Where Did They Go?: Making a Ghost Town

The population boom and urban growth that characterized Saskatchewan in the early 1900s was impacted by significant social and economic changes, beginning notably with the Great Depression, known on the prairies as the Dirty Thirties. Although the Depression on the prairies did not cause as significant of a rural exodus as is commonly believed, the series of events involved had a deep impact on the province and its people, particularly the rural farming population.

Few provinces were as severely affected by the drought of the Dirty Thirties as the prairie provinces, whose agriculture-dependent economies suffered enormously from the low wheat prices, lack of rain, and absence of dryland farming methods.
However, in his history of the Dirty Thirties in Saskatchewan, Happyland, Curtis McManus argues that the land abandonment crisis that many people perceive to be a result only of the Depression actually began a decade earlier—in the period of 1917 to 1924 when approximately 30,000 people left the southern and western regions of the province because of drought and the other myriad challenges of prairie life.

At the beginning of the 30s, three years of drought had caused crops to fail. When a good crop was finally harvested in 1932, farmers were crushed when wheat prices were shockingly low due to the global economic downturn, much too low to make up for the years of lost crops. Crops in the next year were lost to hordes of grasshoppers, and subsequent years were devastated by drought, heat, hail, and dust storms. And although the rest of the country’s economic outlook began to improve by 1927, in Saskatchewan another crop was lost in the prairie dust. The changes prompted by the severe drought and economic downturn especially impacted rural populations across agricultural regions of the province. The additional hardships brought on by more drought and poor economic conditions in the 30s prompted those who did not relish the prospect of continuing to suffer to flee as well, counting 40,000 more from the southern and western region. Some towns dissolved entirely as a result, but others made it through until the economy stabilized at the end of the decade.

A destitute prairie family during the Depression

More significant changes were in store for the agriculture industry during the 40s, particularly by way of mechanization. After 1945, tractors and trucks replaced horses, lowering the amount of manpower necessary to run the farm and greatly improving efficiency. This new technology also resulted in a shift away from rural, small-town life for many, as smaller farms could now be consolidated and run by fewer people. Around the same time, the end of World War Two prompted greater rural depopulation than the Depression, as many people moved to cities simply because there was more opportunity to be found.

Improvements made to provincial infrastructure such as paved roads and better highways during the late 50s and early 60s resulted in a decline in the importance of rail transportation. Rail branch lines began to close as a result, meaning that the towns and villages that had sprung up along them lost their sources of business and their connection to the rest of the province. The culmination of these factors resulted in dwindling populations in many once-thriving communities, but some clung to life long enough to be immortalized in the aerial photographs of Howdy McPhail.

      Dyck, Bruce. "Dirty Thirties: Fact and Myth." The Western Producer. 28 July 2005. producer.com/2005/07/dirty-thirties-fact-and-myth/.
      Gray, James Henry. Men against the Desert. Western Producer Prairie Book, 1978.
      McManus, Curtis R. Happyland. University of Calgary Press, 2011.
      Moore, Frank. Saskatchewan Ghost Towns. First Impressions, 1982.