Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Retlaw: a Prairie Dry Belt Ghost Town


Retlaw (Walter backwards) is named after Walter Baker, a CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) Official. Retlaw was to be an important stop on the main line between Suffield and Calgary. The train station, along with freight room, section house and a pump house, was completed in 1914 and several trains a day began to roll through.

Retlaw is located in the Southeastern Alberta dry belt. Early cattle ranchers maintained that this area was unfit for farming. The CPR disagreed and set up farms to test the potential of the area for farming. Their results, whether embellished or not, brought settlers flocking to the area to get their piece of paradise. Towns sprung up all over the dry belt. After fires and drought, 1916 produced a bumper crop of wheat, producing the majority of the provinces wheat crop for that year. This encourage the railroad to expand and more people came. The good times were very short lived. Beginning in 1917, a decade of drought took over the land and as quick as they came, the people left.

The canal that was planned for Retlaw, to bring essential irrigation, was diverted and didn't come close enough to provide relief from the devastating conditions. Everyone was effected. The farms suffered. Many businesses began to move or close up shop. By 1928 the train station was closed and the CPR sold all their holdings to the village for $1.

There is so much more history here, my couple of paragraphs doesn't even skim the surface, but it gives you an idea of why there are so many abandoned homesteads and towns in the Dry Belt area of Alberta. A good book to read on this is Empire of Dust: Settling and Abandoning the Prairie Dry Belt.

I spent the good part of a morning in late November 2017 wandering around Retlaw. I saw no other people or vehicles but there is an occupied residence by the town site, I believe that is where the friendly dog came from that walked with me a bit.

Get ready for a lot of photos! As you walk down the road, there are hand painted signs at the locations of former homes and businesses, it gives you an idea of how many people used to be here.

Main Street Retlaw

The first buildings on the left hand side of the road where the Alberta Cafe, Campbell & White Meat Market and the National Cafe.





Across the street was the Retlaw Pool Hall which operated from 1917-1924. Beside it the Retlaw Hotel, which opened in 1914, but by the late 1920's had been dismantled and moved away.

Location of the Hotel
 In 1913 a Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce opened but it was too small to meet the demand so a bigger brick bank was built. It was dismantled in the 1940 and moved to Lethbridge.

CIBC  
The only home left in Retlaw.
Friendly Retlaw resident





After the house we find the locations of the Post Office, Newton & Cook Grocery and Dry Goods, and the Telephone Office.





Redcliff Brick and Coal at the Telephone Office Site


At the end of the street is Retlaw United Church, it has been restored and is a welcome site after so many empty lots.



All decorated for Christmas

Back at the start of town if you turn west you will see where the train station was located.


There are a couple of empty foundations to be found in the grass, I came across this one, that looks like it would have faced the rail line and station.

Retlaw Church visible in the distance



I read each and every sign in town, there was also a wall of information and a cenotaph at the start of town also. I hope the signs get repainted as many are faded and almost illegible in some parts. The church is well cared for and the guest book shows that people visit.

It's a true ghost town and I was happy to wander among the ghosts for a bit.



Visit took place on Nov. 26th 2017.

28 comments:

  1. Some local went to a lot of work to make all those signs. I hope you got good photos of each. You could give a copy to an area historic society, in case the signs don't get repainted.

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    1. Hi Gorges, I have photos of each sign, the ones facing west are well faded. I think it was a society that originally put all the info around town. I hope they can fix them up one day. I imagine money is an issue.

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  2. I have been here a few years ago and definitely will be back. It is a unique sight on the empty prairie.

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    1. I wasn't originally planning to go here but I am very glad I did.

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  3. I find this so moving & poignant! Imagine the people's lives here! It's really haunting but so beautifully captured in your photos & those historical notices! The church is a wonderful tribute to the past.

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    1. Thank you so much Christine! It's hard to imagine all the life that used to be here, it was nice to see the markers all down the street with old photos.

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  4. Ghosts of the past, those old buildings and remnants. That's so often the story of the West- opportunities drying up, small boom towns like this fading into the mists of time.

    The dog must have been good company.

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    1. Hi William, so many long forgotten boom towns. I'd like to see all the old mining town in BC...someday!!

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  5. I like that people left testimony of their lives there. I hope it is never lost!

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    1. Hi Marie, I agree. I hope the signs get some attention soon. It would be nice if they could install metal signs but that would cost a pretty penny I'm sure.

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  6. What a fascinating story! And my, hasn't some local historian(s) made a big effort with those signs etc to keep the local history alive in that ghost town. Wonderful to see such dedication to preserving the past. I love it.

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    1. Thanks Debra! It is nice to see all those signs and information. It was a labour of love for sure!

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  7. The remnants of a town long ago. Walking along the road, you must think of life and how it was lived. Who lived there, what were the people like, what were their dreams. The echoes of voices no longer heard.
    As always Jenn, your post is wonderful to read and the photos are beautiful to see. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks Bill, you said it better than I could...the echos of voices no longer heard.

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  8. Nobody is going to rob that one

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  9. What a fascinating ghost town. I love that the signs were put in place. So many times we can only wonder about what once was. Great photos!!

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    1. Hi Vicki! Hope you're feeling better! The signs definitely bring names and faces to the history. I love it!

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  10. you have outstanding place my friend!

    your photos have artistic touch and thank you for taking me along to such unique looking and remarkably awesome place!!!

    i am amazed by the views you share ,old house ,dried tall grass and elegant church everything is sooo appealing!
    thank you for this wonderful blog and sharing

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    1. HI Baili, thank you for your kind words! There is no shortage of scenery and interesting things here.

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  11. Nice visit Jenn :) What a ghost town indeed. I love that photo of the post office! The church almost looks out of place!

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    1. Thanks Rain, it was really cool to walk around there.

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  12. The signs with pictures make it even more poignant Jenn, images of how it was! The little church is absolutely delightful inside and out and a bit of an unexpected sight in a ghost town ☺

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    1. Thanks PDP. Especially to see the church all decorated for Christmas, someone still cares a lot about this place which is nice to see.

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  13. That's amazing, Jenn - well documented! I'm grateful that somebody documented the town with signs, and that you documented the signs.

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    1. Thanks Steve! I'd really like to see those signs fixed up. Some I could barely read.

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  14. I really like the old Union/United Church! When I visited there in December 2016 the Church was also decorated for Christmas but the Christmas tree was in the back SE corner instead of at the front. Nice post, Jenn! Lots of photos (just the way it should be)...lol!

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    1. Thanks Michael, I am so glad I decided to go here as it wasn't in the plan that day!

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