Icons of the past

Josee St-Onge photo
Twenty-three trains pass through Mortlach each day.

By Noah Wernikowski

The old Mortlach train station sits in a cluttered, overgrown yard. Some windows are broken while stacks of Zonolite Ceiling Insulation block the view from another. Ornate arch beams support the roof’s overhang. Christmas decorations and chairs litter the plywood path leading to the doors. Decrepit yet elegant, the building is now owned by Norman Dixon, 86, and it functions as an “antique shop.”

For eight years, from 1946-1954 Norm Dixon worked at the station. Performing the duties of “train man,” he would deliver the goods, mostly groceries, from the train to the people of the town. Gail Bossence, long-time resident of the Mortlach area remembers: “When I was a child, a long time ago, the mail came in on the train, the groceries came in on the train, your friends came in on the train.” The CPR was the only practical means of long distance transport until the 1960s. It bridged communities together and overcame the landscape’s isolation. The early prairie settlement was not only reliant on the railway, but, as Norm said, the train “built the community, actually. The people moved here because of the train.”

Founded in 1881, the CPR was John A. Macdonald’s ambitious plan to unite Canada. It would link Canada’s populated east with the vast potential of its unpopulated west while bringing British Columbia into confederation. In 1883 the CPR ran through what is now Saskatchewan. After the final spike was driven into the ground 1885, the railway continued to expand with the opening of numerous “new lines.” In 1904 one such new line was added, and a tented CPR flag stop moved two miles south to beside the new tracks, on the homestead of Khamis Michael. Almost immediately the town of Mortlach emerged. By 1905 there was a general store, a school, a post office, a hardware, lumber and coal store, and an implement and harness dealership. Mortlach continued to expand, becoming a prominent center for the area’s homesteaders, and, in 1906, was incorporated as a village.

 “If I quit tomorrow, there wouldn’t be a grain elevator here.”
                                                                                 - Paul Entz

The grain economy was the basis of the prairie settlement, and the wooden grain elevator an icon of the prairies. The first Saskatchewan wooden grain elevator was built in 1879. The Crow Rate grain transportation subsidy, imposed on the CPR in 1887, allowed wheat production and elevator construction to flourish. By 1909 Saskatchewan overtook Manitoba as the country’s primary supplier of wheat. The industry flourished and the number of elevators peaked in the 1930s, when there were 3,300. Although Saskatchewan’s still the world’s primary wheat grower, since the 1970s large steel and concrete terminals have replaced wooden terminals, and only around 500 wooden elevators remain.Mortlach is home to one of the few functional wooden elevators, currently run by Paterson Grain.

Paul Entz has run the elevator for the past 20 years. First-hand, he has seen the role of the elevators diminish. “They really relied on them back them, not so much anymore,” he says. He is now the elevator’s only employee. Local farmers get better rates elsewhere so they choose to haul to larger terminals instead.A typical grain car holds 3,200 bushels. At a wooden elevator, weight is measured out 100 bushels at a time, meaning it takes an hour to do what a larger terminal can do in four minutes. “They can do in one day what I sometimes do in a year,” Entz reflects. Because of this, the old elevators are only profitable as storage facilities, and Entz has not loaded a grain car in three years.

The future of wooden elevators is grim. Because of the low profit margin, the owning companies choose to shut the elevators down rather than maintain them. “If I quit tomorrow, there wouldn’t be a grain elevator here,” says Entz. Once not operational, elevators rarely survive long because of the fire hazard they present. Although the Saskatchewan Heritage Organization has launched programs to save the province’s iconic elevators as heritage sites, Entz is less nostalgic. “Personally, I say give me a buy-out and knock ‘em all down,” he says.
Elevators aren’t the only institution on the wane in places like Mortlach. As roads improved and transportation evolved, the rail was downsized. Secondary lines were sold or abandoned. Mail, coal, and other necessities arrived by truck. Norm Dixon was Mortlach’s last train man. Initially the CPR attempted to stay relevant by presenting itself as a luxurious travel alternative, but, since the 1960s, passenger services were steadily discontinued. Finally, in 1978, the CPR transferred its passenger services to VIA Rail. The CPR is now primarily a freight railway, and rarely stops in small towns.

Gail Bossence remembers the arrival of the train as an exciting time. “Other than local dances and card parties, there was very little to entertain,” she recalls. In 1951, when she was six, Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip come through Mortlach on a royal train. Everyone from the surrounding area gathered to see it. In front of what would become Norm Dixon’s antique shop, and within sight of the Pederson elevator, the royalty “came out on the platform and spoke to us, even though they didn’t have to. They thanked us for standing in the cold. It was really, really, special.” Today, there is no platform, and the antique shop’s plywood path leads only to the gravel road.