Prairie Castles along Via Rail’s Westbound Journey

Passengers aboard Via Rail’s cross-Canada train journey, the Canadian, will have the chance to see some of Western Canada’s most iconic landmarks. Known as prairie cathedrals, castles or sentinels, this list highlights some of the historic wooden grain elevators you can spot along your journey.

A Short History on the Wooden Grain Elevator

Dotted across the Prairies, wooden grain elevators are iconic landmarks to the history of agricultural, economic and landscape development across the west.   

Built along the tracks, grain elevators were developed as a way to make the transportation of grain more efficient. The first grain elevator in Canada was built in 1879 in Niverville Manitoba. Thanks to the rise of agricultural companies and cooperatives such as UGG and the various Wheat Pools, alongside the development of Canada’s cross-country rail systems, by the 1930s there were nearly 6,000 grain elevators found across the prairies.  

Oldest elevator in Manitoba 1878,                Niverville

According to Jane Ross, style and features changed over the years, including the standard color of the elevator (a standard “CPR Red” until the 1950s), roof shape (a gable roof became standard after the 1920s) and the presence and type of annex (the loxstave annex was used during WWII, while metal bins appeared by the 1970s). However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that concrete silos began to take the wooden elevator’s place (Ross 2006). 

As of May 2023, according to the Canadian Grain Commission, there are 400 grain elevators found collectively in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. However, the number of wooden grain elevators within this count would be even less. In 2016, the National Trust listed the elevators as a collectively endangered place. The Trust writes, “while some have been saved through creative new uses, every year more and more of these rural landmarks are lost forever.”

Alex McPhee, Chair of the Val Marie Heritage, Culture & Youth Elevator Committee writes, “Saving industrial heritage sites takes a special kind of foresight. Our grain elevator is part of a nationwide story about a past social and economic order – still in living memory of millions, but already so hard to spot in our human landscape as it exists today. What do we take for granted now that will be critically endangered later in my own lifetime?”


Ross, Jane. “Grain Elevators.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published March 01, 2006; Last Edited April 24, 2015.

Earl, Paul D. The Rise and Fall of United Grain Growers : Cooperatives, Market Regulation, and Free Enterprise. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2019. Retrieved from on 26 Jun 2023.

“Oldest elevator in Manitoba 1878, Niverville.” Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries. 

Special thanks to the following photographers for granting permission to their work: Brent Bereska, Ben Berg, Jeannette Greaves, John Leopard, Gregory Melle, Trevor Pritchard, and David Young. 


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