The grain elevator seen here really stands out as unique and was in the early 1980s a highly innovative design, the future of the Alberta grain industry. The Buffalo Sloped Bins (BSB) was the dawn of a bold new era, modern and efficient – it was the design that would eventually replace hundreds of outdated wooden grain elevators all over the province on the sleepy branchlines and busy mainlines.
Ultimately however, for a number of reasons, it entered into the era when the grain industry was in a state of flux with to many old grain elevators, on-going transportation issues with the railways, some construction problems with a new design, and an economic recession all played a part so that in the end only a few were built. The example we will be talking about today, an 2000 series model, resides in Foremost, Alberta and is in use with Alberta’s second short line railway.
Background on the Buffalos
From the early 1900s to the late early 1980s, the wood grain elevator ruled the roost in Alberta and in fact all over western Canada. The late 1970s were good times for Alberta’s farmers and for one of the major western Canadian grain companies – Alberta Wheat Pool (AWP). A few years of bumper crops and high grain prices kept the wooden elevators busy and added well to the profits of the Pool. With some of the additional profit, AWP decided to do some design work with an engineer from Edmonton, by the name of Klaus U. Drieger. Drieger and his company, Buffalo Engineering Ltd., drew up the initial concepts of the new concrete grain elevator – to be built with large precast concrete pieces that would be angled inside to move the grain more efficiently. Using pre-cast structural components would help the problem of maintaining a large work force and help reduce costs in building grain elevators in remote locations. Concrete would also help in reducing overpressure on the elevator walls during filling and emptying – these pressures are often difficult to determine and costly to design for (and to fix if a hole blows out the side of an elevator). Additional unloading spouts on the trackside were also added to speed up the loading of grain cars. The latest and best automation and dust control systems would be implemented as well. With these factors in mind, the AWP was convinced that this was the design of the future, and formed a partnership with Buffalo Engineering – the result was Agritec Engineering Systems, which was owned 50% by both companies. Agritec would design, market, and build the BSB systems.
Agritec commenced on the first design of the Buffalo Sloped Bins, the 1000 series. It would be comprised of 42 square pre-cast concrete modules, stacked like cord wood at a thirty degrees angle from the ground, and could hold approx 206,000 bushels. The elevator would include five spouts to load five rail cars at once, unlike the traditional elevator which can only load one rail car at a time. Alberta Wheat Pool analyzed its existing grain elevator network and decided that Magrath, AB would be the location for the first revolutionary grain elevator system. Agritec commenced construction in the spring of 1979, while AWP authorized additional BSB elevators at Fort Saskatchewan and Vegreville. On June 4th, 1980, it opened officially to the public. Over 2000 attendees toured the elevator on the first day. On the second day, grain industry officials from Kansas, Chicago, Minneapolis, Winnipeg, Regina, and Edmonton were given a detailed tour and review of the complex. Things were looking up!
In 1980 Alberta Beton Limited and Buffalo Beton Limited was formed to assist with the process – Alberta Beton would build the elevators, and Buffalo Beton would market the elevators to other grain companies in western Canada. Amid these developments, Buffalo Beton made several detailed presentations on their Buffalo grain terminal concept (the BSB 3000 series) to the Prince Rupert Grain Consortium (which was owned by 34% AWP, 30% Saskatchewan Pool, 15% United Grain Growers, 9% Pioneer Grain, 9% Cargill Grain, and 3% Manitoba Pool). On a side note, the terminal was 50% funded by the Alberta Government and 50% by the stakeholders in the consortium. The push behind the construction of a new grain terminal in Rupert, however, was more than a consequence of this change in market conditions. The most interesting alteration in the constellation of interests in the 1970s was the emergence of the provincial government of neighboring Alberta. The Alberta economy in the 1970s had been fuelled by rising oil revenues and commodity prices. Flush with cash and with a Heritage Trust Fund started in 1976, Alberta sought to invest in projects of relevance to the provincial economy. Since grain exports were hindered by the lack of developed infrastructure, it was the provincial government of Alberta that pushed for, and helped finance, the construction of a new grain terminal in Prince Rupert. Ostensibly under the framework of a consortium of six Western grain dealers, the project gained financial credibility when it was backed by the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund. The provincial government of Alberta assumed the dominant leadership role in 1979 and threatened to pursue other options if the grain companies did not back the Rupert port. Backed by Alberta money – up to 80% of the costs of the eventual $277 million investment were guaranteed by the province – the grain terminal went ahead (with a conventional design instead of the BSB 3000) and was completed in 1984.
In 1982 the Vegreville BSB elevator was opened for business. However, not all was rosy. Issues with the construction processes on the 1000 series elevators caused delays on site; the 30 degree sloped bins worked well, except for certain grains (barley and oats) which would stick to the rough surface of the concrete, causing plug ups and having the employees to go inside the bins to get the grain moving as well. Using all precast components did speed up construction, but it allowed for pockets or oddly shaped corners in the bins which affected the grain storage. The precast panels sometimes didn’t fit flush so gaps would form and then the grain would leak out (and was plugged up with tubes and tubes of caulking). Additionally, the complicated conveyor leg drive system was causing headaches as well. All the parties involved knew that it was a new concept and there would be bugs in the system, but if AWP was going to take this concept to more locations, then improvements would be needed to fine tune the design. With Canada entering an economic recession, orders for new BSB elevators slowed and after the Vegreville location was built, the future looked grim.
ABL Engineering Ltd. (reorganized Agritec Engineering) went back to the drawing board and the 2000 series was born.
The Foremost BSB 2000
Enter the 2000 series – this version of the BSB was also constructed with precast panels in conjunction with poured-in-place concrete (eliminating many of the grain leaking gaps from the 1000 series), although it had a more conventional shape. More care was taken on the concrete preparation, making the surfaces smoother inside. As well, the bin slopes were increased to 45 degrees and that seemed to help with the wide variety of grains these types of elevators were expected to hold. This generation of BSB’s held 190,000 bushels in thirty bins – cautiously in 1981 the first model of this series was approved and construction began in Lyalta, AB and was opened for business a year later. Soon afterwards, Alberta Wheat Pool was satisfied with the new changes and BSB elevators were approved for Foremost (the one seen in this article) opening in 1983, and an example at Boyle, AB in 1986.
The Foremost example served Alberta Wheat Pool and later Agricore well, but it was one of the several hundred elevators that would be sold off when Agricore merged with United Grain Growers in 2001. It went through a few farmers’ hands until being purchased by a group of farmers calling themselves ‘Southern Alberta Grain Exchange’. It was used mostly for grain storage at this point, as the railway line (the Stirling subdivision) was mothballed by CPR since 2006. The Southern Alberta Grain Exchange would be the ones that would push for a short line railway operation to take over the track, which would occur five or so years later in the fall of 2016 when the Forty Mile Railway (FMR) piloted their bright blue GP-9 locomotive with 20 grain hoppers down the track to Foremost.
The gem of the Forty Mile operations is the BSB 2000 grain elevator. Grain producers can bring their grain to the elevator, and access the national / international grain buyers to sell their grain. After selling the grain, it would be loaded into the grain hoppers and taken west to the transfer track just outside of Stirling, AB where the CPR would pick up the hoppers and take them off to their destination. Just having the 20 grain hoppers moving grain from Foremost to Stirling has already seen 40 semi truck loads (one hopper car per two semi trucks) taken off the local Highway 61 (which is a sigh of relief to the local county’s road departments)!
On October 18th, 2016 FMR had their ribbon cutting on the railway line and the open house at the BSB 2000 grain elevator (in which your author was invited to partake in). I along with several hundred others witnessed the GP-9 JLCX #4004 locomotive ‘cut’ the banner over the tracks, held up by the FMR Board of Directors. After some speeches, the railway was in ‘operation’ and the elevator was opened for tours.
Outside of some modifications here and there, nothing major overall, the machinery inside the Buffalo is pretty much as built as per the AWP specifications. The exterior is still painted in the former AWP colours, with the old Agricore sign blanked out on the east & west sides. The town’s name is still emblazoned across the front of the structure. It was tradition to do this, going back to the early days.
Walking inside the cool (and nicely cleaned driveway) there was some visible differences that were noticeable – particularly to the leg area of the elevator. At Lyalta, the dual elevating legs were almost right beside the driveway but here at Foremost they were set back away from the driveway. I am not sure the reason for it. Looking up it was clear to see the angled concrete bins overhead, and the network of faded green metal pipes that would direct the grain to and from the bins. Walking behind the legs is a man lift that would take a person to the second level of the elevator, and farther back is the access to the railway tracks. Walking to the back I almost missed the trackside scale tucked down below the trackside bin (a Fairbanks model) and had to duck to miss the overhead bin levers (also out of the wooden grain elevator handbook)! Walking up a short flight of metal steps and I could peek out the window in the back door and see the two sets of spur tracks this elevator had. Using this set up, two sets of grain hoppers could be loaded at a time (25 hoppers per track) with a separate control room suspended between the two tracks in a metal structure. This layout helped AB Wheat Pool load the CPR grain trains fast in the old days, and will help FMR with loading grain hoppers for the short line operations!
Additionally, parked outside on the elevator track is the bright blue GP-9. Originally a Southern Pacific model #3877, it would be later acquired by RaiLink and renumbered RLK #4004 and transferred to the Maritimes to work on the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway. It also spent some time at the nearby Windsor and Hantsport railway. It was renumbered again as JLCX #4004 in 2013 and did some work in the Montreal area before going into storage. It began to get prepared for service in late July 2016, before making the trip west in mid September. It went via CPR through Sudbury, ON then to Winnipeg, MB, then to Moose Jaw, SK, Swift Current, SK, and finally the Kipp yard just outside Lethbridge, AB by mid September.
Heading back to the driveway I walk past the bin access doors (green octagon shaped metal doors) and turned around the corner and headed inside the office area. As soon as I walked in to my left was the typical grain elevator chalk board that showed all 34 bins outlined, and beside it was the ‘heart’ of the BSB 2000 – the control panel. A large board with blinking lights, digital screens, dials, and buttons it looked complicated but a person could trace out the route the grain would take from the driveway to the bins and from the bins to the trackside. A quick walk through the office and then it was back outside. On the east side of the elevator is a large grain dryer (which is used often out here) and some smaller metal bins used to store chemicals and treated seeds.
Looking east is the neighboring ‘Frankish Farms‘ (a 1925 Lake of the Woods) grain elevator, a former Imperial Oil bulk / fertilize dealer, and then the 1954 Alberta Wheat Pool / Agricore #2 wooden grain elevator (now privately owned). Further down the track is the local seed cleaning elevator and beside it on the west side was the former location of the wooden United Grain Growers elevator which was demolished in 2001 (around the same time of the Agricore & UGG merger).
The Stirling Subdivision
The railway line seen out back dates from the late 1910s – built by the CPR it ran from the ‘mainline’ at Stirling (to the west) connecting to the CPR Montana subdivision, and went east towards Saskatchewan. It was part of an overall scheme by CPR to have ‘two’ main-lines spanning the Canadian prairies. It would originate in Souris, MB and stretch westward. CPR would start at Stirling in 1915 and slowly crawled eastward. Construction was delayed by steel & labor shortages due to the First World War. Meanwhile to the east, CPR would continue towards the Saskatchewan – Alberta border and reach it in 1914. Progress was then delayed again until after the First World War. In 1922, CPR would begin to close the gap from the previous construction and would finish in Manyberries – naming this portion of track ‘Altawan’.
Traffic slowed down considerably in the late 1980s / 1990s. By this time several of the smaller wooden grain elevators along the route were already closed and some had already fallen to the wrecker’s ball. Ever so slowly, CPR began abandoning and closing off portions of the track – first from Consul, SK to Manyberries, AB in 1989, followed by from Manyberries to Orion in 1990, then Orion to Etzikom in the early 2000s, then the Etzikom to Foremost portion in 2005. After 2002, any grain that was moved on the line was done by Brandt rail truck – it was too costly for CPR to use locomotives on the track, or to use taxis to take crews to/from to the locomotives. In June 2002, a surprise visit by the Royal Canadian Pacific train working an ‘rare miles’ cruise consisting of maroon and grey FP-7 #1400 locomotive, F9B #1900, GP38-2 #3130, and seven heavyweight coaches. At the time it went as far as Etzikom (to the end of the track). Not long afterwards, several of the sidings were pulled out, except for Skiff and Foremost, and the line sat dormant. The remaining portion of track was then put on the three-year abandonment list by CPR.
CPR seemed to change their mind constantly on the line – for a while it was listed to be abandoned, then it would be taken off the list, and then rumors of running oil cars to access the Bakken oil field would start up for a while, and then it would be put on the to be abandoned list. It wasn’t until the Southern Alberta Grain Exchange got serious in 2012 to get the courage to ask CPR on purchasing the remaining 73 km of track that things slowly turned around. Back and forth negotiations occurred and any visible change didn’t occur until the summer of 2016 when twenty grain hoppers were pushed onto the track at the east end near Stirling. Then the grade crossings were fixed up (including replacing the signs that were broken off over the years), a culvert replaced by Foremost, and another over the hill from the Richardson Pioneer high output elevator by Stirling (another former Agricore elevator), and finally a transfer track was installed a bit further east of that elevator (to allow the short line to exchange cars from CPR). In early September, the bright blue J&L Consulting GP-9 locomotive was brought west from Coniston, Ontario and after picking up the 20 grain hoppers from the transfer track it went to its new home at Foremost. It has been steadily moving cars since then, and it is a welcome sight in this local area!
As soon as the BSB 2000 systems were starting to take off the environment it was going into was plagued by an economic recession, a few continuous years of bad harvests, ongoing issues with the railway transportation industry, and the fear of railway branchline abandonment slowed the momentum for these new types of elevators.
In the early 1980s, Canada entered a new economic era defined by globalization and a revolution in information technology. The dark clouds of high unemployment and inflation rates (up to 21%) were forming on the horizon. Jobs were lost to mechanization in industry, and many workers were not trained for the emerging job markets. The Canadian dollar became less valuable than US, and another cause of inflation was the massive increase of oil prices due to the export quotas set by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) which hurt economic progress as well. The effects of the recession on resource exportation (including grain) to international markets were severe and the grain companies felt it. Rising construction costs would impact plans to have BSB terminals in every location as it was originally thought.
Added to the mix was the reluctance by the railways to invest in upgrading the aging prairie branchline network (where several of the country grain elevators were located), ongoing shortages of both locomotives and grain-carrying cars, and reduced revenues due to the Crowsnest Pass Act Agreement (aka the ‘Crow Rate’) was playing against the grain companies. The Crow Rate would be replaced by the Western Grain Transportation Act in 1984 (with the Federal Government paying most of the costs). A normal occurrence was the pointing of the fingers to see who was to blame for this situation – the grain companies? The railways? The farmers? Why would the railways invest in these money losing lines when the grain companies don’t invest in repairs or new grain facilities along these lines? If the railways don’t come to move the grain then the farmer’s grain can’t be moved and he can’t make any money, money that would go back into repairs and new grain terminals. The Federal Government asked the grain companies to keep their facilities operating until the year 2000, and then they could ‘guarantee’ that the branchlines would stay in operation. A novel idea, but with great responsibility and repercussions if the grain companies couldn’t pull through.
Given the extensive nature of the prairie branchlines (a result of intensive competition between CN and CPR and their predecessor companies to get the most $$ from the Federal Government at the turn of the century to build them), several branchlines became candidates for abandonment as there wasn’t enough business to keep them going. The light rail capacities in these lines would limit traffic to boxcars only. Subsidiaries from the Federal Government to the railways did help in the short term in operating these money-losing lines, though any money from that rarely or never did go to maintenance of the track – this would lead to more drastic measures later on. In 1974, the Federal Government announced a basic prairie branchline network of 12,414 miles (19,978 km) would be kept safe to the year 2000. An additional 6,322 miles (10,174 km) would be analyzed by the Hall Commission to either be saved or abandoned. The Hall Commission later determined that out of that number, 2,165 miles (3,483 km) would be abandoned and the remainder would be transferred to another Government agency, the Prairie Rail Authority (PRA). The PRA would have the authority to gradually dispose of these lines over a 25-year period. However, the Federal Government disagreed with the Hall Commissions report, and decided that an additional 1,498 miles (2,411 km) originally slotted to the PRA would be abandoned instead.
With the older grain boxcars wearing out, a new method of transportation was needed to improve efficiency and profitability for all people involved. The boxcars were labor intensive and time consuming to load & unload, so hopper cars were eyed up as their replacements. The Federal Government assisted in the funding of approx 12,400 steel and 2,000 aluminum grain hopper cars to be divided equally between CN and CP, with railways looking after the maintenance. Nicknamed ‘Trudeau Hoppers’ (after the Liberal government at the time) these new cars were a welcome sight for both the railways and the grain companies. The remaining grain boxcars weren’t ignored, as they received funding from the Federal Government for repairs as well. As mentioned previously, the Federal money that the railways received often didn’t go to track maintenance and now with the oncoming influx of new hopper cars, the tracks weren’t able to accommodate these new cars! Again, the Federal Government was pressed to help update the tracks to allow the railways to get the grain moving, and referring to the branchlines picked by the Hall Commission, a plan was put into place. Where the track was upgraded, those lines would get hopper cars and the ones who didn’t get updated would use the rehabilitated grain boxcars. However, by the late 1990s / early 2000s some of these rehabilitated branchlines would be abandoned by the railways (for either cost or dwindling business) and some would get re-sold to local area farmers to start short line railway operations, and some cases the tracks and material was removed and sent to another branchline to be reused again.
The grain companies (Alberta Wheat Pool included) suffered with the economic recession and as well as the few years of bad harvests, due to poor weather (drought one year and damp another) which hurt the company coffers and bottom line as the elevator agents would have to spend more time drying the damp grain and not be able to bring in new grain to get shipped out. Rising inflation hurt the construction of newer high-output elevators (like the BSB elevators), as the older wooden elevators were having trouble keeping up with the new changes in the transportation. It was harder to load grain hopper cars on sidings that were made for grain boxcars, and several elevators couldn’t manage that well. With a fluctuating economy and dwindling profit due to the drought and damp harvest years, it was decided that the pricier BSB elevators would have to be put on hold for the meantime until things improved. It was decided to upgrade and renovate some of the older, larger elevators and to build a few wood cribbed double composite ‘high-output’ grain elevators. Some of the upgrades included new semi-truck capable driveways and scales, increased mechanization and drying equipment inside the elevators, additional steel grain bins added on the exterior, and where if possible the addition of increased railcar capacity up to 12 cars per track, with some places up to 25 car capacity. With the renovated grain elevators and the few new wood cribbed elevators built, the Alberta Wheat Pool was able to get by through this period.
While this was going on, in the background the AWP began analyzing their current elevator network and picked some of the older, smaller capacity elevators to be closed. To keep the costs down, it was the best thing to do – especially with the added talk from the Federal Government on keeping the railway branchlines operating until the year 2000. There was lots of uncertainty by the grain companies on this announcement – what would happen to the elevators after that date and it the railway ceases operation on these branchlines? The grain companies would be stuck with elevators and no way of getting grain to and from them. Lots to think about!
After the Foremost BSB elevator was built, no new orders came in from Western Canada. The economic recession and the ups and downs of the railway issues were effecting all the grain companies. Buffalo Beton decided to increase the marketing and awareness of the BSB systems on the international scene to see if it would help sales. They struck gold in late 1982 when they were able to negotiate its first sale to the Brazilian grain company Cibrazem, for up to 17 BSB terminals, including the design & engineering services. The BSB 4000 series would be the model that would go to Brazil – building on the points of the BSB 2000. In the end, 5 BSB elevators would be built in Brazil; four at a capacity of 600,000 bushels and the final one at a whooping 3,750,000 bushels – although the Alberta Wheat Pool was not involved in the financing or construction arrangements, they received royalty payments for the transfer of the technology (which assisted the financial aspects considering the economic recession at the time). The Cibrazem BSB terminals would be fully operational by mid 1985. Buffalo Beton continued to drum the BSB system internationally and at one point had up to 20 countries (including the USSR, Egypt, and China) signed up but for reasons unknown their respective deals didn’t go any farther than paper contracts.
Back home, Alberta Wheat Pool approved a BSB 2000 terminal for Boyle, AB in 1984 that would become operational in 1986. Around this time, a different type of concrete elevator construction was experimented for a country grain elevator, slip-form construction. Slip-forming is a construction method in which quick-setting concrete is poured continuously in a moving form allowing for cast-in-place (no joints or seams). Inside and outside forms create the cavity of the wall, and inside this cavity, reinforcing steel is tied together vertically and horizontally to reinforce the concrete wall. The form is then connected to jack rods with hydraulic jacks, which automatically move the form vertically in minute increments as the concrete is being poured. The rate of “jacking” is in direct relation to the rate at which the concrete cures sufficiently to advance the forms. Typically, the forms are raised 20 to 24 feet per 24 hours. Once pouring begins, it continues around the clock until the top of the structure is reached, allowing for a monolithic poured concrete structure. Actually, the method has been in place at the turn-of-the-century, with many grain terminals at the ports were built in the same concept. It fell out of favor for awhile, but gained resurgence in the mid to late 1980s. Alberta Wheat Pool’s first slip-form elevator would be located at Grande Prairie, AB in 1989.
Another new wave of grain elevator design and construction was on the horizon, although this wave would virtually end the wooden grain elevator reign as we know it! And these new styles of concrete elevators would replace the BSB elevators as well – the construction cost was a huge part of the decision, but as well the loading of grain hopper cars was substantially different. For example on a typical BSB elevator a grain hopper car could be loaded around 30 minutes, while as a high-output elevator could load the hopper car in 6-7 minutes. Additionally, the rail car siding capacity at these elevators came into play as well. Several of the BSB terminals were located on branchlines that had smaller siding capacity (usually 25 cars or less), unlike the newer high-output elevators that have 50 or more car capacity on their sidings. Some of the newer elevators include a ‘loop track’ which enables the railways to bring the cars onto the property and unhook the engine and then go again, and the elevator would load the cars and then call the railway back to pick them up when they were done. These types of tracks could easily hold an entire train (up to 135 cars) without the need to break them up into smaller units!
None of the BSB terminals survived into Viterra ownership. Agricore sold the Magrath 1000 series to rival Parrish & Heimbecker in 2000 who then sold it off to a local farming operation (B&D Walters Farms Ltd.). On a side note your author and a few others will be touring this example within the next few months! The Fort Saskatchewan 1000 series was sold off by Agricore United in 2001 to Sime Farms Ltd, who continues to own it to this day. The Vegreville example was sold off at some point and was later demolished over several months in 2009. The Lyalta 2000 series was sold in 2001 to Canadian Malting Company, who continues to still use it for gathering barley for their malting operations in Calgary. BIGDoer.com (aka Chris & Connie) were able to tour that BSB elevator in January of this year. Sadly, the Boyle example was demolished in 2010.
Alberta Historic Resources Foundation (Judy Larmour)
Chris & Connie aka BIGDoer.com
Alberta Wheat Pool collection, Glenbow Museum
Jim Pearson (Vanishing Sentinels)