Some have heard of these places, but few have seen them let alone know the story they tell.
Even locals shrug their shoulders, says historian Gordon Goldsborough who set out a few years ago to travel the province and find historic sites.
His new book Abandoned Manitoba: From Residential Schools to Bank Vaults to Grain Elevators, showing the last vestiges of old factories, schools, churches and other intriguing remnants of our past should change that.
His 264-page full-colour book describes 36 such sites, and also tells a story about why we should know more about them.
“I didn’t want to talk just about why they’re abandoned but what they tell us about Manitoba,” said Goldsborough who is also head researcher, webmaster, and a past president of the Manitoba Historical Society.
There were literally thousands of potential places as he set out a few years ago to document little-known places of interest.
The book spun off from a weekly spot he had on CBC Radio’s Weekend Morning Show, but he’s been on the road photographing, documenting and mapping these sites for several years.
Finding them wasn’t easy, and that’s actually what prompted him to start mapping these sites, says Goldsborough.
His search for an old bank vault, left behind after Deloraine relocated nearer the railway at first was a case in point. He drove out there and started asking directions for it. No one could help him.
“Finally I knocked on the door of a farmer and he said, ‘you mean the one behind my barn?’ And there it was,” he said.
“As I drove away I thought there’s got to be a better way to find these things than just randomly driving around the countryside.”
Abandoned Manitoba now takes you there. Many of the sites he came upon during his explorations are in the proverbial middle of nowhere. A crumbling bridge over the Little Saskatchewan River is an example. He first spotted it on Google Earth Map. When he visited the location, to his astonishment he found a huge, decaying turn-of-the-century bridge. No roads led to it and only a farmer’s cattle use it today. Research at the Legislative Library revealed it was once an important hub in a local road system a century ago.
“What I eventually learned was that this bridge was built in 1918 and it wasn’t in the middle of nowhere back then,” he said. “It was on a major highway that connected Minnedosa and Rapid City.”
Another bridge included in the book, known locally as “The Rainbow Bridge,” is a 50-foot concrete bowstring arch bridge over the La Salle River in the Rural Municipality of Portage la Prairie, built a year later.
Other fascinating sites include the former location of the Bombing and Gunning School east of Dauphin. It too is now located on a tract of farmland and includes what Goldsborough has dubbed the “triangular forest.” The landowner cultivates the arable strips between the crumbling stretches of old paved runways.
“There were three runways in a triangle and when they abandoned the base, they left the pavement of the runways. Trees grew through the cracks that developed in the pavement,” he said.
The Leary Brick Works west of Roseisle and the Manitoba Glass Works near Beausejour tell the story of early manufacturing in the province while the Scheppers Agricultural College near Swan Lake of when communities tried to provide a local college education. Old abandoned ski slopes near the present-day ski area of La Riviere, harken back to the days when skiers rode ‘ski trains’ from Winnipeg to enjoy their sport.
Sites from This Old Grain Elevator project, an ongoing feature in the Manitoba Co-operator are also included (see sidebar at left). Abandoned grain elevators are an especially poignant reminder of the changes that came to the agricultural and transportation sectors, and its end result of depopulation.
Goldsborough said it pains him to visit many once-thriving small towns that are virtually dead, and he hopes his book tells a story not just of what once was, but why it is no more.
“The evolution of rural Manitoba is tied up with this,” he said. “That to me is a really important thing that more people need to know about.”
Readers may be tempted to visit some of the sites featured in the book, but they mustn’t trespass, cautions Goldsborough. Of the 36 sites, 19 are on public land. Eleven are on private property where they can easily be seen from a distance. Another half a dozen are on private property and landowners must first be contacted.
“The wishes of site owners vary a lot,” he said. Some are very accommodating about having visitors, while others may grant permission so long as the motive of the visitor is honourable.
Goldsborough added he thinks in most cases owners of these sites want to preserve them, but don’t know how they’ll actually do so.