Discovered at Depot Harbour

VISITING a ghost town brings excitement whistling through my thoughts as I walk with hushed footsteps. This is how my daughter and I, her small hand nested in mine, walked the last half mile of grassy footpath to the ruins of Depot Harbour, Ontario. Now hidden in the quiet of an Ojibway Indian reservation, it is a site that once pulsed with the importance of international commerce. It had been a railroad town, a link in the trade route between the Midwest and the Atlantic Ocean. Freight from metropolises such as Chicago and Milwaukee was shipped across the Great Lakes to this naturally deep, protected harbor to be taken by rail to Portland, Maine, for shipment to Europe. It was the shortest route from the great inland ports to the East Coast.

The harbor had survived two wars, the Depression, and the great fire in 1945, when the ill-fated storage of Australian wool in a huge freight shed next to another shed storing cordite for British war guns caught fire and exploded into a raging furnace. It lit the skies all through the night and newspapers could be read as if by daylight in the nearby town of Parry Sound.

But it was a breakdown in government support of the rail system that finally closed the harbor. Now the walls of the railroad roundhouse -- mocked by graffiti -- stand silent to the energy they once housed. Meadow grass grows to the top of gaping foundation, and apple orchards chocked with aspen saplings drop their woody harvest to the weeds.

As we followed the flat, easy windings of the town path, too quiet now to remember the bustlings of town traffic, a bend in the path brought us abruptly to the foot of a broad cement staircase. Its two flights led high above the level of the town to a barren expanse of granite rock. This was where the town's Roman Catholic church had been. Vandals and decay had slowly stolen all trace of its majesty. Here it had once looked out over the open waters of Georgian Bay, facing into the winds that sweep in from the bay to gust over the smooth gray contours of the rock.

We walked to the edge and craned to see far below the black waters lapping at the ruins of the docks that once landed the great cargo ships. A few steel-banded beams remained bolted firmly to the rock. The piles and planking were gone. I stepped back, leaning against the wind, and watched the endless expanse of water stretching out toward the west. It was a place well suited for a church -- the stark beauty inspired reverence.

We had been alone on the rock; then I realized that someone else was present. I turned. There was an elderly man, standing quietly, resting against the handle of a sledge. He was there to set up camp. I asked him what he knew of the place, and he told us that he had grown up in this town, that he returned every year -- it was in his blood. He told us what I hadn't been able to find out from the library books in nearby Parry Sound.

Depot Harbour had been a company town where people had all held together, helping one another. There had been Poles, French, Italians -- all nationalities, he said. The company had built the houses for its workers, and the rent was cheap. These houses were grand, he said -- two stories for two families and a garden for each. ``The timbers in those houses were as wide as a man's forearm -- they had been built for the ages.'' Then the great fire claimed nearly all of the houses. One, however, that survived the fire was still standing. ``Where the path hits the main road, turn left.''

We set off for the main road and turned left. There, set back from the road and ringed in tall grass, stood a large red house -- two-story -- with a faded blue addition, rusted tin roof, and a sign, ``Private Property.'' The house was empty, padlocked against intruders and time. A rust-red gate, unlatched, guarded a small fence-enclosed garden. I walked through to see a blaze of red and yellow flowers bordering a square patch of lawn -- it had been mowed. ``By whom?'' I searched for telltale clues but found none. Was a last inhabitant paying homage to a memory? A ghost town does not easily relinquish its secrets, and this seems appropriate. Before turning to go, we lingered and listened for answers that might be whistling in the trees. We only heard the wind.

Leaving a ghost town brings a quiet sadness, and I walk gently in tribute to all that has been forgotten. The great efforts of many lost to time -- it seems unjust. We expect more from the world. I was glad to know that at Depot Harbour there was at least one who would not leave and one who came back to remember.

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