Thinking of a road trip this weekend? The roads less travelled can lead you to discover some of Alberta's ghost towns; an eerie glimpse into what life used to be.
Merriam-Webster defines a ghost town as “a once flourishing settlement, wholly or nearly deserted - often as a result of the exhaustion of a natural resource”. This is an apt description of Alberta mining towns established in the early 1900's: Bankhead, Lille and Passburg, for example.
East of Lethbridge on Highway 61, (also known as the Red Coat Trail*) lies a string of ghost towns that died for a different reason. Towns here sprung to life along the tracks of the Canadian Pacific Railway; folks moving west, eager to make a life for themselves. But drought, dust storms, typhoid fever and vermin chased away those dreams. These pioneers ended up leaving behind homesteads, barns and businesses, on the move again in search of prosperity. And once the residents left, the train left too.
The landscape here is not rugged; it is not populated with mountains or aquamarine-coloured lakes. Here lies true Alberta prairie, filled with vistas of farmer's fields, sight lines clear to the horizon and an overwhelming sense of peace.
Wrentham is the first ghost town along the Red Coat Trail. The town is a picture perfect, still-life painting, with deep hues of green, golden and blue. There are no grocery stores, gas stations or cafes, but the library is still open, offering services to the neighbouring area. It's attached to an empty school and an overgrown “Field of Dreams” baseball diamond. Those that live here have modern homes planted across the street from the long-abandoned general store, the decaying grain elevator and acres of old, rusting vehicles--a fading dichotomy.
Continuing east, towns spring up every 10 or 15 kilometres. They have names like Skiff, Nemiskam and Etzikom.
Etzikom, 20 kms from Foremost, is home to The Etzikom Museum and Historical Windmill Centre. Inside, it's a curious collection of old musical instruments and dolls, while outdoors, old windmills of all shapes and sizes are on display. The museum is thriving, juxtaposed against a derelict home steps away on Oxborough Avenue. Open from May to September, the museum offers pie for sale in the shell of the town's former diner.
Closer to the Saskatchewan border, is Orion, where dark and menacing skies encase the old town in a spooky web. Although six residents still called Orion home in 2020, there are no signs of human life. Only felines wander the empty gravel streets. Playgrounds, with swings blowing in the wind, have no child playing on them. A dilapidated railway section house, resembling an Alfred Hitchcock movie prop, looms in the distance, languishing in the overgrown field of grass. Orion seems the ultimate ghost town.
The serenity on Highway 61 is palpable. Abandoned homes, visible from the highway but often inaccessible by vehicle, remain standing in fields of stubble. It's unfathomable to think what the homes' former residents--those hardy souls--went through, packing up horse and wagon and moving on. Homes and barns and granaries are all that remain of a life that didn't take root here.
Johnnie Bachusky is a ghost town seeker. The Alberta writer and photographer, who has preserved ghost town history in two books--Ghost Town Stories of the Red Coat Trail and Ghost Town Stories II, has held a fascination with the abandoned since childhood. He says he finds peace in old prairie towns; a way to “rekindle memories, feelings of passions once held. There I can recapture a piece of myself.”
He says, “I am not a religious man, but God is there amidst the silence and the ruins. There is a hidden voice that tells me they can never be forgotten.”
*The Red Coat Trail. Highway 61 was renamed in honour of the North West Mounted Police, who kept the peace in this part of Alberta, riding and patrolling on horseback.