Globe and Mail: Ghost towns reveal forgotten past

Thanks to Mark Hume of the Globe and Mail for the opportunity to talk about Alberta’s ghost communities, and why it is important to remember them.

Comments from myself and Dr. David C. Jones appeared in the article, “Ghost towns reveal forgotten past”, which ran in the March 1st Alberta print edition of the Globe and Mail.

Mr. Hume has kindly permitted me to reproduce those comments below:

Ghost towns exist from Anderson’s Cove on the south coast of Newfoundland to Forty Mile in Yukon, 500 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse.

But the West has a particularly rich history, with more than 70 ghost towns listed in Alberta and another 40 in British Columbia.

Among the towns that have been lost is Alderson, in southeast Alberta, where a village of 250 grew up around the wheat farms that briefly flourished there in the early 1900s.

But there is nothing there now.

“If you didn’t know what you were looking for, there is no way that you would see it,” says Jonathan Koch, who chronicles the disappearance of ghost towns on his blog, Forgotten Alberta.

He says he makes road trips through the southeast every summer to “experience history before it is gone.”

Often, he arrives too late.

“It’s not just the towns and communities that have disappeared, it’s kind of the community in the greater sense as well,” Mr. Koch says. “Whole swaths of southeastern Alberta that were settled during that homestead period after 1908 [have lost communities] … the history of these areas has vanished.”

He laments the loss, saying that without the ghost towns, it is all too easy for people to forget the forces that shaped Alberta.

David Jones is a historian and author of Empire of Dust, a book about what happened when drought turned the southeast corner of Alberta into a dust bowl and the wheat economy collapsed.

He said it is shocking how much has been lost and forgotten.

“There’s Alderson. Another example would be Winnifred, Whitla, even Manyberries and Orion. There’s not much left of them. South of Hanna, you had Sunnynook and Pollockville, Cessford and Wardlow and [north of Hanna] Spondin and Scapa – that whole region is full of ghost towns, but nothing much is left. … You almost need an archeologist to walk you through that,” he says.

Mr. Jones says drought, together with plagues of cutworms and rabbits, emptied out the towns.

“In Alberta, there has never been a disaster of this dimension. It’s funny, almost nobody knows about it,” he said.

Mr. Jones said an effort should be made to save or reconstruct some of the ghost towns, not just in Alberta, but across the West.

“A place like Alderson could be reconstructed as a memorial to what happened in an entire empire of dust … Whether or not it would attract [tourists] I don’t know, but it would be something to alert people to what this province went through,” he said.

 The entire article, minus Alberta comments, “Breathing life into B.C.’s ghost towns” can be read online.

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