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Romeo and the ghost town. A cemetery story (8 photos)

This week, Bill tries to put closure to a pledge he made at an abandoned cemetery on the back roads

You will have to follow closely the chronological details of this story about Romeo. There are only so many available words.

In 2009 I was exploring the back roads returning to one of those loose ends nagging at the exploration or right side of my brain. The search for something I had found some 25 years earlier was on. I had returned a second time to Dalton, between Chapleau and Wawa, to retrieve a photo of a small “donkey” steam engine abandoned after the lumber mill closed.

Dalton Station, the ghost town, was overgrown, but the locomotive was easily found, that was back in 1984. I had read the reference in Ron Brown’s ‘Ghost Towns of Ontario,’ Volume 2, pp. 111, for the miniature steam engine.

Even though it was a long time ago the site was on its way to becoming a mature forest.

For a couple of hours, I looked to no avail, knowing it was there all the while trying to picture it as it was.

Frustration sets in; I return to the railway tracks and see an elderly lady picking blueberries. She is probably wondering what I am doing in the bush; I ask her about the locomotive.

“Yes,” she says, “it is gone,” she turns out to be Kathleen Bouchard, Romeo’s wife. (Fast forward, so a quarter of a century, I discover the steam engine is now gone; situated now at nearby Wakami Lake Provincial Park.)

She points across the tracks to their summer camp and says, “You should talk to my husband Romeo, he was born here.” It is the start of one of my favourite stories, the oral history that goes beyond what is not written down.


We know about “meant to be,” “destiny,” and “happenstance,” I believe in all three and especially on that day.

I go and meet Romeo, a former ‘railroader.’

He does know it all and after gaining his confidence, I follow him over from the ghost towns Dalton Station to Dalton Mills, he on his ATV. By this time it becomes a multitude of stops, ”here was where the spur line started, crossing Highway 651,” “the huge boarding house here,” “the blacksmith shop and stables were here,” “I dove off the bridge, looking for nickels, workers would throw in…”

I couldn’t get enough; Romeo was reliving his past like it was yesterday, the incessant talk is descriptive, he is within the time machine. He is a coffee table book. He is older, his best years behind, he was labouring, but he wanted to tell more.

The details and recollection were phenomenal. I found out later he had suffered a mild stroke.

I asked about his parents; his mother Blanche had died of cancer, at age 42. She is buried here.

“Here,” I blurted. “There is a cemetery here?”

Romeo explained it was across the river, pointing to the rise north-northeast from where the bridge was to the height of land, around the point, to the horizon.

It was later in the day, it was warm, and he was tired, but Romeo went back to his ATV rode a short distance, to the narrows, I follow. I could hear Romeo calling out, the next thing I know a small boat and motor comes towards us, we meet his brother-in-law and he ferries us across the river a stone’s throw distance to Dalton Mills.

We return to the former townsite and pass the former Austin home, home of the former mill owners. It is one of the few remaining buildings standing.

The Cemetery

We walk through what was the community slowly up the slope, bush everywhere on our left (NE); Shikwamkwa Lake on our right, past the former school site; Romeo comes to the single track footpath he has been maintaining, turning left (E) in the overgrown forest.

The path is swallowed by the regrowth of forests that have taken back an unnatural area, like a cemetery. These reclaimed areas are like that, a tangle of emerging vegetation.

We take fifty steps. The other monuments are barely seen in all directions.

He stops and points to the left, “back there the twins are buried, you can see the two protruding crosses, they drowned falling through the ice.”

He walks on to his mother’s plot, barely discernible, surrounded by dense growth but there is a galvanized silver stake with a small nameplate.

He pauses, “this is it.” He planned his internment.

It became a poignant moment during our time together, he said, “I want to be buried here, next to my mother.”

He explained how he was raised by a single parent. He went on to explain how he had planned his cremation and how the family would bring the urn back here for burial.”

A person’s journey is just that, for Romeo, it was straightforward; he knew where he wanted his end to be, right at his beginning. I thought about all of this driving home, no one wants an end. But I would not forget this experience.

At the time I said I would return. But the future is like that, we never know. I get this way at many locations in Northern Ontario, there are too many destinations. That was in 2009.

The Return - 2015

The fortuitous day has stuck with me as I had told Romeo this cemetery should not be lost and forgotten.

So in 2015, my mind wonders and then wanders; I return in a late November day to ford the river in my drysuit.

It is a very cold, grey day, snow is in the air, no one is about, I wade chest-deep across. I have to be careful (“Don’t tell mom.”).

I make my way to the cemetery to find Romeo is still alive there’s no evidence that the ground has been disturbed and only his mother’s marker is there.

At the time there are rampant thoughts, it is a shame about this cemetery, what can I do, bring in some of my university students and clear the trees? You will have thoughts of what to do. These are maturing trees now, not brush.

Driving back, again, I feel overwhelmed. I feel for Romeo, I remember his passion and his memories. It tells me why I should locate these spots, for no other reason but to help others to remember.

I did not then call Romeo, I should have, and that’s why we have regrets.

Finding Out – 2017

Time leads me to many adventures. One day on a hike for no reason I feel something is not right, I feel a Romeo memory.

I call Romeo, his wife, Kathleen tells me he had passed on, May 20th of last year (2016).

“But he got his wish and he has made it to the abandoned cemetery,” she was glad I called as I have previously written about abandoned cemeteries.

I start to research trying to find out how you ensure an abandoned cemetery is registered.

For the spatial record, it is on the west shore of Shikwamka Lake, at the narrows. It is completely overgrown with regrowth that is more than 50 years.

There is no organized municipality in the area. It is a Catholic cemetery, part of the Sault Ste. Marie Diocese and there were two missions of White River in that area, Saint Theresa of the Infant Jesus at Dalton Mills, Ontario and Canadian Martyrs Church at Dalton Station.

“We will look into the status and ownership of these cemetery sites,” said Michael F. D’Mello Manager, Licensing, Education and Outreach, Bereavement Authority of Ontario. “If the cemetery is located on Crown lands, please go ahead and contact the District office and advise them of your observations. The owner, of the land on which a cemetery is situated, is responsible to ensure that the cemetery is maintained to reflect the respect and dignity it deserves.”

Therein lays the challenge, who now owns or looks after the cemetery?

Then I found out this from the Ministry of Government and Consumer Services, Nancy Watkins.

“The ministry retains the responsibility for administering the burial site, war grave, cemetery closure and abandonment provisions of the Funeral, Burial and Cremation Services Act, 2002, and I am the registrar with responsibility for these provisions,” she said. 

“Next steps will depend on how the landowner wishes to proceed. As such, I would recommend that you inform the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry of your discovery. Yes, if the landowner could be the diocese, I would contact them as well.

"Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and the diocese will need to review their records and determine who actually owns the land, and what next steps they would like to undertake. Once I have confirmed this, I will be able to chart out an appropriate process.”

The diocese may wish to close the cemetery, she said.

I then asked the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry as I felt this “lost” cemetery is on Crown land. I contacted the Resource Management Supervisor at Chapleau District.

“We are in contact with the BAO (Bereavement Authority of Ontario) to determine if this is a registered site and who would be responsible. They are looking into the issue and will advise us when their research is complete. In the interim, Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry will ensure the site is not impacted by any proposed resource activities under our jurisdiction in that area.

"The ministry is aware of a reported cemetery in that general area that has been referred to as the Shimkwamkwa Cemetery. However, we have not confirmed the exact location.

"The MNRF (Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry) will look to determine the exact location once we are under snow-free conditions as the area you describe is quite remote. MNRF (Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry) is working with the BAO (Bereavement Authority of Ontario) and will follow up with you once we have more information.”

I did give them the location; GPS coordinates and directions. Here we go around the mulberry bush of government contacts.

Helen Vaillancourt from the Nipissing Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society was contacted, she is a sleuth for sure, and she knows how to research this stuff.

“For years I’ve had a passion for cemeteries," she said. "Not only I’ve been involved in transcribing gravestones but also in brushing and restoring cemeteries so that they will once again be the resting place for loved ones.”

“(I) Just found Romeo’s birth, March 1, 1930, Baptised at Dalton Mills. His mother was Blanche Tessier, father Joseph Bouchard. Romeo married Kathleen Collins, August 15, 1953, at Missanibie (a railway town just north of Dalton). So he would be 86 now.”

“The first burial in the cemetery was in 1928, the last in 1947," Vaillancourt also said. 

"As the registers from 1950 onwards are missing, it’s likely many more are interred there," she said. "It’s sad to think that when one buried their loved one, they picked a nice spot and presumed it would always be a place of quiet beauty.”

It is such a spot overlooking the lake.

2021 - Final

This year when we were allowed to travel there was a return visit to Dalton on a snowy October 24 with Brian Emblim from Timmins. The overgrown cemetery was almost missed but then we found it Romeo was now there next to his mother.

In the poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee, the Canadian poet Robert A. Service writes, 'A promise made is a debt unpaid.'

The poem is the tale of a Yukon musher keeping a promise he made to cremate his friend rather than let him be buried in the ice and snow. I did promise Romeo I would return and try to have the site cleaned up.

I took the photos and remembered the living history Romeo had shared with me.

As an older gentleman, he had lived a life in a place he loved. I am glad to know all of this.

The bow of appreciation was almost tied. On the way out I ran into some of Romeo’s relatives, Lorraine Collin-Hebert, hunting on the lake, they informed me Kathleen is alive and well in Terrace Bay.

This is kinda a mystery story.

As an update, I finally write the epilogue this spring, not sure yet or entirely, of the registration of the abandoned cemetery.

I had contacted the Diocese, they have the cemetery records and my idea is to go back with a work party to do some brushing for Romeo and the others; another part of the promise I trust can be fulfilled.

The Diocese welcomes this but I am not sure if there will be any other closure plans. Anyone interested in bringing a saw, brush axe and some gardening tools for a day on the back roads? See the map. It's easy enough to get there and visit Blanche and Romeo.

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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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