In Search of Ghosts (America’s Ghost Towns)

During our Route 66 trip we were intrigued by accounts of “ghost towns” that we’d heard about from other travelers who indicated where along the way we might find a few of these places (for a comprehensive listing of ghost towns along the Route 66 itinerary, see Ghost Towns of Route 66). Attracted by historical curiosity and the opportunity for interesting photography, we decided to try to stop at a few.

But we weren’t quite prepared for what we would find. Our ideas about “ghost towns” came from old films and stories of the American west. We imagined Hollywood stage sets of western streets with eerily swinging barroom doors on creaking hinges. The reality, as we discovered, is something else–more like an archaeological journey through other people’s misfortune than a romantic hollywood film. Still, the ghost towns became an important history lesson for us, tying together past and present, and illustrating the destruction “change” can sometimes wreak on a vibrant community.

HOW TO RECOGNIZE A GHOST
Oatman, AZ with it’s western mining town period-architecture is actually a bustling and thriving site thanks to tourism and the creative attempts of community members to revive an amazing ambiance. Near Barstow, CA the “pay-to-visit” Calicotown, is more disney-esque. Though it was once a “real” ghost town with an authentic history, it is now so “fabricated” it has lost its soul. These touristic “ghosts” are fun to visit, but it is pretty much like visiting a “museum” — clean and safe and educational, with a place to buy trinkets.

Then there are the “real” ghosts, sometimes nothing more than ruins…

Technically, a ghost town is simply an abandoned town or city. The reasons for its abandon vary. Boomtowns that were built up around some single activity or resource (like mining) can go “bust,” often decreasing in size as fast as they initially grew — with nearly the entire population deserting the town in a very short period of time. When a road or rail line is re-routed, a town can be “by-passed,” causing it to “fade” away slowly, as was the case for many places along the historic Route 66 itinerary. Sometimes an epidemic decimates a small town’s population, and the place slowly disappears, or a disaster, like the land contamination at Times Beach (which has since been cleaned up and turned into a Route 66 Park just west of St. Louis), forces people to move away.

But across much of the American west, rural communities have lost roughly a third of their population since 1920, as young people moved to urban and suburban centers, allowing many small towns to fade into ghost- or semi-ghost status.

Experts have come up with two “guidelines” for determining what qualifies as a “ghost.” First, “the town’s reason for being must no longer exist.” This criteria allows for the inclusion of semi-abandoned sites that maintain only a skeleton population. Second, “there must be tangible remains of the town for visitors to see” — ruins, boarded up buildings, or even just a town cemetery qualify.

“GHOST TOWNING”– THE ADVENTURE
It seems that visiting, writing about, and photographing abandoned towns has become a minor industry. There are books and websites dedicated to the quirky offshoot of adventure tourism known as “ghost-towning.”

“Ghost-Towners” basically just set out to locate a “ghost town” and visit it. The southwest is full of old mining towns with crumbling relics, rusting railroad engines, roadside ruins and remnants of lives lived on the fringe. Still, finding a place that is no longer “on the map” and exploring the abandoned ruins can be an adventure. “Hard core” ghost-towners pride themselves on finding completely abandoned sites in the most desolate locations.

Preparing for a ghost town visit, enthusiasts research the history of the town to learn how and why it became a “ghost.” Next the town must be physically located — there are lots of lists with GPS coordinates on the internet, but the tried and true method is to make your way to the closest inhabited city and ask around. The advantage of talking to locals is the colorful folklore you will uncover, as well as some practical advice on the best way to physically access the site.

Serious ghost-towners try to find the U.S.G.S Topographical map that includes the town they are searching for. These 7.5″ topo maps cover roughly 7.5 by 7.5 mile area with enough terrain and road detail to make finding a site relatively easy. With the name of the mine, the county and the town itself, anyone can search the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public records which will offer up enough precise information (township, range, and section number) to identify the correct Platte map, which in turn will provide the topographical map name. (For more on ghosts town exploration, and also how to read topo maps see ghosttowns.com)

EMERGING GHOSTS
Exploring the crumbling sites of an eeriely abandoned community can be a wonderful experience in discovery, but equally interesting are the “semi-ghosts.” These are towns with “a markedly decreased population from its peak, and whose initial reason for settlement (such as a mine or railroad) no longer keeps people in the community.” Sure signs of an “emerging ghost” are scattered rubble where nature has reclaimed the land, partially demolished or abandoned buildings, and little or no population.

As they fade, the towns may still have a post office, and sometimes even a bank, surrounded by a permanently shuttered businesses on a lonely Main Street. If the community is close to major highway, it may also still have a gas station/convenience store.

In the west, many of these more recent “ghosts” are victims of agriculture’s downward spiral in America’s “heartland.” Once thriving small farming towns are dying a slow death, as the younger population simply moves away, leaving their parents and grandparents to watch over crumbling buildings, old trucks and tractors, paint-peeling houses, boarded up buildings, and decaying barns.

Their decline can be traced to the 1930’s when many families lost their farms due to debt or the dustbowl. Thousands of acres of abandoned land was eventually scooped up by a few remaining farmers who consolidated it, using complex machinery, hybrid seeds and large irrigation systems to create massive agricultural operations. A far cry from the “family farm,” the agribusinesses didn’t require the same kind of manpower, and the children, freed from the obligation to particpate in the family’s livelihood, went in search of their own interests as they came of age.

Fewer customers for the grocery and hardware stores, the doctors and lawyers, churches and schools, forced them to shut down or move to larger population centers. Houses became impossible to sell, because there were no buyers, and when elderly folks pass on, their precious homesteads are boarded up and abandoned.

BE PREPARED: Hardcore ghost-towning can take you to some pretty out-of-the-way places. Harsh environments and difficult terrain means you should always be well-prepared with the same kind of supplies you would take for off-roading or back-country camping.

Ghosttowns.com recommends you take two vehicles, if possible. And if not, make sure you have communications that will work in the location you are going to. Also, make sure someone knows where you are going and when you should be back (and who to call if you are not back on schedule). Besides a cell phone, you might want to take a radio or even a satellite phone, depending on the remoteness of the site.

Know where you are and where you are going. A GPS is always a good thing to have, in case you get disoriented and need to determine your exact position. It’s also good to have a simple, but reliable, magnetic compass and topo maps of the area you are exploring. Binoculars can be a useful tool (especially when you think you might see something on the next ridge only to spend 2 hours hiking to find out it was a big brown rock!)

Expect the unexpected. In addition to the obvious (sunscreen, chapstick, sunglasses and a hat), take a first aid kit, and extra food and water. You should have at least one gallon of water per person per day in the desert — and always carry an extra day’s supply if you are going somewhere off-road or very remote. It’s also a good idea, when headed to those out of the way locations, to throw some MREs or other food that needs no preparation and no refrigeration into your pack.

Finally, don’t forget to take a camera to record your discoveries!

Unfortunately not everyone who visits these locations takes the hobby seriously, and many sites are completely vandalized. Please practice “Leave No Trace” when visiting so others can enjoy the same discovery.

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