Some days we simply pick a random small town and we walk around it, taking it what ever it has to offer. This day has us south of Calgary in the quaint village of Champion Alberta. It’s a picturesque and charming little place with a typical assortment of old and interesting buildings, many of them forgotten and vacant. We stroll around with no particular goal in mind, shooting what ever interests us at the moment. And as always we only scratch the surface and we could return many times and not run out of things to study and photograph.
Champion celebrated its 100th birthday in 2011 and while there were people living in the area before that date, it was the coming of the railway in 1910-11 which gave birth to the town. A centre of agriculture, farms in the area thrived, producing huge volumes of grain. In 1915 it earned the title as the “The One Million Bushel Town”, reflecting the tremendous quantity of grain shipped out in that year.
For a decade or two Champion flourished and the future looked brighter than ever. However as was the case with many small prairie towns, as the years passed the growth slowed and then stopped. By the time it peaked the town was home to over 600 people. Then came the decline – farms failed, businesses suffered, people moving away, a common scenario on the prairies. The exodus started slowly at first but quickly picked up momentum and today the town has half the population it did back in the heady days when the future held nothing but promise. It’s a quiet place on a Sunday and we saw only a couple cars.
We park at the edge of town and start our trek and the first thing we do us come across some old and interesting vehicles, as we often to in small towns. They seem to be a mecca for this sort of thing The first is a Fargo truck from the period 1939-1947. It’s a bit beat up but looks complete and as I always seem to say, it would make a nice project. Fargo is interesting as they were only sold in Canada (and some other countries) but not the US. A re-branded Dodge, they differed only slightly from that brand. Since they sold in relatively small numbers, finding one is rare. They were made up until the early 1970s.
Next is a 1965 Pontiac Catalina, a nice land barge from a time when the cars were huge and the gas mileage was horrible (and few cared). This car is as old as I am!
Next to the grain elevators (which in Champion are long gone), usually the most prominent building in town is the hotel, in this case it’s called the Champion Inn. It’s sagging a bit and is a sort of rough looking and it appears to be closed. A sign on the door, from 2010, says that hopefully it will reopen soon. Perhaps wishful thinking?
The death of the hotel is often the final blow to the community as they are usually a hold out and one of the last businesses to go. It was the home to a Chinese Food restaurant that every small town seem to have. You know the place, it served those baseball sized chicken balls smothered in a syrupy sweet red sauce. The building is as old as the town and in the past is was known as the Savoy Hotel.
Next door is another structure large enough to be perhaps a second hotel (during the boom, small towns often had numerous hotels all within close proximity to each other). It’s not clear however and this is only a guess. Some buildings had plaques on them giving a short history of the structure but I either missed or, or it did not have one. Likely the former. I always miss a lot.
Further up the street is an interesting place called Legacy Corner (at least it says that on the abandoned gas station next door). Someone had made these cut-out metal sculptures each highlighting a specific moment in the town’s history and we have a great time photographing them, getting creative with the angles and light.
These vignettes show the town’s train station (moved to Champion Park, Okotoks), an old school, the cenotaph and others. Interesting they also show a coal mine and prior to this I did not know any existed in this area.
Next door is an abandoned gas and service station, an all too common sight in these small towns. And next to it is another building that might be yet a second garage and it has some simple but pleasant art-deco-ish lines. Inside the frosted window was this disturbing doll, which really creeped me out.
Turning around, we head back down the other side of Main Street photographing this and that in no particular order. What ever caught our eye or inspired us, and not everything did.
I am always drawn to train tracks ever since I was a kid, and before long I’m there. This is the CPR’s Aldersyde Subdivision, a secondary north/south line that sees a reasonable number of trains a day. This town and the others on this line owe their very existence to the railway, but now the two seem disconnected. Trains used to be the life blood of the community. Grain was shipped out, supplies shipped in, and passengers came and went. Now the trains pass through as through Champion never existed with the town seemingly forgetting the intimate connection the two used to share. The railway did not tear out the old elevator sidings so one can still imagine where those buildings were located with a large open space marking where they used to sit.
I find an old section of track rolled way back in 1902 and what makes it interesting is the manufacturer’s markings. Typically they used simple block text to mark the data on the rail the but this manufacturer used rather elaborate cursive lettering. Cool! The information shows it was made for the CPR, by the steel mill RSW (Rheinische Stahlwerke AG or Rheinische Steel Works, Germany). It was rolled in December 1902 and weights in at 80lbs per yard. It may seem odd that such an old track would still exists today but railways always get good use out of everything they buy, and ancient rail sections from the 1890s on can be found all over. Most exists on sidings, back tracks, secondary lines and the like.
In the area by the track where the train station and elevators used to be, a park of sorts has been set up, and there are miniaturized versions of various building, structures and machinery that could be found in the area – grain elevators, mining cars, a pump jack, and so on.
Our time is almost done and on the way back to the car we shoot some other interesting bits. Connie finds a plate that reads “Vulcan Combination Chain Drive made by the Vulcan Iron Works of Winnipeg, MB”. Anyone care to chime in what it could be from?
As mentioned earlier we have only touched on things and we could return to Champion time and time again and not get all the shots we want, nor absorb all the extensive history the town has to offer. I always like that we can return and find new things to explore in places we have already been to.
Also in Carmangay is a very impressive railway bridge and it see it, go here…
Bridge hunting – Carmangay Alberta.
If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!
Date: February, 2013.
Location: Champion, AB.