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Travel | Canada | Lille: Hiking to an Alberta Ghost Town

I often think about how crazy people must have been in the early part of the 20th century. Or, at least brave, hardy, resilient, and intrepid.

That’s what was on my mind as we gazed out over the wasteland that is Frank Slide, still, 113 years after half of Turtle Mountain crashed down over the edge of coal mining town Frank, then a part of the Northwest Territories, at four in the morning in the late spring. Between 70–90 people reportedly died in the incident. At the time, the nearby town of Lille would have been a year old.
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Lille is where we were headed. Named for the city in France, Lille thrived between 1902–1912 as a coal mining town in what is now the Crowsnest Pass, Alberta. It’s been thoroughly abandoned for a century, and it was only on my radar due to a family connection I chanced upon while doing genealogy research online: My great-grandfather seems to have been the businessman behind the town’s luxe 30-room hotel, the foundations of which are one of the principle ruins remaining at the site.

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Like most boom towns, Lille sprung up quickly; first was a trail, then a wagon road, and finally a railway line connecting the town to Frank. Once the mine shut down in 1912, the buildings of Lille were dismantled or relocated. The 23 railway trestles were taken down, and the tracks were removed. Seemingly the only thing to be left behind was the fifty-bay coke ovens, which had been manufactured in Belgium and shipped over in numbered pieces to be assembled on-site. That, and the massive mountain of coal slag.

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Today, Lille is a designated Provincial Historic Site accessible by a 6.3-kilometre hike that Crowsnest Heritage explains closely follows the original wagon road. It’s absolutely not well marked; even so, the way is pretty obvious and if you persevere, you’ll eventually get there.

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We followed the instructions to drive over the cattle guard near Frank Slide Interpretive Center and parked in the meadow, following the rough road into the trees on foot. We shared the trail with small groups of cattle, which stood out in the trees with their burnt orange-brown colouring. Baby eagles or hawks shrieked and played overhead, adding kind of a fun and unpredictable element, especially considering we didn’t really know whether we were going the right way or not.

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Eventually we emerged onto a wide gravel road and took a left; the birch forest seemed to be watching us with its eyes. At long last, we came upon an interpretive sign that seemed to come out of nowhere, alerting us to our location not far from Lille townsite. A mangled old car helped confirm humans had been here in the not-so-distant past, and the path under our feet soon became black with coal slag. A little more hiking and a few footbridges later, we arrived in the massive meadow that was once home to 400-some people but now was deserted, save the sound of a dirtbike in a distance.

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The hike was longer than expected and we only had about 45 minutes to explore, so we looked around a little, then went straight to the hotel foundations, visible to the left. What a strange feeling, to be somewhere in the middle of nowhere, now being reclaimed by the wild, knowing your ancestors had run a thriving business just a little over 100 years ago.

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I poked around the hotel foundations for a long while, marveling at the bricks and bits of glass and metal and wondering what it had been like inside. From all accounts I’ve read it was elegant and had a particularly nice bar inside.

Finally, knowing time was tight we walked a little way downhill toward the heaping mountain of coal slag marring the otherwise green landscape. It was crisscrossed with tire tracks, presumably from dirtbikes, ATVs and Jeeps.

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Facing the slag hill were the Bernard coke ovens the heritage designation is designed to protect. And I can see why; they’re beautiful still, even in their state of semi-decay. The red bricks contrast starkly with the forest and it’s hard not to wonder what this place was like when it was thriving.

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After one last look at the hotel foundation, it was time to head back. I didn’t get to explore the majority of the former townsite due to time constraints, but most definitely will be back – preferably with a dirtbike to save the long hike and maximize time spent up at Lille. Next time I’ll check out the graveyard and powerhouse as well.

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My hike up to Lille ghost town was a great experience, and the family history connection made it that much more meaningful to me. It’s hard to believe that more than a century ago, people braved the isolation and settled in wild, middle-of-nowhere locales like this one, without the ease of life given by modern technology. Lille thrived for a decade, and then everyone simply moved along.

Aside from the poorly marked trail – I’m spoiled by the great trails in the Vancouver area, I guess – I have only one complaint: This is the interpretive sign at Lille. There’s no scale, and no information whatsoever. I hope it’s rectified soon, because Lille is an interesting piece of Alberta’s history and deserves to have its story told.

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