By John J. Elias
There are several factors that caused towns to spring up, grow and thrive for a number of years, only to fall into decay and finally disappear completely. At times some group of interested people took the pains to erect some memorial to remind the passerby that a town once existed there. Why it came into existence in the first place depended on physical features but most prairie towns were planted because the railways deliberately placed them there by building a station on the location. The railways spaced them about eight miles apart since that was roughly the distance a settler would travel from home to town and back in a day with a load of grain or just to go shopping.
Nelsonville was the big town before the coming of the railway, situated about ten miles northwest of Morden. It had the land titles office, a NWMP detachment, gristmill, stores, church and community hall. It was certain the CPR would pass through it.
Mountain City, south of Morden, also was a thriving village. It too had high hopes that it would be selected by the railway. Nevertheless, the railway always kept secret where it would go and located towns where it suited and benefited the railway most. The track was laid between the two towns and Morden received a station. In two years, both Nelsonville and Mountain City disappeared. Only a stone now reminds us of the existence of a previous thriving community.
The histories of many prairie towns are very similar; only the names are different. For this reason I'll take the town of Mowbray as an example since I became acquainted with it when it still was a healthy hamlet. Provincial Road 201 passes through it. Since it is the only east-west road between the Pembina River and the Canadian-U.S. border we traveled through there many times since 1941, the year I started farming together with my wife, Esther.
Since we became acquainted with Archie and Lily Scott, we learned much about the early history of the area and the town. They presented us with a small booklet that gives a short history of the first settlers. There is no point in giving a lot of names since they are all unknown to anyone but those who have long passed away. It is enough to record that the first settlers arrived in 1880.
The Andrew Johnstones settled where the Scotts now lived. A crude log cabin not far from the Scotts was their first home. Archie took us to the building one day. The west end of the house was the first post office and served as such for over 20 years. When Andrew died, Mrs. Johnstone continued the service till Mowbray was formed.
As more and more families settled in the district, the time came when a school was needed. The school was northeast of the present Scott home. This was the school that Archie and Lily attended. Most teachers taught for only one year. By the end of the year some promising young bachelor had won the heart of the young lady teacher and soon they added to the school population.
As the district filled up, the CPR extended the railway from Snowflake to Windygates. In 1904 they erected a station and Mowbray came into being. Elevators, a store, lumber yard, blacksmith shop and hotel soon followed. The two-story school was built, but only the first floor was used for classes. The upper story was used as a community hall and for church services. Some homes were built.
Just across the boundary the town of Mowbray, North Dakota sprang up and flourished. The two towns in actuality functioned as one town. The Americans sent their children to school in Canada. The biggest customers of the Canadian hotel bar were Americans. The Canadians shopped freely in both Mowbray, Manitoba and Mowbray, North Dakota. The Americans also made good use of the railway.
Some time in the late 1950s the town was almost gone; only the station was left. One day a car parked in front of the station. To satisfy our curiosity we stopped and visited the couple that was sitting outside on the platform. Some children were amusing themselves in the back. The couple was very hospitable and readily acquainted us with the history of the station.
The gentleman, Percy Williams, was the present owner of the station. His parents had arrived in Mowbray in 1927. His father passed away when Percy was a young lad and his mother carried on as the agent as long as the train service continued. In the beginning Mowbray had three passenger trains a day and this was cut down to one train a week. Service ended in 1954 and the mother and Percy left the district. Percy was able to buy the station from the CPR for a nominal price and he kept it in repair. He had already planted trees and shrubs around the property and the family spent the summer weekends there. They claimed they enjoyed driving to Maida for supper and visiting the farmers that were left.
The time came when we no longer found them there. Last summer (2008) a friend and I passed by and noticed a car parked in front of the station. I visited with the couple sitting outside and was told that Percy had died and had sold the station eight years ago. The trees and shrubs were now full grown and the lawns were freshly cut, but I noticed that half the platform had collapsed and the building too showed signs of considerable weathering. Still, it was good to see that the old station was still serving a purpose and had not been abandoned to slow decay.
What then was the main reason for the disappearance of so many prairie towns? The reason may be summed up in one word - transportation. It was the railway that built the towns. When there were no roads or few at best, the passenger trains with the mail car, flourished. When the automobile came along, roads were required. The first road to Winkler had no ditches and the roadbed was lower than the sides. As roads and cars improved, more and more people used the car to go to town, and the passenger trains were empty. Buses replaced the passenger trains and without passenger trains, the railroads were losing money. As a result they discontinued passenger service. In Mowbray the station was closed in 1954. The rails were salvaged and soon Mowbray disappeared.
As roads were improved and main highways paved, cars and trucks took over transportation. More and more branch lines were abandoned and now there is no elevator anymore between Winkler and Killarney. A large stretch has already been dismantled. The track serving Miami has been taken up. As time goes on more and more towns will disappear completely.