Rural Manitoba ghost towns make an interesting day trip

You can imagine the days when the streets bustled with activity

The railway arrived at the village of Mowbray, south of Manitou along the North Dakota border, in 1902.

For an interesting day trip in southern Manitoba, visit a couple of ‘ghost towns.’

Both were once thriving spots but now are virtually abandoned, except for one or two possibly inhabited buildings.

Ste. Elizabeth, located about eight miles east of Morris on Highway 23 and a mile south on road 12 E, was established as a French-Canadian Roman Catholic Parish through the efforts of Father David Fillion, parish priest of St. Jean Baptiste.

To fulfil his dream of a French-Canadian settlement, Father Fillion had, in the late 1870s, travelled to the mill cities of New England. There he met with families who had moved from Quebec for work, and he persuaded them to move to Manitoba. Over the following years French-Canadian settlers arrived from elsewhere in the U.S. and from Quebec, but it wasn’t until 1901 that the parish of Ste. Elizabeth was officially founded by Father J.M. Jolys, parish priest of St. Pierre.

First to be built was a rectory, with an upstairs chapel, followed by a parish hall. Construction of the first church (60×40 feet) began in 1903 but wasn’t completed for almost 10 years. Many parishioners came from nearby farms but gradually the town acquired various businesses. The first general store opened in 1901. Operated by Henri Fontaine, it contained the post office, barber shop, pool room, and boarding place. A new store was built in 1923 with the former one becoming a cheese factory for several years.

The church at Ste. Elizabeth is owned and maintained by the Ste. Elizabeth Historical Committee. photo: Donna Gamache

Ste. Elizabeth was never large, but did at one time contain about 15 homes, a blacksmith shop, bank, credit union, livery stable, restaurant, milliner and eventually a garage for those owning a car. However, despite villagers’ hopes, no railway line was built that way.

Other blows were the Red River flood of 1950, and a fire that destroyed the church and rectory in 1951. Almost right away, with a hired contractor, volunteer labour and financial help from nearby districts, work began on a new church, completed the following year.

In the 1920s Russian Mennonites, settled nearby, adding another cultural identity to the region. Despite that, drought and Depression, school consolidations and better roads, and the nearby presence of larger centres gradually led to the decline and loss of many homes and businesses. By 1970, only two families still lived there. Finally, even the church was sold and converted into a residence for a while, but then former parish residents and friends formed the Ste. Elizabeth Historical Committee. They bought back the church and worked to restore it as a church that is still used occasionally.

Visitors today will note that the church and its grounds are well cared for, but the rest of Ste. Elizabeth is not. Several buildings still stand but are in stages of disrepair and vandalism. For more historical details see: https://sites.google.com/site/steelizabethmanitoba/history.

If the church is open, take time to look inside.

A second ghost town to visit is the village of Mowbray, situated right on the North Dakota border, about 16 miles south of Manitou.

In the early 1880s, Ontario homesteaders settled there, with the first post office established in 1884 in the Andrew Johnston house. Unlike Ste. Elizabeth, this village flourished for a while because the CPR Railway did pass that way, arriving in 1902.

A general store was established by Alf Garrett at that time, with the post office eventually moving there. Other businesses were soon built: the railway station, livery barn, two elevators, a combination blacksmith shop/poolroom/barbershop/dance hall, a lumberyard, machine shed, storage sheds for flour and coal, a hotel, and a jail.

Some buildings in Ste. Elizabeth, such as the remains of the storekeeper’s home, are in disrepair. photo: Donna Gamache

The first Mowbray School was built a mile away in 1884, but in 1906 was replaced by two schools. The first kept the name Mowbray while the second was built in the village and called Boundary School. Until the late 1920s some students came across the line from North Dakota, passing back and forth to attend classes. Water for the school was hauled from an American well. Visitors today are often surprised to see that the present-day Manitoba road is right along the border.

Adults, too, passed freely for shopping, selling farm goods, visiting or medical needs. The liquor business really flourished from 1920 to 1933, when prohibition ruled in North Dakota.

By the 1930s things began to change. Boundary patrols worked to prevent smuggling and illegal trade. In 1935 railway service was cut to once a week, and the whole region suffered from the Depression and drought. By the 1980s only one family lived in the actual village.

Today the CPR Station still stands as a reminder of a once-thriving community. Legal access to North Dakota is at the Windygates border crossing about six miles east.

For more information on these two towns and many other ‘ghost towns,’ check in your library for Ghost Towns of Manitoba by Helen Mulligan and Wanda Ryder.

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