Day 83 – August 28 – Assiniboia (Claybank), SK

There was heavy rain as we prepared for bed last night and it was still raining this morning, with a strong cold wind. We dawdled in our hotel room for an hour or so and ventured out just as the rain stopped.

Claybank is just over an hours drive from Assiniboia via some paved and some gravel roads. Up to now the gravel roads in Manitoba and Saskatchewan have been really good; no washboard or potholes. This morning however the tire tread lines were extremely slippery and even though John tried to keep the truck on the gravel in the middle the slick muck kept trying to pull us into the mire. There was quite a bit of sliding going on. Good thing there was virtually no traffic.

The clay was discovered in 1886 by Tom McWilliams, a local homesteader, when he was using a spyglass to search for his missing cattle. He sent a sample of the clay to an assay office and learned he had found a rare and rich deposit of ‘refractory’ or heat resistant clay. He moved his homestead claim to the property and over the next few decades dug the clay by hand and shipped it to a brick plant in Moose Jaw. In 1912 he sold the property to a new company formed by five prominent Moose Jaw men and the brick plant was built .

Refractory clay is well suited for manufacturing fire bricks which are used in fireplaces, and to insulate boilers, furnaces, steam engines, etc. Anywhere high heat is generated. The plant was in production from 1912 to 1989.

The information center is located on the first floor of the old bunkhouse. Up to 40 men boarded here. The staff had rooms on the first floor where the kitchen and dining room were located but the labourers were housed in one of the eight rooms on the second floor. Three-tiered bunks could accommodate up to 12 men in a room. Meals cost $1 per day and the average wage in 1945 was $138 per month.

When the property became a Saskatchewan Heritage Site, and later a Parks Canada Historic Site, it was still possible to tour the buildings. Time however is taking its toll and you cannot go in them anymore. 90% of all the machinery from the 80 years of production of the Brick Plant is still inside – and some of it still works too.

For many years the dry kilns were heated with coal and the impurities in the coal gave Claybank Bricks a very distinctive colouration. After the plant was converted to steam the bricks were much lighter in colour and no matter how hard the chemists tried they could not get the old colour replicated.

One of ten kilns. There was one smokestack for every two kilns.

All of these sign boards used to be located within the various buildings to describe what went on in each place to make the bricks. Now that the property is gated they were hung in the one place.

This is the only wheelbarrow that provided clay to the handmold shop during all the years of production. The hand molded bricks had to be perfect, no blemishes, chips or cracks. If even a fingerprint was visible it was discarded.

The making of the bricks was extremely labour intensive with almost every part done by hand. These men really earned their pay! Four bricks would come out of the dry press every 8 seconds and two men would pick up two each, flip them in the air and then stack them on the carts in rows on edge with space between for them to air dry before being put in the kilns by the tossers and setters.

Clay piles were made outside but there was also a lot of clay stored inside big sheds to be used during wet days or the cold months. The dry press method of brickmaking used at the plant required the clay have very little moisture in it.

We walked past the plant to the back of the property and climbed the small hill to get a bit of a view of the old clay digs. There was another large deposit of similar high-grade refraction clay located 12 miles from Claybank so the plant had an ample supply.

Claybank face brick and fire brick was delivered all over the globe. Bricks produced here went to places like Algeria, Cuba, Europe and across North America. These lined the fireboxes of railway steam locomotives and were used to ensure the efficient operation of steam-powered boilers which powered the warships manufactured in Canada during World War II. They were also used at British Commonwealth Air Training Program bases across western Canada where pilots from across the Commonwealth were trained for military action in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The best quality firebrick was used in the blasting test bays and the launch pads at Cape Canaveral, Florida for the moon shots in the 1970’s.

Face brick from Claybank was used on many notable buildings such as the central tower of the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, The Gravelbourg Cathedral complex, the Bessborough Hotel in Saskatoon, the Hotel Saskatchewan, and Balfour Apartments in Regina, and many other buildings across Canada.

You can hike out to Massold Clay Canyon but it was too cold and too wet and muddy today. The map had a clear warning on the quicksand area. It looks like dry clay but underground springs keep it wet and you will sink if you are unwise enough to walk there.

As we returned to the Bunkhouse we scuffed our shoes in as much wet grass as we could to remove the mud from the treads. There is a cafe in the info center so we had a coffee and a cinnamon bun before watching the virtual tour that showed the inside of the buildings.

We took a different route back to Assiniboia with a different combination of paved and gravel roads. Thankfully the rain had stopped most of the time we were at the brick plant so we did not have as much slip-sliding to endure.

We arrived back about 4 and warmed up in our hotel room until going out for dinner. By then the clouds had moved on, the wind had died down, and blue sky was overhead once again.

Tomorrow we go southwest to Wood Mountain Post and the eastern block of Grasslands National Park. The weatherman promises sunny skies and 27°.

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