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Roxborough Ruins


There is a place in rural Saskatchewan, between Dysart and Lipton, where a motorist may spot an inconspicuous pile of rocks and some partial stone walls. Many people likely drive right on by without giving the ruins much thought. Those motorists who do notice these ruins and then feel compelled to stop will be rewarded by an intriguing explanation of the ruins. They will first encounter the remnants of an old road that leads to a huge boulder, upon which is fastened a plaque. The plaque was difficult to read, at least it was in the light that filtered through the clouds on the day that I was at the ruins. Its barely discernable printing states that these are the ruins of Roxborough Presbyterian Church. The ruins are very old, at least old by Saskatchewan standards. In fact, so old that the church didn’t even exist contemporaneously with Saskatchewan. The stone church was both completed and then left as ruins before Saskatchewan even became a province.

The pink rock with the plaque that explains what these ruins once were.

The plaque on this stone reads:

JUNE 1887

It was well over 130 years ago when some of Western Canada’s earliest homesteaders hauled the large rocks and boulders from their fields to this spot. Here they would have assisted the stonemason with his craft as he built what would briefly become Roxborough Presbyterian Church. This blog post is the story of the ruins of that church.

Here is a rough idea of the location of the Roxborough Presbyterian Church.

The Stonemason

Normally I either know who the stonemason was, or I don’t and that is the end of that question. For Roxborough however there are at least two people (three really) credited with building it. The passage of time makes the provenance all the more elusive and Roxborough has been gone for a long time. Here’s what I do know about Roxborough’s stonemason(s):

  • According to the information sheet at the Dysart Museum, the stonemason was Joseph D. Turner (actually Joseph D. Turner’s name was on a separate piece of paper attached to the Dysart Museum document). In a list of Saskatchewan stonemasons prepared by the stone building enthusiast Cecil Hayward (now deceased), and later edited by historian Frank Korvemaker, this stonemason’s full name was Joseph Donald Turner. He lived a short life from 1862 to 1896. Turner is credited with building the round Bell Barn in 1882 (now a historic site), St. John’s Anglican Church in 1885 and Round Plain Stone Church in 1888 (also a historic site). Should Roxborough be added to that list of Turner’s accomplishments? It may have been possible for Turner to have finished the stonework on Roxborough early in 1887 or more likely in 1886 and then moved on to the Round Plain Stone Church. That would have made him extremely busy because he completed two churches in 1885 and 1888. The stonemason doesn’t technically finish a building as that task would be for the carpenter who would have a lot of woodwork building the roof, floor, doors and windows. Both Roxborough and Round Plain churches were fairly small simple structures, so they wouldn’t take the stonemason too long to build, relatively speaking. Turner could, in theory, have built Roxborough but I don’t think that he did.
  • According to an on-line history of the Dysart area prepared by the Dysart and District Historical Society and the Village of Dysart, the stonemason was Tom Murray. They say, “Tom Murray built one of the first churches in the area of stone, six miles east of Dysart, in 1887. It accommodated the Presbyterian congregation. After its opening in June of that year, it was mysteriously destroyed by fire on September 18. Some of the ruins still remain”. That document doesn’t mention Roxborough by name but it’s clearly the same church that they are referring to. If we go back to the Hayward/Korvemaker list of stonemasons cited above, Tom and George Murray are credited with building the “Parkland Presbyterian Church, Lipton area in 1886”. I can’t find a record of a “Parkland” Presbyterian Church but there was a Parklands School and that is where the Roxborough congregation would eventually hold its church services. That might explain the use of the name Parkland rather than Roxborough on the Hayward/Korvemaker list of stonemasons. It’s quite possible that the Presbyterian Church was referred to as Parklands before it was officially named Roxborough. Tom Murray was born in Scotland in 1857 and died in Saskatchewan in 1922. On the balance of probabilities, I believe that Tom Murray and or Tom and George Murray built this church.
  • A third possibility is that there were more than one stonemasons involved in the construction of this church. Maybe a stonemason was fired or quit and another one hired as that could explain the different accounts as to who built it. Maybe a switch in stonemasons was even connected to the fire! That’s totally conjecture on my part. I personally think that Tom Murray was the mason who built Roxborough. If Joseph Donald Turner was initially involved in the construction, it’s possible that he had to leave it due to ill health. As stated above, Turner lived a short life of about 34 years from 1862 to 1896 which is not unusual for stonemasons. Turner may have developed silicosis. That is a condition prevalent among quarry workers, masons and miners. Silicosis is caused by the constant inhalation of dust which in turn can lead to secondary tuberculosis. Treatment for silicosis in the late 19th century was unknown. In most cases the diagnosis of silicosis would lead to a change of a mason’s career. If Turner developed Silicosis, in the relevant years, he might have left the construction project to somebody else to finish or possibly left his work to rest while intending to return to the job site. 1886 – 1887 was a long time ago and given that the church existed for such a brief period of time, reliable records of the stonemason, or masons, may no longer exist.


The written records of what was Roxborough Presbyterian Church are brief in their description of the events of the late 19th century. One source, a local history book, says that the church was built in 1886. Another source, an information sheet available at the museum at Dysart – just 10 km north and west of the ruins – says that the church opened in 1887. A year’s difference is not important when we are talking about events so far back in time. Also, some accounts may refer to when the construction was started while others could refer to when it was finished.

Qu’Appelle Vidette, 9 June 1887 – Parklands / Roxborough Presbyterian Church. Obtained from Frank Korvemaker

A stone church, rather than one made of lumber, absolutely made sense to these early settlers because they were primarily Scottish and were used to building with stone. Lumber was expensive as it had to be hauled in. Stones were everywhere and a nuisance to the farmer in their fields so the only cost for that building material was the collection and transportation of it from the fields to the construction sites. Ironically stone buildings were often selected because of their resistance to fire, especially prairie grass fires.

I’m impressed that the local people had the time and energy to build the stone church so soon after they began to homestead. The Dominion Lands Act received royal assent in 1872. With the Act in place men and their families could begin to move to Manitoba and the western prairies that would eventually become Alberta and Saskatchewan. It took time for word to spread about this new territory opening up to homesteading. Many people came from Europe and it would be years before they arrived in large numbers. The Roxborough area must have been one of the earlier communities to form on the newly surveyed land. Most eastern Europeans wouldn’t arrive until after 1900. Here is an interesting piece of information quoted from a book about settlement in Alberta but the author’s comment would also apply to Saskatchewan, albeit to a slightly lesser extent.

Canada’s highly selective immigration policy, the world-wide depression from 1870 to the 1890s, and the debt incurred by the Canadian Pacific Railway worked together to defeat (Prime Minister) Macdonald’s dream of a populated West. It was only with the revival of world trade in the late 1890s, the scarcity of land in Europe and the United States, new immigration policies and the demand for wheat on the world market, that waves of immigrants poured into the Canadian West to fill the vacant homesteads.

The new Laurier government undertook a massive worldwide advertisement campaign to attract immigrants. Between 1896 and 1914 approximately two and a half million land-hungry immigrants flocked to the Dominion, most destined for the prairie homesteads

McCracken, Jane W – 1979 – Overlord of the Little Prairie: report on Charles Plavin and his homestead – Page 17

Settlers had three years to prove-up their homesteads by building a home (and actually living in it for six months of each year) and breaking a minimum of 10 acres of land in each of the three years. Upon meeting these requirements, the homesteader would receive title to a quarter section of land. Once they received title to the land the homesteader would put in the effort to build a better home, at least if they had any money left with which to buy the necessary materials. Proving up the land and gaining title to it was quite an achievement in a land with few roads or rail lines. In most cases the farmers had to seek work in mines or on the railroad over the winter season to obtain the cash to enable their families to survive. So, to ask these poor and tired homesteaders to help finance and build a church was no small request.

The Church was important to the settlers, but church services were often held in people’s homes and that worked just fine. It became a great way to get to know the neighbours and the small congregations had no difficulty fitting into local homes. They could have waited five or even ten years before building a permanent structure for a church. A school was still needed for the children of the young families, and some people might have thought that the school should be built first. I sense that some of the congregation also considered it a bit early to have constructed the church building. There’s a distant echo of discontent in the subject matter of the first sermon which was “unity”. Here’s what the document from the Dysart Museum says about that first church service.

On Sunday afternoon the new Presbyterian Church at Parklands was opened for divine worship. There was, considering the inclement state of the weather, a good attendance. The Rev. A. Robson preached a very suitable sermon from II Chronicles 5:13 & 14 the theme of which was blessings because of unity and he urged the auditory to remain united if they wished the presence of God to fill the house. The building is 20 X 30 feet, stone, with rough cast exterior, and will, when finished make a very substantial and neat church. It is doubtful whether they will be able to plaster the inside this year. The settlers of Parklands are to be congratulated for the energy displayed in erecting such a house.

Information document located at Dysart Museum

I’m sure that most of the congregation were just relieved that most of the construction was finished, aside from some detailing work on the interior of the building. They could now focus their labours back on their homesteads. It must have been difficult getting the church built but now, upon completion, the congregation could enjoy the fruits of their labour. On Sundays there would be a church building in which to meet. Indeed, the church did bring a touch of normality to the difficult lives of the homesteaders. They “held a picnic on Tuesday, July 12th which, it is written, was a success. There were amusements such as croquet, swings, jumping, races, putting the stone, music, etc., were entered into heartily by the visitors. The refreshment department was abundantly supplied with viands (food) provision having been made for 250 guests”. Gatherings, such as this picnic, were more important to the homesteaders than they would be to most people today. A church picnic was a welcomed break from the constant farm labour and especially from the loneliness by the bachelors. It was a time to sit and visit with the neighbours; a chance to just relax and enjoy the company of others. For some it might have presented the rare opportunity to meet a single woman, if indeed there were any.

By the time September arrived there was to be another church meeting; this time to discuss plastering the walls and building pews. This was probably (hopefully) long range planning for the winter or at least after the harvest when the some of the local farmers would have more time on their hands. That meeting never took place.

This is a model of what the Roxborough Presbyterian Church likely looked like. The model was built by Peter J. Dumba in 2010. He used actual stone from the ruins to build this replica. You can see it at the Dysart Museum. I was quite impressed with the size and content of that museum and the people there were very helpful. It’s definitely worth stopping in at Dysart to check out their many exhibits.

On September 17, 1887, in the early hours of the morning the brand new church burned down. It was only used for three months before the destruction. According to the document at the Dysart Museum, the fire was deliberately set. This could be one of rural Saskatchewan’s earliest acts of arson. The document at the Dysart Museum states that, “Mr. Robson had called for the people to remain united in their church work, but it seems that friction among the people about the management of the church led to its destruction.”

There are so many unanswered questions when we think about the ruins of Roxborough. For example, how does a stone structure burn down? Well it doesn’t completely burn down and that is why we still have the ruins to visit. However the roof, doors, floor, and window frames are all made of dry wood and that’s enough wood for a major fire. I’m sure that the heat would also destroy some of the mortar and crack some stones as well as destroy anything else not made of stone. This isn’t the first stone building to burn and wouldn’t be the last one either. They certainly resist fire better than wood structures but once fire takes hold there is little that can be done. Actually there was little that could be done for any building on fire in the early century before the time of huge fire trucks and fire extinguishers. Once a fire was discovered somebody had to run or ride on horseback to each homestead to wake up the residents and call them to action. The local people would throw water on the fire if they had a source of water such as a nearby creek. Otherwise the water would come so slowly that the people could do little more than prevent the fire from spreading to the surrounding prairie grasses.

Why wasn’t the nascent church rebuilt? What happened to the person who started the fire and why did he commit such a hostile act? To those questions I have no answers. I think that this quote found in one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books explains it best as to why we don’t have all the answers.

Much that once was is lost,
for none now live who remember it.

Tolkien – The Fellowship of the Ring

Basically I don’t know what happened to the person who started the fire, if indeed they caught him or her. Why he did it is another mystery. The suggestion, stated above, from the Dysart document that states, “friction among the people about the management of the church led to its destruction“, seems woefully inadequate to drive one to arson. The people didn’t rebuild the church and that is quite curious. Were they just exhausted from the effort to build it in the first place? Was it the lack of money? Once again, the local history books are silent on these matters. I asked (paid) the Presbyterian Church of Canada at to research this matter. Their response was that their archives have no information about that fire. It was a long time ago and the records such as minutes of meetings could be archived with the Presbyterian Church, The United Church, or simply lost through the passage of time.

Facts in Brief

  • Builder (Stone Mason) – Uncertain but probably Tom and George Murray
  • Location – Jumping Deer Creek
  • Opened – June 5, 1887
  • Officiating – Rev. A. Robson
  • Date of fire – Sept 17, 1887

Images of the Ruins

All images below (except where stated otherwise) were taken by me on 2022-07-07.

The church was never rebuilt. In 1888 Parklands School was opened and it became the centre for community activities. Church services were held in the school from that time until 1905 when Lipton Church was built. That is where most of the congregation of Roxborough moved to.

Whose hands held those stones and set them in place. Was it Murray or Turner? Perhaps someday a stone will be exposed with a signature carved upon it.

An Earlier Image

The image below shows how the ruins looked in 1993. You can see that they definitely resembled a small church-like structure. That was nearly 30 years before my images shown above where the shape and layout of the stone church is barely discernable, if at all. How will they look in another 30 years?

Photographer Unknown – 1993 Roxborough Presbyterian Church – Dysart Museum

The Gilchrist Diaries

Frederick Charles Gilchrist kept very detailed written accounts of his daily activities and observations. He lived close enough to the Roxborough Presbyterian Church to have been a member of the church. That is something that he would likely want to document in his diary. I wasn’t able to read the Gilchrist Diaries but I read two accounts of the life of Frederick Charles Gilchrist. A very brief account of this man can be found here:

A more thorough article of his life can be found in the Saskatchewan History Magazine cited below. The diaries are held in the Regina location of the Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan. The Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan responded to my request for information after the initial publication of this blog. They looked up the entry for September 17, 1887 and sent me his brief comment which is quoted below. It remains possible that Gilchrist wrote more about the fire or the search for the arsonist at a later date but it’s not possible to search the diaries from Edmonton. However if anyone in Regina would like to pick up the trail and read on to see if Gilchrist mentions the fire again, the diaries have been transcribed and can be viewed at the public archives.

Cool.  Roxburgh Church was burned last night.  Cut windows in stable, etc.

Frederick Charles Gilchrist – September 17, 1887


  • Gladys Petrar, Roxborough (Presbyterian) Church, document, sourced from the Saskatchewan Genealogy Society. Vol 44 No 1 April 2013. Pages 38 & 39.
  • Dysart and District Yesterday and Today, 1st addition –1982 – local history book. (viewed at the Dysart Museum).
  • Dysart and District, Our Story – The Dysart and District Historical Society and the Village of Dysart, date not stated. Online submission to the “Saskatchewan History Album”
  • Saskatchewan History Magazine, Vol XX, No. 3, Autumn 1967. Obtained from The Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan. Subject: The Gilchrist Diaries.
  • The Presbyterian Church of Canada Archives
  • McCracken, Jane W – Overlord of the Little Prairie: report on Charles Plavin and his homestead – 1979 – Alberta Culture, Historical Resources Division
  • Saskatchewan Stonemasons: Frank Korvemaker, M.S.M.; SAA (Hon), Archaeologist / Archivist / Construction Historian.
  • Provincial Archives of Saskatchewan – The Gilchrist Diaries reference code R-142.2- Regina Saskatchewan.


13 thoughts on “Roxborough Ruins

  1. An interesting read and some awesome shots Glen. Looks like you had some nice overcast light to work with as well. I would never have thought that a stone building could be so completely destroyed by fire, but as you mention with great heat the mortar would likely fail.

    Th difference between your shots and the one taken in the nineties is quite amazing. Not much left to tumble down now. The little model that is at the museum is pretty cool, especially considering it was made with materials from the site. I wonder how many stones have been stolen from the site as souvenirs. I am guessing a number of them.

    Your description of firefighting back in those days is likely right on the money. Almost a fruitless effort. There must be so many building that have been badly damaged or destroyed by fire. I think of how much damage was done to the Church of Notre Dame in such a short period of time, and that is with modern firefighting methods (albeit quite a challenging fire).

    Anyway, an interesting read with some great shots. Once again you have done a great job to bring us some interesting local history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much for your comments Bernie. I hadn’t thought of comparing this fire to Notre Dame but the analogy is interesting. 🤔


  2. An interesting tale of construction and destruction Glen. The prairie homesteaders were a hardy lot. My Dad actually took out a homestead near Bear Canyon in the 1960s/70s, so it was still a thing then. Hope you are keeping well. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I was in my teens I had heard that there were people still homesteading in the 70s but I wasn’t certain if it was just talk or real. It must have been a different experience. No oxen clearing trees.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely. Dad had a broken down D2 Cat and a single bottom breaking plough. Typically he would pay someone to come in and brush the land and pile trees into windrows. I am not convinced he was ever able to prove up on the homestead, before he died. Cheers

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This is very interesting, Glen. I will definitely plan to visit the Dysart museum and this site, too.
    Thank you !

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Christine. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m sure that you will enjoy the museum.


  4. Homesteading in this area existed as high risk escapade I read . From an American perspective, I would have thus concluded that hostile Indians might have been the main culprit of this church destruction hoping to stop encroachment of their sacred lands. Any truth to that possibility?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No none at all. The natives signed treaties and moved to reserves before the land was surveyed. It was a different experience than what happened in the USA. The great dichotomy is that American Indians seem to be fiercely patriotic while in Canada there are still problems. It’s more complicated than just that but it is something that ought to be studied, analyzed and written about by experts. There is more native crime now than was during the settlement of the prairies.


      1. I never heard this before. We have our share of crime as well on reservations but it doesn’t seem to be reported very well.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The two countries are so much alike in many respects but also so different, especially in regards to our history.


      3. I guess that’s I like reading your blog- to notice some of those differences

        Liked by 1 person

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