from farmers’ wagons or flat warehouses at points where elevators had been constructed. 
John and William Ogilvie were quick to take advantage of the CPR’s generous offer (Allan Levine, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online). “As part of a special arrangement made with Van Horne in 1883, the milling company agreed to ship 25,000 sacks of flour from Port Arthur (Thunder Bay), Ont., via the CPR’s lake steamers, and in return it received a rebate on its freight rate payments. It has been estimated that by the end of 1884 this bonus amounted to approximately $50,000. By the following year the Ogilvies operated eight elevators in Manitoba and plans were under way for further construction.
“Manitoba producers soon protested that the railway company and the Ogilvie Milling Company constituted a monopoly. Indeed, evidence exists (in the Van Horne letter-books) to suggest that in 1884-85 the Ogilvies’ country buyers did not always pay farmers a fair price for their grain.”
Since the province’s farmers felt they weren’t receiving a fair price for their wheat, they wanted the option of building cheaper flat warehouses alongside existing elevators to store their grain while it awaited shipment to the Lakehead.  But it seems that Egan was merely playing for time when he wrote to the farmers’ union, as the CPR policy continued to be elevators over warehouses alongside its tracks. 
Indeed, Egan wrote to the farmers’ union that Olgivie was prepared to store their grain in his elevators and offer them five-cents more per bushel at Port Arthur (now part of Thunder Bay) than what they could obtain at Duluth, Minnesota, for the same grade of wheat. 
(Next week: part 3)