INSINGER, Saskatchewan—The “No Trespassing” sign looked old, and there was no one around as far as I could tell. So I stepped inside the crumbling house, the floorboards bowing beneath my feet. The dying October light filtered in through the shattered kitchen window. I stopped and listened, making sure no one else was there. An unexpected encounter with a stranger was not what I was looking for.
Earlier in the day, when the sun was high, my search for ghost towns had felt more whimsical. Now, the air had gone cold and the shadows were everywhere, obscuring corners and stairwells. The vast Saskatchewan prairie had turned on me, just as it had for the settlers who pioneered it. Dusk had transformed the bright and inviting landscape into something desolate and menacing.
Towns like Insinger, wholly abandoned or inhabited by only a few hangers-on, are scattered across the quiet hinterland of this central Canadian province. Hidden down dusty, forgotten roads, they’re overgrown with native grasses and scraggly oak trees, strewn with homes, schools, hotels, post offices and churches, many of them barely standing. Seeking them out requires some advance research, a paper map (service is spotty on the plains) and a resolve to enter places your intuition tells you would best be left alone.
Many of these towns can be found along Highway 13, a corridor that skirts the province’s southern border. But I was coming from Manitoba’s Swan River Valley, heading west toward Saskatoon. This would bring me through an area that had long ago been decimated by depopulation and poverty. First settled in the 19th century, the region started out as an agricultural powerhouse. Hardscrabble Ukrainian immigrants harvested wheat with scythes and shipped it eastward by rail. They built general stores, banks, cafes, Orthodox churches and dance halls for parties and weddings.
Then drought struck in 1929, and by the mid-1930s the soil had turned to dust. Soon this dust was airborne, cycloning through the towns with terrifying force. In the world beyond, the global economy was collapsing, slicing grain prices to the bone. An exodus ensued. Desperate farmers fled to the cities with whatever they could carry.
Much of what they abandoned remains where they left it for anyone with an affection for history’s eerier side to discover. Jedburgh is a good place to start. Perched on a dirt road 12 miles south of the Yellowhead Highway, a gentle rise leads to the town’s most prominent feature, a dilapidated former library. Inside the reading room, chairs face a blackboard covered in chalk. A typewriter is caked in bird droppings, and vintage books and pamphlets, yellow with age, lie open on shelves and across the floor.
I could hardly believe my luck at stumbling upon such a well-preserved ruin at my first stop. But I soon learned that many of Saskatchewan’s ghost towns remain remarkably intact. Their remoteness—and perhaps the gentle nature of considerate Canadians—has left them suspended in time. Teacups sit on their saucers, jackets hang on hooks by the door.
An hour later I was in West Bend. My map had sent me down some muddy old roads so rutted I was sure I was lost until the tattered village appeared on the horizon. I came across a two-story school incongruously built in a brutalist architectural style—baffling until I remembered this region was settled by Eastern Europeans. The upper-floor classrooms were filled with sunlight spilling in through the broken roof, but the basement was sectioned off into spaces resembling narrow animal pens. (I shuddered to think.)
In the style of the houses, too, you could see that decline had come to West Bend in waves. Some were a century old, but others had been inhabited as recently as the 1980s. Their decor gave them away: paisley upholstery, geometric wallpaper, vinyl seating, Zenith TVs. Behind one house, grass grew through the engine block of a late-‘60s Plymouth Fury. In another, boxes of Herbalife supplements sat on the kitchen counter, the owner’s last-ditch attempt at salvaging a livelihood before leaving town.
By the time I reached Insinger it was six in the evening. Unlike most of Saskatchewan’s ghost towns, it’s just off the highway, a vanished society in full view of rural commuters. It’s also the biggest of the ghost towns I visited. Founded in 1913, at its peak it was home to a hundred residents whose decaying houses still line the compact street grid.
As late as the 1960s, in fact, there was life in this town. The dance hall continued to host Ukrainian dances, which the younger generation attended in stylish gogo boots. Every Sunday, after church, the community convened at Graval’s Cafe for pierogis. The service station did a brisk business with traffic from the new highway, and the school held classes until closing in 1967.
Today, the population of Insinger is fewer than 20, and from what I’ve read online, they’re not big fans of out-of-towners wandering about with their iPhones raised. As I prowled the old buildings—the service station still stocked with rusting car parts, the cafe housing an antique stove, the dance hall carpeted with broken glass—I felt that I was being watched. As the sun dropped below the horizon, I found myself jogging back to my car and, once inside, locking the doors. Pulling onto the highway, I watched Insinger fade in the rearview mirror, the gloom of twilight consuming it. It seemed best to heed the lesson that out here on the prairie, it’s best to walk away before things take a turn for the worse.
How to Get There
All of these towns can be found on Google Maps, but it’s best to screen grab the routes or buy a map, since Wi-Fi access is pretty hit or miss.