Spectres of the Past: Saskatchewan Ghost Towns in the Photographs of Howdy McPhail

The University of Saskatchewan Archives are home to a collection of remarkable photographs by a remarkable man. From 1952 to 1961, Hugh "Howdy" McPhail spent countless hours taking aerial photographs of farms and towns all over the Saskatchewan and into other provinces as well. He captured hundreds of towns during this time and now, over 60 years later, many of these communities no longer exist: ghost towns. These visual records of formerly thriving communities are invaluable - to individuals who can trace their roots back to a place and actually see it, to historians and scholars who seek to preserve and understand the role of these communities, and to all residents of the province, which was built by towns like these. As time goes on and buildings and physical remnants fall prey to the influence of the elements, these photos may be all we have left of places that once accommodated so much life and hold so much history.
This is by no means a complete collection of all ghosted and partially-ghosted towns in Saskatchewan, nor does it encompass all the photographed ghost towns from the McPhail collection. Some of these communities may also still have a few residents, and some were already mostly abandoned by the time they were photographed, but all were once thriving places, home to many and integral to the development of the province.

Ardath, a ghost town in southwestern Saskatchewan

Since it was settled, towns and rural communities have been intrinsic parts of the agricultural economy of Saskatchewan, spreading across the province at regular intervals. But throughout the second half of the 20th century, rural and small-town populations declined and many communities were abandoned. Once home to many, ghost towns can be found throughout Saskatchewan, now devoid of life and falling into disrepair. Encroaching vegetation and the relentless wear of the elements have made many places where towns once thrived nearly indistinguishable from the natural prairie landscape. On other sites, abandoned buildings still stand as quiet derelict shells—tiny, lonely, and empty against the vast sky. These sagging structures and overgrown foundations were once part of thriving communities, home to families and individuals who lived and worked for sometimes their entire lives in these pockets of the province. Why did they leave? And where did they go? What happened to the hundreds of tiny towns that have been abandoned and unincorporated over the years, and how long until the remaining buildings crumble and memories of the communities fade and are lost for good?