What a great day to explore the restored ghost town of Rowley Alberta. We are blessed with glorious blue skies with wispy white clouds, beautiful fall foliage and lovely browns, tans, greys and whites of the various buildings in town. It’s a wonderful autumn day and we have all of Rowley to ourselves. Well almost, save for some cats, a few who take great interest in us and others who run away scared.
Rowley is located north of the Red Deer River Valley near Drumheller. It sits along a back road, off the highway, next to an old rail line. Were it not for the town’s three elevators, visible from a long distance off, one could easily miss the place.
In addition to the three prairie sentinels, there is an original train station here and other period buildings. Not may towns can boast such a diverse group of original structures. It’s Nirvana! Overall it gives the illusion that time has stood still and for many of our pictures, one would be hard pressed to know if they were taken a decades ago or just today.
Rowley dates from the early 1910s, when the railway came through. This Canadian Northern line was actually built under the charter of the Alberta Midland Railway, travelling south from Vegreville Alberta, through Rowley, and then Drumheller and finally on to Calgary. Along the way, the line passed through numerous small towns, most of which sprang up as the railway progressed. The track was built to modest standards, as Canadian Northern lines were often were, with minimal engineering and light rail. The CNoR was amalgamated into the Canadian National Railway in the 1920s.
It took a few years for Rowley to take off and most of what we see in town today dates from the late teens to the 1920s, the town’s boom period if you will. At it’s height it boasted a population of several hundred souls.
The coming of the Great Depression was hard on Rowley, as it was on nearly every small prairie town. Hard times, low grain prices, drought, they all took their toll and the town went into decline. In the late 1970s, the last business closed, the town’s store. By then only a handful of people lived here. Today, I believe the population is something like five or ten at most. We saw almost that many cats. At least some of the folks that call Rowley home are responsible for maintaining the various buildings here – that’s quite a job!
By the 1980s, the town was nearly abandoned, although the grain elevators still operated and the occasional train passed through. Around that time it caught the attention of some movie people and thought the latter half of the 1980s and into the 1990s, many films were shot here (Legends of the Fall is one that comes to mind). At that time, many buildings were fixed up along with some new ones built.
In the early 1990s, the CNR wished to rid itself of this money losing line and it was sold to a new short line railway, the Central Western Railway, based out of Stettler. That company purchased the section of the line running from Meeting Creek (near Stettler) to Dinosaur Junction at Munson (near Drumheller). For a time, they operated grain trains on the line, at least until 1993 or 1994.
But they were not the only ones using the line and in the early 1990s, a new tourist railway opened up, the Alberta Prairie Railway, using the Central Western Railway’s tracks. On weekends in the summer, trains full of tourists would stop in Rowley to take in the sights and have lunch or dinner. This ended in 1997 however when the line was pulled up – these tourist trains still operate on other extant sections of the line. The loss was a huge blow to the town, which came to rely on the train as a good source of income.
At that time, some buildings were made up to look like a typical western town. At least as the public perceives a western town to look like – you know an American style wild-west settlement with gaudy false front buildings, and of course a real honest to goodness western Saloon. Not historically accurate for the area, but I guess it kept the tourists happy and they have the dollars. Other buildings were more accurately restored – the train station and elevators for example.
Fast forward to today and the town still sees visitors, like us, but nothing like the heady days when the tourist trains operated. Most people show up by car, take a few pictures and go – not us though. Hollywood seemed to leave when the trains stopped too. On certain days throughout the year, I guess the town comes alive and Sam’s Saloon is opened for a few hours, for meals and drinks.
Arriving on a lovely fall day, we step out of the car and back in time. Our first view is of Main Street, a wide boulevard heading down a gentle slope to the railway line. Two tiny cats appear and watch us with great interest. They are two of many kitties we’d see this day – in fact we’d see more felines than people.
The first building we shoot is the old hospital, now a private residence. It dates from the late 1910s although it’s not known when it closed. It portrayed a hotel in at least one movie – did Rowley even have a hotel in the early days? Just down from it is the Rowley United Church, built in the 1930s (some reports say mid 1920s), a beautiful and well kept structure. It closed in the late 1960s. Right behind is the kid’s playground with a mix of vintage rides, metal slides, metal jungle gyms, chain swings, and some new ones too, along with two ancient biffies.
Across the street, in downtown is the old general store, closed in the early 1970s, and right next door, Sam’s Cafe (today Sam’s Saloon). The latter closed in the late 1960s and for decades was run by a well loved member of the community, Sam Leung.
Nearby is the bank but I believe, given all the glass, it may have been a store at some time. Others have said it was purpose built for a movie. Anyone care to chime in?
Working our way around a side street, we follow an old sidewalk leading nowhere. On one section an old dog print is seen, preserved for all time in the cement. Later, a huge tree blocks the path.
Heading down to the railway, we take a close look at the old train station. This one dates from the 1920s and replaced an earlier structure here. This is a rare example of a Canadian Northern station and perhaps one of he last built (around the time that railway was amalgamated into the CNR system). Surprising, several other CNoR stations remains on other sections of the former Alberta Midland line.
The track in front of the station, along with those in front of the elevators was retained when the line was pulled up. A small speeder is seen nearby, along with an old box car and ex-CPR caboose. At one time an old passenger car also sat nearby but it was removed some time ago.
Next stop is the elevators, all three of them. Not many towns can brag they have that many left, if any at all (at one time Rowley was home to a couple more). It’s an elevator row – I know technically an elevator row is four or more, but here we’re close enough.
The first one is marked for Searle Grain, built in the early 1920s. In later years it was owned by Federal Grain (late 1960s) before becoming an Alberta Wheat Pool elevator in the early 1970s (AWP #2). Closed in the early 1990s it’s be lovingly restored to its as-built appearance. The track was left in place here too, which helps complete the scene – a train is due any time!
Then come the twins. One is painted for the United Grain Growers and dates from 1917. It became an Alberta Wheat Pool elevator (AWP #1) in the later part of the 1920s. Its twin was built in 1940 and like the Searle elevator, these two have been restored. At that time, most of these, regardless of the owner were often painted brown as seen here. Only later did each company come up with a unique and colourful paint scheme and on that subject it’s not known if these were ever painted in AWP blue for example.
I make my way down the tracks for a kilometre or two while Connie stays behind. Here the old line has been converted to a linear park (rails to trails) – not sure how many people use it however – it’s pretty remote and I don’t think, well known. I find and old 1920s automobile body off in a field south of town and along the tracks, a former railway maintenance shed. Both make interesting photo subjects.
Heading back, we take some time to examine the old livery barn. According to the sign, it was in business from 1917-1967! Just before the car, we walk along a lovely tree lined sidewalk. A perfect way to end the visit.
We missed some things this pass, the old gas station, the school (moved here from another location), the community centre, the cemetery and others. Our goal is not record everything, but rather those things that inspire us on a particular trip. We’ll certainly return at some time likely taking in those things we missed earlier. We always like to leave something behind for next time.
To see some other fascinating places we’ve explored in the area, follow any of these links…
Prairie sentinels – Delia Alberta.
Stirling Mine – Commander Mine – Nacmine Alberta.
Then and now overlooking Wayne Alberta.
If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: September, 2013.
Location: Rowley, AB.