It’s not a true ghost town in the sense, but in many ways looks the part. A handful of people live here, but the the near-empty main street has all the traits of a forgotten place. There’s a number of former commercial buildings along the wide boulevard, all closed and boarded up, most prominent the old hotel. And there’s others, a long ago hardware store and farm equipment dealership among them. Many empty lots separate the stuff still standing. At the end of Main, is the little burg’s last grain elevator, the tallest thing around, holding vigil along an abandoned rail line waiting for a train that will never come.
This, my friends, is downtown Hilda Alberta. Lonely, silent, and visited by few.
Located at the far eastern edge of the province, southeast quadrant, Saskatchewan is but a short distance away. A long drive with a Big Bertha could almost make the border. The area here is gently rolling plains. There’s two types of work out this way, farming, at best a hit or miss affair if you ask anyone who’s done it, or working in the oil and gas industries. That’s it.
The town dates from around 1923/24. This is not the first Hilda, an earlier incarnation once existed a number of clicks to the west since the 1910s. When the railway came through the region and bypassed the fledgling community, they moved everything to the current location to be beside the tracks. You see, a town without a railway, back then, didn’t stand a chance.
Today the community is home to a few dozen people. Back when, it was many, many times that. Old photos from the day show it a vibrant community, quite the contrast to now. The town was full of life with countless businesses lining both sides of Main Street in downtown. Photos prove it. A few of those buildings seen survive which we’ll now touch on.
The hotel, built in the late 1920s, is one of the most noteworthy. A place to spend the night, and more importantly the local watering hole, it closed down not all that long ago (in small prairie towns, the hotel is often the last to go). Was it due to a lack of business? No seems to be the answer here, it was said to be a busy place. What’s suggested is that the building became too run-down and a bit of a money pit for the owners. It doesn’t look in great shape. No matter the reason, it looks like they just up and left.
Now where do we get a cold one?
Beside the hotel, in an empty lot, we find a bright purple 1940s International Pickup, all done up. Preeeety sure this wasn’t a factory colour. But yeah, we like it. A modern Peterbilt keeps it company.
Opposite the hotel on Main Street is the former Hilda Motors building, the sign still proudly displayed for the world to see. The business operated from the early 1950s to about 1990, functioning, variously, as a farm equipment dealership, car sales outlet and service station. It replaced an earlier garage on the same plot of land. Today, it’s used by a private individual for storage (the fate of many old buildings in these small towns). An old tractor is parked out front. Looks like it’s been there a while.
Just down from the hotel is the “Border Hardware” store. This building, it’s said, was rebuilt from an earlier structure that came in from “Old” Hilda that was later destroyed or partially destroyed, by fire, in the 1940s. How much of the old, if anything, was incorporated into what’s seen today is not known. The structure was later acquired by the Revelstoke Lumber chain (‘member them?) and then for a time was a store of some kind (but what type is not mentioned). Today, it’s used for storage.
Just down Main and the sort of alone and by itself is a small structure (see the photo captioned “The near-empty main street.”). This building over the years was a barber shop and hair salon, and later an agricultural equipment dealer’s office. Surprise, today it’s unused.
The most impressive thing in town, heck in the whole region, stands tall at the end of Main Street. This is Hilda’s last grain elevator – there used to be many here. It was built in the 1920s, so shortly after arrival of the railway, for the NM Paterson & Sons Grain Company. Their logo can still be seen on its sides. The structure has been upgraded over the years, changing it’s as-built appearance. It has that distinctive extra tall, false-fronted “Paterson” cupola modification, which seems was only used only by that firm.
The annex, that second building beside it, came in from another elevator in town. In times past other annexes would have been here – added as additional capacity was needed, and taken away as they wore out or storage demand waned. The elevator was lasted used to fill rail cars around 2000-ish and closed completely later that same decade. Today it’s owned by a local farmer who used it for grain storage. It was in use the day of our visit with a large trailer mounted generator providing power. At one time, the town’s train station stood directly opposite the structure across the tracks.
The Paterson firm is still around. Not a huge player in the Canadian grain industry the company, none the less, has a long and storied history and dates back over a century. They’re mostly active in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
In times past there was other elevators in Hilda dating from the 1920s-1980s period, five others in total. Firms represented, variously over the years, include the Alberta Wheat Pool, Federal Grain, Alberta Pacific Grain, Ogilvie Mills and Lakes of the Woods Milling. Hilda’s elevator is one of a couple hundred plus wood elevators extant in the province now. At the peak it was one of almost eighteen hundred! Needless to say, they’re a dying breed!
The rail line here dates from the 1920s and was closed in the early 2000s. This section was the CPR’s Burstall Subdivision and was one of a huge number of grain gathering branches the firm once operated across the prairies. This line, like most others, closed due sweeping changes within the industry that took place in the latter part of the last century, which made small town elevators and the resultant branch lines serving them horribly uneconomical.
A section of line further north is still in used and is owned by a smaller regional railway, to serve some petroleum related plants up that way.
This trip had us exploring a section of Alberta and far Western Saskatchewan north of Medicine Hat. Lots of good stuff was seen out this way, old farms churches and so on. Some reports have already been posted, others are yet to come. You’ll love them all! Our guides here were Jason and Becky Sailer. It’s always more fun to explore with friends. What a blast! Want to host us? You know what to do.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: October, 2016.
Location: Hilda, AB.
Article references (and thanks): Hilda’s Heritage Third Edition (Book), Paterson Grain records, Jason Sailer.
All the places seen in this report can be viewed from public roads.