by – D.J. Wilson
Ghost towns are true monuments of days-gone-by. Though intriguing, they remain a far cry from imagination-fueled images of villages filled with creepy ghosts and the walking dead. While one may envision a haunted town taken over by spirits and eerie, clanking sounds; let’s not get carried away by the drama we see on television. In actuality, ghost towns are simply places that have been abandoned due to failure to thrive. Sometimes, the towns faced unfortunate circumstances which directly caused its demise, such as flooding, illness or war. Other times, the towns were abandoned due to depletion of natural resources, leading to economic failure. These lonesome towns are often associated with the Wild West, but they exist all over America. Abandoned settlements often leave behind tangible evidence; in some cases the buildings remain entirely intact. From the hollow halls of these structures, we can learn how life existed during certain periods of American history. Some towns are fortunate enough to get a second life and receive newer attention. Our government’s involvement in the restoration of these special landmarks helps to rekindle America’s passion in history.
One of the most famous is Bodie State Historic Park, California, situated about 75 miles from Lake Tahoe. Perhaps it’s best known because it remains one of the most well-preserved ghost town in America. It was a former gold-mining town and had one of the area’s most heavily populated “boozy” boomtowns, featuring over 60 saloons and dance halls. During its hey-day it was considered a lawless and wild place to live. The mine was purchased by the Standard Company in 1877. After 1881, mining diminished and many homes were abandoned. The town was threatened by fire in 1892, and a second one in 1932 which destroyed the business district. While many of the buildings are missing, others were left intact in a state of “arrested decay”. With shelves packed, a strong indication that its inhabitants were in a hurry to leave and took only what they could carry. Perhaps some anticipated a quick return. Today, visitors can stroll the deserted streets of town which once held a population of an estimated 10,000 people. Daily tours include a 50-minute walk through an original Stamp Mill. Learn how gold was extracted from quartz and made into bullion. Though the park is open all year, due to high elevation, winter months prove difficult for visits in the face of harsh and unpredictable weather. Mud can also be a problem in the spring, thus fall and summer are optimal times to visit. There are no food services at Bodie, so be sure to pack food and beverages.
Jerome State Park, Arizona, is a defunct mining region in the Sedona Verde Valley. It was once an active mining town which boomed to 15,000 people. Jerome is home of the Douglas Mansion, known as the Billion Dollar Copper Camp. The large dwelling was established in 1916 by a family of influential entrepreneurs and is a long-standing landmark of the area. The mansion sits upon a hill above Little Daisy Mine. It served as a residence and hotel for mining officials and rich investors. The 23-room structure is constructed of adobe bricks produced on site. The interior of the sprawling Mansion features a wine cellar and billiard room. Some original home furnishings exist, including a square grand piano and an oak pool table. Modern technology of the day was incorporated into the manor from its inception, rendering the building advanced for its time. Innovations included an early central vacuum system, steam heat and electricity. Nearby the mine was the Little Daisy Hotel, serving as a dorm residence for miners. Today, it has become a private residence. A visit to the old mansion will share the story of the Douglas family and provide interesting history of the mine. Copper was the mainstay of the region. In 1876, three prospectors staked claims on the copper deposits. They were bought out by the United Verde Copper Company in 1883, backed by Eugene Jerome. The company folded. A new owner brought in the railroad and reduced freight costs. By the early 20th century, it was a functioning copper mine and the largest producing one in the Arizona territory. The town contained churches, a school, civic buildings and an opera house. In 1912, James S. Douglas bought and developed the Little Daisy Mine. Production peaked in 1929, but was followed by the severe economic downturn of the Great Depression. The poor economy and low grade ore deposits were to blame for the closing of Little Daisy in 1938. Despite attempts to keep United Verde in operation, Jerome’s mining days came to a halt in 1953 and the town went bust. The mansion was donated by the Douglas family to the State of Arizona in 1962. Shortly after, Jerome opened as a state park in 1965. A museum was established to share mining artifacts, photographs, video presentations, and a 3-D model of the town featuring its underground mines, and more. Nearly 100,000 people visit the Douglas Mansion every year. Pack a lunch and enjoy panoramic views from the picnic area overlooking the river and valley, and enjoy canyon views. The park operates on a five-day schedule. Be sure to walk Jerome’s Main Street to observe shops and the old jail.
Pere Cheney, Michigan, was a Crawford County lumber town established in 1874. In contrast to Bodie and Jerome, not much remains of the town but some weather-worn headstones in a hard-to-find cemetery. There are also depressions from where buildings and houses stood, plus the foundation of the schoolhouse. The community was first established by lumberjacks who trailed the Jackson, Lansing and Saginaw Railroad north headed for Mackinaw City. The town was established around the saw mill of George M. Cheney about 1873, using a land grant from the Michigan Central Railroad company to establish a stop along the railroad. Activity was centered the saw mill industry, and the boom attracted carpenters, a doctor and a hotel with a telegraph service. The town had a station on the railroad, called the Cheney Depot. There was also a post office. Pere Cheney once boasted 1,500 residents, though possibly diphtheria of the 1890’s wiped out much of the population. Sadly, illness spread through the town not once but twice, and caused the demise of the community. By 1917, there were only 18 people left. Eventually, the land was sold and the town was declared a ghost town. There are stories that suggest that people from nearby towns tried to burn down the town to stop the disease from spreading, but proof has not been substantiated. This is one of many desolate “ghost towns” which remains more vivid in description and imagination, and is much less visitor-worthy.
Kennecott, Alaska was a town that once flourished in copper ore production between 1911 and 1938. When it tapped out, the town was unable to survive in its remote Alaskan location. Today it is an abandoned mining camp in the Valdez-Cordova Area, resting on lands once rich in copper mines. The town is located inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. It has been a National Historic Landmark District administered by the National Park Service since1986. The area first was visited by two prospectors in 1900, who discovered copper ore while grazing their horses. With the help of friends, they created the Chitina Mining and Exploration Company. Soon after, others arrived and an immense concentration of copper was discovered. Mines were developed and ore was removed using pack horses on a trail to Valdez. Political fights erupted over mining and the railroad while President Theodore Roosevelt was in office. Financing arrived from the Guggenheim and J.P. Morgan family, forming the Kennecott Copper Corporation in 1903. The mines were named for Robert Kennicott, naturalist and explorer, whose name was misspelled. Kennecott had five mines. Production peaked in 1916 when the mines produced copper ore valued at over $32 million. It was agreed that the highest grades of ore were depleted, which led to the closing of the mines. The final train departed Kennecott in 1938, and the town became a ghost town. The town remained nearly deserted until the mid-50s. In the late 1960s, a failed attempt was made to reprocess the scraps. A company with land rights wished to demolish the town to avoid liability for potential accidents. As a result, some buildings were destroyed. The job was incomplete and most of the town was left intact. Unfortunately, many artifacts were removed from the town. Today, Kennecott is a popular tourist activity, with tours of the mill available three times a day. The mill and town buildings are undergoing rehabilitation by the National Park Service, though some of the structures remain under private ownership. Guide groups lead visitors on tours of the mill and abandoned mines.
New Mexico has its share of abandoned towns, with an estimate of over 400 ghost towns. Shakespeare is described as the most authentic ghost town of the west. The town was built near a reliable spring in the arroyo, west of the town. The name of the town was changed throughout the years. It acquired the name Shakespeare in 1879, at the start of a second mining boom. Originally, the water source attracted Indians, Spaniards, Forty-Niners, and even the Army who used the area as a relay station between Fort Thorn on the Rio Grande and Fort Buchanan in Tucson. It also became an alternate stopping place for the San Antonio and San Diego mail line. The town, at some point in time, was renamed Grant. The civil war brought an influx of people to this “Mexican Spring”, some passing through on the way to Tucson and those in hopes of success in the gold fields of California. During this period, several buildings were built at Mexican Spring and the largest is known as the “old stone fort.” With the end of the Civil War, it became a stagecoach route. By 1870, rich silver ore was discovered in the surrounding hills and the area became a subject of interest by financiers. The lawless town was first named after William Ralston, President of the Bank of California. The town’s name was changed once again with the arrival of the Shakespeare Mining Company. In 1881, old west outlaws were lynched in town to remind folks that whoever committed a crime would pay. The town abandoned when the stock market collapsed, closing the mine in 1929. The Hill family purchased the town in buildings in 1935 to maintain the sites. It was declared a National Historic Site in 1970. A fire destroyed most of the records and artifacts the family had collected. Tours of the ghost town are available on select days. A two hour walking tour will take you down the streets of Billy the Kid, Curley Bill and other famous frontier outlaws. Walk a portion of the Butterfield Trail, take a guided tour of the interiors of seven buildings and learn stories of the Wild West.
If you’ve heard that Ghost Towns don’t exist on the east coast, that’s wrong. Take the Pennsylvania town of Centralia. Located in Columbia County in part of the Bloomsburg-Berwick metropolitan area, this town met its demise as a result of a mine fire burning beneath the borough since 1962. The population was estimated at 10 in 2010. All properties in buildings are condemned and remain properties claimed under eminent domain. The remaining residents of the town received cash payments and are permitted to live there until their deaths, after which their properties will be seized. The land was first claimed by Native Americans who sold their land to colonial agents. In the 1770s, the construction of the Reading Road was underway. Revolutionary War hero and signer of the Declaration of Independence, acquired a third of Centralia’s valley. When he declared bankruptcy, the property was taken by the Bank of the United States. A French sea captain then purchased the land because of anthracite coal in the region. In 1842, the land was bought by the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company. A mining engineer by the name of Alexander Rae moved with his family to the area and began planning a village. The town was called Centreville, but since another town of the same name existed, the name was changed to Centralia for purposes of the U.S. Post Office. The Mine Run Railroad was built in 1854 to transport coal and the first two mines opened shortly after. As the industry and mines grew, so did the town. It was incorporated in 1866. The town’s founder was murdered and incidents of arson and violence took place due to violence attributed to the Molly Maguires. By 1890, the town had a population of roughly 2,700, and boasted seven churches, five hotels, twenty-seven saloons, general and grocery stores, theatres, a bank and post office. Coal production declined due to World War I and later the stock market crash. Bootleg miners still continued to extract coal, which collapsed some of the mines. Later, this would hurt chances to seal off abandoned mines. In 1950 the Centralia Council acquired the rights for the coal beneath the town. Coal mining continued for another ten years, with the closing of most of the companies. Bootleg mining and strip and open-pit mining continued. By 1966, rail service ceased and the population was just over 1,000. Sadly, for the town, a small fire began in the mine in 1962. Some say it was triggered by members of the volunteer fire company while cleaning up the town landfill. Others believe that it began when trash haulers dumped hot ash or coal from burners into a trash pit. Another thought is that the fire began in 1932 and was simply never fully extinguished. Either way it was a terrible accident which led to the demise of the town. I recall driving through Centralia twenty eight ago, seeing cracks in the ground emitting smoke and steam. Some homes were boarded up and abandoned and roads were blocked with barriers. Congress allocated money for the residents to move, and most accepted buyouts. The fire extended under the town to Byrnesville, causing that town to also be abandoned. Today, few homes remain and the town is a ghost town due to danger from the ongoing fire and carbon monoxide. Perhaps the former residents will return in 2016 to open a time capsule which was buried aside the veteran’s memorial nearly 50 years ago.