Exploring the ruins of the magical, failed city of Factoria

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Living in Saskatoon, it’s an odd thing to realize you grew up above ruins.

I mean, okay, maybe not if you were born in France or Peru or along the Nile Delta. Then you probably give directions to the supermarket based on how many Corinthian columns or stone obelisks you pass along the way. But if you’re from Saskatchewan, the idea that the remains of a bustling community lie beneath the streets where you smashed tennis balls against garage doors and failed miserably at ball hockey is kind of jarring.

This is the story of Factoria, the “Magic City.” It’s also the history of where I was raised.

Let’s start in 1906. Saskatchewan is one year old, Saskatoon has just incorporated, and the city’s first 4,000 residents are dealing with a major problem: typhoid. Outbreaks would strike in the summer and fall; a hundred or so people would get sick each time. The city has no water treatment plant. Many who fall ill die.

There is a solution to the city’s immediate water woes, though, on the farm of William “Billy” Silverwood.

Today, Silverwood is mostly forgotten. His surname lives on in the name of the north end suburb that nestles up against the South Saskatchewan River, but you probably didn’t know that. Out of context, “Silverwood Heights” could be the older sibling of other subdivisions like Briarwood or Silverspring or Meadowgreen: inoffensively pastoral, with no history preceding the branding exercise that birthed it.

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But Silverwood was real: he was a horse dealer, and in 1909 he bought a three-acre plot of land a few kilometres north of the fledgling city. On the land were a series of springs. An astute businessman, Silverwood realized he could turn a profit bottling that clean, typhoid-free spring water and selling it back to disease-fearing Saskatonians.

This is where another man, R.E. Glass, arrives on the scene.

Glass was from the big city. Chicago, specifically. It’s not clear exactly how he found out about the springs (my wager is that Glass stayed at one of the hotels in Saskatoon where you could get Silverwood’s bottled water) but by 1912 he’d bought Silverwood’s farm and begun planning a massive industrial city on the site. Silverwood’s bottling factory would theoretically become a brewery that would sell 100,000 barrels of sweet prairie booze. If you’ve been following along, it’s probably no surprise that this “magic city,” as it was branded, would be called Factoria.

Except that didn’t happen – at least, not to the extent anyone hoped. Factoria did not become a more northerly Chicago; Saskatoon has more than a few decent breweries these days but no one’s calling us the beer capital of western Canada. Glass’s brewery, in fact, never even churned out one single bottle.

But in 1912, Factoria’s prospects did look promising. Businesses had set up shop on the site: a flour mill, a brickworks, a Minnesota-based farm implements dealer. There were plans for a restaurant and a three-storey, 60-room hotel. Here’s how the Saskatoon Phoenix described things on December 4th, 1913:

In no section of western Canada is this spot excelled for the tremendous possibilities of development … As a visitor from the United States remarked a few days ago, it is one of the most beautiful locations on the North American continent for a thriving manufacturing centre. In a comparatively short time, it is expected, the question of cheap power will be settled, and Factoria has everything else, including the finest water in the world.

Do you need a cigarette? I need a cigarette.

The storyteller in me wants the tale of Factoria to be one of unchecked hubris, a cautionary tale of brazen men who dared to tame the wild prairie and paid the price for their ambition. A Paul Thomas Anderson movie, essentially. I wish we had more insight into Glass and Silverwood, into what – beyond profit, obviously – drove them.

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Aside from the occasional newspaper clipping, though, we really don’t know much about the two men. We do know what went wrong, though: Factoria’s investors needed a power line from Saskatoon all the way out to their settlement, but the financing for that project fell through. Then the First World War broke out, and people’s priorities shifted from building industrial utopias to fighting the Kaiser and dying in trenches of septicemia. (The banks also stopped issuing credit, a pretty big deal.) By 1914, eight years after Silverwood saw fortune in a typhoid-free spring, the dream of Factoria was mostly dead.

What attracts me to Factoria’s swift rise and fall is that – and I really didn’t realize this until I was an adult – it’s actually the history of where I’m from. I grew up in a split-level suburban home only minutes from where Silverwood’s bottling factory once stood. I shared a playground with the kids from Silverwood elementary school. My parents used to tell me to stay out of the tall grasses that led past the water filtration plant and down to the unguarded riverbank – the same grasses that still hide stones and bricks from some of the original Factoria buildings.

Of course, when I was a kid, I didn’t know any of this. The most visible reminder of Factoria’s existence today is the large stone at the end of Adilman Drive, pictured above; today I can walk my parents’ golden retriever along the pristine Meewasin trail that runs right past it, but I can’t stop and read a plaque or historical marker that explains what that big stone is.

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Is that a problem, the fact this story is relatively unknown? I tend to think so. I think we tend to regard the suburbs as ahistorical, as if before the urban planners and architects came and laid down their cul-de-sacs and prefab homes all that existed was, I don’t know, the odd slough and a few mosquitoes. And it’s harder to forge a relationship with a place that you think has no history to speak of. So you leave, you move downtown, then maybe on to Calgary or Vancouver or (in my case) Ontario and give the place few second thoughts.

The last time I was walking down by the old Factoria site, I saw a couple holding hands and wondering aloud what that large stone was all about. I guess I could have told them the story. I guess I was probably wondering myself why they didn’t already know it.

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Interested in local history? Click HERE for our Ghost Town, Saskatchewan series.

– Story and photos by Trevor Pritchard, a freelance journalist who’s written for The Globe and Mail, Exclaim!, Paste Magazine, and CBC.ca. He also documents his home province at Shooting Saskatchewan, where this post first appeared.