Debbie Olsen for the Calgary Herald
Published: July 24, 2021
Beside a dusty gravel road near the town of Vauxhall sits a beautifully restored church, a well-kept cemetery, a community hall and a few other dilapidated buildings. It’s all that remains of the once-thriving community of Retlaw. The wind blows through the prairie grass as my husband and I wander through town reading handwritten interpretive signs and photographing old buildings.
There’s something hauntingly beautiful about ghost towns – and it’s not ghosts. Empty streets and crumbling buildings stand as a testament to the power of time and a reminder of how fleeting life can be. Even communities that were once home to dozens of shops and hundreds of people living busy lives can succumb to economic challenges and dwindle to ghost town status.
“Ruin gazers” is a term used to describe people with a fascination for exploring abandoned places and some ghost towns are prime sites for this kind of tourism. If you want to try a little ruin gazing, here are three fascinating Alberta ghost towns that are well worth a visit.
Retlaw – Walter Spelled Backwards
When the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in 1913, the community that used to be named “Barney” became “Retlaw” in honour of Walter R. Baker, a CPR official. “Retlaw” is “Walter” spelled backwards and the community was expected to be a major centre. The town had a CPR railway station, four grain elevators, a hotel, a bank, a blacksmith shop, a pool hall, two churches and several other businesses. So what went wrong?
Retlaw is located in a dry region of Alberta that suffered from frequent crop failures. When the province of Alberta built an irrigation canal near Vauxhall in the 1920s, people moved where the water was.
If you visit Retlaw ghost town, start at the cemetery. Inside an unlocked small white building, you’ll find a binder compiled by the Retlaw Historical Society that contains information about births, deaths and marriages in Retlaw. Next, head to downtown Retlaw. As you walk around town, you can read handwritten interpretive signs created by the Retlaw Historical Society. If you want to book an event at the church or go on a guided tour of the town, email firstname.lastname@example.org in advance.
Rowley – Pizza and camping in a ghost town
About 30 minutes northwest of Drumheller, the hamlet of Rowley has a present-day population of about eight people – down considerably from its peak at about 500. Rowley was incorporated in 1912 and was named after Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Walsh Rowley. In 1919, the Canadian National Railway came to town. The town had a rail station, several grain elevators, a hospital, a general store, a movie theatre, a garage, a livery stable, a church, a saloon, a restaurant and many homes.
In the 1980s, locals began fixing up the old buildings and the ghost town has since become a tourist attraction. Rowley was the film site for the 1989 Hollywood movie, Bye Bye Blues and the boardwalk and some of the buildings created for the movie set are still standing.
If you want to stay overnight, camping is allowed in a small campground on the west side of town. Payment is by donation. The last Saturday of every month has traditionally been pizza night in Rowley and, in the past, it has been a real party atmosphere with many visitors in attendance. After months of cancellations, pizza nights resumed on June 26, 2021. Check the Rowley Facebook page a few days before the last Saturday of the month for details on when locals will be holding the next pizza night event.
Wayne – Visit the Last Chance Saloon
In its heyday, Wayne was a mining town with a population of more than 2,000 people. Today, it’s one of the few places where you can visit a saloon with real bullet holes in the walls in a ghost town that is said to have real ghosts. Located about 16 kilometres southeast of Drumheller, Wayne sprung up when the Red Deer Coal Company built the Rose Deer Mine, in 1912. The town had two schools, a hospital, several shops, a hotel and a saloon that miners affectionately dubbed the “Bucket of Blood” due to a large number of drunken brawls. When the mines in the Drumheller area closed down in the 1930s, the town slowly died.
Today the hamlet has about 28 permanent residents and the only evidence of the glory days is the Rosedeer Hotel and the aptly named Last Chance Saloon, which have become popular tourist attractions. Earlier this year, the Last Chance Saloon, the Rosedeer Hotel and the adjacent campground were listed for sale for $925,000.