Canada’s oldest grain elevator burned to the ground this week — 125 years of old wood ignited in a flash by a single ember.
The Lake of the Woods Milling Company grain elevator in Elva, southwestern Manitoba, was being dismantled to sell lumber and other salvageable materials before burning Tuesday.
“It’s amazing. There was a spark that went up and it floated up to the roof line, which is 40 feet off the ground,” said Troy Angus, who bought the structure and a United lift. Neighboring Grain Growers last year at a municipal auction.
“An ember went into a hole – it was like almost being sucked into a hole the size of a football – and practically on contact there was smoke, then there was fire.”
Angus, owner of The Den Authentic Barnwood, sources, salvages and sells antique wood. He began the process of deconstructing the two elevators in January, display material for sale on its website.
The goal was to salvage as much wood as possible, Angus said, but there was wood waste.
On Tuesday, he and the crew were carrying out a controlled burn on some of this wood waste in a low quagmire, which contained a shallow layer of water.
“We were pretty much done with work, so we decided we were going to stay around the fire until it burned down and put it out, so we could go home with peace of mind that the fire was off,” Angus said.
All day, a light wind was blowing from the south, “the perfect direction away from the elevators,” he said.
Then everything changed. Over the past hour the wind has shifted to an easterly direction towards the Lake of the Woods lift.
“It was completely gobbled up in 14 minutes,” Angus said.
‘We knew we had to get the lift down in a hurry’, to protect the power lines above and ensure it didn’t collapse and damage the CP tracks adjacent to it , did he declare.
It just so happened that the team had a crawler excavator on hand to push the elevator down in a controlled direction, dropping it into a hot heap.
It was gone in an hour.
“I have never felt such intense heat before,” Angus said.
Deconstruction was in the “last line”
The crew was to begin phase 4 of the project deconstruction process in five phases early next week, which would have involved laying the shell, or cradle, of the structure on its side and dismantling the large two-by-six timber spans.
A connected reader shed and an office building had already been removed and dismantled.
“We were on the home stretch. We had everything ready so the ground was flat all around,” Angus said.
“It was lucky because we were able to maneuver the crawler excavator quickly to mine one side and push the lift.”
By the time firefighters arrived, everything was under control, he said.
“Any other time of year it would have started a bad grass fire. Considering the ground had been wet since spring and it was raining and sleet all day , that also helped us.”
There was no loss of equipment, no loss of life, no loss other than the elevator itself “so the outcome was the best possible scenario,” Angus said.
Gordon Goldsborough, president of the Manitoba Historical Society, had hoped to be there when the elevator cradle was flipped on its side, “to witness the final hours of Canada’s oldest elevator,” he told CBC News in March.
He said Thursday he was saddened by the fire but not heartbroken.
“The heartbreak was already over when I accepted the reality that the elevator was going to be taken down, one way or another,” he said.
He is disappointed that more material from the elevator is not being recovered.
“The hardest part for me now is seeing the horrible waste of valuable resources, considering all the painstaking work Troy has done to show how such old buildings can be repurposed constructively.”
Angus said before the fire that the crew “still got a nice pile of wood out of the elevator, but not as much as we had expected”.
Built in September 1897, the Lake of the Woods lift took the crown as the oldest after the 1895 lift in Fleming, Saskatchewan. – also a LOTW lift – was destroyed by fire in 2010.
An elevator built in Austin, Manitoba in 1901 and later moved to the nearby Manitoba Agricultural Museum is now the oldest in the country.
Some claim Port Perry has the oldestbuilt in 1874, but Goldsborough said it was more of a warehouse-style design, not the cradle style synonymous with the iconic sentries.
Angus said he will now focus on the United Grain Growers elevator, built around 1916, which is at the same phase as the Lake of the Woods elevator. Angus and his team worked alternately between the two structures.
“Next week we’re going to lay that one down as planned,” he said.
The UGG elevator has had sections of tin missing from the facade for decades, allowing rain and snow to seep inside, but Angus said there’s still exceptional wood left to salvage.
“We hope to be able to make up for lost ground.”