Real "Ghost" Towns
Beware Of Outdated Travel Guides

The 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 for disappointment.

This 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.

Sleepy 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 check.

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 force.

Once adobe buildings lose their roofs, erosion quickly accelerates. This scene has most likely deteriorated significantly. (Leica M4, Kodachrome.)

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 hoot, too.

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.

These 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 entry fees.

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 editor.

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 driving.

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.