History on the harbour: A look inside Thunder Bay's iconic grain elevators

Richardson's owns two grain elevators in Thunder Bay, Ont. — one of which is about to mark a century of operation.

The grain industry has a rich history in Thunder Bay

Docked beside Richardson International's Current River elevator in Thunder Bay, Ont., a hulking freighter is getting heavier by the minute. 

"This vessel will carry 25,000 tons of wheat," says Gerry Heinrichs, the director of terminal operations, as he strolls along a concrete walkway carpeted in a layer of golden chaff.

Richardson's owns two grain elevators in Thunder Bay, Ont. — one of which is about to mark a century of operation. The two elevators combined employ about 100 people, all playing their part to move grain from the prairies to points around the world. 

A river of grain is moved through the Richardson's main elevator via conveyor belt. (Amy Hadley/CBC)

"There's a lot a lot of work that happens with a lot of people to actually have a grain car unload at this port or any port," said Heinrichs. "And this country of course relies on that, on exporting grain." 

While there aren't as many elevators along Thunder Bay's harbour as their once were, The Port of Thunder Bay still boasts the largest grain storage capacity in North America. Hundreds of thousands of tons of wheat, canola, soy beans, flax and oats are stored in the towering silos. 

Richardson's two elevators can each store more than 200,000 tons. 

For the workers who do everything from unloading the rail cars, to testing the quality of the product that arrives, to making sure the correct amount of grain is channeled out of the silos and into the hull of a waiting ship, there's a sense of pride in the work. 

"I enjoy the challenge," said Cliff Settee, the control room operator at the Current River elevator, as he carefully watches a set of computer screens.

Control room operator Cliff Settee watches a computer screen that monitors the amount of grain being loaded into multiple storage areas on a ship. The grain must also be loaded evenly, so that the ship doesn't lean. (Amy Hadley/CBC)

From his office overlooking the lake, he's monitoring the precise amount of grain being loaded into the ship, while maintaining constant communication with the crew on the dock. With about 2,500 tons to go, the work will be done in about an hour.

Settee has been in the grain industry for 38 years, working his way up through a series of jobs.

"I ... think of it as feeding the world," he said.