A fiercely proud family hangs on
Ravenscrag is a forlorn place that can easily be described as haunting. It is isolated well off the Red Coat Trail in deep southwestern Saskatchewan; stark, lonely and mysterious.
The town, which once boasted about 200 people in the twenties, now has 18 diehard residents. Seventeen of them are from Cliff Arnal's family.
The community, nestled alongside the Frenchman River at the bottom of Blacktail Coulee, received its name in 1914 from a Canadian Pacific Rail employee. The rail line discovered the moniker in Montreal when it purchased a large ocean liner company from shipping magnate Sir Hugh Allan.
The CPR, meanwhile, decided to push its rail line to this corner of southwestern Saskatchewan during a visit to the area in 1912. Company officials discovered that the first homesteader, Spencer Pearce, settled in the area in 1890. Spencer named his homestead location Point View, which of course was later changed to Ravenscrag. More than 20 years later, scores had followed and there was optimism for a bountiful future as the land yielded wheat.
England native Frank Barroby, who locals affectionately came to call Count Bunker because of his love for poetry, first set his eyes on the area in 1901. It was the same spot where the future town site of Ravenscrag would be built. He was moved by the country's raw unspoiled beauty.
"Little did I think there would ever be a town site anywhere in this district," he once said. "To me this area was wonderfully picturesque; deep coulees filled with spruce and cottonwoods, lovely creeks with rippling cool water, thousands of acres of well-grassed land, an abundance of hay and shelter, and scarcely a furrow turned."
Arnal's grandparents, Louis and Germaine, soon followed Barroby to the same beautiful spot along the Frenchman River, arriving by wagon and a team of oxen in October, 1909. The couple also had a French background and spoke very little English. They originally came to Canada from northern Algeria. The elder Arnal's first home in this new strange land was a sod shack 16 kilometres north of where the town site was eventually built. They later constructed a log house, and in 1929 moved again to a larger home which is still standing on the original homestead.
While Ravenscrag enjoyed years of early prosperity, the community like so many others along the Red Coat Trail began a long decline in the 1920s but managed to struggle on through the Depression, and after the Second World War. However, a fire in 1954 destroyed many businesses in town, and the blaze fire was considered the death blow for the community.
"There was a lot of confusion, a lot of wind," said Cliff, who was eight-years-old at the time of the fire. "They let the school out because the kids could not concentrate on what they were doing."
In the late 1980s, Ravenscrag, already a semi-ghost town, suffered another blow when the grain elevators were demolished. Today, a strange red cube-like structure, about six feet high and 15 feet square, sits out of place alongside the rail tracks.
"That is what is left of the last elevator, which was demolished in '87 or '88," says Cliff. "When they brought it down, it landed upside down." On closer look, the town's name - painted on the side of the elevator to face incoming train traffic - is clearly upside down.
Despite the continuing declining fortunes of Ravenscrag, Arnal and his family remain fiercely loyal to the dying community.
They are proud of the town's once prosperous roots. Residents were honored to live under the shadows of those once great and noble grain elevators, but Arnal adds they have also learned to move on. In the meantime, Ravenscrag is still Cliff's home, and his family its last proud caretakers.
"There will always be a Ravenscrag," said Arnal. "It probably won't evolve into a town again, but there will always be a family living here."