The concrete elevator seen here stands out as a unique example of Alberta ingenuity. For a time in the 1980s it was the ‘Cadillac’ of the grain industry and future of what was to come, meant to replace the iconic wooden grain elevators of old (and hopefully spread across Western Canada). The Buffalo-Sloped-Bin (BSB) 1000 series was the name of this futuristic design, created in collaboration between Alberta Wheat Pool (AWP) and Buffalo Engineering Ltd. Out of three examples built of this version, only two remain; one in Fort Saskatchewan, and one in Magrath. The other elevator in Vegreville was demolished in 2009.
From the early 1900s to the early 1980s, the wood grain elevator ruled the roost across western Canada. The late 1970s were good times for Alberta’s farmers and for one of the major western Canadian grain companies – AWP. A few years of bumper crops and high grain prices kept the wooden elevator network humming and added well to the profits of the Pool. With some of the surplus profit, AWP decided to do some design work with an engineer from Edmonton, by the name of Klaus “Nick” Drieger. Drieger and his company, Buffalo Engineering Ltd., drew up the initial concepts of the new concrete grain elevator – to be built with large modular precast concrete pieces and clad with pre-finished metal panels. Using pre-cast structural components would help the problem of maintaining a large work force and help reduce costs in building these grain elevators in remote locations. The modular design would allow for easy increases in capacity (from 206,000 bushels) by adding additional modules of about 55,000 bushels each – allowing the BSB to be built to virtually any size. Concrete would also help in reducing over-pressure 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). The dual vertical elevating ‘legs’ would include a double row of cups on each belt and the other pieces of equipment was designed to have a capacity of 5,000 bushels per hour (bph)! Five 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; including positive air pressure in the office area to maintain a dust-free environment while negative air pressure in the grain handling equipment area would keep the dust in these zones. With the previous elevator designs, the elevator agents had previously pre-weighed the grain into separate bins to be loaded into the railcars via the vertical elevating leg (to save time). The BSB elevators utilized an over-the-track bin system that filled with the grain (in layers) prior to being prepared for shipping. Once the appropriate bins were filled, it was directly unloaded into the railway cars below.
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. On a side note, the in-house AWP engineers weren’t included in the initial design of the BSB, but were included in the actual construction of the elevators.
Alberta Wheat Pool analyzed its existing grain elevator network and decided that Magrath would be the location for the first Buffalo terminal. Agritec commenced construction in late January 1979, while AWP authorized additional BSB 1000 series elevators at Fort Saskatchewan and Vegreville. On June 4th, 1980, the Magrath Buffalo officially opened to the general 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. 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 forcing employees to go inside the bins to get the grain moving. 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).
Another setback was the configuration of the new advanced equipment (being the jump from conventional elevators to the new style) which utilized horizontal conveyors to move grain between the bins. Typically, in conventional wooden elevators loading of railcars was done by gravity, while the vertical elevating ‘legs’ were able to move grain between the bins. With the new BSB elevators, both the elevating legs and the horizontal conveyors (two trackside conveyors and a central third conveyor that took the grain to the front of the elevator) had to be in operation at the same time. Also, the complicated gate system at the upper and lower ends of the concrete bins was confusing to operate and had issues with the gates not closing properly and allowing grain to leak out. 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. Out of these series three were built; Foremost (visited by your author – see article here), Lyalta (visited by the BIGDoer.com crew (see article here), and in Boyle, Alberta.
The Magrath BSB 1000
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 degree angle from the ground, and could hold approx 206,000 bushels. The bin capacity ranged from 3,700 to 5,400 bushels – from the end the bins resembled a honeycomb appearance! As the grain flowed into the bins in layers of 6 to 8 inches, and as the bin fills up the same depth is maintained over the full length of the bin. From ground level, the elevator is approximately 120 feet high or the height of a ten-storey building. The roof slopes to a height of six stories at the trackside. At that point, the BSB elevator would include five spouts to load up to potentially five rail cars at a time (depending on what car was at trackside), unlike the traditional elevator which can only load one rail car at a time. The spouts were semi-enclosed in a metal awning to protect the loading process and was able to divert moisture from the roof.
As mentioned previously, the issues with building these grain elevators and the growing pains of the new, advanced conveyor and dust equipment caused considerable headaches to Agritec and to the elevator agents of the AWP.
The Magrath example served Alberta Wheat Pool well, and later on under the Agricore banner. In the mid 1990s, the AWP construction crew performed a major upgrade of the Magrath Buffalo elevator, and the middle portion of the roof was ‘bumped-out’ to accommodate new enclosed distributors, new dust-handling equipment, and upgraded horizontal conveyors. Apparently lot of the original equipment at this time was already worn out. Included with the upgrade was additional piping over the roof to load the railway cars directly from the vertical leg (with increases in capacity to 8,000 bph), and a new automated scale. These upgrades not only kept AWP competitive but reduced capital costs in lean years, and kept the valuable construction staff employed. However, it was one of the several hundred elevators that would be sold off when Agricore merged with United Grain Growers in 2001. It was then sold to Parrish & Heimbecker, a smaller player in the Canadian grain industry and who had already owned a couple of wooden grain elevators in Magrath. P&H owned it for a few years before selling it off (with a couple of the original wooden elevators) to a local farming company; Ben & Donna Walters who operate them currently.
Fast forward to January 2017… after visiting the Foremost Buffalo 2000 example last fall, my appetite was whetted and I look forward to going after another local Buffalo example, the Magrath elevator, which I had driven by many times before on the way to and from Waterton Lakes National Park (and often wondered what the heck was that elevator about)? After some initial research and ‘old-fashioned elbow grease’ I was able to contact the current owners of the elevator who still uses the facility (and who graciously allowed us access). Naturally, the BIGDoer.com crew was at the top of the list of people to be invited to come along on the tour. On a cool weekday afternoon, we arrived at Magrath and with the company’s elevator agent (Richard) unlocking the door, we begun our tour!
From the outside, it looks very similar to when it first opened in 1979, minus the absence of the railway tracks, a bump-out on the roof, and with a faded Parrish & Heimbecker shield logo on the north front facade and the town’s name sign below that. It is interesting to see a grain elevator that is painted in the blue/green colours of the AWP with a P&H logo painted on it!
Walking inside the office the first thing we noticed (beside the green painted walls) was the modular layout of the concrete beams & columns, which was the basis of the Buffalo design. With Richard explaining the operation of the instrument panel, we suddenly pause to hear trickling grain behind us! We all turn around and watch in amazement a steady trickle of grain seeping out of a small crack in the ceiling above until it slowed down and then stopped. Richard walked over and quickly swept the loose grain up, and smirked at our surprised looks on my and Chris’ faces. A normal occurrence he says and then takes us through a side door to go downstairs. I pause at top of the stairs and look down to see a 50-pound man-lift weight used as a door stop! Interestingly enough it is stamped with ‘Alberta Wheat Pool Elevator A’. Walking through the door I had to take a step back as I was looking into the belly of the Buffalo, where a maze of galvanized metal pipes, conveyor belts, massive concrete columns, hydraulic rams, and green painted gates (that controlled the flow of grain) was located. As Richard was explaining the process to Chris, I walked slowly around taking it all in. We were adjacent to where the trackside operations would have occurred originally. Richard mentioned they use the trackside loading spouts to load semi trucks when the demand warrants. He pointed out to the gap-filling techniques that AWP, P&H, and themselves undertook to reduce grain loss that had resulted from the original design flaws the precast panels presented. He gestured to the pipes overhead and explained how grain was released from the rear of the bins down a chute to two horizontal conveyors that would transfer the grain to a central conveyor belt that directed the grain to a scale at the front of the elevator and then to the rear loading spouts just to the outside of our location. The conveyor system worked well, but required lots of maintenance (something AWP would soon learn in the early years of running the Buffalos).
We then went back up the stairs to the main level, and then went up a separate set of stairs to the upstairs levels. Through the first door we entered a rectangular room where the scale was located. Along the one wall there were several green painted metal bin access doors, and the one corner was some boxes, and a red man-lift standing there! Richard mentioned it came from one of the wooden grain elevators that had stood nearby the concrete Buffalo. Leaving the room and going up another set of stairs we enter another room that was directly above the driveway space, and through an opening in the slab we could see the driveway below. Directly to our right is the double vertical lifting legs that would take grain from the driveway level upwards to the top of the Buffalo (where it would get distributed to the proper bins). The floor level is lighted with clear Plexiglas panels which rattle slightly with the wind outside and with the sloped concrete grain bins above our heads it was a bit intimidating! At the door, we could of went up another long flight of stairs to the top level of the Buffalo, where the dust collection equipment and the distributors were located, but Richard had to go to one of the neighbouring grain elevators to get the driveway ready for an incoming semi truck load, so we decided to head back downstairs. Myself and Chris looked through the office a bit more (noting the former Buffalo Engineering bin diagrams pinned to the bulletin board) and then proceeded down a dusty hallway past empty offices to another reception area that was currently being used as storage. From what he told us it was used by the neighbouring Richardson grain company for a bit while they were renovating their offices at their facility. Through the side door we enter the driveway that was framed out with precast panels (with their embedded lifting rings) and the massive concrete columns. After a few minutes of exploring (and seeing the three vertical legs, and a man-lift) we went outside while Richard headed over to the former P&H grain elevator to meet the semi truck.
Rounding the corner of the Buffalo we can see the five loading spouts where the metal grain hopper cars (or boxcars) would have been loaded. Potentially up to five cars could have been loaded at a time, averaging 30 minutes per car to load. Not bad for an 1980s design, but slow considering the present-day high-output grain elevators average a loading time of 6 to 7 minutes per car! Additionally, the rail car siding capacity at these elevators came into play as well. Several of the BSB terminals were located on branch lines that had smaller siding capacity (usually 25 cars or less – most times 12 cars), 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! With the smaller siding capacity came the issue of moving the loaded cars as well to keep the process going at a good rate. The older methods of a winch system did work but wasn’t as fast as a car mover or a dedicated locomotive moving the cars along. Overhead we can see the more recent upgrade of a gantry where employees would tie safety lines to it as they walked along the grain hopper cars walkways during the loading process. Looking towards the southeast we see the P&H grain elevator (a former Ellison Mills) where Richard’s truck is parked outside.
The oldest elevator in Magrath still standing dates back to 1917. It’s painted in Parrish and Heimbecker colours, the firm’s logo still displayed on its sides. Originally built for the Ellison Milling Company, it was acquired by the P&H company when that firm took over all of Ellison’s operations in 1975. In approximately 1972 Ellison added the round metal “annex” bins, as way to increase capacity and upgraded the elevator legs. The wood one on the opposite side, are much older, dating to the late 1930s. Looking towards the southwest we see a vertical concrete grain elevator, owned by the local Church of Latter-Day Saints (that was built in the 1970s), and directly west of the Buffalo was a former Alberta Pacific/Federal/Alberta Wheat Pool elevator that dates back to 1937.
By 1903, Magrath was a significant grain delivery point for the area with a single elevator and flour mill in operation. By 1911, it had increased to four grain elevators with a combined capacity of 116,000 bushels. By 1920 there were six elevators; though a single elevator would be lost sometime afterwards the remaining elevators would remain as status quo well in the late 1980s. In its day two long elevator tracks on either side of the main line was needed to service these elevators, plus the associated industries including fertilizer sales, twine, chemical, coal, etc. The Ellison/P&H, the concrete Buffalo, and the Alberta Pacific/Federal/AWP elevators are all owned by B&D Walters Farms, so Richard is busy doing work at any one of them at any given time!
The Cardston Subdivision
In 1900, as irrigation was developing in southwestern Alberta, the Galt family of Lethbridge commenced another railway project under the name of the ‘St. Mary’s River Railway company’ (SMRRC). The railway was narrow gauge and extend from Stirling west to the intake of the St. Mary’s canal at Spring Coulee. Recently emigrated Mormon settlers from Utah were employed by the Galts to build both the railway and irrigation canals. The railway used the equipment of the parent Alberta Railway & Coal Company (AR&CC) and later Alberta Railway & Irrigation Company (AR&IC). Between Raymond and Magrath, the railway line crossed the Pothole creek on a low level wooden bridge, and two other railway trestles had to be built between Magrath and Cardston. By 1902, the railway had reached Cardston and narrow gauge trains were in operation. In addition, a branch line was built from Raley (the station before crossing the St. Mary’s River by Cardston) southwest towards the settlement of Kimball. It split halfway between the two points and turned slightly east and stopped at Woolford. In 1907, work began on upgrading the narrow-gauge line to standard gauge and work was completed by the end of the year.
In early 1912, the Galts began negotiations with CPR to takeover the remaining railway network, including the line to Cardston. By June, a deal was in place and the CPR took over ownership and the former Galt network was placed under the CPR Medicine Hat division. The former SMRCC track was renamed the CPR Cardston subdivision, and the track from Raley south was renamed the CPR Woolford subdivision.
In 1927, CPR extended the railway line west from Cardston through the Blood Indian reserve to Hillspring and Glenwood in order to serve the needs of the newly created United Irrigation District. In 1929 the former railway line from Raley to Woolford was re-instated and later extended southeast towards the International Border, ending at a point called Fareham, later Whiskey Gap.
Passenger train service varied in the early years of the CPR takeover; starting with daily (except Sunday) service between Lethbridge and Cardston, and cutting back to three days a week in the early 1930s and later transitioned to mixed train service by 1933. In 1948, gas-electric car service using ‘doodlebugs’ were put into place running daily (except Sunday) from Lethbridge to Glenwood. However, not enough passengers meant the route to Glenwood was cancelled in 1950, and the mixed train option ended in 1955.
By the mid 1970s, CPR began re-analyzing its rail network and began selecting the lower mileage / non-productive branch lines to be abandoned. As per the Federal government regulations at the time, the appointed Hall Commission reviewed all the applications including portions of the Cardston subdivision. At the time, trains operated on a mixture of 80 and 85-pound steel rails, and the main grain delivery points included Welling, Spring Coulee, Magrath, Cardston, Hillspring, and Glenwood. AWP operated at all those points, United Grain Growers at Cardston and Hillspring, and P&H at Cardston only. From a period of ten years (1964 – 1974) approx. 3,000,000 bushels of grain was hauled from the region by CPR trains. Nevertheless, the Hall Commission recommended the Prairie Rail Authority. The track from Cardston to Glenwood was recommended to be abandoned by 1980.
As the years pass the line suffered from deferred maintenance and service became unreliable at best. CPR became disenchanted with the money losing branch lines and did everything in their powers to rid themselves of them – only government regulations kept this from happening faster. In the spring of 2000 service ended between Cardston and Magrath, and the track between the two centres was removed. In 2001, service to Magrath was severed when a flash flood washed out several culverts supporting the track across Pothole Creek, just east of the town. CPR had installed the culverts just a few years prior, when it retired its wooden trestle. At the time, CPR didn’t operate many trains down to Magrath. By 2002, train traffic on the former Cardston subdivision was reduced from Stirling to Raymond only. CPR removed the track between Magrath and Raymond, and a large portion of it was donated to the Great Canadian Plains Railway Society, for the development of the Galt Historic Railway Park at the junction of the CPR Cardston & Coutts (later Montana) subdivisions just outside of Stirling. The portion from Raymond to Stirling was placed on the abandonment list in August 2005 and continues to be on the list, with no real future left.
Always Look Back
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. This hurt the company coffers and bottom line as the elevator agents would have to spend more time drying the damp grain and not shipping it 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 branch lines 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 branch lines? The grain companies would be stuck with elevators and no way of getting grain to and from them. Lots to think about unfortunately!
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to have the Blog title in the subject line.
Hope & Richard at B&D Walter’s Farms – THANK YOU!
Alberta Historic Resources Foundation (Judy Larmour)
Chris & Connie aka BIGDoer.com
Alberta Wheat Pool collection, Glenbow Museum
Jim A. Pearson (Vanishing Sentinels)
Jim F. Pearson (retired AWP engineer)