Always Look Back

I would like to again thank Forgotten Alberta’s Jonathan Koch for inviting me to contribute on his website of the stories, images, and memories of southeastern Alberta. As a “resident” of this region, I am honoured and pleased to add my thoughts and images. My first encounter with Forgotten Alberta was in November 2011, with his web article talking about “Who are the forgotten dead of Vulcan County?” I was searching Google for information on pioneer cemeteries in Alberta, and after finding the article and reading it over, I knew that I should bookmark this site for future reference. I’ll be doing a different take on the “forgotten dead” with my connection to some of the pioneer cemeteries that were located not far from my parent’s farm northwest of Elkwater. That will be for a future post!

My first post on Forgotten Alberta is called “Always Look Back” – I have used the term over the years and it has a meaning that works well in exploration photography / historical research, I’ll explain more in a bit.

Growing up on a farm, I had a genuine curiosity of the abandoned farms that were nearby our place and often wondered about the families that lived at these places. My dad recalled as a youth remembering “so-and-so” living at that place, and another family living at that place… Driving by them, I wondered what the story of the families living there; what did they experience? Why did they choose to live in this particular place? When I had some free time, I would read one of the local history books my parents owned, reading about “far away” places called Iddesleigh, Jaydot, Nemiscam, Ronalane, Atlee… reading these stories in the books and looking at the faded black and white photos sparked my interest, and I started compiling a bucket list of places I wanted to experience and see for myself. Sometimes my parents went for a drive, and I was able to photograph a few places and farmyards with a disposable camera. Or pausing at forgotten pioneer cemeteries, seeing the overgrown graves and tilted marble markers that were threatening to topple over. As College started for myself, my exploring slowed down a bit, but I kept an eye on places driving to/from school… In the spring of 2006, I graduated from my courses and after a few weeks practicum accepted a job offer in nearby Lethbridge at an architect’s office. On the weekends I would start driving around the backroads by Lethbridge, starting to learn where to go and what I could see. Over time the interest of exploration would increase, and with my new job, I was able to afford a point & shoot digital camera. It was a Sunplus Spca533 digital camera, and looking back at the specs it was dismal compared to what’s out there these days (heck my cellphone camera is higher quality than that camera), but at the time it would do the job.

At the same time, the internet was starting to become an asset in research and finding new places to explore (Facebook was just starting out). One of the sites I referenced (since gone) is Verlo.ca, a website I found by chance. Their people could share photos and have discussions on forums on the website on places to check out, things to keep in mind while exploring, etc. Through these forums online, we were able to chat on a wide range of topics from photography tips to exploring etiquette. Seeing these places on Verlo was an inspiration and another way to get thinking about how to document these forgotten places. One of the places on Verlo that caught my eye was the forgotten Alberta Wheat Pool elevator at McNab, Alberta, located approx. 50 kilometres southeast of Lethbridge between the hamlet of New Dayton and the Village of Warner. A large brownish-red elevator stood near the busy north-south Canadian Pacific Railway “Montana” subdivision and is located in a small valley that was photogenic. Ironically, I had stumbled upon McNab back in the summer of 2005 – my summer job between college courses was building barb wire fences, and that summer the company I was working with got a bunch of contracts with the railway to replace the fencing along the train tracks. One of the sections of the fence we had to replace was just south of McNab, so I did take a few photos of it then with my disposable camera. I knew I had to go back and revisit McNab and made plans to go out there in early January 2008, as I wanted to stop at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park as well.

Always Look Back – McNab Elevator – Jan. 2008
Trackside Loading – McNab Elevator – Jan. 2008
Driveway and Office – McNab elevator – Jan. 2008
View of the McNab Elevator – Jan. 2008

On the day of the trip, I made my way south from Lethbridge, stopping along the way photographing what I could see. Ironically there was no snow (or very little) but the temperatures were still cool enough to warrant winter gear! I turned off Highway 4 and headed west on Highway 506 and before long I was at the top of the valley and at the bottom nestled by the train track was this lovely grain elevator. I noticed a few differences since my last visit, the doors/windows were covered over, and the walkway between the office and the elevator was cut away. But it was still standing! And in the next 15 or so minutes I took as many photos as possible. Looking back at them my lack of experience shows; not lining up, sun in the sky, shadows, cutting off part of the image… but they are photos that I could take with that particular camera, and part of the learning experience.  I then headed off to Warner, Milk River, and then eventually Writing-on-Stone Park… a productive day! As time went by I got busy and never made an effort to go back to McNab to check on it, something I would soon regret. I continued taking photos and like most people saved them to my computer. With Facebook online (I joined in 2008), I started sharing them in groups on Facebook and meeting other like-minded people. Verlo and other sites like it were being pushed off to the side, as it was much easier to share images and talk on Facebook then the clunky websites. Then disaster hit.

The office and the cut walkway – McNab Elevator – Jan. 2008
The office and fuel shed/outhouse – McNab Elevator – Jan. 2008
Looking up! – McNab Elevator – Jan. 2008

I was noticing my computer was acting up in later 2008, so after I tried to fix it, the problem still existed. So I took it to Future Shop (remember them?) and talked to the one tech there. They said to leave it and they would look it over. I asked them to do a backup of the photos I had and they said they would do it. After a couple of days, I got a phone call from them saying the computer was ready. I went to get it and they gave me some CDs that had my photos (so I thought). I took it home and hooked up the cables, and started it and then I noticed they wiped the entire computer and everything was clean off it. A bit worried, I put in the CD’s and found some of my photos from before. It looked like Future Shop did do some of the back-ups, but not everything was transferred over so I was missing the majority of 2004-2006 and had half of 2007. That’s a lot of photos missing and the realization that I lost most of my photos was shocking. Some of them were on Facebook, so I could re-download them back to my computer, but it wasn’t the same. I didn’t upload everything to Facebook, so lots of photos didn’t see the light of being online. But I had to take a break, so for the next 6 months, I didn’t take any photos. Then I bought a well-worn second-hand book at a garage sale called “Signatures of Steel” by Greg McDonnell. Greg lives in Ontario and worked briefly at the CPR, but spent the majority of his career as a firefighter. But he took train photos and made short essays about his photos. The writing and the way he photographed the trains immediately caught my attention. In the book, a photo from May 1974 by Andrew J. Sutherland of two CPR C-Liner locomotives screaming westward past the two grain elevators in Cowley, AB was the nail on the head for me. I couldn’t go back in time to 1974, but I could still capture some train traffic by the remaining wooden grain elevators. I could still capture some of the ageing farmyards that will still standing. I could still write down the memories of the older generation and try to re-write it in a way that could speak to a newer generation… That book gave me the spark to give photography and historical exploration a try again. This time would be different – I would do better on my photo backups, and also on my photography. I purchased a Fuji FinePix S digital point & shoot camera (which I still have) to help me learn a bit better on my photography. But the times were a-changin’ – some of the abandoned places were being cleaned up by landowners or being lost to fire. Some of the lesser-used railway lines were being closed and torn up, and the venerable wooden grain elevators were soon within their sights. Prairie landmarks a person would think that would never change, and then they were gone from the horizon. Places like McNab, Alberta that would fall to the demolition crew in the late fall of 2010 – I found out after the fact and drove out to it to find a barren site. I never made the effort to return and now the only photos I had were from the trip I made in January 2008.

Always Look Back. Looking back over the last few years has been interesting. Looking back at the mistakes I’ve made (either in photography or editing/writing), and how I have progressed to have some articles get published, and have been able to upgrade my photography equipment. Looking back at the places I was able to experience and photograph, some of which are now gone. Looking back at how I’ve improved at recording the memories and stories of these places. Looking back at the friendships I’ve forged from photography and exploration. And looking back at learning how to treat others with respect (and getting permission) opens doors to getting access to places to explore. That’s what “always look back” means to me – know your past as you move forward. I am excited to tell the stories and share the images of the forgotten places in southern Alberta.

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