As every schoolchild knows, the grain elevator was invented by Joseph Dart, Jr. in 1843 in Buffalo, NY. Dart’s elevator was a wood-cribbed design that was replaced with the hulking concrete behemoths that still line Buffalo today. They are both a blessing and a curse. While “elevator alley” along the Buffalo River is an historic site that attracts visitors from around the world, it also cuts off the city from its most valuable resource, its waterfront.
Out here in Western Canada, grain elevators are as common as they are in Buffalo, although they’re a little more spread out. Every town in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan has one. They seem to get thinner on the ground the farther north you go, where the oil and gas industries assume prominence.
The elevators were farmers’ cooperatives that eventually coalesced into the Saskatchewan Co-operative Wheat Producers Ltd. in 1923. Originally intended to protect farmers from monopolistic grain trading companies, the Cooperative itself became a publicly-traded company in the 1990s. Most of them are sided with a kind of pressed metal siding, still in its raw condition.
North of Saskatoon, we picked up the Trans-Canada Highway. This road is mostly filled with long-haul tractor-trailers and pick-up trucks. It’s a 70 MPH road carrying a fair bit of traffic, and it has at-grade crossings.
It doesn’t have a finish coat, which means it’s fairly bouncy in a passenger car. That made painting a little more difficult. I didn’t realize how much we were vibrating until I tried to write margin notes on the interleaf, only to realize I couldn’t form a single legible letter.
As we approached the provincial border, the tree cover started to change from deciduous softwoods. We passed the Millar Western Sawmill/Pulp Mill in Whitecourt, which was receiving truckload after truckload of logs from farther north. It reminded me a bit of driving in Maine.
This was a trend that would continue as we traveled north. The landscape became progressively wilder as we passed provincial parks and First Nation lands. Eventually, we were traveling through “Moose Row,” an area in which we were cautioned to be ever-vigilant about moose. At that point we were driving through a forest of aspen, tamarack, lodgepole pine, jack pine, and black spruce, with swampy wetlands.
Eventually, we climbed a long slope. “If this is Grande Prairie, it’s pretty mountainous,” said my daughter. Actually, we were just climbing to some sort of high plains. Coming over the top, we were greeted with much the same farming terrain that we’d left back near Saskatoon, albeit at an elevation of 2,195 ft.
But the real significance of Grande Prairie is that we’re a hop, skip and a jump from Dawson’s Creek and the beginning of the ALCAN Highway. We’ll be there this morning.