End of an era — implosion levels Olgivie Flour Mills Co. site

One of Winnipeg’s first heavy 

industries was levelled by a timed series of controlled blasts last Sunday morning. 

The implosion, which was carried out by Advanced Explosives Demolition Inc. working with Edmonton-based McColman & Sons Demolition Ltd., brought down the main elevator building and smokestack of the former Ogilvie Mills site at 49 Higgins Ave. 

The implosion required 325 kilograms (715 pounds) of explosives packed in 650 drilled holes in the structures, according to a city press release. 

It took only 25 seconds from first blast until the structures were down. Implosion Specialist Eric Kelly, who was responsible for detonating the explosives, said that 13 delayed explosions were required to bring the old mill down. 

The demolition of the building will cost the city $640,000, and it will take another three months for the site to be cleared.

Demolition crews have been working for the past three months to prepare the site for the implosion. Prior to the event, much of the exterior material on the main elevator building had been cleared away and any hazardous materials had been removed from the structures. A safety-zone with a radius of 300 meters (1,000 feet) was established around the blast site. No unauthorized persons were allowed inside that radius. 

All traffic flow in the area, including buses, was temporarily re-routed between 6 and 9 a.m. 

Observers reported hearing a loud bang at the time of the implosion. The resulting cloud of dust, as well as the trees and other buildings surrounding the site, made it difficult for spectators to view the resulting pile of rubble in the moments immediately following the actual implosion. Crews worked quickly to remove a small amount of debris from Higgins Avenue before the street was reopened shortly before 9 a.m. 

Demolition contractor Dan McColman said that the outcome of the 

implosion was exactly as planned. All 

remaining structures on the site will be demolished by wrecking ball in the coming weeks. McColman reports that approximately 6,000 cubic metres of concrete rubble resulting  from the demolition will be recycled for road base. Final clean-up of the site is scheduled to be completed by January 2006.  

The city has posted a video link of the implosion its website at www.winnipeg.ca.

The fate of the mill was actually sealed over a decade ago when it was abandoned. While abandoned, the building became the target of graffiti and arson. A major fire in 1997 ended plans to turn the building into a 

museum since it had become structurally unsound.

“Free trade indirectly doomed all 89 jobs at the century-old Ogilvie Mills Ltd.,” said company president Terry McDonnell when he announced the mills’ closure in 1990.

McDonnell said it was becoming increasingly more difficult for Ogilvie to compete with large U.S.-based multinationals such as Conagra. The American company at the time was able mill a bag of flour from 90 to 95 cents, while McDonnell said the cost to Ogilvie was $1.20.

The story of Ogilvie Flour Mills is the part of the rapid progress made in Winnipeg and Manitoba following the arrival of the trans-continental railway in 1881. Without the railway, it would have been virtually impossible for such a large-scale industry to set up shop in the city.

The first shipment of wheat outside Manitoba only happened in 1876, via ox-cart to Winnipeg and then by steamboat to the rail head at Fisher’s Landing, Minnesota, and from there to Ontario. This shipment was for only 857 bushels, assembled by the Winnipeg firm of Higgins & Young for Steele Brothers of Toronto. The shipment was arranged to make up for a poor seed crop in Ontario.

What made this shipment even possible was the introduction of red fife to Manitoba in 1868, which was supremely adapted to the local climate and produced a flour that was ideal for baking. It was soon found that the flour produced by Manitoba-grown red fife wheat was of a superior quality, and this lead to the first shipment of 20,000 bushels of Manitoba wheat to Britain a year later, a harbinger of the massive shipments that soon followed with the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The CPR provided transportation for a massive influx of immigrants who made it possible for the province and the northwest to make wheat the currency of the Prairies. King wheat established the Prairies as the “Breadbasket of the Empire.”

“Once begun, construction of the Canadian Pacific line advanced rapidly; by 1883 it extended all the way from Regina, through Winnipeg, and on to Fort William (Thunder Bay) at the head of Lake Superior, providing an all-Canadian route for the movement of prairie grain exports to eastern and world markets,” said Charles W. Anderson in his book, Grain: The Entrepreneurs.

In 1881, Winnipeg was being touted as the “new El Dorado.” Immigrants arrived wanting to take advantage of 84 hectares (160 acres) of homestead land available for $10 and the promise of improvement, and speculators arrived wanting to make land the new cash cow. 

Most speculators soon went bust when the price of land dropped sharply. Yet, following hard on the heels of the speculators were reputable businesses which recognized that a long-term commitment to the north-west was another path to riches. Among them was the A(lexander).W(alker). Ogilvie & Company, a Montreal firm with a tradition in milling that started in 1801.

The Ogilvies held over two-million bushels of wheat in their grain elevators, and a chain of them stretched from the East to Gretna, Manitoba, by 1881.

“During these pioneer years, when the milling industry was wracked with growing pains, a bitter struggle ensued between the millers and the farmers over the relative freight rates of wheat and flour,” wrote G.R. Stevens in Canadian Pioneer Millers 1801-1951. “Few were as fortunate as the Ogilvies, who had both the raw material and the manufactured article to sell. In due course, wheat won, with profound effects upon the milling industry. It became more profitable to carry wheat rather than flour to centres of consumption; yet because of the improvements in milling practice it did not pay to build little mills all over the place. A few large mills, strategically situated, proved the answer in Canada.”

The Ogilvies had done their research before opening their Winnipeg facility. John Ogilvie came westward in 1874 to investigate the area’s potential for wheat farming in direct competition with the American Mid-West. Through their insights into the marketplace, the Ogilvies chose Winnipeg as the strategic location for one of the “large mills” which were destined to replace the “little mills.”

Development of the Ogilvie Milling Company’s six-storey flour mill in Point Douglas during Winnipeg’s 1881 boom represented much more than the introduction of an imposing landmark to an otherwise low-relief natural and built environment.

This project was one of the city’s earliest large-scale industrial enterprises and thus helped to diversify an economy previously reliant on trade, services, transportation, construction, and agriculture.

The mill for many years was the only such facility operated outside central Canada by the Montreal-based Ogilvie company. Founded in 1801 by Alexander Ogilvie, this firm was attracted to Winnipeg primarily by the quality of flour that could be obtained from the hard spring wheat grown on the prairies. Access to the CPR’s transcontinental line and municipal tax incentives also influenced the company’s investment.

Ogilvie’s presence in this form was a boost to the fledgling wheat economy. It provided immediate linkages to established grain and flour markets, plus an opportunity to process wheat locally rather than sell it in a raw state. Most of the mill’s initial production was retained for domestic use, but an export shipment to Scotland in 1885 — the first for flour milled in western Canada — resulted in overseas demand that exceeded supply well into the 1890s. 

Concurrent with construction of its mill, the Ogilvie company introduced a rectangular, pitched-roof country elevator to Gretna, Manitoba. Within two decades, this model for the design of local grain marketing and storage facilities dotted the western landscape.

The firm located its flour mill on what became the north side of Higgins Avenue in Point Douglas, adjacent to the CPR’s main line and with ready access to the Red River from which water could be pumped for the facility’s boilers and grain washers. The site eventually was served by two sets of CPR spur tracks.

The 1881-82 complex consisted of four solid brick structures, plus an assortment of ancillary buildings. All were utilitarian industrial facilities with little ornamental embellishment or stylistic treatment. The main structures, which continued in use for more than a century, included the six-storey mill with metal-clad mansard roof and stone foundation, a seven-storey attachment to the rear, a boiler room with a tall brick stack and an engine room.

Among subsequent additions to the complex were a frame elevator and annex capable of holding some 275,000 bushels of grain; flour packaging and storage buildings; a structure for the machine, blacksmith and carpenter shops; offices; and a bake shop where the mill’s output was tested by a qualified baker. A seventh storey also was added to the main plant.

The mill employed a recently developed Hungarian rolling process. By the latter 1880s, production capacity was somewhat under 1,000 barrels a day. This increased to about 1,200 barrels by the early 1890s and nearly 3,000 barrels by 1900.

The first major overhaul occurred in 1893 at a cost of more than $80,000, when much of the original machinery was replaced with more compact, up-to-date models and the mill’s daily capacity was increased by about 600 barrels. New equipment also was installed to meet a growing market for high-quality, coarse grain feed.

To operate the mill’s various machines for cleaning, breaking, grinding, bolting, purifying, and conveying grain/flour, the company had 350- and 175-horsepower compound condensing engines. A separately-powered dynamo enabled the plant to generate its own electricity. In the event of fire, each floor of the mill was equipped with steam jets and hose reels; as well, the company had its own fire brigade.

Ogilvie’s Winnipeg operation expanded in 1898 with the acquisition of Stephen Nairn’s oatmeal mill immediately across Higgins from the flour plant. This 1884 facility subsequently was renovated, its equipment modernized and production capacity doubled.

A second major upgrading of the flour mill took place in 1900 with installation of a 1,200-horsepower compound condensing engine and driving gear, gravity water system and air pumps, new electric lighting plant, and additional milling machinery. 

Several large investments followed throughout the 1900s, including new packing and warehouse buildings (1917), an 11-storey, reinforced 

concrete elevator and cleaning house (1918), a series of storage buildings and tanks (1909, 1948, 1949, 1956), brick-veneered offices (1950), and various smaller additions and alterations.

William Ogilvie, who was referred to as “The Miller King” for the role he played in developing the industry in the West, died on January 12, 1900. On March 31, 1902, Alexander died. The executors of the brothers’ estate sold the the flour mills and 70 country elevators to a Canadian syndicate.

Just prior to the 1902 sale, the Duke and Duchess of York made a tour of the Winnipeg mill. They were so impressed with the cleanliness of the facility that when the duke became the Prince of Wales, the W.W. Ogilvie Milling Co. received the Royal Warrant from the Comptroller of the Household as “Flour Millers to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.”

When the prince became King George V, the appointment ended, but in 1912, a new warrant was issued and the mill became known as the “Purveyors of Flour to His Majesty,” an honour the company held until December 11, 1939.

In 1937 the company started publication of The Jolly Miller. In this first issue, president J.W. McConnell  said a successful business depended upon “honesty, quality and service,” according to the University of Manitoba’s special collection for the Ogilvie company.

By the 1920s, Ogilvie had 85 country elevators in Manitoba and 31 in Saskatchewan. Its mills were located in Montreal, Goderich, Seaforth, Fort William (Thunder Bay), Winnipeg and Edmonton. 

Ogilvie had built the first privately owned terminals outside the CPR and Canadian National Railway at the Lakehead (Thunder Bay) in 1904 to handle grain destined  for export markets in Britain and Europe.

The Ogilvie company closed the flour mill in 1990, the same year that its oatmeal plant was destroyed by fire.

(Winnipeg facility description from The Year Past : 1990, a publication of the city of Winnipeg’s 

Historical Buildings Committee.)