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Tag Archives: Grain Elevator

Winona, WA, July 23, 2017

 

Winona, November 22, 2019

Wooden crib elevator destroyed by fire on October 22, 2019.  Elevator contained 110,000 bushels of grain, cause of fire suspected to be an electrical issue.

Wooden crib elevators are disappearing at a rate of a couple a year in the Palouse.

 

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

 

During the summer of 2017, I tried to photograph every public grain elevator in Whitman County, and on July 17, photographed the crib elevator in the small community of Hay, located about 90 miles from my home in Spokane.

Hay Elevator, July 17, 2017

 

In the spring of 2018, I learned that this elevator was being torn down in order to salvage the wood, to be converted into flooring.  I visited the site in March 2018, right as the razing of the structure began.

Hay, March 16, 2017

I met some of the workers on the job, and had a tour of the inside of the elevator–discovered that the last occupancy permit on the wall was dated 1999.  Apparently the elevator has not been used since then.  In March, some of the metal sheathing had been removed from the outside of the building, and several cuts had been made in the wood structure through the outside walls.

Hay, April 11, 2018

By April 11th, the covered unloading area had been removed, as well as the wood in the corners.  Progress seemed slow.

Hay, May 20, 2018

By  mid May, the west end and the tower had been removed, but the structure still towered over the landscape.

Hay, June 27, 2018

 

When I made a visit on June 27, the structure had been razed to the foundation.  I’m not sure what I found most shocking about the scene–the complete disappearance of the structure, or the sudden appearance of the tree behind it.   There is still some site clean up to be done, but the building is gone.

In my own limited time here, I’ve witnessed the razing of grain elevators at Sperry (Franklin County), Belmont, Crabtree (a pile of rubble by the time I arrived), Shreck, Grinnell (a flathouse), and now Hay.

I have mixed feelings about the deconstruction of the grain elevator at Hay.  Obviously, the elevator was no longer being used, and so served no useful function.  Converting the wood into flooring is a way of finding a new use for the materials, and removed a hazard.  On the other hand, it’s removal is evidence of the changes in agriculture–to bigger fields, bigger combines, bigger grain trucks–and bigger grain handling facilities.  Fewer people are needed to produce more grain.

In speaking with the workers at the site, they are scheduled to raze more of the old wooden crib elevators in the area–they estimate that they have at least several years worth of work lined out in front of them.

 

 

I enjoy photographing grain elevators—they bring back memories of my childhood on the farm back in Lancaster County, when my dad would let me ride in the truck when he delivered corn to the local feed store—I remember stopping on the scales on the way in, dumping the corn onto the big grate in the floor, then the second stop at the scales.    And I admired the grain elevators in the western landscape when I rode my bike across the country—the grain elevators were the biggest things out there—you could spot the huge silos from miles away.

 

Nebraska, 1984

 

I started making photographs of grain elevators as soon as I arrived in Spokane, five years ago.  I recall taking a drive out into the wheat country south of town while waiting for a call-back on renting an apartment during my first full day in town, and seeing elevators I wanted to photograph.

 

Madson Elevator, Whitman County, July 2017

 

Within a few weeks, I made my first photographs of grain elevators in Whitman County, located just to the south of Spokane County.  This is the heart of the Palouse country, one of the highest wheat producing areas in the world, the highest wheat producing county in the US.  My first photographs there were on the northern end of the county, in the towns of Rosalia and Oakesdale.   Both of these towns had clusters of wonderful old grain elevators, which I later discovered had been photographed and painted by other local artists.

 

Rosalia, March 2017

 

In talking with local residents, there is a lot of discussion about the fact that the old wooden crib style elevators are being torn down, disappearing from the landscape.  The problem is mostly that those elevators are too small to efficiently deal with the volumes of grain that are being produced by current farming methods in Whitman County, and so are on the verge of becoming functionally obsolete.

 

First steam powered elevator, Moorehead, MN, 1879

 

Of course, changes in farming methods are nothing new—I discovered a couple of ebay treasures a few years ago—two historical photographs from wheat farming from more than a century ago.  One shows “the first steam powered elevator, Moorehead, MN, 1879”—with dozens of farm wagons loaded with sacks of wheat waiting to unload their harvest at the elevator.  Obviously, the farm wagons couldn’t have traveled far to reach the elevator—meaning that small farmers using horses to reach the railheads needed an elevator within a few miles of the field.  And each trip could move only perhaps 20 bushels of wheat.  Looking at the photograph, it looks like the crib elevator could have held something around 35,000 bushels of wheat.  While it isn’t clear from the photograph, it is almost certain that this elevator was located next to a rail line, so that the grain could be loaded, by gravity, onto bulk rail cars.    It is crib elevators like the one in this photograph, now mostly covered with corrugated steel siding, that are being torn down.

 

Combine Advertising Photo, 1907

 

The other photograph is from 1907, an advertising photo intended to show off the new combines that were being built to harvest wheat.  There are a total of 5 combines shown, each requiring 3 men and 33 horses, for a total of 15 men and 165 horses.  That’s a lot of mouths to feed to get the harvest done—and lots of hay that needs to be put up for the winter.

 

McCoy Elevator, near Rosalia, 2013

 

Currently, In addition to the wooden crib elevators, many locations added “tanks” for additional storage to the sides of the wooden elevators.  These are occasionally made of wood, but are usually either concrete or steel.  This configuration—the wooden crib “house” elevator flanked by “tanks” is a fairly typical configuration of operating elevators in Whitman County.  Elevators of this type can typically store a few hundred thousand bushels of grain.

Newer elevators are being built that use a vertical steel shaft with numerous tubes coming down in various directions to feed the storage tanks.  Sometimes these are added to the tops of existing crib elevators, which look a bit like some muli-legged alien landed.

 

New McCoy grain terminal, March 2017

 

The problem with all of the elevators is that the volume of grain that is being produced in Whitman County is huge—about 30 million bushels per year—and there is a cheaper way to store all this grain—put it in piles on the ground.  The capital cost of a pile on the ground is almost zero, but there is the problem of waste—if it rains or snows, the grain on the top of the pile will rot or sprout—though I’ve been told that wheat will actually make its own protective layer—mixing wheat with water makes a paste that hardens and protects the rest of the grain beneath it.   In years of abundant harvest, a lot of the wheat produced in Whitman County is stored in ground piles.  Large pile storage is especially common at the barge loading facilities along the Snake River that forms the southern boundary of the county.

But the northern end of the county is a long way from the Snake river terminals—about 60 miles from Rosalia to Central Ferry—so the decision was made to build a high volume rail terminal—the new McCoy terminal.  This facility is designed to load 40,000 bushes per hour on to train cars—about 10 cars per hour.  A typical “grain train” has 110 cars—430,000 bushels.  The McCoy terminal has three steel tanks each big enough to hold enough grain to load a train—and four ground piles, each 1.3 million bushels (three train loads), for a total of 6.4 million bushels of storage.  The piles are covered with a thick plastic cover for the winter to minimize spoilage.

 

New McCoy grain terminal, March 2017

 

I stopped in at the new McCoy terminal a few weeks ago, at the peak of the wheat harvest in Whitman county.  The place was hopping—big trucks lined up to get on the scales, about a dozen people in the office—and three different dumping spots, one for the big steel tanks, and two for ground piles.  The men working in the office said that they were unloading 400 trucks a day—some of them were smaller dump trucks (500 bushels), some were regular semis (900 bushels), and some were semis with a second trailer (1500 bushels)—so my guess is that the terminal was taking in about 400,000 bushels a day.  They took in trucks from 6:00 AM to 8:00 PM, a schedule designed so that they could load trains at night.

 

New McCoy Grain Terminal, August 2017

 

I’m having an exhibition of my photographs of the grain elevators of Whitman County at the Library in Colfax during September and October.  I was offered the show in March, and decided at that point that I wanted to find and photograph as many of the elevators in the county as I could find.  I’ve managed to locate a total of 62 sites with grain elevators—these range from heaps of rotting lumber where a grain elevator used to be, to abandoned elevators, to small elevators now privately owned, to small but active co-op elevators, to clusters of elevators in communities, to large terminals for bulk shipments.   While the wooden crib elevator may be disappearing from the landscape, the grain elevator remains an important part of the landscape of Whitman County.

And I think they are beautiful.

South of Pullman, WA, May 21, 2017

 

Well, maybe I’m mixing my metaphors.  Could be something from Transformers 7…