It was 10 a.m. and almost 30 degrees when I stopped at Alderson on July 28, 2014. Two weeks later, fire would rip through this tinder dry townsite, once home to 125 hardy souls, leaving behind a smoking moonscape, and a scattering of cellar holes. I have revisited this glorious day many times in my memory since, and my fortuitous visit to this former village in the outback of southeastern Alberta. On days like today, how I wish I could return, for so many reasons. #forgottenalberta #ghosttown #alberta @cypresscounty
Leaning and rusting, and surrounded by an ocean of tinder-dry prairie, the last remnants of the long-abandoned farming community of Alderson (nee Carlstadt) teeter on oblivion, awaiting the one spark, lightning strike, or hot exhaust pipe that will erase them from existence. A fire in 2014 destroyed the last structure in the Alderson townsite, and as evidenced by the destructive wind-driven prairie fires that recently ravaged southern Alberta, the next conflagration could come at any time, without warning.
A peculiar facet of southern Alberta’s pioneer-era history is that there is little permanence to it. While we tend to adhere to an old world bias that history involves a permanent physical and literary record, neither of these exist throughout much of the plains. Much of Palliser’s Triangle was settled and abandoned a century ago, and with the pioneer exodus went the stories of hope and heartbreak, which were quickly forgotten as new lives were built somewhere else and generations passed on. Inevitably, the physical evidence of the homestead experiment is fading, with man and Mother Nature working in consort to set the clock back to zero. In time it will be like they were never here at all.
Starr of the Prairies. The Starr homestead, near Alderson, Alberta. Charles F. Starr of Rugby, N.D. arrived at his new homestead in the fall of 1909, a 160 acre parcel on the arid plains near the settlement of Carlstadt, Alberta. According to homestead files, Starr first lived in a temporary shelter, and later a 12 x 12 shack, while he awaited the arrival of his wife, Naomi, from the States. While fulfilling his homestead duties, Starr became one of the community’s early lumber barons, starting “C.F.Starr Lumber Co”. Managed by his son, Verne, Starr Lumber served the Carlstadt (later changed to Alderson) community throughout the first 10 years of its existence. Although dubbed “Star of the Prairies” by early boosters, the village of Alderson was beset by several calamities, namely drought and fires, which by the end of the First World War had initiated a precipitous decline in the village’s fortunes. As drought drove the residents of Alderson and area to greener pastures, Starr looked to the irrigation belt northeast of Brooks for new opportunities, opening a lumber store in the community of Patricia with his son around 1920. Starr even served as the first president of the Patricia Board of Trade, while continuing to farm and operate a lumber store in Alderson for a time. It appears Starr’s patience for life in the drybelt dried up by the mid ‘20s. Charles and Naomi relocated to Calgary by 1925, where he worked as a hotel operator for several years. They would live the rest of their lives in the city. #albertahistory #forgottenalberta #langevin #carlstadt #alderson #alberta #canada #ghosttown #history #mybadlands #explorealberta #fabtrip17 @canadianbadlands @travelalberta @cypresscounty
Thankfully, the memory of Alderson (nee Carlstadt) at the peak of the settlement boom was chronicled in great detail by photographers, Chester Coffey in particular. The Starr family seems to have been a favoured subject, and several photographs documenting their presence in the community now existence within the province’s archival collections.
“Alderson National Forest”, then and now.
“Welcome U.R. IN Alderson National Forest.” #protectourtrees #savethespottedowl #noclearcutting #humour #forgottenalberta #albertahistory #alderson #carlstadt #langevin #alberta #ghosttown #mybadlands #cypresscounty #explorealberta #fabtrip17 @canadianbadlands @travelalberta @cypresscounty @countyofnewell
“Among the strong riders of the plains in those days of the big round-up and the chuck wagon, was one who had something of the “seer’s vision” and he pondered as he rode over that great triangle, between the 4th and 5th Meridians and on either side of the 51st standard parallel, which apexes at the now cities of Calgary, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge. The burden of his thought was, “If only this land could be watered what a glorious thing it would be.”
– Excerpt from “The Story of the Big Ditch” by E. Cora Hind (1912)
As we drove eastward on Secondary Highway 524, emerging from the haze of the “Hays Maze” (and its famous maize), the broad sweep of the Bow valley came partially into view, revealing the remains of Ronalane.
Despite being nearly three hours and 300 kilometres away from the conflagration at Waterton, acrid smoke hung heavy in the air, seemingly unmoved by the steady gale that swirled the scorched grass around our feet.
The dream of J.D. McGregor, he of the “seer’s vision”, was never to come to pass here, but out here on arid steppe, the sepia smog that obscured the view also served to underscore the scale of this ambitious failure, a testament to the overreach and ambition of those who attempted to colonize these unforgiving plains over a century ago.
In 1906, the Southern Alberta Land Company, an Anglo-Canadian consortium, began construction of a half million-acre irrigation empire in southern Alberta. Stretching 200 miles from Carseland on the Bow, to Bowell south of Carlstadt, its capital was to be “Ronalane”, situated high atop the east bank of the Bow, an hour west of Medicine Hat. The company surveyed a townsite here, naming it for Major General Sir Ronald Lane, chairman of the board. According to a 1912 company publication, a bridge built below the townsite was designed to support a siphon conveying water from the main canal, across the river, and over the steep east bank. “The bridge on which this syphon rests,” the company prospectus added, “will be a public highway and in addition will be strong enough to carry the heaviest interurban electric car.” Rail arrived at Ronalane in 1913, but as debt ballooned, and investor confidence flagged, the coming of war in 1914 sunk the Southern Alberta project. Water eventually flowed through the canals and spillways west of the Bow, known today as the Bow River Irrigation District. To the east, plans and proposals were floated for half a century to re-start the derelict development from Ronalane to Redcliff, but to no avail. Today Ronalane is in ruins, a name synonymous with unrequited dreams of empire, a scattering of abandoned earthworks, bridges, and forgotten foundations, left to endure the ravages of nature and time. #ronalane #fabtrip17 #smoke #alberta #albertahistory #forgottenalberta #mybadlands #explorealberta @canadianbadlands
It is at Ronalane where the “Big Ditch”, what is now the Bow River Irrigation District main canal, empties back into the Bow River. Back in 1914, however, the plan was to transport water from the main canal, across the Bow river, and up the river bank to the irrigation works on the other side. The problem with this idea was that the east bank of the river rises nearly 200 feet above the canal, meaning water would have to be carried up the river’s east bank to the main canal at the top. As Ella Cora Hind’s explains in her 1912 account of the Southern Alberta Land Company project, “The Story of the Big Ditch”, engineers proposed the construction of a 6,550 feet syphon, consisting of continuous wood stave pipe, which would have carried water across the river “on five 120-foot riveted steel spans on concrete piers and with heavy frame and pile trestle approaches.” “This syphon has an internal diameter of 8 feet, the water goes through with a head of 186 feet and to withstand this the pipe is banded with iron 7/8 and 3/4 inch thick, these bands throughout the entire 6,550 feet are never more than 9 inches apart and where the pressure is greatest are only 2 1/8 inches apart. The bridge on which this syphon rests, will be a public highway and in addition will be strong enough to carry the heaviest interurban electric car.” Although Hind wrote as though the syphon was a fait accompli, the project ran into one obstacle it could not overcome: a lack of funding. With a bridge and spine of concrete cradles complete and awaiting installation of the syphon, the project went into receivership in 1914, halting any further construction. When work on the irrigation project resumed three years later, the entire section east of the Bow river was abandoned. Thus, the dreams of an irrigation capitol at Ronalane were scuttled, leaving a canal without water, a spine of concrete without a syphon, and a bridge without the heaviest interurban electric car. #forgottenalberta #ronalane #alberta #albertahistory #canada #mybadlands #explorealberta @canadianbadlands #fabtrip17
“Thus, the dreams of an irrigation capitol at Ronalane were scuttled, leaving a canal without water, a spine of concrete without a syphon, and a bridge without the heaviest interurban electric car.”
“Give me a blessing. Thou hast given me a south land, give me also springs of water; and he gave her the upper and the nether springs.” Achsah the bride, leaving the old home for the new, craved a blessing as well as a gift. Caleb her father had given her as a marriage portion the much coveted south land with its sunny slopes and rich pasture, but without water it was not perfect and she craved that the gift be made a blessing, by the bestowal of springs of water which alone make a south land fruitful. More than a thousand years have fled since Achsah proffered her request, but still the south lands of the world cry, “Give us water, our golden sunshine and rich soil avail not without the blessing of the upper and the nether springs.” Alberta has a glorious south land stretching mile after mile in gently undulating plains,—”Great spaces washed with sun,”—where in olden days the buffalo roamed and where in the early eighties thousands of horses and cattle fattened on its nutritious “prairie wool.” Among the strong riders of the plains in those days of the big round-up and the chuck wagon, was one who had something of the “seer’s vision” and he pondered as he rode over that great triangle, between the 4th and 5th Meridians and on either side of the 51st standard parallel, which apexes at the now cities of Calgary, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge. The burden of his thought was, “If only this land could be watered what a glorious thing it would be.” – Excerpt from “The Story of the Big Ditch” by E. Cora Hind (1912) #forgottenalberta #albertahistory #ronalane #alberta #mybadlands #fabtrip17 #smoke
Highway 25 north of Lethbridge is mostly known for one thing: cows. This is heart of “Feedlot Alley“, the highest concentration of intensive farming operations in Alberta, which produces over half of the beef consumed in Canada. While industrial farms dominate the landscape today, the area’s roots are deep underground, in the rich coal seams that run along the Oldman River. Underneath silage pits, cattle pens, and pivot tracks lie a rich heritage of boom towns, ghost towns, and a pioneer history dating back over century.
A smoky shot of the C.P.R. Station at Diamond City. As you may have guessed, Diamond City derives its name from mining, albeit coal not diamonds. The present townsite overlooking the Oldman River Valley, just to the northwest of Lethbridge, was developed to serve the growing numbers of people who had come to work in the mines and haul the “black diamonds” from deep within the ground. In operation for over 20 years, the Diamond City mine closed in 1927, although its economic fortunes were bolstered for several years after with the growth of irrigation. As for the station, it is a private residence, moved to its present location from High River to be renovated and restored. Sources: Coyote Flats : historical review, 1905-1965. Volume 1, @thelostcanuck on Flickr #FABTrip17 #explorealberta @southwestalberta @canadianbadlands @travelalberta
In late 1910, the first shaft was sunk in what would become the Chinook Coal Mine, northwest of Lethbridge. In quick fashion, a community grew up around the mine, incorporating as the village of Coalgate in 1912. A post office was established in 1913, and for some reason was named “Commerce”, causing all sorts of confusion. With the post office having put its stamp on the community, the village soon changed its name to Commerce, which by the end of 1913 was nearing a population of 300. Increased wartime coal demand continued to boost the village’s prospects, and by the end of 1914, over 400 people lived in Commerce, most of them miners living in company accommodations. A private railway spur line was extended from Kipp, along the Canadian Pacific line west of Lethbridge, to the Chinook Mine; and an Ellison grain elevator was established trackside in 1915-16. At its peak, the community boasted a modest commerce sector, including a general store, grocer and pool hall, boarding house, and hardware store. As is the story of so many mining towns, the prosperity wouldn’t last. According to “The History of Diamond City and Commerce”, the mine closed in 1924, and its various parts were poached for use in other mines throughout the area. The spur line shut down, and the elevator moved to Diamond City shortly after, using a technique called the “Deadman Pully”. As for Commerce, it was a dead village walking. As tax revenue dried up, and being unable to meet its debt obligations, the village disintegrated, and was disorganized by provincial Order in Council in February 1930. #mybadlands #explorealberta #albertahistory #forgottenalberta #alberta #canada @southwestalberta
The Turin district was named after a prolific Percheron stud horse, imported in the early years by eight area farmers, shareholders in the Coyote Flats Percheron Horse Co. As T.C. Noble wrote in the history of Coyote Flats, the citizens of Turin weren’t horsing around when they chose this strapping stallion to be their community’s namesake: “The raising of good draft horses proved to be a very profitable venture for those who had good range and the knowledge and patience to train horses for farm work. The Percheron was the most popular breed. Good stallions such as the one called “Turin” and from which the Turin district was named were purchased and did much to improve the local work horses of the district. The horse must certainly be recognized and given rightful prestige in the developing of our country.” @southwestalberta @canadianbadlands #fabtrip17 #forgottenalberta #albertahistory #alberta #canada
“Gone are the days of the peddlar with his trinkets, the Manitoba scoop, the John Deere wagon and the Bennett buggy, while the coal oil lamp, the kitchen range and the coal hod have disappeared from the household. The one room school has disappeared from the landscape. Automation and centralization are in evidence everywhere. The modern home on the tree-bordered farm is a far cry from the sod shack of the pioneer.” – Marie Sorgard, Coyote Flats: historical review 1905-1965 #turin #albertahistory #alberta #canada @southwestalberta @canadianbadlands @travelalberta #explorealberta #fabtrip17
Sad news coming from Orion, Alberta this morning. I have received word from a few friends of Forgotten Alberta that the pioneer-era hardware store operated by prairie icon, Boyd Stevens, burned to the ground on Christmas Day.
A video posted on Facebook by Logan Biesterfeldt shows the store already completely engulfed, as locals scramble to contain the fire on a frost Xmas morning.
Comments on Facebook and elsewhere online indicate that Boyd is safe, but I will post confirmation and further details once they become available.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have stopped by Stevens Hardware on a few occasions in during sojourns through the south, and had the privilege of conversing with Boyd about his life and times in isolated Orion, Alberta. Visitors to Stevens Hardware were assured of great conversation, and came away knowing the intimate details of the history of the region. Hopefully Boyd made it through okay, and his family’s legacy will continue.
— Greg Farries (@gregfarries) July 6, 2016