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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



    • mary leykom
    • Posted April 30, 2019 at 5:48 am
    • Permalink

    Interesting and enjoyable read Dennis!

    • Marvin Falk
    • Posted September 22, 2019 at 1:02 pm
    • Permalink

    The same process is mirrored in an outpost of American trends such as Fairbanks. I have been documenting the “morphing” of Fairbanks for 40 years and have watched box stores replace what was once downtown. Almost everything is driven by change generated outside. Pennys, Nordstrom, Kmart, and now Sears disappear due to national trends, not local ones. Whole blocks of private housing are now empty plots. Almost all of the log structures on 1st are gone. The Masonic Temple and Samson’s have disappeared. I would love to have a discussion concerning the role of photography in documenting this in a way to involve a wider audience.

    • denniswitmer
    • Posted September 22, 2019 at 3:59 pm
    • Permalink

    Yeah, like the Dylan line, “everything passes, everything changes, just do what you think you must do.” All we can do, as photographers, is try to remember.

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