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Monthly Archives: April 2019


North Pacific Grain Growers Terminal, Spokane, April 11, 2019

The North Pacific Grain Growers terminal in Spokane was built sometime during the 1930s, and remained an active grain terminal until the 1980s.  It has apparently been sitting vacant since that time.  It is currently being demolished, a task expected to be completed in a few months.

It appears that the North Pacific Grain Growers (the name painted on the tower of the building) was formed in 1930 in Spokane, but moved its headquarters to Portland Oregon in 1938.  In 1983, it merged with the Farmers Union Grain Terminal Association to become the Harvest States Cooperative.  In 1998, Harvest States joins with CENEX to form CHS, the current owner of the terminal in Spokane.

North Pacific Grain Growers Terminal, April 27, 2019


Two questions come to mind with regards to the demolition.  The first is that at least the concrete structure appears to be relatively well maintained—so why not keep the elevator in service?  And the opposite question—if the elevator has been out of service for more than 30 years, why has it taken so long to demolish it?

The answer to the first question appears to be that the elevator has become “functionally obsolete”, meaning that the structure as it exists does not function up to current standards, and that the cost of upgrading it exceeds the cost of replacing it.  For the Spokane terminal, there appear to be two likely culprits for the “functional obsolescence”—the short rail siding—far too short to accommodate a “unit train” composed of 110 grain cars with locomotives—and the rate of grain transfer—probably far below the 40,000 bushels per hour loading rate of new grain terminals.

North Pacific Grain Growers Terminal, April 27, 2019


So why wasn’t it knocked down before?  The answer is that it costs money to demolish these facilities, in large part due to the extensive steel reinforcement in the concrete structure—as can be readily seen in the demolition.  These silos were made to withstand  the pressure from the weight of the grains stored in them—which means that the demolition is time consuming and therefore expensive.  There are many grain elevators standing empty for similar reasons around the US.  Usually demolition occurs only when the site is sufficiently valuable to justify the cost of demolition.  In Spokane, there is no plan for using the land, but ownership of the land will revert to the railroad.

The start of the demolition of the grain terminal and the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral occurred simultaneously.   I’ve never been to the Notre Dame Cathedral, so never have seen it in its glory (other than in photographs)—but like the cathedral, this grain terminal is massive, and towers over the skyline of Spokane.   The Notre Dame is 420 feet long and 158 feet wide—the North Pacific Coast Grain Growers  terminal dimensions aare 518 feet long by 50 feet wide.  The cathedral is 226 feet high—my guess is the grain terminal is perhaps 100 feet high.   So the elevator is not as tall or deep as the Notre Dame, but it is a bit longer, big enough to possess a sense of gravitas.

Smashed Silo, April 27, 2019


Building European cathedrals required centuries of effort, generations of stone masons working, never seeing the final product of their efforts, but believing that their efforts would last for centuries.   Notre Dame was constructed between 1160 and 1260—a century of construction.  Modern engineers understand that their structures have limited lifetimes, but many structures, if properly maintained, can be useful beyond the initial design lifetime.   The North Pacific Grain Growers terminal is 89 years old—its entire life cycle is shorter than the time required to build the Notre Dame cathedral.  Mercifully, those who built it are gone so they do not have to witness the destruction of their work, though there may be a handful of people in Spokane who remember its construction.

Smashed Silo, April 27, 2019

I once read a quote—it may have been repeated by John Szarkowski—who noted that “Midwestern towns don’t need church steeples because they have grain elevators”.   Of course, churches are built to glorify god, and grain terminals are made to store grain, so they serve different functions.  But the demolition of the North Pacific Coast Grain Growers terminal , in some odd way, strikes a chord of sadness in me.  The Notre Dame Cathedral houses relics including the “Crown of Thorns” which Jesus wore prior to his crucifixion and a piece of the cross on which he was crucified—though these relics were never mentioned in my religious training as a Mennonite boy–we thought they were all fakes.  But taking corn and wheat down to the grain elevator—food grown to feed people—that was something we did proudly—that was real.

The demolition of the grain terminal is not a disaster, and there is no outcry of dismay about its demise.  It’s just another casualty in the relentless supersizing of American agriculture.


Morning Light, April 28, 2019


As a beginning photographer, a long time ago, I struggled to understand why my photographs looked the way they did, and didn’t look quite like the photographers I admired.  And, of course, I tried buying bigger cameras and better lenses when I could afford them, but still it seemed like I was missing something.

Ansel Adams, Mt McKinley Alaska, 1948  (

When I moved to Fairbanks, I noticed that there was a big print, close to 40×50 inches, of the Ansel Adams view of Mt. McKinley hanging in the student union building at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  For a while I assumed it was a big poster–but eventually realized it was a silver print, made by god himself, Ansel Adams.  It’s a really famous image–probably the most widely reproduced and best known photograph ever made in Alaska.  It’s the cover image of the book “The Portfolios of Ansel Adams”, with an essay by John Szarkowski.

That print commanded the room–you had to look at it.  It was intimidating.  I recall the first time I made some big prints–about the same size as the Adams–including one of my images of Denali–though from a different camera position than Adams, and in different light.  I loved my image, but of course it wasn’t the same picture as Ansel’s, and I really didn’t want to make a comparison—but I knew others would.  So was my picture “good enough”–was it up to snuff?  How would it hang next to that famous Adams image?

In the introduction to the book, “The Portfolios of Ansel Adams”, Szarkowski writes about Adams’ “legendary technique”, in which he states “In fact, Adams’ photographs are no sharper–no more optically acute–than those of any other competent technician using similar tools.  They are more clear–a matter not of better lenses, but of a better understanding of what one means.”   (That essay, in it’s entirety is, is something I’ve read many times over the years.)

With that understanding, I took a special trip to visit the McKinley photo again, this time to look at it closely, the way I looked at my own image, close up and personal–from six inches away.  And what I discovered rather shocked me–from that distance, there were some black dust spots on the negative (a few, but they were there), some of the grain pattern was slightly out of focus–and the grain pattern clearly showed this was from a 4×5 negative.  And the image was warping and yellowing slightly.  Szarkowski was right–as a physical object, this print had problems–the usual ones that every photographer struggles with.


Dennis Witmer, Denali from Wonder Lake, July 4, 1996

After that close look, I walked past that photograph many times, but I wasn’t intimidated by it anymore.   It was like seeing an old friend.  And then, one day it was gone.  The place where it had been for years—it wasn’t there anymore.  Eventually, I discovered that it had been moved, back into some student offices in the same building—hung out of public view.  I have no idea why the print was moved—perhaps out of concern that someone would steal the image (god knows what that print would sell for)?  Or protect it from damage?  Or maybe it just became too “uncool” for current sensibilities?  After I found it in its new place, I would sometimes go to look at it.  The students in the office always wondered what I was doing there—“just looking at the picture”—they seemed to act like I was doing something weird.

But, in the long run, what impressed me most was how effectively Ansel had intimidated me for so long.  He had created an illusion–and a very effective one–that prevented me, and I suspect almost all viewers of that image, from looking to closely at what he had actually done.  He convinced me, for a long time, that his image was perfect and impossible to equal.  It was an icon.

That experience profoundly changed the way I look at almost all photographs, especially my own.  When in a museum or gallery, I take off my glasses, and look at photographs from six inches away, the way I would look at an image on the ground glass.  And in my own work, I think of my job as trying to create an illusion, not of replicating the world.  It’s magic–like a card trick–and sometimes I think I pull it off.