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The Grain Elevator / Art Gallery

Dawson Creek, British Columbia

    The grain elevator that is now the pride of Dawson Creek is the only survivor of eight elevators that used to dominate the community in both visual and economic terms. In its new life as the home of the Dawson Creek Art Gallery, the elevator continues to be an important part of the the town more than a half-century after being built.

    This type of elevator design changed little for almost 100 years following the construction of the first one at Gretna, Manitoba, in 1881. By the early 1970s, though, grain distribution was being centralized and they were being replaced by smaller concrete elevators. Up to 125 of the old prairie icons were being torn down each year across Canada.

    The golden years of grain production in the Dawson Creek began in 1931 when the Northern Alberta Railway reached the community. This prompted a rapid expansion of the amount of land under cultivation, and from 1947 until 1952, Dawson Creek was the largest grain producer in the British Empire.

    The elevator now standing in Dawson Creek was built in 1948 as Alberta Wheat Pool Elevator No. 2. The main tower is 35 feet square and 95 feet high. It's purpose was to collect grain from individual farmers, store it in a series of bins inside the elevator and an adjoining annex, and then to ship it out in bulk by rail.

    By 1980, six of the eight elevators at Dawson Creek had been demolished, and it was clear that the remaining two didn't have long to live. A member of the South Peace Art Society came up with the idea that if one could be saved it would make a unique art gallery. The "Save the Elevator Committee" was formed, and in October 1982 the Alberta Wheat Pool agreed to sell Elevator No. 2 to the city for $2. The catch was that it had to be moved off Wheat Pool property by November 30th.

    The costly move, a joint project of the City of Dawson Creek and the South Peace Art Society, was not supported by all residents of the area. However, a series of grants from the provincial and federal governments and the Devonian Foundation, combined with some innovative local fundraising and corporate sponsors, provided a "shot in the arm" for the community during a difficult economic period, and the project has certainly been to the long-term benefit of Dawson Creek.

    The move , though successful, was not without stress and problems. Three days after pouring the concrete foundation at the new site a half-mile from the elevator's original location, it was discovered that it was five feet on Canadian National Railway property. Luckily, the corporation agreed to lease the property to the city. Mix Brothers of Edmonton, Alberta, was the only company in western Canada capable of moving the huge structures, and when asked about the possibility of damage, the foreman is reported to have answered, "Every elevator mover loses one, and I've already lost mine."

    The move began on November 19, 1982, and by November 26 everything was in place at the new site beside the original Northern Alberta Railway depot, now called NAR Park. The two largest structures, the elevator and annex, weighed 490,000 and 290,000 pounds respectively. Despite the minus-18C temperatures, the move atttracted a large audience, with some people coming from hundreds of miles away to watch this significant event.

    While moving the elevator was the most impressive part of the project, converting the elevator annex into an art gallery was no small feat either. The 12 grain bins inside were a structural part of the building, and extensive modifications, including the addition of supporting columns, were required. When finished, 1,000 square feet of studio space and 200 lineal feet of unique exhibition space were available to artists.

    The Dawson Creek Art Gallery opened on October 23, 1983. The exhibition space, a spiraling ramp that climbs about 30 feet, offers a space that prompts many artists to design special shows that complement the design and are complemented by it. The works by Peter von Tiesenhausen that were being shown during my visit in February 2002 were a striking example of how effective the partnership can be. About fourteen exhibitions are presented annually.

    As well as the art gallery, NAR Park is also the location of the Visitor Information Centre, the Dawson Creek Museum, two gift shops and a cafe, and the location of the start of the Alaska Highway - all in all, a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon before continuing your trip to the northern wilderness.

Dawson Creek Art Gallery

All about Dawson Creek

Communities of the Alaska Highway