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Nemiskam or Nemiscam? A ghost town’s moniker dilemma

For most of its history, Nemiskam was the place along Alberta’s Red Coat Trail where citizens claimed it didn’t get the respect it deserved. This perceived lack of respect may have started with the near century-old confusion over the hamlet’s name.

For several decades there were different people or groups using two different spellings. Depending on who you talk to, the town’s moniker can either be spelled Nemiskam or Nemiscam. The “k” spelling used to be seen on the community’s now demolished grain elevators, and the community hall. However, the Canadian Pacific Railway and most map making companies have used the “c” version, as did the schools. Most old-timers now agree the “k” spelling is correct as it is consistent with the native version, which when translated means, “between two valleys”.
Nemiskam Road Sign
Even finding Nemiskam today is a bit of a challenge. A few kilometers east of town, the Red Coat Trail, or Highway 61 as it’s more known on road maps, dips south for two kilometers, and then bypasses Nemiskam as the highway veers west again. When the community’s last grain elevator was toppled in the 1990s, Nemiskam also lost its last highway beacon for visitors, which added an additional task for visitors to find the community.

The hamlet may have slided into oblivion by the 1970s, but locals insist Nemiskam has a rich and colorful history that easily matches any other community along Alberta’s Red Coat Trail.
Historical Street
© Johnnie Bachusky
A road sign marking ghost towns and dying locales along Albert's Hwy. 61. Pakowki is misspelled as Cakowki.
Submitted photo

Cars park at Nemiskam's business district in the 1920s. Today the once prosperous town no longer has any commercials businesses.

“I used to go all the time and look at the buildings there,” said Derek McNaney, a former Foremost teacher and musician, who now lives in Red Deer. “Nemiskam has a history, and if someone doesn't quickly look at it and talk to the people who live there, then the living history would go. When people are living, you have to get that firsthand information.”
Nemiskam School in 2000
Nemiskam's pioneer school, arguably Alberta's most photographed ghost town institution.
© Johnnie Bachusky
Nemiskam is located almost dead centre of a whole group of pioneer communities, many of them now ghost towns, that were created every 10 to 12 kilometres along the rail line that generally parallels Highway 61. Beginning with Wrentham in the west, visitors traveling west will then pass through a whistle stop named Conrad, and then Skiff. Thirteen kilometers west of Foremost, which is the only locale along Hwy. 61 to survive and prosper, there was a community named Legend, which also went through it own moniker debate. While old-timers say the correct pronunciation is the short ‘e’ sound as in the fairy tale, railway conductors used the long ‘e’, which for them was pronounced Lee-gend. Whatever the correct pronunciation, Legend’s moniker lived up to its name by briefly being the home for close relatives of two famous people. The grandson of famed English poet John Keats, also named John Keats worked on a combine in Legend during the 1942 harvest. Theodore Staff, nephew of American football coaching legend Amos Alonzo Stagg, came to Legend in 1923 to work in the fields.
Nemiskam Train
The  rail line today
Submitted photo
© Johnnie Bachusky
A stream train is rolling into Nemiskam past the pioneer grain elevators, which today have been long demolished.

A railway sign marks the entry into Nemiskam, which has been a ghost town for decades.

About 11 kilometres south of Nemiskam, there was once a near-mythical place called Altorado, which by 1913 was a booming concern of about 100 people. As with so many other new communities, it had a moniker controversy of its own.
Some local historians suggest its name was meant to be El Dorado, which metaphorically meant to be applied to any place of great abundance, or one where dreams of opportunity and riches could be realized.
There would be no riches or long-term future for Altorado. The hoped for railway way extension through the community never happened. The CPR decided to extend the line north of Altorado, leaving the community stranded and doomed for the ghosts.
Even before Nemiskam was officially founded in 1915, it already had ghost town origins. As more and more settlers came into the area, a general store and tent community called Bingham was set up a kilometer southwest of where from the future Nemiskam site. However, when the railway bypassed Bingham, citizens packed up and moved to Nemiskam.
Townsite Strett Corner in 2000
© Johnnie Bachusky © Johnnie Bachusky
Foundation rubble litters Nemiskam's once full town site. An abandoned garage marks an intersection at Nemiskam.
The area’s early pioneer history at least shows that Nemiskam wasn’t the only community with name problems.
Nemiskam did have its own big moment that put its name on the map, albeit briefly. The hamlet had a sensational robbery in the late thirties. In dollar terms, it was not on the same scale as Foremost’s infamous heist in 1922, but Nemiskam’s robbery created coffee shop chatter for years.
In the 1930s, many of the new communities that dotted the rail line every 10 or 11 kilometres were without banks, including Nemiskam. In each of these hamlets, the Canadian Wheat Board assigned money to a specific store or business to handle farmer’s grain checks. It was a convenient system created for farmers who otherwise had to travel to Lethbridge or other faraway locals to get their money.
The system was widely used and known about, and it was no secret to anyone these businesses often had thousands of dollars on hand. Unfortunately, nefarious characters knew about it too, including a gang of professional safe crackers from Montana who had their own system. When the gangsters made their nocturnal arrival at their mark, they drilled a hole in the door and cut the latch out, kicked the door open, sealed the safe with nitroglycerin, lit a fuse, and blew the door right off it.
The bandits soon learned their early morning heist used up too much juice than what was necessary. The safe only had $350 cash, and although there was another $4,000 in grain checks, they were non-negotiable.
Nemiskam Cemetery in 2000
Nemiskam Cemetery in 2000
The hamlet could never win its rivalry with Foremost just down the highway. In the 1940s, the provincial government introduced policy to consolidate educational services, and Nemiskam school students were subsequently bussed to Foremost. Many families decided to move to move the homes and families west. As well, Foremost already had many amenities Nemiskam could never hope to have, such as piped natural gas, municipal services, and better and bigger stores.
In 1961, Nemiskam’s population still stayed respectable at 54 diehard citizens, but five years later it was down to 17, and in the 1971 census, there were only eight. Today there are just two citizens left.
Abandoned Sidewalk Street Corner
Futire home of K-Mart?
There are abandoned buildings on street corners, and long seldom-used sidewalks in front of empty lots. At one end of town, a K-Mart sign was put up on an empty lot by American visitors. The sign is announcing the future home of a local franchise. It is of course just good natured humor about the hamlet’s sad decline, as nobody still living in the area today disputes Nemiskam is a ghost town – whatever its true correct spelling.