At the time it was built in 1929-31, our area’s “Dominion Government Elevator” was one of a series of projects commissioned by Canada’s Dominion Public Works Department and built by Port Arthur’s C.D. Howe and Company, the same C.D. who became known to Canadians as “Minister of Everything”.
The Rt. Hon. Clarence Decatur Howe (1886-1960) was a highly successful Engineer, Architect and Cabinet Minister who made a major contribution to the design of Canada’s iconic grain elevator and, as a politician, almost single-handedly raised Canada’s economy to a level in keeping with the world’s leading industrial nations.
Born in Waltham, Mass. on January 15, 1886, Howe worked as a draftsman and designer for J.R. Worcester & Co. in Boston in 1905-09 and attended MIT, graduating with a degree in engineering, in 1913. He moved to The Lakehead, taking a position as chief engineer for the Board of Grain Commissioners for Canada, before starting his own engineering company, in 1916. Howe and associates designed and supervised the construction of grain elevators, pulp mills, coal docks, and other large structures. In 1935, Howe entered politics and parliament as a Liberal, and he represented Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) for more than 20 years.
As with any mega government project, politics played a great role in the early building of Johnstown’s grain elevator, and a look at the discussions and decisions of the day can help us appreciate what we have today.
Western farmers were frustrated, and they accused private grain-handling companies of manipulating deliveries and suppressing grain prices. Many believed a solution was possible if grain elevators were made public utilities. As a result, under the new Canada Grain Act of 1912, government elevators were built in a number of places, including Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Churchill, Thunder Bay, Toronto, and Johnstown.
In his 1928 masterpiece, Toward an Architecture, the great visionary Le Corbusier celebrated the stark beauty and form of grain elevators. The photo he included of Calgary’s Dominion Government Elevator soon became a symbol for the world, and for Canada, of progressive industrial design and architecture.
On November 27, 1929, The Ogdensburg Republican-Journal reprinted an article from Canadian Railway and Marine World, and it helps us understand the magnitude of the Johnstown project:
- The Board of Railway Commissioners passed order 43,319, on Sept. 21, authorizing the Dominion Public Works Department, under the Railway Act, secs. 181, 182, and 252, to construct certain trackage, between the Canadian National Railways and the Canadian Pacific Railway, main lines, and the grain elevator to be built near Prescott…Altogether, there will be 4 miles of track and 8 turnouts.
- The provincial highway in the vicinity formerly ran near the river front, occupying a position coinciding closely with that of the double track…The highway is being diverted so as to provide a more direct route…This diversion is approximately a mile long, the work involving the moving of 18,000 cu. yd. earth and 6,000 cu. yd. rock.
- The contract for grading for the new highway, the grading for the new track, and for the construction of the subway, was given to Curran and Briggs, Toronto, by the Dominion Public Works Department…A contract for the paving of the diverted highway has been given to Harvey Construction Co, Kingston, by the Ontario Highways Department.
- The first was the driving of piles at the elevator site by Thunder Bay Harbor Improvement Co.; the second was the provision of a hydraulic fill by Canadian Dredging Co.; the next will be construction of the elevator (by Atlas Construction Company of Montreal).
- The elevator will have a capacity of about 5,500,000 bushels and will be a long narrow structure with unloading, facilities on one side, and loading facilities to ships on the other side. Car loading facilities will be located at the inshore end. At the outshore end, a dock and marine leg will be provided for lightering canal-size ships thus allowing ships of that size to take on a full cargo at lake ports, and discharge cargo, down to canal draft.
- The elevator will have a capacity for unloading from boats of 1,000,000 bushels a day, capacity for loading to ships of 1,500,000 bushels in 10 hours, and a capacity for loading to cars of 1,000,000 bushels a day.
- A large building will be provided to house the elevator substation, elevator administration offices, and millwright shop. The building will also contain lunch rooms for the elevator staff.
As with most of C.D.’s projects, construction was on budget and on time. When the grain elevator was completed in 1931, newspapers described the structure as follows: “rising 200 feet into the air and extending 2,340 on shore, it is visible for miles up and down the river“.
Over the years, the grain elevator was operated by various government departments and private companies. On October 12, 2000, Joe Jordan, MP (Leeds-Grenville), on behalf of the Transport Minister, David Collenette, announced the official transfer of the port, its facilities and property to the Corporation of the Township of Edwardsburgh (now the Township of Edwardsburgh/Cardinal). A re-launching of the Port of Johnstown took place in June 2015 to mark the completion of an impressive $35 million update.
William J. Brown adds a little perspective in American Colossus: The Grain Elevator, 1843 to 1942: “To further encourage all-Canadian routes for Canadian grain, the Dominion government built a colossal lake-to-ocean transhipping terminal near Port Prescott, just across the St. Lawrence River from Ogdensburg. Built in the long, tall and narrow style of Buffalo’s Concrete-Central Elevator, this massive terminal bested its predecessor by having a larger storage capacity (5 million bushels) and a total of four loose legs.”