proud old Cosmopolitan Hotel in Belmont, Nevada no longer
stands. The few current residents, regarding it as a precarious
danger to their kids and tourists, demolished it. (Leica
M4, Agfachrome CT 50.)
Photos © 1989, Dave Howard, All Rights Reserved
Most photographers are a
restless lot, constantly on the lookout for new subjects at which to
aim their cameras. Many a cold, winter evening is spent poring over
vacation brochures, trying to decide which enticing destination would
offer the greatest number of photographic opportunities. Once a general
area is tentatively selected, the next step is usually a trip to the
library or bookstore for more detailed travel guides. And, depending
on your photographic interests, this is where the trouble begins.
Those seeking mainly resorts for themselves, and amusement parks for
the kids, won't have any problems. However, camera subjects of
historical nature are a different matter. Again, if you're mostly
after well-known monuments and attractions such as colonial Williamsburg,
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, or Independence Hall, everything
but the weather will be predictable.
It's usually not very long, however, before evolving photographers
begin to tire of the endless postcard shots of famous places. They begin
to seek lesser known, out of the way haunts that haven't been
photographed to death. And if the destination is in the Western US,
ghost towns are likely to be high on their list. It's at this
point that misconceptions and misinformation can conspire to set a trap
building was reportedly a former post office in Bayhorse,
Idaho. Heavy snows and encroaching rock slides from the
steep canyon walls have taken their toll. (Leica M4, Kodachrome.)
Most people's, even Westerners'
idea of what a ghost town should look like is formed by what they've
seen portrayed in the movies and on television. The wonderful, extensive
groups of false-front buildings, which, except for a few broken windows
and a saloon door hanging askew, look like they were deserted the day
before yesterday. But unless you confine your travels to the few protected
sites or well preserved tourist traps, the first-time visitor to a genuine
ghost town is likely in for a letdown. Even with real gems such as Bodie,
California, I've met countless photographers who were stunned to
find themselves elbow to elbow with busloads of Chinese and German tourists.
The lonesome aura that they sought and expected to find no longer exists,
at least at any time the town is generally accessible.
But that can't be, you may be saying. You have several guidebooks
to Western ghost towns, all filled with apparently wonderful targets for
your cameras. Ah, yes, but all is not likely to be what it seems.
History books on an area containing obviously vintage photographs from
a century or more ago are no problem; you mentally take them for what
they are, with no expectations of finding the scenes depicted today.
remnants of a bygone era such as these are more in danger
these days from city folks relocating to rural areas, with
the subsequent development that follows. (Leica M4, Kodachrome.)
Guidebooks, many written with
photographers in mind, are perceived differently. A photographer reading
them, unless told by the author otherwise, expects to find the scenes
presented in the books essentially the same when they visit. Unfortunately,
a number of factors have stacked the deck against you. As examples, the
photos I've chosen to illustrate this article were taken between
1970 and 1975; few of them exist as photographed today, and that's
only 25-30 years ago. Many of the guidebook photos were taken long before
that, many in the 1940s and '50s, or even earlier.
So why won't most of these neat old buildings still be intact, just
basking in the sun, patiently awaiting your arrival? Time for a reality
First, let's consider the most obvious factor, weather. Most of
these towns were hastily constructed, to serve (fleece) miners on the
heels of a gold or silver strike. The proprietors weren't concerned
whether their edifices would still be standing 150 years down the road,
as the usual pattern was quick abandonment when the mines petered out.
Once vacated, Mother Nature promptly moved in. Many sites were at very
high altitudes, and crushing winter snows exacted a heavy toll. Others
were built in narrow canyons, constantly in danger of being washed away
by flash floods. Towns built beside rivers often suffered the same fate
as the rivers swelled in the spring. High winds were another unfriendly
adobe buildings lose their roofs, erosion quickly accelerates.
This scene has most likely deteriorated significantly. (Leica
Fire was a constant scourge.
Entire towns could burn to the ground, the flames quickly spreading from
buildings built jam-packed next to one another, and leaping on the wind
across the narrow streets.
Brick and stone buildings, often with heavy iron fire doors, were much
less susceptible to a fiery fate, but unreinforced construction made many
sudden victims to earthquakes.
So much for natural causes; now let's consider the contemporary
human influences. The worst modern factor is vandalism. Beyond the spray
painters and souvenir hunters are the pickup trucks full of drunken locals,
strapped for entertainment on a Saturday night, who consider it a roaring
good time to pull the "useless old dumps" down with chains
attached to their trucks. Failing that, a blazing bonfire is always a
Then there's the local taxing authority. Many abandoned mining and
lumber towns are still owned by present-day corporations. If the tax assessor
comes along and deems the old buildings habitable, the corporations get
a tax bill. When that happens, the decision is usually swift; bulldoze
the buildings, avoid the tax. When history goes head to head with profit,
it almost inevitably loses.
As city folks flee their concrete beehives in ever-increasing numbers,
relocating to rural locales, once worthless property (i.e. vintage architecture)
suddenly becomes a potential gold mine as a location for a new Mickey
Mart or strip mall. Even if the local townsfolk have enough sense of history
to preserve the historical buildings, proliferating trailers and modern
homes in close proximity compromise your photographic options.
rock walled ruins are a source of building material for
contemporary residents with little regard for history. (Leica
M4, Agfachrome CT50.)
A last consideration is access.
Of the dwindling survivors, many are now behind locked gates, off-limits
to casual visitors. In some cases it's because the people who still
live there don't want to be bothered by a rising tide of tourists.
In others, corporately owned sites are regarded as insurance liabilities
in our litigation-happy society. A few are accessible, but now charge
Some guidebooks have been hastily assembled from stock photos, by quick-buck
publishers wanting to cash in on the popularity of Western nostalgia.
They haven't a clue as to when the photos were taken, or if any
of it still exists; if they entice you to buy the book, they've
done their job. These books are easy to spot. The photos, being from many
different photographers, and shot with different format cameras, have
a non-cohesive look to them overall, lacking the consistency of a book
done by one photographer. There's also usually no author, just an
But even otherwise good guidebooks, done by conscientious authors, can't
guarantee a site's current status. Unless the book deals with a
fairly small swath of geography, it will have taken the author/photographer
several years to accumulate the photos. Though he or she may have the
best of intentions, in all fairness, they have no way of knowing if a
site was bulldozed or burnt down the day after their last visit.
So how do you stand a chance of knowing if your eagerly anticipated ghost
town tour will be boom or bust? Do your homework. First, check a book's
copyright date. It's no guarantee as to the vintage of the illustrations,
but the difference between it and the current date needs to be factored
into your odds. Check the photo captions; some may provide the date taken.
If not, check the back of the book for a list of photos; if provided,
the dates will often be given.
Make a list of sites that you feel the success or failure of your trip
depends upon. Then call the Chamber of Commerce (your Information operator
can connect you) of the nearest viable small town to a particular site.
Forget big cities; unless it's a tourist trap, they usually aren't
aware of sites 50 miles away. Most towns of 500 or more have a Chamber
of Commerce of some sort. It may be staffed only part-time and by volunteers,
but you'll raise them eventually. These are the folks most likely
to know the current conditions of local sites. Ask if there's a
local historical society; if there is, they'll be intimately familiar
with any old townsites in their area, and will be happy to talk at length
about them. This can add extra substance and meaning to your photos. And
don't forget to inquire about road conditions; the wagons that originally
traveled those roads had a lot more ground clearance than what you're
So don't be discouraged, just be informed. The pickings aren't
what they used to be, but good ghost town photo opportunities do still
exist. Don't get too excited over anything you see in a guidebook
until you talk to someone in the vicinity. But once you run your subject
to the ground, load up your cameras and head on out.