Test of time | Built in 1931, the 17-storey Alberta Terminals Ltd. facility continues to be a hub for modern agricultural production
The baby in a family of three giant inland grain elevators in Alberta is still the tallest building in Lethbridge, even though it was completed in 1931.
Tall buildings are not the preferred structures in a place where chinook winds blow up to 100 km-h, but solid concrete construction has kept the 194-foot Alberta Terminals Ltd. facility intact and functioning through its 80th year.
The 17-storey “house” with 63 annex bins and 56 workhouse bins is a landmark in this southern Alberta city. In the early 1930s, when it was built on contract by the federal government, it sat on 16 acres far outside the business district.
Today, it’s in the middle of the city’s industrial area and conveniently located along the main thoroughfare, Crowsnest Trail, with handy highway and rail access.
Brad Ternes is general manager of the facility, which has been owned and operated by Cargill since 1991, despite its old paint job.
He marvels at the terminal’s design, which works well for modern agriculture and transport.
“It’s the forethought that was put into these,” says Ternes. “The pits hold a Super B (truckload of grain.) The scales hold a rail car, where back then, all they loaded was boxcars. But the scales were put in big enough … designed almost for the modern rail cars. How’d they know?”
Controller Kevin Christiansen, who has worked at the terminal for 26 years, says he’s continually impressed with the quality of materials used in the building that have stood the test of time.
“Surprisingly, for how old this place is, there’s a lot of original equipment that’s still used, that still works and functions great,” he says, listing motors, gearboxes, grain legs and trippers as examples.
Of course, upgrades have been needed over the years. The scale system, bin gates and cleaners are new, and there is more electronic operation that simplifies the sorting and movement of large amounts and grades of grain into multiple bins.
The facility, with 32,000 tonnes of capacity, handles various types of wheat, durum, barley and canola. It draws from an approximate 100 kilometre radius, taking delivery using three driveways with pits.
The plant then cleans the grain and oilseeds to export quality and loads into 56 rail car spots.
“It takes us about seven hours to do 56 cars. In fact, we set the record on Sunday (Dec. 16): six hours and 51 minutes,” says Christiansen.
The facility is able to load two hopper cars at once with its dual shipping scales and spouts. Ninety-five percent of the cars travel to Vancouver terminals for export.
Christiansen mans what appears to be a complex computer system that shuffles grain from bin to cleaners to annex to rail car. Radios are used to inform annex men in the distant upper floors about which spouts and trippers to set up for a given load.
And yes, human error occasionally rears its head, and the wrong grain gets into the wrong bin.
“It happens in these ones and it happens in the new ones. That’s one part of the business that hasn’t changed and never will,” says Ternes with a laugh.
His 30 years with Cargill and more than four years in Lethbridge makes him a veteran of grain handling scenarios.
The large bin range also allows easier blending, when necessary. It’s an option that can be used even with tough grain, although the facility also has a grain dryer. It hasn’t been needed in the last several years.
“Mother Nature did it for us, which we like,” says Ternes.
“A few years ago we fired up the dryer and the city came over. They thought there was a leak because all of a sudden the consumption went up so high. So now we phone them before we fire it up.”
Front office staff report rumours of a ghost in the terminal, thought to be the spirit of a long-ago worker, but it didn’t manifest itself on a recent tour of the facility.
Christiansen, who describes himself as “seasoned vet” of the place, got his start mowing grass and replacing or repairing the hundreds of windows in the house, which is a constant battle.
Birds, ubiquitous around all grain elevators, do their share of window damage, but the panes also rattle loose in the region’s punishing winds.
His history with the terminal gives Christiansen a feel for the place.
“It holds some sentimental value because I’ve been here and I’ve seen the comings and goings. It’s a lot about the crew and the managers that we’ve worked with. They’ve always said about the Lethbridge plant that it’s always been a close-knit group, more so than some of the other plants. And the old girl, she just keeps on going.”
The entire place is operated by nine people in the plant, four managers and several front office staff.
Neither Ternes nor Christiansen can recall a lost-time accident in the facility. Safety and security are watchwords, but the site itself is open because it provides a quicker route for the local fire station to service certain parts of the city.
A history of the terminal, related in an undated booklet written by historian Irma Dogterom, describes an arduous route to approval of its construction.
Lethbridge officials first asked the federal government for a terminal in 1914 and it took repeated requests before final approval in 1930. Inland terminals similar to the Lethbridge facility, though larger, were earlier built in Edmonton and Calgary.
Once construction began, Dogterom reports it took only eight months to complete, at a cost of $950,000. In today’s dollars, that would be approximately $16 million.
The Lethbridge facility was operated by the federal government from 1931 to 1980 and by the provincial government until 1991.