Manitoba History: Book Review: Gordon Goldsborough, More Abandoned Manitoba: Rivers, Rails, and Ruins.

by Ernest N. Braun
Niverville, Manitoba

Number 89, Spring 2019

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Gordon Goldsborough, More Abandoned Manitoba: Rivers, Rails, and Ruins. Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications, 2018, 280 pages. ISBN 978-1-77337-002-6, $35.00 (soft cover)

The accidental discovery of a 1912 automobile licence plate began a life-long passion for history. In this book, a sequel to Abandoned Manitoba, author Gordon Goldsborough shares that passion with the reader, interspersing snippets from his own life story that contributed to it. The book ends with a lament that doubles as a manifesto for action; action to protect our Manitoba history from being lost. It is a strikingly relevant conclusion in the light of the fact that even some of the buildings detailed have disappeared since the author recorded their images and stories.

Gordon Goldsborough is a career professor of aquatic ecology at the University of Manitoba and former long-time director of the Delta Marsh Field Station at Lake Manitoba. But that is just his “day job.” He is also a popular author (three previous books), a CBC radio personality, Manitoba Historical Society webmaster, cemetery historian, columnist on historical buildings in the Manitoba Cooperator, and the general go-to guy for amateur historians in Manitoba. His More Abandoned Manitoba is the second volume about history that resides in the physical environment—or did at one time, and is now apparent only by abandoned or neglected buildings and places. The ledger-style book consists of a personal introduction, twenty-eight chapters, an index and an appendix of GPS coordinates of the historical sites. Written in a clear and accessible style, the text has touches of humour and a creative turn of phrase. The author is generous in ascribing credit for the assistance he received. Unaccountably the Camp Hughes chapter has been omitted from the Table of Contents, but that does not diminish the interest that chapter will have for the reader.

Each of the chapters presents historical context, photographs and charts/maps of featured Manitoba buildings or places. They are thoroughly researched and placed into larger contexts within the history of Manitoba. The book can be described as a fascinating catalogue of the rise and ultimate demise of entrepreneurial vision in Manitoba (the Emerson fox farm, for example), or as a roster of government initiatives which have run their course and been largely forgotten (such as the East Braintree prison farm); or as a record of transportation innovation from York boats to Red River carts to railways (encompassed by the chapter on the Fort Ellice Trail). It might even be seen as a coffee-table monument to pioneering in Manitoba in all its forms, whether that be farming, industry, education, agri-business, architecture, or energy/technology to name a few.

But none of those—nor even all of them taken together—do justice to the book. There is more to history than ruined buildings, abandoned sites, or failed enterprises, regardless of how interesting they are in themselves. While documenting physical structures and geographic places, Goldsborough also links each site to the living people who invested their lives, and in some cases their fortunes, in enterprises that followed the inevitable human cycle of growth, success, and demise, leaving little behind. In each case there is a story fleshed out with compelling photographs, biographical information, relevant (and often unusual) historical background, and local colour that will suddenly bring an entirely new human dimension and meaning to that site. Further, the charts and maps contain an impressive amount of meticulous story research, while sidebars provide further background and appendices to many of the stories. A case in point is the account of the puzzling concrete pile “forest” of Sturgeon Creek (placed alongside the story of Canada Cement). I found it particularly interesting to have the myth surrounding its creation exploded. Another example is the account of the “Orbit,” those white spherical garbage receptacles that once dotted Manitoba highways; this chapter includes a sidebar featuring the man who made it happen.

Each story addresses the matter of change as it affects the various instances of abandonment described in the book. While the featured remnants represent man-made “improvements” on land, each in turn has become subject to time’s inexorable undoing. In some cases it is the forces of weather, as in the case of abandoned one-room school houses, but just as frequently it is the human element, such as the changes in economic climate which ended Manitoba Sugar; or it is new technology that renders invention or ingenuity (for example beef rings) obsolete and inefficient; or it is infrastructure changes that alter the landscape, as when wooden grain elevators disappear in the wake of railway closures, and towns vanish as new roads make commuting possible. Of particular interest, as well, is the chapter on York Factory, and the sequence of changes that conspire to make it an endangered historical site.

Surprising impressions begin to form as one reads: Manitoba for all its early wooden structures has a remarkable history in stone construction. There are notable stone quarries, stone buildings, and naturally, stone monuments—one with an outhouse on top. Another impression is of the sheer variety of the entrepreneurial initiatives manifested in the early 20th century throughout the province, for example the McKenzie Seeds story, or the Winnipeg chapter of the Colonel’s Kentucky Fried Chicken. Readers may be further impressed by the number of political movers and shakers who shaped Manitoba and left a mark; for example J. W. Scallion who helped found the United Grain Growers. Remarkable also is the extent to which private schools (despite the compulsory District Schools legislation of 1916) continued to influence the future of the province, as illustrated by the story of St. Peter Dynevor Rectory north of Selkirk (the precursor to St. John’s School for boys), or that of St. Vladimir’s College For Boys in Roblin.

On these pages you will find vestiges of entrepreneurial vision, mega-farms, architecture, government initiatives, agrarian infrastructure, and various institutions. In the last fifty years an entire cross-section of Manitoba life, with its dreams and landscape, has disappeared, leaving only empty shells of buildings or disturbances on the ground as evidence. To read this book is, in a way, to watch Manitoba receding in the rear-view mirror. With it, Goldsborough has captured a still image of each of these twenty-eight sites before they disappear from view forever. Reaching the end of this book was a somewhat emotional experience, not only because it was the completion of the excellent collection of images and narrative, but also because it makes me wonder whether this will be the last time these remnants of Manitoba’s past will be seen, photographed, or even remembered, as the change that is so clearly portrayed on every page and photograph of this book overtakes each site in turn. In the book Gordon Goldsborough points out that “history makes us think.” As the 1912 licence plate did for the author, so this book too may inspire a passion in readers: a passion to think about and to cherish our history.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 25 April 2021