The ghost town of Retlaw is situated in the dry belt region of south central Alberta and sits along the former Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Suffield Subdivision branch. Well off any major highways the place is seldom visited and is accessible only by a dusty back road. What little that is left of the town however offers a lot to the history explorer.
For example, the Retlaw United Church. Having been built almost a hundred years ago, this structure has been kept up and is still used for the occasional service. It was renovated recently.
Just beside the church is a well equipped picnic site inviting the few visitors who pass by to stop. We did! There is clean shelter with tables, bench seats and a propane BBQ. Damn I should have brought a steak!
Just down the street is what we called the Retlaw show home. It’s sagging and leaning, is missing windows and some of the roof, and inside the floors flex and squeak. But it can be entered and it contains various things you’d expect to find in a rural or small town home. There is a McClary Quebec Heater cast stove with a teapot on top, there is a kitchen table with chair, jars in the cupboard, and a radio sitting against the wall. Plus there is two old sewing machines and other bric-a-brac.
Everything looks in place as if staged (and I think it was), but regardless the feeling is though the owner just up and left one day. A broom inside could be put to good use.
The only other building of historical note in the town is what appears to be a garage. It looks to be used by a local homeowner (one of only a couple in the area) and while sagging, seems to be reasonably solid.
Scattered throughout the town site are interpretative signs that document every building that once stood here. Someone went through a lot of trouble making them and another goes through a lot of trouble mowing all the areas around them. They give great and detailed insight into what the place was about.
Lots of old foundation can be found, plus other debris scattered here and there. Bed frames seem to turn up a lot in ghost towns and here is no exception. In a shed, some old railway cross bucks are found, remnant of the branch that once passed here. Large shade trees help us place where some buildings were.
Near the former train tracks is the Retlaw Cenotaph. Given the small size of the town, it amazing how many people from here served their country well.
Retlaw is Walter spelled backwards and the town was named for a CPR official. Little settlement took place in the region before the trains came in 1913. Concurrent with the railway, the plans were to build irrigation canals so the often bone dry prairies here could be successfully farmed. With these plans in place, the town prospered and grew – they had grand ambitions.
In the end the canal never came and it was instead routed well away from town. Without water, Retlaw and those who farmed nearby were doomed and in no time farms were failing, businesses were following suit and soon everyone just moved away. Into the 1920s the town was in a death spiral and by the 1950s the place was essentially the ghost town we see today. The only visitors at that time were the occasional freight trains passing through on the CPR line.
Retlaw was for a short period in 1913 the terminus of this CPR branch. This line connected to the mainline in the east near Suffield Alberta, and later (by 1930) was built west to the CPR Aldersyde line connecting to it at a point just south of Calgary.
This branch continued to see trains into the late 1990s or early 2000s when the line was abandoned (the exact date has still not been confirmed). Oddly, through the 1990s when I often travelled in the area delivering oilfield equipment, I never once saw a train along this branch or even a rail car at an elevator siding. The line was used, but not that often it seems.
There is little indicate where the Retlaw train station was, although the former rail line, elevator siding and locomotive turning wye can be easily discerned.
At one time, a diverging route was planned that was to head south of here towards Lethbridge, but it never got beyond the planning stages. Had that line been built, it’d be interesting to imagine how this could have impacted Retlaw.
Not in here, but rather a nearby town called Grantham, we find a string of old boxcars in a farmers field. I’d love to explore these!
If you wish more information on this place, by all means contact us!
Date of adventure: September 2012.
Location: Retlaw Alberta.