Govenlock, Saskatchewan (or: Why Rand McNally Needs to Update Its Maps More Often)

When I was eleven years old, we moved – all the way across the street (what can I say; we got a good deal on the house). One of the left-behind objects on the wall I inherited in my bedroom from the previous owner was a hard-laminate copy of Rand McNally’s ever-ubiquitous Cosmopolitan World Map (they were family friends; evidently, they knew my interests). Sitting right beside my bed for the next six years before it was time to leave for university, and always there in the summers when I came home, I spent ridiculous amounts of hours just staring at it (and drawing on it –it was hard laminate, which meant it could serve a second function as a dry-erase board; great for playing ridiculously large-scale games of Risk – too bad I hated playing Risk). Even back then, the version of the map was a few years outdated (new enough for the independence of Vanuatu and Belize; not quite new enough for Brunei). One of the things that amused was just how non-relevant some of the towns and cities they chose for that map were; how, for example, Seward, Alaska merited the same level of bold font as New York, I’ll never guess. It was rather obvious that while borders were updated as needed from edition to edition, the cities hadn’t been. In my neck of the woods (British Columbia), Finlay Forks- a 19th century fur-trading fort that was never bigger than the trading post and some outbuildings- had already been flooded for nearly two decades, yet merited a position on a 1980s world map while five cities with 100,000 or more people apparently did not. Not to mention Jedway, or Fort Grahame, or Bennett.

CosmoThumb

I was always most fascinated by Govenlock, Saskatchewan. Don’t ask me why; I’ve just always had a thing for being in the middle of nowhere. I always imagined no matter how tiny it was, it must have at least a little going on; the prairies are dotted with little old towns twisting in the wind (as seen at the bottom of my entry on Detroit last month). I mean, it must at some point have been a hoppin’ place if it gained enough notoriety to be southwestern Saskatchewan’s designated world map place-filler. Well, thanks to the magic of Google Street View, we can explore Govenlock in all of its glory:

View Larger Map

Yes, that is it. An old community hall, a quintet of old craggy trees, and a mailbox are all that remain of Govenlock, Saskatchewan, with little else to indicate that this square plot of land is or was any different from the surrounding arid grassland. Buried in the dirt and dust, though, is a rather interesting tale of a town built on booze.

Named after one of the pioneering homesteading families of the area, Govenlock was founded in 1913 as a new townsite for a branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Govenlock family sold the land to the CPR for the townsite, and ran the town’s post office. A hotel came the next year. However, what was truly the new town’s advantage was not the rail line but its proximity to the Montana border. In 1919, Montana went dry; a year before alcohol became completely outlawed in the United States. Those looking for a quick hit of hooch simply had to catch the train across the border to Govenlock. Not that a mere drink was the crux of the boom: bootlegging and liquor smuggling into the United States via automobile brought a large amount of money into the town. As ghost town author Johnnie Bachusky writes:

In order to avoid suspicion when riding empty of booze, each car’s rear was loaded down with sand bags until each vehicle was filled at Govenlock’s liquor export houses. The highly-prized 12 per cent Canadian beer came in a barrel. Each barrel had three burlap sacks, with 24 four-quart bottles – wrapped in straw – in each sack. A barrel wholesaled for $24. When it reached the United States, it sold for $140. A carload of 14 barrels of beer and five cases of whisky could fetch a profit of $2,500. (GhostTownPix.com)

Four liquor warehouses were built in town. The hotel owner also owned a dance hall/poker room which served the vices of the out-of-towners looking to raise hell while waiting on their liquor orders. Other businesses soon sprang up to serve the influx of new residents and thirsty Montanans. Rum-running became so infamous that even the British royal family caught wind of the trend. The police in the area generally let it slide as long as the people crossing the border with the hooch were locals.

The boom was huge, but short.Surprisingly, it didn’t end with prohibition. Just three years later in 1922, the Saskatchewan government (in its own efforts to make more money off of the liquor trade) restricted liquor warehouses to locations in cities of 10,000 residents or more, cutting Govenlock’s main revenue stream off at the head. Govenlock actually held on as a shell of itself for the next few years as the population dwindled away and the railway was torn up. The arid Palliser Triangle climate made it hard for the farmers surrounding the town to subsist. In 1962, its omnipresent grain elevator toppled over due to neglect. Govenlock officially ceased to exist as an incorporated village in 1976 when it was folded back into the Rural Municipality of Reno. In 1990, the municipality put Govenlock and the neighbouring ghost town of Senate out of their respective miseries by bulldozing the remaining buildings, all of which were abandoned and dilapidated (including the old Govenlock hotel). The community hall, built in 1948, was left standing as a memorial.

For a good approximation of what Govenlock looked like in its post-mortem state before demolition, you can explore the streets of nearby Robsart, Saskatchewan via Google Street View (it’s rather haunting). But for Govenlock itself, all we can do is give you this YouTube video that basically looks exactly like that Street View footage at the top of the page, only with narration. A rather ignominious end for a boomtown that had it made- for about three years. And, yes, Govenlock is finally off of Rand McNally’s world map; the Cosmopolitan series ended in the late 1990s.

Further Reading

Bachusky, J. (2003). Ghost Town Stories II: From Renegade to Ruin Along the Red Coat Trail. Canmore, AB: Altitude.

Bachusky, J. (2008). Govenlock. Saskatchewan Ghost Towns. Available at http://www.ghosttownpix.com/sask/towns/govenloc.shtml. Accessed 27 August 2010.

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