CANADA

Val-Jalbert, QC

Québec Ghost Town Was Once Ultramodern

Ouiatchouan Falls and the ruined pulp mill at Val-Jalbert, Quebec.

The focal point of Val-Jalbert is its ruined pulp mill, next to 74-metre-high Ouiatchouan Falls.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

FEW GHOST TOWNS, if any, can mark the moment of their death as precisely as Val-Jalbert. For this pulp-mill town in the woods of central Québec the moment came at midnight on August 13, 1927 when “the mill siren, with a cry sinister and heart-rending, announced to the good people of Val that all operations had ceased and that the factory had closed its doors…forever.”

Although there’d been rumours for months, the townsfolk had just eight days’ notice that the mill was shutting down, a victim of low pulp prices and increased competition from American firms.

The news was all the harder to hear because less than three years earlier Val-Jalbert had been enjoying a golden decade. Its population had risen to 950 and its mill worked around the clock six days a week, resting only on Sunday.

Between 1914 and 1924 Val-Jalbert was considered a model company town. Its streets were paved and lit, its houses had a sewage system and, long before most of Québec, running water and electricity. The pay was twice what it was in larger places and expenses were low. There was even a rudimentary social net: while a worker was injured the company would try to employ his son; if he was killed his family got four times his salary.

Had Val-Jalbert died a slower death it might have been entirely reclaimed by the forest. Instead, most of it survived, almost in amber—a singular example of a way of life once common in Québec, now vanished. Barring only the Cariboo Gold Rush settlement of Barkerville in British Columbia it’s Canada’s best-preserved ghost town.

Of course, not everyone left Val-Jalbert immediately after the final whistle sounded. In its closure notice Quebec Pulp & Paper Mills held out the hope that the plant might start up again in spring 1928. A skeleton crew was kept on to tend the turbines and stoke the furnaces. The company reduced rents by 50 per cent. Everyone hoped for the best. But by the end of 1929, 220 people had departed and water and electricity to the upper town were shut off. The church closed. In 1930, with the Depression underway, another 450 left.

The Québec government bought the town in 1949, by which time about 50 people still lived around the convent-school at one end of the lower town. For the next decade the upper town was sealed off and a guard posted.

Val-Jalbert was opened to visitors in 1960, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that serious efforts at preservation were made. Dozens of buildings remained—more than enough to make restoring the village worthwhile. Visitors can stay overnight in original houses with modern amenities and just “a special touch of the 20s.”

The focal point of Val-Jalbert remains its pulp mill, next to 74-metre-high Ouiatchouan Falls. A glass observation deck puts you up close with the high and mighty cascade. The pulp mill below, once roaring bedlam, is much quieter now, with a gift shop and display space. And ghosts, of course.

 

ACCESS

For more information visit the Val-Jalbert website at www.valjalbert.com.

For information on travel in Québec visit Tourisme Québec’s website at www.bonjourquebec.com.