Ontario photographer explores some of Saskatchewan’s 130 ghost towns

‘This was a life changing trip’

Dave wasted no time when he landed in Saskatchewan last May.

Having documented abandoned mansions, schools, hospitals and other buildings across Ontario and Quebec over the past 12 years, he decided to turn his lens to the Land of the Living Skies.

Shortly after his flight arrived, he was in his rental car and on the road, where he would spend the next four days camping at an abandoned church and then Walmart parking lots in Regina and Swift Current before treating himself to a hotel room the final night.

Working a full-time job in marketing, Dave dedicated the May long weekend to driving nearly 3,000 kilometres over the four days and documented 41 sites, from decaying homes and towering grain elevators to the ghost towns that dot the prairie landscape.

“This was a life changing trip,” he told the Post from his home in the Burlington area.

It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to his new surroundings when he first arrived. The vastness of the prairie landscape was a departure from Ontario’s crowded spaces.

“I couldn’t wait to experience the flatness of the prairies because I’d never been in my life. And you drive out of Saskatoon, and within 10 minutes, you’re in it. And then you stay in it for as long as you’re out there,” he said.

Saskatchewan landscape
Dave dedicated the May long weekend to driving nearly 3,000 kilometres over the four days and documented 41 sites.Photo by Freaktography

He had mapped out his route after studying more than 100 possible sites. He crammed camping gear alongside his photography equipment into a Toyota RAV4 and even with the benefit of the spring light lingering a bit longer each day, he wasn’t on the road long before his first challenge became clear.

“I knew as soon as I started driving that there’s no way I was going to see everything I wanted to see,” he said. “So, in order to stop it had to be something pretty special.”

Among those special stops was Insinger, a ghost town in southeastern Saskatchewan. The province is believed to be home to about 130 ghost towns, most of which are the result of changing economic conditions, a shift in transportation routes and the gradual migration of populations to urban centres.

“A lot of people drive by Insinger. They see the old Ukrainian church but it still has an active post office,” Dave said.

Interior of old church
Interior of a church in Insinger.Photo by Freaktography

First founded as Lawrie in 1898 before changing its name to Insinger in 1907, the post office was closed during his visit, but another ghost town would yield one of the few encounters he had with another human.

He drove more than two hours without seeing another vehicle but that changed when he arrived in Kayville, which was settled in 1905 by Romanians seeking free government land under the Dominion Lands Act.

Kayville became home to farmers and ranchers and homesteads were built in and around the community. By 1912, Kayville had its own school and the population continued to climb over the next decade as the Canadian Pacific Railway came to town.

Located about 115 kilometres south of the provincial capital of Regina, the hamlet is now home to 10 people, occupying seven of its eight total private dwellings, per the 2021 Census of Population. But more land in the area has been purchased in recent years, signalling that at least some believe the town has a brighter future ahead.

“It’s a definite bona fide ghost town,” Dave said. “It’s got a church, a bunch of houses and a grain elevator that’s no longer in use.”

While he was taking photos he met a man who was cutting grass and ended up having a conversation with him.

“The county pays him to come by every week or so and just check on things, cut the grass and maintain the properties. But he said, ‘Yeah, this is definitely a ghost town, other than a couple of people with a dog up the road.’”

He added: “‘Nothing goes on here in Kayville other than me cutting the grass and them drinking beer on their front porch.’”

Grain elevator in Kayville
Kayville is home to 10 people, occupying seven of its eight total private dwellings.Photo by Freaktography

Dave had about 10 ghost towns mapped out and made it to half of them. Some trips were less successful than others, though. After a two-hour drive to reach Dummer, Dave discovered the site was mostly gone.

“It was completely demolished. I had seen somewhat decent photos of the ghost town, but it was gone.”

It wasn’t a total loss, though. On the way he passed an abandoned house with no windows or doors and a driveway that had been lost to time and nature’s reclamation. He circled back and got the image.

“As simple as it was, it was probably one of the most calming and relaxing moments that I had,” he said. “Here I am in the middle of some field down some old dirt road and there’s just a gorgeous old dilapidated house, way off in the distance on the hills, and it made for a beautiful picture.”

His favourite ghost town was Neidpath, about 25 kilometres east of Swift Current.

Named after Scotland’s Neidpath Castle by its first postmaster, John Mitchell, a Peebles emigrant, Neidpath once thrived as a branch line on the Canadian Northern Railway.

At its peak, it boasted four grain elevators, a local telephone company, hotels, a pool hall, hardware store and a blacksmith shop, but the rail line was abandoned in 1981.

Today, two grain elevators remain standing, though just barely.

Neidpath ghost town
At its peak, Neidpath boasted four grain elevators, a local telephone company, hotels, a pool hall, hardware store and a blacksmith shop.Photo by Freaktography

“It had a little chapel. It had some old cars, a couple of houses and had two grain elevators that were so old and the lid on one had completely collapsed and fallen off,” he said.

In each ghost town he visited, rusted cars and crumbling churches stood as haunting landmarks, but they didn’t hold enough information to unravel the stories of each town’s decline.

“There are so many Ukrainian Catholic churches, and they’re all empty and abandoned,” he said. “It’s like, what happened here? Where the hell did everyone go?”

Since sharing his Saskatchewan-based work, Dave said he’s received “almost nothing but good feedback.”

“Eventually these sites are going to be demolished or they’re going to collapse to the ground and this type of documentation preserves the sites,” he said. “And a lot of people, whether it’s locals from Saskatchewan or others across the country, seem to really appreciate the work that I and others do in taking these photos and preserving these places.”

Another location that left an impression was the memorial site of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash. The 2018 collision between a coach bus and a semi-trailer truck resulted in sixteen deaths, while thirteen others were injured.

Dave arrived at sunset and two dogs, from a house across the road, ran over to greet him.

A memorial at the site of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.
A memorial at the site of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.Photo by Freaktography

“I’m taking my photos, and I’m just taking this in, the feeling and the sadness of this memorial site. And there’s these two dogs just sitting with me,” he said. “Every once in a while they would come up to me and they let me pet them and look for my attention. But it was in such a sad and sombre environment. It was such a breath of fresh air to have these two sweet dogs approach me. The first thought I had was I really hope that when families of the people who died in that accident come to visit that those dogs do the same thing for them.”

Nearly a year on from the trip, Dave said he’s hoping to return in the future and make it to the remaining sites on his map. In the meantime, the trip has made him eager to explore other parts of abandoned Canada, including an upcoming trip to Anyox, B.C., a former mining town that once had a population of about 3,000.

This year, he’ll once again spend his May holiday documenting Canada’s past but this time he won’t be alone.

“There’s one person who lives there and maintains it and runs these tours. So I’m going to spend four days with him. And instead of doing the tour, I’m going to go help him do some work in order to get more time there.”

After that, Alberta is up next. His goal, after visiting Saskatchewan, is to see as much of Canada as he can.

“After this trip, I made a pact with myself to visit every other province,” he said. “I’m going to see as much as I can of what Canada has to offer.”

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