‘Ghosters’ rediscover the past in Alberta’s forgotten ghost towns

For decades, Boyd Stevens has been a dutiful guardian of ghosts and the unofficial mayor of Orion, a ghost town along the famous Red Coat Trail.

Stevens has called Orion — located on Highway 61 halfway between Medicine Hat and the U.S. border — home for most of the past 78 years, taking over the hardware store more than 50 years ago from his late father Howard. In its heyday, the hamlet founded in 1916 and named for one of the brightest constellations, boasted 350 citizens and more than 30 businesses.

Today, Stevens is one of just four residents

“The writing is on the wall,” he says. “I try to look after things. But the hunting season was down last year and I hardly saw anybody. With Manyberries’ hotel down the highway closed, hunters stayed in either Foremost or Medicine Hat. There’s no future here.”

But there is still the past, along with a unique group of dedicated and curious wanderers who come each summer to find it. They are ghosters, a clan of gentle-hearted eccentrics with cameras in hand and many questions about days gone by. Stevens is happy to invite ghosters into his shop for coffee, regaling them with tales from Orion’s glory days, or those from the neighbouring ghost towns of Nemiskam, Skiff, Wrentham and Pakowki.

“There had been a lightning strike in a nearby field and Boyd went to help fight the fire but he was soon back and we chatted over coffee and it was a wonderful experience,” says Lila Cugini, who travelled from her home in Nanaimo, B.C. in 2006 to meet Stevens and explore part of the Red Coat Trail, the 1,300-kilometre route the North West Mounted Police took in 1874 as they brought law and order to the pioneer West.

“It’s a thrill coming upon a vacant town — taking pictures and wandering the streets imagining the boom and then the bust,” says Cugini. “I feel these towns and buildings deserve respect. The memories of these buildings that warmed families and provided livelihoods should be preserved and not forgotten after they’ve done their duty.”

It’s the untold stories and secrets amidst the ruins that draws him, says Dan Overes, a University of Calgary IT manager, who has also explored Orion and countless other Alberta ghost towns over the past 20 years.

“When I’m in an abandoned house I always wonder about the people who lived there and what stories the walls could tell,” says Overes. “I’m fascinated by the items left behind. How did they decide what to take and what to leave? Why did they finally decide to leave the family home?”

Yvan Charbonneau, a railroad conductor and trackman, has been searching for these answers in Canadian ghost towns since exploring forgotten nickel mine communities during his school days in northern Ontario.

“When I visit a ghost town there’s a feeling the past somehow relives itself through my visit simply by way of imagination,” says Charbonneau.

In addition to ghost towns along the Red Coat Trail, the former Calgarian has explored many forgotten locales near Alberta’s most populous city, including Glenbow, located near the sandstone quarry community 20 kilometres northwest of the city that mined the raw materials used to build the provincial legislature building.

“Recording these ghost towns is my ode to the ancestors and to the bygone generations before mine,” he says. “If I remember them they’ll never be forgotten.”

Ghosting is like being in a virtual museum where you are transported back in time to experience the pioneer way of life, says ghoster Chris Attrell, also a former Calgarian.

“You can really feel what it was like back in those days — the lack of air conditioning, the scarcity of telephone lines and that sense of small community,” says Attrell, who now lives in Shaunavon along Saskatchewan’s portion of the Red Coat Trail.

“The spirit and bravery of these folks who built these towns from scratch and how they helped build Alberta have to be honoured. After all, there are still people alive who were born in those towns.”

Stevens is happy to greet the ghosters again this year, even if his heart knows Orion’s final days are closing in fast.

“Everything is changing around here now and there are fewer and fewer people,” says Stevens. “But it is nice to see these folks who come by to see history. They are honouring the good old days, and that is a good thing.”

About the author



Stories from our other publications