Abandoned but not forgotten, these once-bustling mining towns are relics from the wild side of U.S. expansion.
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Some small towns in the Western United States became more captivating when their residents left. We call them ghost towns. Even though some brave souls still live in these desolate towns, many are completely deserted, while others have been turned into tourist attractions.
Over the years we’ve explored many ghost towns, discovering their history or just enjoying the artistry of abandoned buildings. The ghost towns mentioned in this article are easily accessible, but remember: when the people disappear, so might the highway maintenance. Some of them lie at the end of gravel or dirt roads. That’s one reason we always travel with a towed vehicle behind our motorhome. We’ll give you fair warning, but if in doubt, check with the locals.
1. Goldfield, Arizona
Like many mining towns, Goldfield was established after the discovery of gold in 1892. The town quickly grew to 1,500 residents. As with many boomtowns, when the gold played out, the gold-seekers left. That would have been the end of it for Goldfield. But ghost town enthusiast Bob Schoose bought property near the old town and rebuilt it as a tourist attraction. The buildings may not be the original structures, but Goldfield lets you see what a small mining town was like in the late 1800s. It’s located northeast of Apache Junction, Arizona.
2. Oatman, Arizona
Oatman started as a small mining tent camp more than 100 years ago, but in 1915 two miners discovered a vein of gold worth more than $10 million. Word of the find led to an instant population boom. When the ore gave out, the city supplied travelers on historic Route 66. But that resource dried up in 1953 when Interstate 40 bypassed Oatman. Today people watch simulated gunfights on Main Street and hand-feed the wild burros that visit the town daily, descendants of animals turned loose by early miners. If you drive a large vehicle, enter from State Route 95, which runs between Needles and Bullhead City.
3. Jerome, Arizona
This historic copper mining town sits on Cleopatra Hill and is nicknamed “America’s Most Vertical City.” Yes, there are switchbacks going up to Jerome, but the last time we were there the road was good. The city had a population of 15,000 in the 1920s, but today Jerome is a small artist’s colony and tourist attraction. Many of the buildings date from the end of the 19th century.
4. Bodie, California
There is no question that Bodie is a “real” ghost town. Now a California State Historic Park, it is kept in a state of “arrested decay.” At its peak, Bodie was home to 10,000 people and 65 saloons, but now the town opens at 8:00 a.m. each day and closes before dark. More than 170 original buildings attract upward of 200,000 visitors each year. The last three miles of road to Bodie are dirt, so check on conditions before you go (760-647-6445). The town sits at 8,375 feet above sea level, so winter can play havoc with the road, but most of the time all that is required is to slow down.
5. Shasta, California
In the mid-1800s Shasta was the gateway to Northern California’s mines. Gold fever in 1849 swelled the population to 3,500, and the growing town was a major stopover for pack trains. However, in the 1880s, the Central Pacific Railroad chose to run its tracks through nearby Redding (six miles east) rather than Shasta, and the town began its descent to ghost-town status. Today the site is designated a California State Historic Park, and the long row of 1850-era brick buildings can be seen along State Route 299.
6. Calico, California
Silver drew people to the Calico Mountains, and the town of the same name, founded in 1881, grew to 1,200. As many as 500 silver mines once operated in the area. But when the price of silver dropped in the 1890s, the mines closed. In 1951 Walter Knott, founder of Knott’s Berry Farm, bought Calico and restored the town based on early photographs. Five of the buildings are original, but others were reconstructed on their original foundations. In 1966 Mr. Knott donated Calico to San Bernardino County as a regional park. It is easily accessible from Barstow, three miles away.
7. Bannack, Montana
More than 60 structures, many well preserved, remain in the ghost town of Bannack, now a Montana State Park. After the discovery of gold in 1862, this town became the first territorial capital of Montana. Today most of the buildings can be explored by visitors on guided or self-guided tours. Bannack State Park is 24 miles southwest of Dillon, Montana.
8. Elkhorn, Montana
At the end of an 11-mile gravel road off State Route 69 near Butte is Elkhorn State Park, the smallest state park in Montana. Only two of the town’s many buildings are publicly owned “” Fraternity Hall and Gillian Hall “” and both are excellent examples of frontier architecture. In the 1880s the town had a population of more than 2,500, but when silver prices dropped, the people moved away. During its height, 500 lumbermen and 1,500 mules provided fuel for power in the mines and heat for the homes.
9. Berlin, Nevada
Ghost towns are old, but this Nevada State Park has something older “” fossilized ichthyosaurs (fishlike reptiles from the late Cretaceous period). Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park was created in 1957 to protect what was then the largest discovery of ichthyosaur fossils in North America. But the area also included an extremely well-kept turn-of-the-century silver mining town named Berlin. The site contains 14 original buildings, considered the best preserved in the state. Well off the beaten path, the site is 23 miles from Gabbs, Nevada. All but the last several miles are paved, and that section is kept well graded.
10. Rhyolite, Nevada
After a gold strike in 1905, Rhyolite’s population rose from two people to 1,200 in just a couple weeks. It eventually reached 5,000. Like most boomtowns, the people left when the mines closed. The 1920 census listed 14 residents. In 1922, the Los Angeles Times found only one remaining resident, a 92-year-old man who died in 1924. Perhaps the most famous building in Rhyolite is the Bottle House, which was constructed in 1906 from 50,000 discarded beer and liquor bottles. Rhyolite is near Beatty, Nevada, just off U.S. 95 near Death Valley National Park.
11. Gold Point, Nevada
The town of Gold Point had many starts and stops “” along with many different names “” before gold was discovered there in 1927. The name was changed to reflect the new ore, and 2,000 people lived there. Some mining continued into the 1960s. About 50 buildings are still standing, but the town has fewer than 10 inhabitants today “” except on big holiday weekends. Gold Point is located on State Route 774, 14 miles southwest of the intersection of U.S. 95 and State Route 266.
12. Shakespeare, New Mexico
A visit to Shakespeare requires a bit of planning, since it is open only one weekend a month. (Several times each year it is open on additional weekends for special living history presentations and reenactments.) The town is privately owned and exists on a working cattle ranch. Why would you visit? Well, do you want to see where a young Billy the Kid had a job as a dishwasher at the Stratford Hotel? Or learn about where the Clanton family lived? (Billy Clanton was killed in Tombstone by Wyatt, Morgan, and Virgil Earp and Doc Holliday in the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral.) Check out the Shakespeare Web site (www.shakespeareghostown.com) for dates. Shakespeare is near Lordsburg in southwest New Mexico.
13. Grafton, Utah
Just outside of Zion National Park near Rockville is this ghost town, which was settled in 1859. The site has been used in several movies, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. It’s on our “someday” list, so check locally for detailed information “” one source says you enter town by crossing a historic, single-track iron bridge. The town was first settled in 1859, and its 1886 adobe schoolhouse has been called the most photographed historic structure in the United States.