CPR Grain Elevator Fire 

The 1911 CPR grain elevator fire in Owen Sound harbour would have a profound impact on that Georgian Bay community.

Georgian Bay ports with grain elevators are busy places each autumn. At that time of year ships are racing to beat the winter freeze-up of the Great Lakes. Their object is to get as much of the grain out of the elevators at Thunder Bay on Lake Superior as possible and deliver it to southern markets for distribution throughout North America and abroad. 

The harvest of the wheat fields of the Canadian West has continually played an integral part in the Canadian economy. Therefore, it has always been of paramount importance that as much grain as possible be shipped out of Thunder Bay to southern ports before ice and winter storms make navigation an impossibility. 

The CPR Comes to Owen Sound

In the 1880s Owen Sound was a vital link in the trans-shipment of the Canadian grain crop. The elevators in Owen Sound harbour were a focal point of this activity. In the 1880s Owen Sound was the eastern terminus for the C.P.R.'s Great Lakes fleet. In order to facilitate the grain which passed through this port it was necessary that two large elevators be built. 

The first of these wooden elevators was erected in 1885. It was the first of the large elevators which became common sites in most Great Lakes ports. Each year hundreds of thousands of bushels of grain were unloaded at the elevators in Owen Sound. The grain was then trans-shipped by railroad to Toronto and other southern ports. 

owen-sound-cpr-elevatorOwen Sound C.P.R Grain Elevator

CPR Grain Elevator Fire -
December 11, 1911

On Dec. 11, 1911 a dramatic event occurred in Owen Sound's busy harbour. On that date the community was a hive of activity. Several ships had arrived with their cargos. Workers were busy loading rail cars to enable the elevators to receive more grain as the ships were racing between the lake head and this port to beat the winter freeze-up. A provincial election had been held that day. The downtown streets were crowded waiting for the election results. Suddenly an eerie glow filled the sky over the harbour. 

Panic and fear must have raced through the minds of the citizens as they sped en masse to the docks. Major fires had not been an uncommon event in the previous two decades in the community. In an era of rapid growth and industrialization, the existence of wooden buildings and inadequate fire safety and prevention, had created a situation which had led to disasters, the worst of which had been the destruction of the North American Bent Chair Company. 

When they arrived at the harbour their worst fears were confirmed. The elevators laden with grain, were ablaze! The celebration of A.G. MacKay's record majority victory in the provincial election now seemed irrelevant as everyone pitched in to and stop the fiery inferno. Quickly, it was realized by the firemen and the citizens alike that the combination of the wooden structures and its contents was lethal in terms of the total destruction of the CPR grain elevators. 

Containment of the blaze became the only solution with the hope that the flames could be kept from reaching the ships which were moored nearby and the other buildings in the area. Two vessels in the C.P.R. fleet, the “Keewatin” and “Athabasca”, were moored near the elevators. 

Fortunately, the “Keewatin” had her steam up and Captain McPhee quickly moved his vessel out of danger. 

However, the “Athabasca” did not have any steam to power the ship from peril. Facing the danger of the ship burning, the crowd seized the hawsers and dragged the “Athabasca” further along the wharf and, hopefully out of danger from the CPR grain elevator fire. 

While the volunteers worked to move vessels and protect surrounding structures the firemen tried to contain the fire. Several of them narrowly escaped death when a hundred square foot wall collapsed under the strain of the weight of thousands of bushels of wheat. It crashed to the ground mere inches from the fire fighters who were pouring water onto the flames. 

In the end the CPR grain elevator fire destroyed the entire structure. Rather than rebuild, the C.P.R. moved its fleet the next year, 1912, to Port McNichol, which was also closer to the new rail line which had been built to connect Sudbury with Toronto, Although the loss of the C.P.R. fleet was a serious blow to Owen Sound's economy, the port continued as a valuable link in the Great Lakes transportation system. 

os-harbour-2011Owen Sound Harbour 2011
Photo taken from approximate location of CPR elevator a century earlier
Photo by Paul White

Georgian Bay Shipping

List of Lighthouses on the Great Lakes: If you have names and/or pictures of Great Lakes Lighthouses please submit them along with details of their location.

Hindman Transportation Company was a well-known Great Lakes shipping company for many years. Here you will find pictures of many of the Hindman ships

Owen Sound Harbour – A Photographic History, by Robert A. Cotton is a book that interests my historiographical curiosity.

Commercial Great Lakes Fishing  It is probably safe to suggest that the commercial fishing industry was an important part of the early growth of this region.

A Georgian Bay fishing vacation has long been a popular attraction in the Bruce Peninsula region. During fishing derbies, the regional waterways are dotted with fishing boats of all shapes and sizes. 

The Georgian Bay Mackinaw, designed by William Watts of Collingwood is an example of a Georgian Bay innovator creating a vessel to service the needs local mariners.

Great Lakes fishing is an asset that is protected and developed, not only for its economic potential but also for those who just enjoy spending a day by the side of a river or in small fishing boats trying to catch “the big one”!  

Great Lakes Fishing History is not without its controversy. The impact of the fishing industry was such that it played an important role in the development of communities along the Georgian Bay and Lake Huron shoreline.

Georgian Bay Travel Before the Winter Freeze-Up could be a dangerous time for mariners in the early years in this region.

A Harbinger of Spring on the Great Lakes in pioneer times, was the eagerly awaited news that a lighthouse had been lit and shipping traffic could begin sailing from port to port.

Lumber Hookers  Lumber hookers and tugs were an important innovation to improve the transportation of lumber on Georgian Bay. 

Mapmakers on Georgian Bay were also explorers. They mapped the Georgina Bay shoreline noting safe harbours, dangerous reefs and other guides for sailors and pioneer settlers looking for a place to call home.

Paddling Georgian Bay & Pondering: traversing parts of this great waterway in a canoe leads one to wonder about the ships of a bygone era battling the rough seas they encountered.

Parry Sound Shipping History: The Parry Sound area has always been connected to the southern regions of the Province of Ontario by a system of good roads. Or has it?

Parry Sound’s shipping history 2 is more than the tragic sinking of the Waubuno or the later catastrophe surrounding the sinking of the Asia. 

Sailing Season Closing: A Frantic Time on Peninsula as ships raced from port to port delivering and picking up passengers and produce before the waterways froze.

Ship Captain Andrew Port was not only a dynamic and brave Georgian Bay mariner, he was a personal favourite historical character of mine.

Ships Stuck in Ice: The Oak Glen was icebound in 1996 but this sailing hazard has been impacting vessels on Georgian Bay since the beginning of time.

Lake Huron shipwrecks, the Hibou often occurred in the Georgian Bay region of that Great Lake due to the often violent waters that could strike unsuspecting vessels like the Hibou.

Shipwrecks: The "Asia" wrecked off the eastern coast of Georgian Bay taking all but two of the more than 100 passengers to a watery grave.

Masters, Mates, and Pilots Association created its first Canadian chapter on Georgian Bay, providing maritime safety education, and other seafaring issues to better inform its membership.

Pioneer Travel Aboard the Fly  Tells the story of a sailing vessel as the tenuous link between survival and death in a pioneer settlement in the 1840's in Upper Canada.

Sailing Stories: the Captain Who Smelled his way into Port The Captain Who Smelled his Way into Port details how pioneer seamen on Georgian Bay safely sailed the rough waters without the aid of the modern technological tools so readily used by today's mariners.

Sailing Story: The Voyage of the Prince Alfred the incredible voyage of the Prince Alfred, fraught with danger for both vessel and the crew in the winter of 1880.

Sailing stories: Owen Sound Shipbuilding Sailing stories date from the earliest time of settlement in the Bruce Peninsula region. Busy shipyards dotted the Owen Sound bay where shipbuilding took place, sometimes at a feverish pace. They are interesting adventures often providing enlightening views of the nature of the human race.

Shipbuilding As the southern Georgian Bay region became more populated shipping traffic increased to meet the needs of an expanding market place.

The Summer of 1844 was No Picnic for the early settlers in the pioneer area near what would become Owen Sound on Georgian Bay.

The CPR Grain Elevator Fire of 1911 spelled the end of Owen Sound's role as the eastern terminus of the CPR Great Lakes Fleet.

Georgian Bay shipping occurred long before the first Europeans paddled these waters. But the fur and timber trades opened Georgian Bay to shipping in a big way! 

  1. History Articles
  2. Georgian Bay Shipping
  3. CPR Grain Elevator Fire