There’s countless places like Queenstown Alberta scattered across the vast Canadian Prairies, little farming towns that once held promise but today seem to be hanging on by a thread. Not ghost towns in the sense, but something close. There’s life, but it’s not always obvious. Imagine it. Streets to nowhere, vacant buildings, vacant lots, overgrown sidewalks, as many things empty as occupied. No businesses, no traffic, the only things heard, the barking of some distant dog and perhaps the wind. Get the picture?
We’re on Centre Street, just down from Railway Avenue in what was formerly Downtown Queenstown. And we’re here to examine one of the few things taking us back to the early days here, a large wood structure with a decorative false front, that in years past was the Queenstown Garage. We’re got the keys, we got the cameras, and we got the time.
Queenstown dates from the mid-1920s with the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway*. The track arrives and the towns are built around them, a solid case of the cart before the horse if there ever was one. But it worked. This line was always a sleepy little branch and was gone by the early 2000s. We wonder how many in Queenstown were witness to the last run?
(*There was an earlier, smaller Queenstown, more a cluster of farm buildings than an actual community, a few clicks away as early as the 1910s.)
The first mention we can find of the Queenstown Garage (simply “The Garage”) takes place about 1927/1928-ish. Some random documents found, however, suggest it’s a wee bit older without really giving much in the way of corroborating data. Heck, all data is really spotty here. Land records are rather silent on the matter, oddly, and there’s no locals old enough to remember. So at best, we can only guess based upon the data presented.
The land is listed as being owned by various people and entities throughout the 1920s and 1930s, but there’s nothing explicitly mentioned of the building in any way, or its purpose. We’re pretty confident it was a garage from day one and that day one was in the 1920s, and the omissions were simply the early record keepers not writing certain things down.
An old photo, undated, shows a similar looking building with a different false front, but sort of close in overall configuration and layout to the current structure. A 1920s era roadster sits out front and two grizzled mechanics (we guess) stand beside the single globe gas pump. A sign advertises gas and oil and grease, and Goodrich Tires. A business name is not seen. The caption states its the “original” Queenstown Garage. Is it? While it’s close, something is not right – unless the current structure is a highly modified version of that original. That’d work and would explain the differences. Only a calculated guess on our part.
Fast forward to the 1940s, our first “record” mentioning the place was operating as a garage. Photos from that time show the building much as it is today. Land records list an endless stream of owners in the 1940s and 1950s. Some high turn over there, suggesting it was a tough business to be in…or that the owners themselves may have lacked the skills to make a go of it. It appears that both cars and farm machinery were repaired here. And for a time there was new sales too – more old photos show shiny new tractors (IHC Farmalls) and their new owners posing for class photos out front. Not sure if cars were sold, but it’s sort of hinted at.
All the while, gas was dispensed out front. A newer pump makes an appearance in the 1950s. And they did a fair business selling rubber from the look of it. Photos from this time do not show the Queenstown Garage sign as it is today.
At some point, perhaps 1950s, the building was changed internally, the rafters modified so there was greater overhead clearance. Later, this would cause problems for the current owners since some weakening took place when that was done. In 1958, a cement pad was put inside the building. The date is right there near the entrance, scratched in the surface. Another old photo is found showing some fellows mixing concrete out front – presumably we’re witness to this very pad being made. Before this the floor was simply dirt. And some sections still are.
By the 1960s or thereabout the building was used by a local farmer as a barn of sorts. Queenstown by then was in a serious decline and the small population could no longer support the garage. In the early 1970s, it was acquired by the county due to unpaid taxes. Soon after it survived a fire that swept through Queenstown, destroying most of what was left of the vacant and empty downtown business district
In the 1970s the Queenstown Garage was acquired by the current owners. Ever since it’s been used as storage…old vehicles and stuff.
The building is fair size, approximately 28x15m and perhaps a story and half tall. Most of the area is made up of one large cavernous repair bay with space, easily, for a half dozen cars and/or tractors at anyone time. Interestingly an expert making a structural assessment of the Queenstown Garage marvelled at how they made such a large span with no intermediate supports, using the materials and techniques of the era. He says…“the span of roof rafters is greater than normally capable of (given) construction techniques at the time”. Yet, there it is. Those 1950s mods compromised the aging roof so the current owners put in some large posts to help spread the load. The building is listed as being sound and everything seems pretty square and straight.
There’s an office off to one side. In behind is a smaller room, presumably for mechanical work and parts storage. A indoor pit toilet along the back wall, today a spider infested nightmare of a room, were the rudimentary “facilities”. It appears the building never had running water but was wired for electricity at some point (hinted at in 1940s).
For the time being the Queenstown Garage is being maintained to owners best abilities. New shingles have been added, the ground cleaned up (lots of old metal bits uncovered in the process – like they tossed out junk parts out the window) and minor repairs done. It’s hoped one day the building can be made more presentable and perhaps opened up for viewing by the general public. But of course, this takes time and funds, two rare commodities these days when it comes to old buildings. The owners are working on getting the building historically recognized (and it seems to meet the qualifications) which would help in that grants would then be available.
For a time in the 2000s and 2010s, the east facing outer wall, the one most visible from the road, was covered in old T-Shirts. An art project.
A couple pieces of old metal guard the front of the building, a vintage disc harrow on one side and on the other a 1940s/1950s era tractor. Not just any tractor but with this strange Rube-Goldberg-esque front end loader attachment thingy as part of it. You have to love a broke-ass farmer and their ingenuity. Take this old pipe, this old channel beam, some angle iron, parts of a broken jalopy, weld it together and viola, a tool for the job. Inelegant, no down right ugly, looking like some kind of weird mechanical spider, but it worked I guess.
The Queenstown Garage is the only building left on Centre Street. There’s a few houses, some live in, some not, on the few blocks that make of the rest of the community to the north. The Queenstown Community Hall can be seen to the south. Into the early 2000s there was a couple grain elevators down by the tracks to the east. These were the biggest things in the community. Now the garage is. If people in Queenstown need gas or groceries or whatever, they head to Milo some ten clicks away, or to the big city, Calgary, some hour and change distant.
At the peak Queenstown was home to some one hundred plus people with many more on farms in the region. Today, perhaps a dozen folks make it their home base. In the past there was every business imaginable here – hotels, stores of all kinds, banks, butchers, a lumber yard and more. Most old lots are now just patches of grass.
Seem on this visit, an old motorhome seemingly in retirement. This is a fairly rare beast today, a Triple E (made in Manitoba) from around 1980-ish. While the company is still in business they make van conversion motorhomes only and nothing like this beast. Seen in on the drive in, a very cool International Harvester “Metro” Van. This model is outfitted out with a tarp-enclosed stake deck (rare to see them in “truck” form, mostly they were integral vans) and could date from the late 1940s to early 1960s era.
We stayed in Queenstown from supper time till dark. Learned a lot from the owner, got into his head space and were spellbound on hearing of his struggles to save it. This is a story we hear all too often. It’s near impossible to save an old building in Alberta…in Canada. A storm threatened while we explored but failed to deliver until part way home. We hoped for a clear night – auroras were to be strong this night – denied again. Maybe we can come back.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: August, 2017.
Location: Queenstown, AB.
Article references (and thanks): Dave Lawson, Book: Snake Valley – a history of Lake McGregor and area, Milo Alberta Library Archives @ Archives Society of Alberta, Alberta Register of Historic Places, Vulcan Advocate Archives.
You can view the Queenstown Garage from public roads.