Updated: Mar 3
updated February 2023
Days after I retired, it was the first summer in memory that I had no trip planned for the summer and I thought I was looking forward to relaxing at home. However, all those years of hitting the road immediately following the school year was deeply ingrained and it took less than a week for me to load up the car and hit the road for a cross-Canada road trip.
I wasn't really looking forward to driving through the prairies. I was brought up on the west coast and I'm a mountain snob. I knew I wanted to visit a couple of significant historical sites. I wanted to visit Winnipeg for the history, music scene, as well as the Museum of Human Rights, but I couldn't imagine finding the landscape of that part of Canada interesting. I didn't think there was anything really interesting in Saskatchewan. I was wrong.
I spent a couple of days in Moosejaw, Saskatchewan and had thoroughly enjoyed the downtown area with its beautiful murals and historic tunnels. I was now on my way to Regina when I saw a sign along the TransCanada Highway promoting The Claybank Brick National Historic Site. Always a sucker for a National Historic site, I took the turn south into an area known as the Dirt Hills, named for the rich clay deposits found in the area. It was a treat to see the hills rise from the flat horizon as I drove along the gravel highway. It was fascinating to watch various weather systems as they moved across the sky.
And then there it was: The Claybank Brick plant... a National Historic Site. This surprisingly attractive industrial site was nestled into the very pretty hillside. Even in the height of summer, there were not a lot of visitors but I was told its annual Heritage Day is hugely popular. It was a truly interesting day. I learned a lot about bricks and heat-reflecting clay and was fascinated.
This was a huge operation, offering standard and specialized brick types and shapes. I admit to never considering brick making fascinating enough to learn about it previously. This is one of those cool benefits of being a traveller... learning about interesting stuff I never considered previously.
During operations (1914 - 1989) they had a narrow gauge track link to the main CPR tracks for moving materials around the operation and to the loading area at the main line.
In the early days, the clay was dug directly from the banks of the hills and processed with pressers and dried on the heated floors of the plant buildings. Two main types of bricks were made here. Face brick is energy-efficient brick with a smooth finish (common brick is rough), often used for architectural purposes. Face brick from Claybank was used for Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City.
The other type of brick, fire brick, is very specialized, expensive, and used for furnaces, kilns, and fireboxes. The ceramic clay of this area of Saskatchewan is especially good for super high heat purposes.
During operations, a full-time brick scientist spent his days playing around with additives and process changes to improve brick function. The specialized clay found in this area is heat-resistant, light coloured and fairly rare. The bricks made here have been used in ovens, furnaces, and boilers (fire bricks) or for specialized building purposes (face bricks).
The railways were huge consumers of fire bricks, and in WWII, Corvette warships used Claybank brick for their boilers. Fire brick from Claybank is used on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.
The raw clay was stored before being molded into processed clay. Inside operations needed efficient ways to move heavy materials around and a rail system was used. The different grades of clay powder were moved via containers on overhead rails.
Once bricks were shaped and aired for a few days, they were loaded onto carts and sent through the drying tunnels. The air in the drying tunnels was piped to the shaping area where the bricks continued to dry on the floor before heading to the kiln. The workers in that area enjoyed the radiant heating in the cold prairie winters but would have suffered in the summer.
The bricks would move on twelve-cart trolleys through seven drying tunnels of differing heats over three days before they were ready to be baked.
After the drying tunnels, the bricks were stacked in huge kilns. The kilns moved some heat through pipes to the drying tunnels and the plant floor. Air was also vented out at the bottom which also served to clear winter snow in the courtyards surrounding the kilns and storage areas.
Inside, the structural walls are not mortared to allow for expansion. Most of the inside bricks are fire bricks, but the exterior are face bricks. There is a small gap between the two walls for insulation and expansion.
On the other side of the path is the storage shed. This huge storage shed holds more types, shapes, grades, and styles of brick than I knew existed.
The plant officially closed in 1989 and was immediately protected as a historical site, first by the Province of Saskatchewan and later by the Government of Canada.
I was told that their little restaurant is outstanding and the online reviews are positive. Unfortunately, it wasn't open when I visited, so I can't offer a personal recommendation.
I was very pleased that I had followed the signs as I spent a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours meandering around the site. I wish I had been better prepared, because the area was surrounded by excellent hiking. On my next way through I will arrive early, grab a picnic lunch from the restaurant and head out hiking.
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