Oct 092013
Rowley AB train tracks

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.

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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.

Read this…
Beachwood Estates – shout out to our dear bud, Seph Lawless!

If you’d like to know more about what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!

Date: September, 2013.
Location: Rowley, AB.

Rowley AB cats

These two little kitties took great interest in us.

Rowley AB main street

Main Street in Rowley.

Rowley AB hospital

The town’s former hospital.

Rowley United Church

Rowley United Church.

Rowley AB sidewalk

A large tree blocks the sidewalk.

Sidewalk Rowley AB

Dog prints preserved for all time.

Rowley AB barn and elevator

Our first look at the town’s elevators.

Rowley AB outhouses

Two elevators, two biffies.

United Church Rowley AB

A nice view of the church.

Rowley funeral home

The sign says it’s a funeral parlour, but a few years ago it had one saying it was a pool hall.

Rowley AB bank

I believe this building is not a bank and was perhaps a store at one time.

Rowley AB playground

Lovely fall colours.

Rowley general store and Sam's Saloon

The general store and Sam’s Restaurant (Saloon).

Rowley AB boxcar

An old boxcar by the station.

Main Street Rowley Alberta

Looking back up Main Street from the railway.

Rowley AB train station

The old Canadian Northern train station.

Train station Rowley AB

This structure was built in the early 1920s, replacing an earlier station.

Rowley AB train tracks

A once common scene…

Rowley Alberta train station

This is one of only a few Canadian Northern stations left.

Train station Rowley Alberta

A view down the tracks…

Searle Grain Rowley

This elevator was built in 1923.

Rowley AB grain elevators

These other two date from 1917 and 1940 respectively.

Rowley AB linear park

The old rail bed in the area is set up as a linear park (rails to trails).

Old car Rowley AB

An ancient car found along the railway line south of town.

Rowley old car and elevators

Looking back…

Rowley Alberta elevators

Was this really taken in 2013?

Rowley AB railway

An old railway shed next to the abandoned line.

Grain elevators Rowley AB

Not many places today can say they have three grain elevators.

Alberta Wheat Pool Rowley

In the old days, most were painted brown like this.

Elevator twins Rowley AB

These elevators were closed in the 1990s.

Old elevators Rowley AB

It took some work to load them on the wagon. Now all we need are some horses.

Elevator row Rowley Alberta

This picture could easily have been from decades earlier.

Rowley AB livery barn

The old livery barn.

Old sidewalk Rowley AB

Heading back to the car we walk along a lovely tree lined sidewalk.


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25 Comments on "Rowley Alberta ghost town"

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Emily G
Emily G

Have you watched the movie that was filmed there (Bye Bye Blues)? I haven’t been able to locate a copy of it.

Brian S
Brian S

Love it. There’s a Stephen King novel waiting there.

Jim P
Jim P

Great shots!!!

Dan O
Dan O

I’m going to make an effort to check for Bye Bye Blues every time I hit a Value Village. Sounds like it was only ever released on VHS so that’s the best chance of finding it, I think.

Robert B
Robert B

When I passed through Rowley in June of 2008, they were in the process of restoring the grain elevators. They did a fantastic job, and I wish more towns in the prairies did the same thing. I noticed there was an RV park there, so I will definitely stay there on my next visit. In the meantime, I will send you some of my pictures of Rowley.

Joanne Z
Joanne Z

A definite must-see on our next Albertan Tour. Thanks for sharing.

Ghost Town Hunters
Ghost Town Hunters

These are some great pics of Rowley, I have been there many times, great place to visit.

micheal angel
micheal angel

Planning for an alberta and sask ghost town tour next may and rowley is definitely on my list.

Pat Redman
Pat Redman

Savvy piece. Hubby and I will have to make a trip to check this out.

Jenn T
Jenn T

I finally visited Rowley and always read up about these places before and after I go. You made a comment about if a hotel ever existed in Rowley. I read in Pioneer Days: Scollard, Rumsey, Rowley, that they did indeed have one. Built in 1920 and operated by the Simonson family, not sure of its fate though.

John Swallow
John Swallow

Great story. Rowley did indeed have a hotel. Burned down one night in the early fifties. Never rebuilt. At the time, I live about a block to the west… The whole town turned out to watch the spectacle!

William Webster
William Webster

Really nice article. Enjoy your information and photos of your travels.
Thanks for taking an interest and sharing this information.