Nuit Blanche 1: Photographs of ghost towns on show at festival

In search of Ontario’s dying history, York’s Susan Foster (BFA Spec. Hons. ’96), a media operations technician in the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, loaded up her camera, some maps and hit the road. Sometimes that road would lead to a dead end; other times to the last vestiges of a once bustling town, now a dwindling hamlet, slowly being consumed by nature and sinking back into the earth. She would come across an old family plot, a couple of abandoned houses leaning precariously to one side, a church or just the crumbled remains of a former building.

Right: A derelict home in the ghost town of Malcolm in Bruce County. Photo by Susan Foster.

Her initial interest in documenting these often forgotten settlements came from reading a book about Ontario ghost towns. On a lark, she and a friend, Jeri Danyleyko, headed out to explore some of the towns mentioned. They soon found their interest turned into something close to an obsession – a passion to record in images what is left of these former hamlets and towns that speak to a history of mining and logging in rural Ontario, tough times for new immigrants struggling to survive by farming thin, rocky soil, and outbreaks of diphtheria. In one of the towns Foster visited, two families lost 10 children to diphtheria between them in 1902.

Some of Foster’s work will be on display at this year’s Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, an all-night contemporary arts event on Oct. 3, as part of the Things Fall Apart exhibit, curated by York sociology Professor Katherine Bischoping at the Laluque Atelier Gallery, 1362 Bathurst St. in Toronto. (See YFile, Sept. 8)

Left: A window in an abandoned home in Malcolm, Bruce County. Photo by Susan Foster.

Malcolm and Gillies Hill in Bruce County are two of the first ghost towns Foster visited. “It just got in our blood after that,” says Foster. “Sometimes we do research before – we get out old maps from the 1880s and sometimes I see a town on the map and decide to find it and see what’s there. After awhile we had this collection of photographs. So we started a Web site. And just kept going. I think I watched too many Westerns as a kid. I see this as akin to getting on your horse and heading out.”

When she returned to Gillies Hill some years later, Foster was sad to note the old schoolhouse had been torn down and the church was up for sale. The cairn across the street remained.

So far, Foster reckons she has searched out close to 200 sites since she started in the mid-1990s. “It’s that sense of excitement. You travel down these roads and wonder if you’re ever going to find something.” One time, the only thing left was a small rock with a plaque identifying where the town’s church once stood. “I’m never disappointed, even if I go down the road and don’t find anything, because the journey itself is interesting.”

Right: An abandoned house and garage in Brudenell on Opeongo Road in Renfrew County. Photo by Susan Foster.

Newfoundout in eastern Ontario was one of the surprises. Although officially declared abandoned in 1948, Foster found a series of log cabins and met some of the descendants of the original settlers, who still own the land and use it for grazing cattle. The mother of one of the descendants was born in one of the log cabins. Newfoundout was never really a town, but a collection of 13 families who tried to eke out an existence in inhospitable land as part of the province’s road colonization plan – the Ottawa-Opeongo Road. Most settlers came from Ireland and Scotland and were promised 100 acres if they built a house and farmed the land, which turned out to be infertile.

When Foster visited Newfoundout again recently, she was surprised by the cabins’ rapid rate of deterioration.

Part of the fun for Foster is listening to the locals, if there are any, telling stories of bygone times. Such as the tale of the two sides of Brudenell, a busy outpost for lumberjacks in the mid-1880s that was also on Opeongo Road. The east side of town, where the church still stands, was where most of the upstanding citizens lived. The more dubious commercial aspects of life apparently took place on the other side, says Foster. Situated across the road from each other, sat two of the town’s three hotels.

Left: The Costello Hotel in Brudenell. Photo by Susan Foster.

When the Costello Hotel was established in the mid-1880s, things took a less than savoury turn as the hotel was reputed to be a haven for gambling and other sinful activity, and Brudenell became known as the “sin bin” of the Opeongo, says Foster. The hotel caught fire in 1886 but was soon rebuilt. There was also a post office, a school and several carpenters, blacksmiths and shoemakers, as well as a racetrack. The community dwindled, however, when the lumber railway bypassed the village in 1893.

Many of these old mining and logging towns eventually failed for one reason or another. Brudenell is barely hanging on, a faint image, a ghost of what it once was. The Catholic church still services the few remaining residents. The schoolhouse is privately owned and the rebuilt hotel is still standing.

“Most people don’t see all these small towns when they’re just driving on the 401 or 400,” says Foster. “You have to get on the back roads if you want to see rural Ontario.”

Left: A derelict pioneer home in Egypt, Bruce County. Photo by Susan Foster.

Rosemont, on the border of Dufferin and Simcoe counties, had its own colourful past. The Globe Hotel, built in 1859, now the Globe Restaurant, was one of four hotels in town. When fire broke out in one of the other hotels, the Globe Hotel owner’s wife grabbed her husband’s shotgun and guarded the well, which was on their land, fending off anyone who attempted to get water to douse the fire. This effectively eliminated one of the Globe Hotel’s competitors as the hostelry burned to the ground. The well pump is still there today.

In the 1970s, Foster took photography at Ryerson University and later graduated with a BFA in film from York. With previous experience in architectural photography, shooting abandoned buildings seemed a natural progression. “I’m shooting as a photographer, a historian and an artist.”

Right: The remains of a sawmill in Balaclava, Renfrew County. Photo by Susan Foster.

Foster fears many of these small hamlets and villages will become dust and rubble before she has a chance to photograph them.

“There are still counties that we haven’t explored thoroughly. There is a sense of urgency now to document what is still there,” says Foster. “These reminders of the past are disappearing so quickly now with urban sprawl. A lot of historic buildings are being left to crumble.”

To view some of Foster’s and Danyleyko’s photographs of ghost towns, visit their Ontario Ghost Towns Web site.

Foster will have her own Web site, Ghosts of the Pioneers, up and running in time for Nuit Blanche. 

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer