“Ghost town” is a nebulous term generally used to describe a census-designated place where residents have packed their bags and gotten the heck out, either en masse or gradually over time, for one reason or another: natural and manmade disasters, political unrest, economic blight.
Most of us think of ghost towns as dusty, deserted mining outposts scattered across the American West — formerly lively, lawless frontier boomtowns with whiskey-slinging saloons, one-room jailhouses and rickety wooden boardwalks. We think of the classic ghost town, hoary clichés and all.
Today, hordes of visitors flock to the remains of these mining camps that have long gone bust. Each is unique. A majority of them consist of nothing more than a few crumbling buildings in the middle of nowhere. Many are state-owned attractions that focus on historic preservation; others are quasi-theme parks with staged gunfights and trinket shops. And, yes, a few of these forsaken towns are home to dearly departed residents who refuse to leave even though the living opted to decamp decades earlier.
With an eye toward preserving the past, we’ve rounded up nearly a dozen of America’s most haunting, most authentic and most photogenic Old West mining outposts. So queue up your favorite Ennio Morricone soundtrack, grab a cold bottle of sarsaparilla, and join us for a virtual ghost town tour.
Considering hundreds upon hundreds of late 19th-century ghost towns still stand across the West, we may not mention your favorite. If so, tell us about it in the comments section.
A bustling mining camp in the 1870s, Animas Forks, Colorado, was abandoned in the 1920s. (Photo: Adam Baker/Flickr)
Animas Forks, Colorado
High in the Colorado Rockies (elevation 11,200 feet) about 12 miles northeast of the mining outpost turned tourism machine known as Silverton, Animas Forks is a ghost town for ghost town purists. It’s remote, it’s somewhat hard to reach, it’s well-preserved (but not in a kitschy, Knott’s Berry Farm kind of way), and it has been abandoned for a long time — since the early 1920s, to be exact.
The story of Animas Forks is similar to other Western boomtowns: Prospectors set up shop in the 1870s and in the next years the mining camp’s population rapidly swelled, as did amenities. At one point, Animas Forks was the bustling home to saloons, assay offices, stores, boarding houses, a mill and several hundred residents who decamped each winter for less frigid Silverton and returned each spring. Fifty years later, it was all gone.
Today, under the stewardship of the Bureau of Land Management, Animas Fork is just one of many spectacular sights — waterfalls, mountain meadows, bighorn sheep — along the Alpine Loop, an unpaved, 65-mile backcountry byway much of which must be traversed in a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Considered one of the best-preserved ghost towns in Montana, the gold rush boomtown of Bannack is popular with hikers, living history enthusiasts and paranormal researchers. Yep, a ghost town believed to be swarming with ghosts.
Established in 1862 along Grasshopper Creek, Bannack, now a state park listed as a National Historic Landmark, struggled with its fair share of chaos, corruption and cold-blooded murder. Unbeknown to the denizens of Bannack, town Sheriff Henry Plummer was also a hardened criminal (guess they didn’t check his references). With the assistance of a ruthless gang of highwaymen, Plummer orchestrated hundreds of robberies and murders across his territory. Vigilantes quickly figured out why the sheriff wasn’t able to detain the marauding bandits, and he was captured and lynched along with his henchmen.
Plummer and his cronies, however, are thought to be still kicking around town. A favorite haunt is said to be Skinner’s Saloon where, coincidentally, Plummer was hanged from the gallows out back. Next door to the saloon, the Hotel Meade is another of Bannack’s “active” buildings (cold spots, weird vibes, the sounds of crying children, etc.). The apparition of a young drowning victim, Dorothy Dunn, has been spotted there on numerous occasions over the years.
Situated in the eastern Sierras at an elevation of more than 8,000 feet, the long abandoned boomtown of Bodie was almost California’s official state ghost town. However, boosters of another ghost town, Calico, protested a 2002 bill that would have given all the glory to Bodie.
Calling Bodie “the real deal,” the bill’s author, Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R- Tahoe City), went on to refer to Calico as a “shooting gallery and snow cone ghost town experience.” Ouch. In 2005, both Bodie and Calico were named state ghost towns: Calico as the official state silver rush ghost town and Bodie as the official state gold rush ghost town. Everyone wins!
So what makes Bodie so special? Nothing — and that’s the point. Bodie doesn’t really have to try. It just is. While Calico built itself up as a living history tourist attraction, Bodie went the opposite direction. It went nowhere.
The town, a state historical park administered by a nonprofit preservation foundation, gets by on its own decrepitude and disintegration — a state of “arrested decay.” Everything in the 100 or so remaining buildings stays unaltered, untouched (visitors are asked to refrain from taking any “souvenirs” with them). It’s an eerie, unnerving and extremely photogenic place that, appropriately, is accessed by traveling down a bumpy dirt road.
It’s also a place that was once quite the big deal. Rowdy, violent and bursting at the seams at its peak in the early 1880s, Bodie was a stereotypical Old West town, complete with a red light district, a Chinatown, a saloon on every corner and a population of nearly 10,000.
But in true boomtown fashion, Bodie entered a prolonged period of economic decline and never rebounded (a couple of major fires didn’t help). By the 1920s, the population hovered around 100; in 1942, the post office closed and Bodie was abandoned. Today, the town’s only full-time residents are park rangers who will gladly take you on a guided tour of their home — a genuine California ghost town.
The town of Calico, California, has replica buildings along with restored original structures. (Photo: Artur Staszewski/Flickr)
If you’ve ever stepped foot in Calico, a restored 1881 silver mining outpost in the Mojave Desert, and found it uncannily resembling a theme park — more Anaheim than “The Hills Have Eyes” — there’s good reason for that.
The town was purchased in its entirely in the 1950s by Walter Knott, who began building a replica ghost town at his family berry farm in Orange County, California, a decade earlier. The Old West themed roadside attraction, just down the highway from a 160 acre orange grove that would later become Disneyland, eventually blossomed into a full-fledged amusement park known as Knott’s Berry Farm.
Despite its slightly Hollywood backlot vibe, Calico is an entirely different creature from Knott’s Berry Farm and operates as a San Bernardino County park. Many of the mine camp’s original adobe and wood structures — carefully restored by Knott before he donated the town to the county — still stand, including two saloons, a mercantile and the post office. Other buildings are “authentic-looking” additions built to replace beyond-repair structures.
That being said, although Calico is a California Historical Landmark, those seeking a more authentic California ghost town experience (read: no pottery shops and saloons that serve pizza by the slice) may prefer Bodie in Mono County.
Daily admission to Calico Ghost Town is $8 for adults. This doesn’t include the myriad activities in the park: gold panning, excursions on a vintage narrow-gauge railway, horseback rides and tours of the Silver King Mine. Pro tip: Refrain from eating a buffalo cheeseburger immediately before descending into the mine. You’ll thank us later.
With populations rarely topping a couple hundred, most gold rush settlements went bust before they could truly get big. The town of Rhyolite, on the fringe of Death Valley National Park in Nevada’s Bullfrog Hills, is a notable exception. As many as 5,000 people, most working in the nearby Montgomery Shoshone Mine, resided in the now-forsaken town during its peak around 1907 to 1908.
Aside from a relatively significant population, Rhyolite is also exceptional for the speed with which the bustling community (heck, it even had an opera house) went belly up. In 1911, only seven years after the town was established, the mine closed after a period of slow decline. The post office was shuttered a couple of years later; electricity was terminated a couple of years after that. By 1920, the population hovered near zero. Many of Rhyolite’s buildings were razed and any salvageable materials were used to construct structures in other towns. Some buildings were completely relocated.
But Rhyolite never really died per se. In the 1920s, the abandoned burg transitioned into a hotspot for movie productions; the town site is frequently used as a filming location to this day. Although modern day Rhyolite, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, mainly consists of crumbling ruins, a few mostly intact structures still stand, including Tom Kelly’s Bottle House, the train station and a mercantile. Despite its remote desert locale, Rhyolite is hard to miss: Just keep an eye for this guy.
Say what you will about Arizona, but the Grand Canyon State boasts remarkable variety in the ghost town department. You’ve got kitschy rebuilt frontier towns where you can watch a gunfight re-enactment, buy homemade fudge and bribe the kids into dressing up for old-timey photos (Goldfield); creepy-cool mining outposts turned artist enclaves that were forsaken and then repopulated with an emphasis on digging for tourist dollars instead of minerals (Jerome); and really out-of-the-way ghost towns where you’d be hard pressed to find a trinket shop peddling turquoise jewelry, let along a single permanent resident.
Regarded as one of the best preserved ghost towns in Arizona, the once bustling mining camp of Ruby falls under that last category. About 70 miles southeast of Tucson near the Mexican border in the Coronado National Forest, Ruby was the site of a string of bloody double homicides in the early 1920s. After several decades of prosperity, the town ceased to exist in 1941. Ruby was fenced off by private owners after its abandonment and made inaccessible to the public. In the late 1960s, it was colonized by hippies.
These days, the town is managed by the nonprofit Ruby Mines Restoration Project and can be explored during established visiting hours (subject to an entry fee). Still-standing buildings include a jailhouse and a school. Getting to Ruby isn’t exactly a leisurely drive; border patrol activity and a massive colony of Mexican free-tailed bats keep many more skittish visitors at bay. But for ghost town aficionados, historic preservation buffs and adventurous Instagrammers, Ruby is well worth the detour.
St. Elmo, Colorado
Down a lonely gravel road deep in Colorado’s Sawatch Range, historic St. Elmo is regarded as one of the Centennial State’s best-preserved gold rush ghost towns. Although some might complain that the town isn’t totally abandoned (which is true) and is just a touch too similar to a film set (“If you want to see a ghost town that looks like it's in miniature but isn’t or looks like an antique doll house but isn’t, go to St. Elmo,” writes Ghosttowns.com.), there’s no denying the town’s ramshackle charms.
Founded in 1880 as Forest City, St. Elmo began to fizzle in the early 1920s. Area old-timers like to say that when the train made its last stop in 1922, most of the remaining population of the once prosperous mining outpost hopped aboard and never looked back. Mail service was terminated in the early 1950s because, well, the postmaster died. In 1958, St. Elmo’s last batty straggler, Annabelle “Dirty Annie” Stark, was sent to live in a nursing home.
Today, a few businesses remain in the area, including a general store that sells snacks and assorted bric-a-brac to tourists and ATV enthusiasts. Dirty Annie is still spotted lurking around on occasion, too. And then there’s the matter of chipmunks. Before hitting up St. Elmo, visitors must stock up on sunflower seeds and prepare to distribute them liberally. That is, unless they want to incur the wrath of a small army of adorable striped rodents accustomed to being hand-fed and scampering up the arms of humans. St. Elmo: “Come for the old buildings; stay for the frisky wildlife.”
South Pass City, Wyoming
A popular pit stop for hikers to take an, um, “lode” off along the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, South Pass City is one of Wyoming’s most highly trafficked Old West ghost towns. The community’s historic core, South Pass City State Historic Site, is presented with a careful balance of “let it be” authenticity (abandoned buildings aplenty) and hokey frontier-themed family fun (panning for gold). Like any decent ghost town, South Pass City is miles from civilization down a lonely dirt road.
Founded in 1867 during a major gold rush at the nearby Carissa mine, South Pass City followed the classic 19th century boomtown trajectory. It blew up quickly, fizzled hard and then experienced a series of minor booms in the next years, none big enough to restore the town to its former glory. Still, a small population remained. By the late 1940s, the most dogged old-timers had decided to throw in their proverbial towels, pack their bags and leave for somewhere new — somewhere the weather was less harsh and the drinking less hard.
Despite its tiny size and transitory nature, South Pass City did manage to play a significant role in American history. In 1869, William H. Bright, a saloon owner who represented South Pass City in Wyoming’s first territorial legislature, introduced a women’s suffrage clause to the territorial constitution. Later that year, Wyoming became the first U.S. territory to recognize a woman’s right to vote when the territorial governor approved the constitution.
In 1870, one of the town’s new arrivals, Esther Hobart Morris, was appointed justice of the peace in the small and rowdy mining outpost, making her the first woman to hold political office in the U.S., much to the chagrin of her frequently drunk and disorderly husband. Morris’ predecessor had resigned in outrage after the passage of the suffrage bill the year before.
Courtland, Gleeson and Pearce, Arizona
Sure, you’d be hard-pressed to locate a pulse during a couple of key periods in Tombstone, Arizona’s colorful 135-year history. Today, however, the vital signs of America’s most notorious mining outpost (aka, “The Town Too Tough to Die”) are decidedly healthy. Just ask the roughly 1,500 happy folks who call it home.
Just a quick drive outside the tourist-clogged town, however, are three real-deal abandoned boomtowns that weren’t blessed with the same luck as their well-preserved, whiskey-soaked neighbor. Leaving the ice cream parlors and old-timey photo joints of Tombstone behind, travel along a dirt road that winds through the southeast Arizona desert until you come across the crumbling remnants and handful of restored historic structures belonging the 19th century mining settlements of Courtland, Pearce and Gleeson.
Each of the three pit stops that constitute the Arizona Ghost Town Trail vary in degrees of ghost town. Courtland is the most desolate and dilapidated; the other two towns are slightly more welcoming. Gleeson has an Instragram-perfect refurbished jail and Pearce is home to a general store and church that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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