Backgrounder Article from  Parks Canada

Grain Transshipment at the Lakehead

The efficient shipment of grain from farms to markets is an essential part of a market-oriented grain industry, but when Canadian wheat production began to boom in the late 1800s, a convenient all-Canadian route for exporting grain was not in place and prairie wheat had to pass through Minnesota for delivery to Ontario. This changed in 1883 with the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) between Winnipeg and Fort William, Ontario, at the head of Lake Superior. From that point on, grain could be exported from the prairies via the Great Lakes. Between 1883 and 1920, the side-by-side settlements of Port Arthur and Fort William – together known as the Lakehead, and since 1970 as Thunder Bay – handled practically all the grain exported from the west. As a major transshipment point for grain moving from prairie farms to foreign markets, the development of the grain industry at the Lakehead facilitated Canada’s participation in the international wheat trade. Furthermore, in the early 20th century the Lakehead became one of North America’s major grain storage centres for its time. The industry’s dramatic growth at the Lakehead reflects the great expansion of agricultural development in the prairies during the first decades of the century and symbolizes the importance of grain in the development of Canada.

The first western terminal elevator was constructed by the CPR in Port Arthur in time for the 1884 harvest. “Terminal elevators” were massive grain elevators that received grain arriving by rail, then stored, processed, and shipped it via lake vessels to points east. A second terminal was completed in Fort William the following year, this one with a one million bushel capacity. Over the next 25 years, additional terminals were constructed, first by the CPR and then by the Canadian Northern Railway and the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway when their rail lines reached the Lakehead, as well as by Canadian and American elevator companies.

With an upward spiral of wheat prices after 1915 and three railways bringing grain to the Lakehead, the need for increased grain-handling facilities increased exponentially. In the 1910s and 1920s, many more terminals were constructed at the Lakehead by private industry and farmer-run grain co-operatives. By 1915, there were 25 terminal elevators at the Lakehead, by 1921, there were 32, and by 1929 the terminals at the Lakehead were capable of storing almost 88.5 million bushels of grain. By this point, the largest elevator terminal in the world had been constructed (Saskatchewan Pool No.7, which had a 7 million bushel capacity) and the Lakehead was among the largest grain-storage centres in North America.

This dramatic growth at the Lakehead reflects the great expansion of agricultural development into the prairies and symbolizes the important role that grain has played in the economic development of Canada. By 1929, the major elevator infrastructure was largely in place, though improvements and expansion continued through the war and in the postwar period. While in more recent decades west-coast shipping has grown and a number of Thunder Bay terminal elevators have closed, there are still seven functional elevators remaining at the port that reflect the important role this place has played in Canada’s history.


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Hon. Catherine McKenna Parks Canada History and Archaeology

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