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Ghosts of East Central Alberta, Part 1: Ghost towns and google maps

This is Royal Park in 1951 or 1952. It was a small town along highway 16 between Edmonton and Vegreville. Nowadays there isn’t anything there except for a very small sign and a quonset hut.

 

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Royal Park

 

When I was home at Christmastime last year I was over at my aunt’s place, she lives about three miles away from my dad, across country roads and rolling hills. For some reason we were looking at google maps. There are two funny things about that. One is, at that time on “satellite view” google maps did not show the actual landscape, it showed a pixelated “mix” of landscape appropriate for that area. You could not see actual farmyards or contours of the landscape. Second, and more importantly for my post here, it lists places that for all intents and purposes, no longer exist. My dad told me about Inland, Royal Park, and Haight. All of these towns used to be little centers of commerce and community on the prairie. Now they’re literally gone.

But, traces remain. Like the sign that points to Royal Park, or the school near Inland, or the road that people still call Haight Road. At the time, surprisingly enough, all of these ghost communities showed up on google maps. Go figure!

 

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Last year’s map, with ghost towns circled

 

At the time I said, who ever heard of Royal Park?! A friend from Vegreville said: “Of course I know where Royal Park is, do you know the quonset hut and old buildings just east of Vegreville on Highway 16? That’s Royal Park!” He has relatives with land over there I guess, and we joked that he could be the mayor – a joke because there’s really not much there.

Yesterday I looked at google maps for the region again – these places are gone. If you zoom in really, really close the names are still listed. And funnily enough, the pixelated “mix” on satellite view was replaced with actual satellite images.

 

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Today’s Google map – where did they go?

 

These are two interesting ways to view this phenomenon that maybe I shouldn’t overthink. But how can I resist! I overthink everything!

On the one hand, the google maps of 3 years ago erases something – it shows the landscape as an abstract mix of parkland and farmland, it was placeless kindof. On the other, the maps of 3 years ago leave placeholders for points that are no longer centres for social relations, no longer communities in a viable sense. In many cases, these towns were literally taken apart. Grain elevators raised then destroyed, taken down board by board once they were no longer in use. Buildings moved somewhere else once the store and post office closed up shop. People start going to larger centres to sell grain, buy groceries, and chat over coffee.

On today’s google map, you get sort of reverse forms of spatial specificity and destruction – you can see right down to tractor tire tracks on the satellite images. But old points and placenames on the map have been removed.

So why anihillate the spatial specificity of the area with one move, and leave place holders of past forms of rural place making in the next? Why Google? Whyyyyy?

In a new book due out soon Gaston Gordillo says that “the production of space is always predicated on spatial destruction” (Gordillo 2012, citing philosopher Henri Lefebvre). I personally feel that this kind of spatial destruction/production has happened multiple times out in East Central Alberta. This particular round is focussed on centralizing, urbanizing. Destroying the smaller places to produce larger ones. I think it’s been happening at least since the rise of mechanized agriculture in rural Alberta. In my own life I’ve seen smaller centres lose their schools, their grain elevators, their banks. The ghost towns that appeared on the map were smaller centres that didn’t make it. Services and businesses moved to larger centres. The people followed them or went bankrupt, sold out and left. Either that or they made a fortune selling their family-farmed land and moved on to greener pastures. Fertile farmland in the area is in high demand, to buy or to rent, and prices are high.

Those fields of wheat, barley, and canola that stretch endlessly across the plain? Those are mostly farmed industrially – the only viable way to make it work is to farm more and more land, with larger and larger machines. In the old days you might have a couple quarter sections and a few head of cattle, but nowadays you need to harvest as much as you can. Many farmers today have degrees from colleges and universities, and they need them to play on the global market. So, there are fewer families living on and working the land, it’s hard to make a living for a small farmer, and most hold second jobs to make it work. Those that remain in the area but don’t farm themselves usually rent or sell to larger operations. This is what they call a “push” factor, I suppose – as in it pushes people out of smaller communities and into larger ones. If grain elevators are a marker of prairie economic life, consider this: “In 1951 there were 1,651 elevators in Alberta. By the end of the 1996-1997 crop year there were 327 elevators remaining.” New rounds of spatial destruction and centralization.

 

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Grain elevators at Inland, since removed.

 

But, local people still use these points to wayfind or describe directions on the landscape. The Haight Road no longer goes to Haight (there is no Haight really to speak of) but it’s still a reference point for local people. I asked my dad about old towns that don’t exist anymore and he asked me if I know the dip in the road, just off the correction line, when you are travelling cross-country to Vegreville. I said I did – and he said there was a town there, with a post office and everything. That was Inland. Now there’s an old school, and that dip in the road to mark it out. On the internet I found that people also make a hobby of photographing these old ghosts. Ghost towns, left-overs of towns.

 

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Flickr user “bonedad” has a set of images called “Ghost towns of Alberta”

 

And what is a ghost town anyway? Ghosts haunt us, their presence remains after they are long dead, affecting those still living. I guess ghost towns do the same. The presence of ghost towns “affects and conditions the spaces that come next” (Gordillo 2012). For me, I feel like the abundance of ghost towns, houses, and abandoned agricultural equipment in rural Alberta give the feeling of an overall sense of decline. Of an un-tying of old forms of socialization, something lost with the arrival of industrial agriculture, and the increasing centralization and urbanization I’ve been going on about. But these places (some more than others) maintain a significance, in everyday lives. They are points by which you can navigate the landscape, reference points for wayfinding on country roads that make an even grid across the terrain. That’s why it was so interesting when they appeared on the Google map, not erased, with text as big as neighbouring towns that do remain. Their ongoing significance reflected or maybe even inflated online.

But they’re not on the map anymore. I’m not sure why. Google is always updating their maps, and I’m not quite sure how they do that. Still, the past looms large out there, I guess. Things sit for longer, they linger. Farmers plow their fields around old buildings. You can see overlapping histories in the structures on the land. But these structures represent a very particular past, a Euro-Canadian farmer history.

In a recent post, Zoe wrote about learning a post-1885 version of Edmonton history, a frontier-city ideal, and about working to reclaim older place names and more everyday experiences of the city through art. At my high school in rural Alberta, I don’t think we learned any local history at all – except maybe a field trip to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village by Elk Island National Park. I certainly didn’t know about where our towns came from and why some prospered while others disappeared. Where everybody went, what life used to be like out there. Why there’s a Chinese restaraunt in our little town. Why there are so many Ukrainian-Canadians out there anyway! And Hutterites! And while many old homesteads and farm equipment remain to haunt the landscape and bring the past into the present, others were (likely violently) removed and erased. In my next post I’ll write about more of the settler relics that dot the landscape, where they came from, and what it means that they remain. And after that, I’ll write about the missing or at least hard to find Aboriginal traces in the area. Thanks!

Discussion

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  1. Pingback: Ghosts of East Central Alberta, part 2: Settler relics « Urbane Adventurer - December 6, 2012

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