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Manitoba History: Review: Ghost Towns of Manitoba: A Record of Pioneer Life by Helen Mulligan and Wanda Ryder

by William J. Fraser

Number 48, Autumn/Winter 2004-2005

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

Helen Mulligan & Wanda Ryder, Ghost Towns of Manitoba: A Record of Pioneer Life. Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications, 2003, 151 pp. including index, ISBN: 1894283414, $21.95.

This attractively produced book has articles on 39 communities that are described as “ghost towns”. It is an expanded and updated version of a previous book, Ghost Towns of Manitoba, published in 1985. Illustrations include a map locating the “ghost towns” and over 100 photos—including many excellent reproductions from the Archives of Manitoba, the Western Canada Pictorial Index and private collections. The articles are from one to five pages in length, including photographs. The communities are presented in alphabetical order. Each article stands alone. There is no attempt to group the articles according to time or location or to link them in any way.

The book would probably have the greatest appeal to people who have some personal connection with one or more of the 39 communities. With the exception of York Factory (1682), West Lynne (1801) and Grantown (1824), the settlements originated in the 1870s or later. Most are Anglo-Saxon agricultural communities in southern Manitoba. The authors have broadened the scope of the book to include French, Jewish, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Polish, Icelandic, Mennonite and Dakota settlements. Communities included that were not primarily agricultural are Spearhill (limestone quarries), Totogan (lumber), McArthur’s Landing (shipping) and Hecla (fishing). No clear definition of a “ghost town” is given. Most of the communities were unincorporated villages. The authors do indicate what remnants, if any, of the “ghost towns” still exist. Some have disappeared entirely and some still have buildings and even a few residents. Some small communities existed for only a few years such as Manitoba City, Nelson and Gartmore. Others were longer established communities such as Ewart and the Sioux Settlement.

The reader encounters various aspects of pioneer life. Social history is presented through anecdotes and information about sports days, schools, dances, and local organizations such as the Women’s Institute that worked so hard to better their community. Community spirit prolonged the life of towns or villages even as they were declining. Usually the authors discuss the reasons or circumstances of the founding of the settlement and the reason for its decline and demise. Often they also explain the origin of the name of the town or village.

The authors visited all the town sites as they were doing their research. Information came from interviews with residents and former residents and from local history books and articles in country newspapers. The articles leave the reader with a thirst for more information. Unfortunately, documentation is inconsistent. There are no footnotes or endnotes. Sources of information are not always given in the text.

In this overview of the history of 39 communities common threads are not difficult to find. False hopes kindled by land promoters and conflicting plans of railway routes created instability and some communities died in their infancy or relocated nearby. A result was hardship to some settlers and wealth to others. Some settlements flourished for a time but could not survive in our changing society, as we see in this summation on Ewart:

The school is now gone and so, unfortunately, is Ewart, not because of community spirit but a changing lifestyle that affected all of Canada. The consolidation of schools and churches, improved roads and transportation took people to larger centres to conduct their business. Also, the change from small to large farms reduced the rural population that once supported the small settlements.

An informative write-up describes the homes of the Jewish settlers in Bender Hamlet at the time of its peak population of 130 in 1915 and discusses the hardships and other reasons that led to the abandonment of the settlement. We are left with a haunting image. Today only basement depressions and half-hidden graves remain.

This book lacks the depth and documentation expected in a “comprehensive history” in spite of its claim on the back cover to reach this level. The authors make no attempt to tie the articles together and make general conclusions. It is, however, a very readable collection of popular historical articles on a common theme and a valuable resource to the general reader on the rural history of Manitoba.

See also:

Ghost Towns of Manitoba

Page revised: 23 April 2011

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