This Alberta town is dying. Except for the parties
The once-booming Alberta community of Rowley has nine residents — and two want to move. Can tourists and music nights save it?
ROWLEY, ALTA.— The keepers of Rowley march across its gravel main street in an early October snowstorm to unlock an Old West-style saloon.
Stepping in from the storm, Doug Hampton flicks on a dim light to reveal a bar that can hold 225 people — many times Rowley’s entire population.
This group of six represents most of the tiny community, and they’re fighting to keep their home alive. Tonight they’ve come to the saloon to unwind after their monthly review of the hamlet’s meagre finances.
The floors are brushed with sawdust, and the walls and ceilings are hidden by crude posters collected over decades. A toilet seat hangs on the wall with “A-hole of the Month Club” written in felt.
It’s still cold, and the group of six keep their jackets on as they distribute cans of beer from a fridge behind the bar. One lights up a smoke at the table.
Anything goes in Rowley, a rural Southern Alberta community with no water or sewer service that swings between bustling tourism hot spot and near ghost town.
“Tourists seem to find the place no matter where they’re from,” said Hampton, a 67-year-old retired oilfield worker who holds a key to open all eight public buildings in town.
“They read about it on the internet or something: ‘tourist attraction’ or ‘ghost town.’ (They say), ‘People live here?’ ”
Once an agricultural “boom town” of 500, Rowley’s population has shrunk to nine. There’s Doug, his older brother Terry who lives on main street with his wife, a family with two kids and a new couple in a tucked-away home that’s now up for sale.
This is a community that, for all the practical reasons that towns usually exist, should no longer be. The industry is long gone, and there are no civil services. But because the keepers of Rowley see value in these buildings and the history they represent, the place has a chance to keep on living.
Their best shot for fighting the ravages of time: parties.
The community association, made up of residents and people from nearby communities, runs pizza and beer fundraisers on the last Saturday of every month to maintain the hamlet’s most prominent aging buildings.
In July, a record-setting 700 people packed into Rowley, including tourists from across North America and Europe. The main street was roped off so visitors could carry their drinks outside between the community hall, saloon and pool hall while a live band performed.
“We do have a lot of fun. Otherwise it would just be a job and we’d probably all lose interest,” Hampton said.
As critical as the parties are, they aren’t the municipality’s only source of income.
Rowley falls under the jurisdiction of Starland County. In 2017, the Rowley Community Hall Association received just over $6,000 toward utility costs and another $4,500 to help with maintenance and hiring summer students.
Meanwhile, the province has provided close to $600,000 through nine grants since 2007 for tourism products, according to municipal affairs spokesperson Lauren Arscott.
Today the hamlet of Rowley is known for its kitschy storefronts, abandoned houses and barns that have fallen to ruin and two tall grain elevators that house flocks of pigeons. The first sign of life upon entering is a gang of about 15 feral cats occupying a wooden “cat condo” built by Doug’s brother Terry.
The old train station, school house and store are populated by haunting white mannequins dressed in period clothing, positioned to emulate scenes that might have occurred in the1920s when Rowley was “booming.”
“People would bring in their produce and their milk and their cream and their eggs and ship it on the train, and grain was being hauled out of the elevators. In Rowley then there was two or three lumber yards and a couple of garages and pool halls and barber shops, the hotel, a couple of stores,” Hampton said.
When the Great Depression hit, food stopped growing and the boom turned to bust.
“We never got the rain, just wind all the time. So people started moving away, and the odd fire would sweep up main street there and take away a few of the buildings, and then nobody would rebuild it.”
Rowley once had a daily connection to Edmonton via the Dayliner passenger car, but it stopped running in the 1970s. The nearest place with any real amenities is Drumheller, a 38-km drive away.
When the train disappeared, Hampton’s parents helped form the Rowley Community Association and started restoring the few buildings left on main street.
They re-shingled the United church and turned the train station into a museum with artifacts dating back to the 1800s, “just to keep the buildings alive.” Aformer grocery store and meat market owned by Chinese immigrant Sam Leung, who passed away in 1972, was renovated as Sam’s Saloon in 1980.
Hampton’s sister Shirley Bremer said the hard work has been worthwhile for the simple joy of sharing the town’s history.
“It is kind of wild, because some of (the buildings) are pretty bad. But I guess it’s the pleasure you get,” Bremer said. “We’re all proud of where we grew up. It’s just kind of a unique little thing and we like it.”
Rowley’s early rebuild caught the attention of Hollywood film producers, who spent several months there in 1988 shooting the film Bye Bye Blues. The crew constructed storefronts for a bank and a funeral home that residents turned into a pool hall. Film crews occasionally still come around to shoot movie scenes or commercials.
Bill Reimer, director of Rural Policy Learning Commons and professor emeritus at Montreal’s Concordia University, said towns often try “chasing smokestacks” by bringing in new industries, but that’s rarely successful. The ones that get by, Reimer said, are places like Rowley that find ways to leverage the things that make them unique.
“In very general terms, the towns that are managing are the ones that look around and say, ‘What have we got here that we’re particularly good at, and who might be interested in it,’ ” Reimer said.
In warmer months, visitors can camp in town by donation, and the association hires students in July and August to give guided tours, touch up paint jobs and mow the lawns. Rowley’s community hall, church and saloon are already booked through next summer with weddings, family reunions and other events. But money from bookings is not enough to cover ongoing maintenance and power costs, and the labour of rebuilding gets tiring for the aging population.
Sitting in his kitchen the afternoon af- ter the snowstorm in one of Rowley’s four inhabited houses, Hampton contemplates the hamlet’s future. He likes the peace and quiet that comes with living in isolation but has recently become painfully aware that it can also be dangerous. “Life is good until you get sick,” he said. One night in October, his wife Brenda, in bed at home battling bone and lung cancer, was in pain and needed an ambulance. When he dialed 911, the dispatcher said it was not on their map.
“They didn’t know where the hell Rowley was at,” Hampton said.
“It took probably 15-20 minutes on the phone trying to explain we need an ambulance out of Drumheller, not Red Deer. The wife was dead by then.”
Now another couple that moved to Rowley a year-and-a-half ago is planning to move away, which would bring the population down to seven.
Lars Hallstrom, University of Alberta political studies professor and director of the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities, said the trend of people leaving is almost impossible to reverse.
He said rural populations in Canada have been on a pattern of decline for more than a century. Eleven Alberta municipalities have dissolved over the past decade, and about 30 have reviewed whether they should continue to be autonomous, stand-alone municipalities.
Grande Cache in Western Alberta, with a population just over 1,000, voted to dissolve as a town in September after a loss of population and tax revenue made it unsustainable.
“It’s tough. They’ve been paddling upstream for years. And you have to admire the people who are willing to stay (in Rowley) and try to say, ‘This is our home, we do want his place to exist,’ ” Hallstrom said.
“But it’s very difficult to be optimistic in even the medium term about the likelihood of that community returning to a population of 50, let alone 500.”
Hampton said it’s getting harder to live in a place that lacks so many basic services.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Once I croak and my brother croaks, hopefully some young people come into town and take interest in it and learn to be proud of the town, too.”
Winter is about to settle in, and a heavy snowfall can render the community inescapable until a snow plow comes from outside.
When asked if he plans to stay put, Hampton takes a moment to pause before answering.
“Yeah. I don’t know where in the hell else I’d move.”
Doug Hampton on main street in Rowley with its kitschy storefronts. The two grain elevators, below, now house pigeons.
Mannequins have been placed in stores to help “populate” Rowley, Alta..
The handful of remaining locals gather in Sam’s Saloon after the Rowley Community Hall Association meeting.
Trains stopped coming to Rowley in the 1970s. The nearest place with any real amenities is Drumheller, a 38-km drive.
“Life is good until you get sick.” DOUG HAMPTON ON LIVING IN THE GHOST TOWN; HIS WIFE DIED IN OCTOBER WHEN AN AMBULANCE GOT LOST