Plains of Southeast Alberta
how did you know my restaurant was here?!"
- Owner of the "Spur of the Moment Cafe",
the only restaurant in Glenwood, AB
the Southern prairies, a number of towns rose from the dusty
ground at the turn of the 20th century. Many were placed along
the new railways to facilitate the shipment of grain, or to
support mining operations. In the roaring 1920's, things began
to bustle in this part of the country as restaurants, pool halls,
hardware stores and grain elevators sprang up in the young towns
as newcomers flooded the countryside with the promise of free
land and a life of freedom.
as drought and economic depression began to plague the region
in the latter half of the 1920's, many of these towns began
to fade. Residents left for larger urban centres to find work,
often taking their entire houses with them. Some simply dropped
their belongings and went in search of a better life elsewhere
- perhaps with the intention of returning but rarely doing so.
Hamlet of Skiff; population definitely less than 10
day along the Red Coat Trail, I have passed various ghost towns
who have suffered from this particular fate. In some cases,
the town is a mere shadow of its former self but still functioning.
Others have completely vanished, marked by a few pieces of wood
planking, a concrete foundation or two, or sometimes nothing
but a memorial.
some lie between these two stages - fighting for their lives,
yet on the verge of becoming bonafide ghost towns. Orion, a
small town on the edge of civilization in the southeast corner
of Alberta is one such town which finds itself on the brink
of vanishing forever.
In the early
1920's, this town arose from the badlands and was named after
the constellation of Orion. The town quickly prospered, boasting
more than 30 businesses, including a hotel, bank, 4 grain elevators
and a population of about 250 citizens. Many were homesteaders,
responding to the government's offer of free land. In exchange,
they were required to break and seed their claim; essentially
living off the land - and many were able to do so early on.
However, with a prolonged drought lasting for most of the 1920's
the homesteaders began to leave in droves, accepting the Albertan
government's offer of free transportation to other parts of
Route East: The Red Coat Trail
arriving to town, I met Boyd Stevens cutting his lawn. At 77,
he's been a lifelong resident of Orion and owns the town hardware
store. He also makes up half the town's population, which now
stands defiantly at 2, though it was 6 only a few years ago.
Along with his hardware store, the town now features a co-op
(with post office) and a newly built church, though Stevens
isn't sure where the congregation is going to come from.
about the other resident of Orion, Stevens tells me that his
neighbour is a woman who moved to town from a nearby farm after
her husband died and she found it lonely living alone. Moving
to a town with only one other person may not seem like a huge
step, but in this part of the world it can be. She drives the
local schoolbus and rents out her farmland. She has satellite
television, and Stevens admits he doesn't see her often. Tonight
is the Stanley Cup playoffs, so it's unlikely I'll have the
opportunity to meet her.
admits he has no interest in living elsewhere. He occasionally
visits the "timberland" (any place with trees) but
doesn't like it because he can't see where he's going. Looking
around at the stark landscape surrounding Orion, I begin to
understand what he's getting at - there certainly isn't any
possibility of claustrophobia living in this part of the world.
Encounters with the Pointy Kind
Hardware Store is quite a sight to behold. Beyond the mountains
of clutter and complete chaos - indeed, there is merely a narrow
alleyway making it possible to walk from the front door to the
register - the first thing that catches your eye (or maybe it
was just me) were the posters of bikini-clad calendar girls
plastered on nearly every vertical surface. I complimented him
on his choice of wallpaper. Stevens laughed and said, "Some
people like it too, but some people don't. Those people can
just go to hell."
father owned the hardware store and apparently started the tradition
of coating the walls with bikini girls (indeed, I spotted some
relics hidden amongst their more contemporary peers), but his
father also moonlighted as a grain buyer for 10 years. During
that time, when a homesteader would arrive with grain, he would
run down from the store to the elevator to tend to his second
job; that is until all the dust from the grain began to complicate
his health. In the meantime, Stevens was educated as a mechanic
outside of town - and when he returned, his father added a garage
and gas pumps to the hardware store.
the gas pumps are long gone, they have a lasting legacy; the
provincial government is displeased about leaks that formed
in the tanks, which were left to decay under the ground. The
ministry insists that they are polluting the area, but Stevens
insists the damage is minimal and risk is overestimated. "The
birds are still chirping and the rabbits are still here,"
he says, "And I've been drinking this water my whole life
and I haven't dropped dead yet."
Saddle up the Aluminum Horse
I fill my water bottle from the well located in the deep grass
of the overgrown village playground, I notice the water has
a distinct yellowish hue to it and has a strong plastic taste
to it. I suspect the tap hasn't been used in weeks, perhaps
months. Nonetheless, I treat it with my purification droplets.
By the morning, the algae blooming in my bottle adds an interesting
touch to my morning oatmeal - perhaps I should have doubled
towns such as Orion are not unlike museums and visitors can
often wander the ruins, each of which seem to speak a thousand
stories. However, this openness leaves towns such as these at
risk of being pilfered. An entire generation of antiques and
collectibles could disappear forever, but at least they are
no longer polluting the landscape. I'm not sure which I believe
to be more important.
and help themselves to anything they can pry off the walls.
Stevens remembers when a visitor dropped by town to learn more
about its history and interviewed him in his hardware store.
Afterwards, he announced that he was going to take a walk around.
A while later, the visitor came back to the store, telling Stevens
that while exploring an abandoned house, he found a great antique
sode pop cooler and asked for his help moving it to his car.
Stevens was taken aback, "That was in my house!" he
It got hit by a truck a few years back.
a short walk around town, Stevens asks me (for the third time)
if I'd be interested in buying property. He seems to be joking,
but a part of me suspects his question is partially sincere.
Nobody, especially Stevens, wants to see Orion become a total
ghost town though almost anyone who visits already considers
it to be.
up camp, an older Hudderite couple drove into town, eyeing me
closely as they passed by. They stopped their truck at Stevens'
store for a chat. Most visitors are locals, coming in from the
homesteads after a hard day to catch up on the latest news and
gossip. I could see them gesturing towards me as they talked,
and when they turned the truck around to leave, they gave a
outside his store and lighting up a cigar, Stevens looked out
at the fields bathed in a golden sunset and tells me that a
man came through town about 10 years ago, shortly before the
grain elevator was demolished and the last businesses began
to shutter. The visitor advised Stevens to buy land outside
the city. Once towns are considered to be ghost towns - or go
officially bankrupt - they are often dismantled and bulldozed
by the rural municipalities. "He told me that no matter
what happens to the town, I could always move out to my land
where they could never turf me out. Perhaps I should have bought
land, but I didn't."
to Orion! Population... 2!
bulldozers have already flattened towns such as Govenlock, Senate
and Vidora on the Saskatchewan side. Indeed, when I passed by
these places, there was next to nothing to see but iron wrought
signs listing the town name and years when the town was born
and died. Orion could very well be next.
up and biked out of Orion the next morning, headed southeast
into the great, empty expanse of a little visited corner of
Alberta. Gazing at the rolling brown and green hills in the
morning sunlight, the landscape resembled an enormous quilt,
laid out to the horizon and beyond. The sight made me consider
that our entire country itself is a giant quilt stretching from
ocean to ocean, and the stories we tell and the lives we live
are the strands that hold it together. Places like Orion are
indeed a part of this quilt, even if the fabric is a little
torn and faded. We might think that our children - or ourselves
for that matter - can only learn about our country's history
from a textbook in school, but out there, in a far and forgotten
corner of the quilt, the history still stands and its nooks
and crannies are waiting to be explored. I can only hope there
is something left for visitors to enjoy in the future even if
Stevens can't convince someone to buy property before he leaves
not planning on camping out here, are you? You wouldn't find
me camping out unless my life absolutely depended on it. Too
many critters out here. Rattlers, wolves, big cats - if you
know what I mean. This is one of the most remote places on Earth"
- Albertan rancher mending his fences along
Highway 501, a few kilometres past Orion on the southernmost
point and least inhabited section of the Red Coat Trail