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600 Busted Boomtowns

Elaine O'Connor, The Province, August 3, 2008

Reno Fabbro would love to go back and visit his hometown. Maybe take one of his four children or nine grandchildren on a road trip. But he can't. It doesn't exist.

The retired Kamloops principal was born in 1938 in Middletown, a coal-mining community in southeastern B.C.'s Elk Valley. The town of about 40 houses on three dirt streets sprang up between Michel (founded 1899) and Natal (1907) and the fortunes of the region and its estimated 1,500 residents followed those of the mines. When they expired, the towns became ghosts.

"Every now and then we go back that way and it's heartbreaking to see there's nothing left," Fabbro says.

"A lot of people talk about their hometowns and when I go back there is nothing there."

Fabbro recalls a happy childhood in the town, despite the slag piles and coke dust that soiled fresh laundry on the line when the wind blew.

Fabbro's grandfather immigrated from Italy to work in the mines. His father, George, arrived in the 1920s, began work as a miner at 17, married his mother, Velly, in 1935, raised Fabbro and his sister, Loretta, and later ran a store in Natal.

Middletown was small (the high school had 175 pupils), but it had a movie theatre, ice rink and baseball team. Residents were mostly European immigrants; bocce ball and church socials were key pastimes.

When Fabbro left for university in the 1950s, Middletown began to decline. His parents moved to Aldergrove. In 1964, the remaining residents were ordered moved to Sparwood by the government, which wanted to clean up. By 1971, buildings were empty. Most were demolished by 1997. The Michel Hotel was torn down a few years ago.

B.C. is home to an estimated 600 ghost towns like Middletown, relics of boom times and rich mines. Most are small, ill-fated hamlets that few read about or visit. Places like Waldo, Hosmer and Three Forks are little known but hold rich histories waiting to be discovered -- often by so-called ghost-town hunters who make a hobby of recording Canada's forgotten towns.

Ghost-town hunter Johnnie Bachusky has visited hundreds of Canadian ghost towns over a decade and published books and photos. He's preserved several B.C. relics on his website, Ghost Towns of British Columbia (go to and click on "British Columbia"), and in his 2004 book Ghost Town Stories III: Tales of Dreams, Tragedies and Heroism in British Columbia.

"Without these places, most other cities in B.C. wouldn't exist. These were pioneers, the people who cut roads, built railways, began towns and started the hopes and dreams for thousands, then tens and hundreds of thousands, and now millions of people," says Bachusky, 51.

"When I think about it, it's sad, but I like to get to these places and shoot whatever's left before it all disappears. To preserve a memory and a record of it. I feel exhilarated by that," says the Red Deer, Alta., writer.

The feeling he gets surveying his favourite B.C. ghost town, Phoenix, a mine town once called the "highest city in Canada," sums up what it means to be a ghost-town hunter.

"You stand above the valley and look into the empty pit that was once Phoenix and you can't help but be moved by what was once an entire city full of dreams, prosperity and hope. Now it's simply gone. You can't help feeling a sense of eeriness and wonder."

Bachusky isn't the only hunter trying to preserve the past. Toronto's Susan Foster has been tracking towns since 1996.

In 1998, she co-founded Canada's top ghost-town site,, which covers Ontario, B.C, Alberta and Saskatchewan. They get 5,000 to 7,000 hits a month. Foster estimates she's visited 200 sites, and about 350 are documented on the site from various contributors.

Ghost-town hunters, she says, are a small but growing group "dedicated to preserving and sharing the stories of the people who helped settle and build this country hundreds of years ago."

But preservation is a struggle.

"We've already lost a lot and are in danger of losing even more of these towns. Preserving what's left is an uphill struggle, and a very complicated one. Unless structures are designated heritage properties there is no obligation to keep them intact, and even such a designation is no guarantee of continued existence."

Some B.C. ghost towns are being "saved," albeit in unconventional ways, by investors or historians, by tourism or residents.

The Three Valley ghost town west of Revelstoke, a thriving centre in the 1880s, for example, is now a tourist attraction of salvaged buildings. Other B.C. ghost towns, including those at Barkerville, Fort Steele and Sandon, have had buildings spared for tourists.

Investors are trying to turn old towns into real estate, as some sites come with water and power and are zoned for residential use.

New Westminster-based Niho Land & Cattle Company Ltd. bought Nashton in 1994 and has sold lots there, mostly to RVers. In 1998, the company bought Ferguson, a former silver-mine town near Nakusp that was home to a thousand residents in the 1890s, and sold lots to fishermen and hunters. Other ghost-town holdings include Sheep Creek gold mine in the Selkirk Mountain range, which it bought in 1993 and sold off in lots.

Kitsault, a coastal molybdenum mine town of 1,200 residents northeast of Prince Rupert, was closed and abandoned in 1982. It made headlines in 2004 when an investor bought it and offered it for resale for $7 million.

Other towns that hit hard times have been saved by residents.

Ocean Falls, a remote town on the north coast, was once home to 6,500 people who worked at a pulp mill until it closed in the 1980s. The province tried to demolish the buildings, but residents protested. Less than 100 still live there.

Atlin, a B.C.-Yukon border town, was home to 20,000 during the gold rush after prospectors struck it rich there in 1898. Ten thousand people raced there in 1899 alone.

The town began its decline during the Depression. Its mining days aren't over (there are panners in the rivers in spring), but tourism's now the mainstay. Today, 450 residents live amid abandoned mines and the ghosts of old prospectors buried in the pioneer cemetery.

Canada's forgotten towns are also being reclaimed by research.

University of Alberta researcher Debra Davidson is doing the first national study and inventory of ghost towns in Canada. Using post-office records and digital mapping, she's developing a picture of the nation's more than 10,000 lost communities. She hopes her research can help explain how to keep communities sustainable today.

"I think we can learn a lot about how people respond to crisis, and the sustainability of communities, by studying ghost towns," says the associate professor of renewable resources and rural economy, who started ghost town research in 2003.

"I think they are important reminders that we are not invincible . . . there are far more communities in Canada that have collapsed throughout history than there are communities that have survived."

Among her findings is that towns are more likely to survive if they make it through the first 60 years. Many don't. Ontario is haunted by the most ghost towns, 3,200 to 3,500, Davidson estimates, followed by Quebec, then B.C. with 600 to 700.

"Many communities in B.C. were barely around for a single generation," says Davidson, director of the university's environmental research studies centre.

So what kills a community? In Canada, the majority of settlements -- 3,088 busted boomtowns -- died between 1912 and 1918, coinciding with the First World War and the influenza epidemic.

The economy (resource stores and markets) and transportation (being bypassed by a railroad) are also prime factors in a town's demise. Pressure on farms on the Prairies in the 1960s and 1970s led to "one of the biggest periods of community collapse" as towns bit the dust.

Davidson says her research has struck a chord: she's been inundated with strangers telling her stories.

"I've been overwhelmed by letters from Canadian citizens with their personal stories about towns their grandparents grew up in, or where they used to live. Many Canadians clearly think our ghost towns are an important part of our heritage."