Saturday, February 26, 2011

Retlaw, Alberta, The C.P.R., and the Naming of Prairie Towns

A: Location of Retlaw Alberta

Due to the Canadian Pacific Railroad's massive influence on Canada's prairie West, there is no surprise that the company's station names can still be found on maps long after branch-lines have fallen into disuse and communities withered.

Retlaw, Alberta, is a prime example.  Until 1913, the area was referred to as "Barney", and that name graced the local post-office.  It was in that year that the iron road came to the area.  Apparently, "Barney" was just not dignified enough for railway executives.  The renaming of this town can be linked to a certain Walter R. Baker.  Walter was an official of the CPR, and had served as the private secretary to Canada's governor general.  Apparently Walter was an important enough personage to have his name granted to one of the CPR's railway station.  To further obscure the origins of this name, however, the powers that be flipped things on their head and named the station "Retlaw", which to the meanest intellect at the slightest reflection, is indeed Walter, spelled backwards.

To further prove the arbitrary nature of the names of a number of prairie towns, we only need to observe those headed north-west from Retlaw: Enchant, Travers, Lomond and Armada.  The first letters in these small grain hubs all lead us back(wards) to WALTER.  The last station, never built, was to be named Waldeck.
Retlaw NWMP 1916. Glenbow Archives
Retlaw had a fairly brief existence.  After the Great War, population numbers peaked at 250, which included the surrounding farmers.  In 1925 crops were especially poor, and the exodus from the area began.  Visitors to the town now will observe only a couple permanent residents.  What was once a bustling town with a bank, several cafes, grain elevators, hotel and North-West Mounted Police detachment, has now been all but eroded by the elements.

Retlaw Hotel 1914. Glenbow Archives.

A Local Historian has preserved  Retlaw's History
Retlaw is included in my online Ghost Towns of Alberta guidebook from Geotourism Canada.

“ALTAPOP: Alberta’s Annual Official Population List Publication (1960 to present).” Alberta Population.
Aubrey, Merrily K. Concise Place Names of Alberta. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006.  
Fryer, Harold. Ghost Towns of Alberta. Langley: Stagecoach Publishing Co. Ltd., 1976.
“Walter spelled backwards | Forgotten Alberta.”

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