Vincent Bonnay and the Hidden Lives of Ghost Towns

A few weeks back I mentioned we visited Rowley with journalists Johnnie Bachusky and Vincent Bonnay. I occurred to me that I never shared Vincent’s final outcome of his web series on Alberta ghost towns.

Here it is!

The hidden lives of ghost towns: Across the Prairies, towns are disappearing. Some teeter on the brink of oblivion, the last gasps of their stories captured by roving groups of dedicated photographers and amateur historians. Others cling to life through whatever means they can. But there’s much more to all of them than just the ruins of old buildings. Here, we take a tour of three of Alberta’s ghost towns, before they fade into history.” — Vincent Bonnay, 2020

https://newsinteractives.cbc.ca/longform/the-hidden-lives-of-albertas-ghost-towns

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Annual Alberta Ghost Town Trip – Part One

Normally we gather every July to spend two days traveling around a section of Alberta as part of the “Ghost Town Convention”. The name is a bit of a misnomer as there are no real convention elements to it, it is just a group of like-minded individuals touring various places,

“Ghost town” is also a bit misleading. Many of these places are not ghost towns in the classic sense. However, if you expand your definition to think of a ghost town as any settlement that is now a shadow of its former glory, then many of these places are ghost towns. The prairies are awash in small towns that had big dreams but are now just hanging on by the thinnest of threads.

Make no mistake, it’s not just towns either. We also visit cemeteries, historical sites, abandoned locations and — in normal non-Covid years — museums. This is the seventh straight year that our good friend Jason Sailer has organized this event for us.

I really need to put more effort into creating thumbnails…

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Touring the Alsask Radar Dome

If you have ever driven Alberta Highway 9 / Saskacthewan Highway 7 between Calgary and Saskatoon, you likely have noticed the large white object which sits just north of the highway right on the border between the two provinces. If you are curious like me, you may have even driven up to the gates only to discover chainlink fences topped with razor wire and signs warning you to stay away.

Nicknamed by many as “the giant golf ball”, it is formally known as the Alsask Radar Dome and it was an active military installation up until 1987.

The above images were taken in April of 2007

If you grew up in the Cold War era like I did, you will remember learning about Canada’s role in protecting the United States from a Soviet attack. It was well known that if an attack were launched on the United States, the most likely route would come over the north part of the globe, putting Canada right in the middle of two superpowers.

Part of the defence was a series of three lines of radar stations, designed to sound the alarm should an attack be detected. The northernmost of the these lines (and I would dare say the most well-known) was the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line. Further to the south was the Mid-Canada line and the southernmost was the Pinetree line. The Alsask Radar Dome was part of the Pinetree line.

Construction of the Alsask Radar Dome started in 1961. It went into operation two years later in 1963 and remained functional up until 1987. At that point it was essentially abandoned and left to the elements and the vandals.

In 2018, the property was acquired by the Canadian Civil Defence Museum and Archives. They have been working ever since to secure, clean up, and restore the site. We received notice back in the Spring about some upcoming tours of the site but those were delayed thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. Last weekend we finally got to go inside and check it out for ourselves.

Of course, we also would like to use this opportunity to highlight some content from friends of our blog who previously published content on this subject:

BigDoer.com from June of 2015

BigDoer.com from September of 2015

The Soviet Threat, a documentary by The Cache Project:

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The Mintlaw Viaduct

In this episode, we take our canoes out onto the waters of the Red Deer River and float down to check out an abandoned railway bridge which has not seen a train in almost forty years — the Mintlaw Trestle.

Construction on the trestle began in 1911 by the Alberta Central Railway (ACR) and was completed in 1912 by the Canadian Pacific. It is the second longest CPR bridge of its type in Alberta and the longest and highest bridge in central Alberta.

For several years there have been rumblings about the Mintlaw viaduct becoming a key piece of a “rails to trails” project linking Red Deer and Sylvan Lake, but it seems those plans have stalled. While I have no direct knowledge of the road blocks, I would imagine the two biggest issues are the same as all of these projects seem to face — a lack of funding and the approval of adjacent landowners.

I would love to have access to one of the ends of the bridge to see it from up high, but for now that remains a pipe dream.

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The Abandoned Cameron Fire Lookout on Mount Burke

I have now visited the Cameron Lookout three times, the first in August of 2006, the second in August of 2011, and now again in 2020. After each visit the physical pain dissipates and the memories of the scenery have me making plans for my next visit.

It was on this last trip that I decided I should do more research into the history of this lookout, beyond the basics I have read on other sites. As usual, my main source became the online archives of the Calgary Herald. Those only interested in the trail report can skip down a bit further where I’ll give an overview of the hike itself.

THE HISTORY

The excellent blog “Hiking With Barry” lists the construction date of the lookout as 1929 and the date of abandonment as 1954. I used that as my baseline.

The first mention in the archives of “Cameron Lookout” comes in 1930. In an article discussing the permit system which is being implemented for those wanting to camp in the Bow River national forest, there is mention that “…his men would again command posts located at Blue Hill, Moose Mountain, Black Rock, Junction Mountain and Cameron Lookout on Mount Burke.” The wording certainly makes it seem as if this was not the first season for manning the station on Mount Burke. This, combined with the lack of any previous mention of the lookout before 1930, seems to imply the 1929 construction date.

ABOVE AND BELOW: Cameron Lookout in August 2006

Further evidence comes from Alberta Historic Places, which also lists the construction date as 1929, although no source is cited. They do show a great picture of supplies being packed in to the lookout. I wish I had seen the photo before doing the hike as it would have made for a great “then and now” opportunity.

The next reference I found came in 1937 in an article by Brian Burke, who sounds like a rancher in the area — perhaps a relative of Denis Burke, the namesake of the mountain upon which the lookout sits? This article says the cabin was built in 1930. Whether you subscribe to the 1929 or 1930 date, the really interesting part comes in the description of the lookout as it was in 1937.

“Wooden shutters protect three-feet high windows, which run the full length of the west, south and east walls. In the centre of the cabin is a two-foot square table, with a map of the district.”

“A telephone line connects the lookout with Pekisko Cabin and all stations in the Bow River Forest Reserve.”

“Water, fuel for the gasoline stove, and all supplies are packed up once a week by the ranger at Pekisko Cabin, who takes his pack ponies right to the top of the mountain.”

In my quick research, I was not able to find any firsthand sources confirming the 1954 closing date.

THE HIKE

The approach to Mount Burke has changed since the last time I did the summit. You used to start at the parking lot outside of Cataract Creek campground and follow the path along Salter Creek where you would find a stone cairn marking the “packers trail” which was the route used by the construction crew and supply teams.

The floods of 2013 apparently wiped out much of the old approach. The new approach involves following a cutline almost immediately upon leaving the parking area. This straight approach reduced the distance a little but adds a fairly significant hill which must be climbed up and over. It doesn’t seem like much at the start of the day when your legs are fresh, but on the way home this hill was the cause of much cursing.

The cutline intersects with the original trail while still in the forested section. Just keep following the switchbacks up the mountain. The trees will get thinner, the views will open up, and the ground becomes more rocky.

You will reach the ridge, which is my favorite part of the hike. In the Brian Burke article I referenced above, he calls it “the Hog’s Back” and describes it as “…about 50 feet long and four feet wide, with sheer drops on each side…” I’m not big on exposure but I do not find this section difficult to navigate, although a mistake here could be costly. It is the most technical section of the hike but even it does not require the use of hands to traverse.

After crossing the Hog’s Back (I’ve never heard it called that before but I like it better than “the ridge section”) you simply grind it out up the screen and talus to the lookout. The trail is well marked the entire way and getting lost would be difficult.

I’m not in very good shape and there were plenty of rest breaks along the way. The ascent took four hours and the trip down took about three. Round trip distance was 12.5km. You can watch the video below to see how the hike played out for me:

Sources:

May 23, 1930 (page 30 of 42). (1930, May 23). The Calgary Daily Herald (1908-1939) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/2252521121?accountid=140093

September 8, 1937 (page 5 of 18). (1937, Sep 08). The Calgary Daily Herald (1908-1939) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/2252790122?accountid=140093

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