Ghost Towns

Bodie, California

As Halloween approaches, what better to talk about than ghost towns as a basis for outdoor recreation and our exploratory adventures.  There are ghost towns across the USA and around the world, but choose carefully.  For example, I don’t recommend exploring Pripyat, Ukraine, a city that became a ghost town after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.  Instead locate and explore one of the many ghost towns that had a less dangerous end.

Planning a Ghost Town Adventure

The best starting point for a ghost town adventure that I have found is GhostTowns.com.  The site has a directory of hundreds of ghost towns across the U.S. and Canada.  Simply choose your state or province to get a list of links.  Follow the links of your choice to learn more about each ghost town.  In most cases these really are ghost towns,  but some listed towns have many historic buildings yet are still very much alive.  You’ll need to research a few to find a ghost town that matches your brand of adventure.  While a great list, it is not comprehensive.  There may be more ghost towns in your area that GhostTowns.com doesn’t know about.  Your local historical society or museum can probably help you find more ghost towns and help you get more information about those you may want to explore.  Your local travel promotion agency may also have helpful information.  The two key pieces of information are the name of the town and its location.

Once you have a name for a ghost town you want to visit, try a Google Search to see if there is some information on the web about it.  If so, great; if not, don’t despair.  The lack of information just makes your adventure more adventurous.  The next step is finding the ghost town.  For that you will need a map.

The U.S. Geological Survey has made getting maps free, unfortunately it is not so simple.  Hop on over to the USGS Map Store and find the map that applies, based upon what you know so far about the location of your favorite town.  Here’s how to use the USGS Map Store:

  1. Go to USGS Map Store
  2. In the left side column at the top click “Map Locator & Downloader”
  3. Zoom to the approximate location of your ghost town by dragging the map around with your mouse and zooming in with the + button or by double-clicking.
  4. Bannack, Montana

    Bannack, Montana

    Notice that to the right side of the map are two buttons one indicating “Navigate” and the other indicating “Mark Points.”  Dragging the map and zooming is navigating and if that is working for you, the “Navigate” button must be active.  Once you have navigated to as close to your point of interest as you can, click the “Mark Points” button.  Now you are in a mode that will tell you what maps are available.

  5. Click on the map to set a marker as close to your ghost town as you can.
  6. Click on the marker you just set to see a list of available maps.  The list I’m looking at now has several maps dating back to 1960.  I have found that the newest maps don’t show the section lines that I like to see, so I usually choose the second newest map for navigation purposes.  You will probably also want to get the oldest map for historical purposes.
  7. Download the maps you want by clicking on the link in the “Download” column of the pop-up window.  The link will look something like “13.15MB” with the size of the download for your particular map.
  8. The maps are in PDF format so open them in Acrobat Reader and check to be sure they cover the correct area you want to explore.
  9. Next to the words “Map Locator & Downloader,” near the top of the page, you will see a link to “TopoView website“.  Go there.
  10. Choose the “Get Maps” menu item at the top.
  11. Choose “Show All” in the map scale box in the right side column.
  12. Zoom into the map just about like you did in step 3.
  13. When you are in the neighborhood of the area you want, take a look at the slider at the top of the page.  It will list a range of dates for maps that cover that area.  Move the circle on the right side toward the left using your cursor.  This will get you information about older maps.  In my experiment,  I set the ball to the date ranges from 1880 to 1917.
  14. Click on the map to see a pop-up about the available maps.  In my case I see a 1921 edition of an 1894 map at 1:250,000 scale.  Click on the file format you want to download:
    • JPEG – this will work for most people and should open up nicely in your web browser.
    • KMZ – this is a Google Earth placemark file.  After you save it, you can open it with Google Earth and the map will lay on top of the satellite photography normally seen in Google Earth.  This is handy if you use a GPS device because you can place your cursor over the ghost town to get the GPS coordinates for it.
    • GEOPDF – this is a PDF version of the map and may automatically open in Acrobat Reader.  If it doesn’t open automatically open it with Acrobat Reader.
    • GEOTIF – this is a tag image file format.  It is not compressed and should have better quality than the JPEG version.  You will probably need Photoshop or a similar program to open it.

    When downloading these files, be sure you know where they are being stored on your computer. How to do that varies depending upon the operating system (Windows version, Mac etc) you are using.  Note also that the popup window that shows the available file formats has an icon at the top that looks like a monitor.  Click it to see a list of all the old maps available for your area.  Then click the one you want and finally click the download format you want.

If you are lucky,  your old map may show your ghost town on it.  With the old map and your current map, you should be able to navigate to what remains of the town.

Some Ghost Towns

When I think of a ghost town, I think of an old western boom town that’s been decaying since the inhabitants left.  There are still some of these ghost towns being preserved at some level of decay as state or regional parks.  Here are a few:

 

Bodie, California

Bodie. California

Bodie, California
The old ore grinding mill.

Bodie State Historic Park offers visitors a glimpse of an old mining town similar to Bannack.  Only a small part of the town remains and the building interiors are the way they were left and preserved in a state of “arrested decay.” According to the state park website: “Today this once thriving mining camp is visited by tourists, howling winds and an occasional ghost.”  It is located northeast of Yosemite National Park.

 

Bannack, Montana

Bannack is located south of Dillon, Montana.  It was founded in 1862 at the site of a major gold discovery.  It was the capital of Montana Territory briefly in 1864, until the capital was moved to Virginia City. Bannack continued as a mining town, though with a dwindling population. The last residents left in the 1970s.  The town is now Bannack State Park where you can freely explore and enjoy a number of activities.

 

Calico, California

Calico, California

Calico, California

Located near present day Yermo and Barstow, California, (San Bernardino County) this 1881 silver mining town is preserved as the Calico Ghost Town Regional Park.  Many of the buildings have been reconstructed, but some original buildings remain.  The park operates mine tours, gunfight stunt shows, gold panning, several restaurants, the historic, 2 ft 6 in (762 mm) narrow gauge Calico & Odessa Railroad, and a number of trinket stores. Overnight camping is available and special events are held throughout the year.

 

Berlin, Nevada

Berlin, Nevada

Berlin, Nevada

Berlin was a silver mining town established in 1897 after the opening of the Berlin Mine in 1896.  The town declined following the Panic of 1907 and was abandoned by 1911. The site was acquired by the state of Nevada as part of Berlin–Ichthyosaur State Park in 1970.   Most people travel to this area to see the Ichthyosaur fossils (see my Fossil Hunting post for more about this style of adventure), but the ghost town is another important attraction.  During its heyday, Berlin supported 200-250 people including miners, woodcutters, charcoal makers, a doctor and nurse, a forest ranger and a prostitute. Many of the original buildings still remain, and some of the original residents are interred in the town’s cemetery.

 

Conclusion

Whether it’s Halloween or not,  ghost towns make an interesting object for historical exploration.  They provide an increasingly rare glimpse of history as the original inhabitants experienced it.   Sometimes the remains are minimal and a creative imagination is needed to recreate what life might have been like.  Other times major efforts have been made to preserve these old towns in a state of suspended animation so that interpretation is much easier.  Either way,  ghost towns offer a great excuse to get outdoors and explore.

Photo Credits

  • Header photo (Bodie, CA) by Francesco Orfei [Public domain]
  • Bannack photo by Marc Averette [Public domain]
  • Bodie photo by Staff Sgt. Lance Cheung, U.S. Air Force [Public Domain]
  • Calico photo by Niceley [CC BY-SA 3.0]
  • Berlin photo by Snowfalcon [Public Domain]

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