Ten of the Best Old West Ghost Towns
History frozen in amber - literally hundreds of ghost towns that stretch from the Rockies to the California desert furnish fascinating glimpses into the colorful past of the American west.
While most of these abandoned places have mining in their background, each has it own unique geneology made up of gamblers, gunslingers, legendary lawmen and robber barons.
10. Berlin, Nevada - Established in 1897, Berlin never was the boom town some of its neighbors were. At its peak, Berlin’s population numbered only about 300. It declined rapidly following a bank panic in 1907 when the stock market a thousand miles away lost some 50 per cent of its value and by 1911 it was basically abandoned. Operated by the Nevada Company as a wholly owned community, even as a ghost town it remained remarkably well preserved until it was acquired by the state of Nevada in 1970. It’s now part of the Berlin Historic District and includes the mine supervisors' quarters, assay office, machine shop, boarding house and museum.
9. Rhyolite, Nevada - A name today associated with the the canyons of Wall Street rather than the desert
Southwest has close ties to this turn-of-the-century boom town. After gold was discovered on the eastern edge of Death Valley in 1905, industrialist Charles M. Schwaub purchased the Montgomery Shoshone Mine the following year. By 1908 the population had surged to as many as 5,000 citizens and the town had electric lights, telephones, several newspapers, a hospital, opera house and perhaps foreshadowing things to come, a stock exchange. The mine closed in 1910 after investors learned their stock might well have been seriously overvalued. By 1911, the population had fallen to less than 1,000.
Much of Rhyolite was moved to nearby Beatty but several well preserved buldings include an unusual house made of glass bottles and the railway depot. But perhaps the most unusual feature of this ghost town is the Goldwell Open Air Musuem which features a number of larger than life “shroud” sculptures created by Belgian artist Albert Szukalski beginning in 1984. Originally located near Rhyolite’s train depot, they were later moved to a sculpture park south of Rhyolite. The Red Barn Art Studio there hosts a number of programs and an artist-in-residence.
8. St. Elmo, Colorado - Founded first as Forest City in 1889 in the heart of the Sawatch Range, 2,000 miners, merchants and misfits populated its five hotels, saloons, bordellos and dance halls. There was a more civic side, however. St. Elmo also had a school, a large general store, telegraph office and newspaper.
In all, some 150 mine claims pocked the area. The nearby Mary Murphy Mine recovered some $60 million in gold before it closed in 1922.
While St. Elmo is listed as a ghost town, it’s still inhabited. Tourists can access jeep and four-wheeler trails along the old mining road and the general store is open in the summer. Locals say anglers can also find great fishing along the nearby Chalk Creek.
7. Virginia City, Montana - Inadvertantly named by Connecticut judge G.G. Bissell in 1863, this boom town was actually supposed to honor the First Lady of the Confederacy, Varina Howell Davis. The judge, in registering the townsite, instead registered the name as Virginia City, considering Varina highly unsuitable at the height of the Civil War.
The town’s founding was equally inadvertant. Three prospectors retreating from a band of Crow Indians accidentally struck gold. Within weeks Virginia City had a population of thousands and the ensuing lawlessness sparked the formation of the infamous Montana Vigilantes. At its peak, Virginia City was estimated to have a population of more than 10,000 and quickly became the territorial capital of Montana in 1865. Its meoteoric rise was short lived. By then much of the gold had tailed out and most of Virginia City’s residents headed for Helena.
Today, some 150 year-round residents are stewards of Virginia City’s more than 100 historic buildings and host the site's many tourists.
6. Calico, California - Some 500 mines in the Calico area made this the largest silver strike in California’s history. From 1881 to the early 1890s, Calico produced more than $20 million in silver ore. But the boom moved out of town when silver lost much of its value by the mid-1890s. The townsite was purchased by Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm fame in the 1950s. Knott restored all but five of the town’s original buildings. His efforts later won Calico the official designation as the state’s official “Silver Rush Ghost Town," bestowed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005.
The town site is now part of the San Bernadino County Regional Parks and features shops, restaurants, camping, recreation and other amenities which serves much of the park system.
5. Bannack, Montana - Founded in 1862 Bannack enjoyed the briefest of moments as the territorial capital in 1864 before it was superceded by the burgeoning Virginia City. As large as Virginia City with as many as 10,000 residents, its remote location accessible only by the Montanta Trail, proved daunting.
Bannack’s sheriff, Henry Plummer, may have also be a deterent. Plummer was accused of overseeing a gang of bandits who ruthlessly robbed and murdered as many as 100 miners in the gold fields. Only a handful of those murders were ever documented but Plummer and two of his deputies were hanged without benefit of counsel in 1864. Virginia City’s equally ruthless Montana Vigilanties hanged another 22 of Plummer’s associates after the most casual of legal proceedings.
Today, some 60 reasonably well preserved log structures still stand in Bannack, many safe enough to be explored. That old problem of remoteness has prevented Bannack from achieving great popularity with tourists but it remains a favorite with locals and serious historians.
4. Jerome, Arizona It wasn’t silver or gold that founded fortunes in Jerome, but copper. Established in 1883, it was once the state’s fifth largest city with a popuation of more than 15,000. The economic engine behind Jerome was the United Verde Copper Company founded by two New Yorkers and the governor of Arizona.
The last of the copper mines closed in 1950, closing out a mining tradition dating back 1,000 years when the Tuzagoot Indians took copper from the hills. Facing inevitable extinction, the handful of residents that remained formed the Jerome Historic Society and proclaimed it to be the world’s largest ghost town. The self-promotion worked. Today, a variety of small shops and historic ruins sit side by side along Jerome’s main street and Jerome’s historic houses are still inhabited.
3. Belmont, Nevada - Described by visitors as “close to nothing," Belmont is on the eastern side of the Toquima Mountains. Belmont boomed following a silver strike in 1865. Its stunning but remote location may account for its well preserved condition. Most of its buildings still stand, having escaped pilferers and souvenier hunters. The ghost town’s crown jewel, the historic Belmont Courthouse, is part of the Belmont Courthouse State Historic Park. When the mines played out in the early 1890s, most Belmont residents left town. The final blow came in 1905 when the county seat was moved to Tonopah.
If you visit, fill the tank, bring your own water and pack a lunch. Most modern services are located 45 to 100 miles away.
2. Tombstone, Arizona - Perhaps the “Disneyland” of ghost towns, Tombstone enjoys a special place in Americana. Made famous by a cast of characters the likes of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the Clanton gang, their historic shoot-out at 3 p.m. Oct. 26, 1881 is estimated to have lasted only 30 seconds, and catapulted Tombstone into legend.
Lone wolf prospector Ed Schieffelin was the town’s sole founder. Headquarting out of the U.S. Army’s Camp Huachuca (pronounced Wa chu ka), his forays into the wilderness earned him stern warnings from the soldiers that the only rock he’d find was his tombstone. Instead he found silver, sparking a boom that made Tombstone the fastest growing city between St. Louis and San Francisco. It was soon home to a population of 20,000 miners, outlaws, ladies of the evening and a diverse group of immigrants. Toumbstone boasted the famous Bird Cage theatre, more than 100 saloons, a sizeable red light district as well as churches, schools, newspapers and one of Arizona’s first public swimming pools.
Schieffelin Hall, built by Ed’s brother, Al in 1881 is the largest standing adobe structure in the Southwest.
Today modern Tombstone welcomes thousands of visitors with a wide array of shops, restaurants, re-enactments and services.
1. Bodie, California - While Tombstone may be more widely known in the popular culture, Bodie owns the title of “most authentic ghost town.” It was quickly transformed from a handful of residents to a city of 10,000 in 1875 when a mine cave-in revealed a mother lode of gold.
Named for Waterman S. Body, a.k.a. William Bodey, who found the first few flakes of gold nearby Mono Lake, the town faltered as the mines failed. Just a small portion of the once thriving community remains. What it lacks in quantity, Bodie makes up in authenticity. Interiors appear just as they were left more than half a century ago with store shelves still stocked for business, whisky bottles still on the table in the saloon and the old rocking chair still sitting unoccupied but waiting in the corner of the kitchen.
To preserve this spirit of history, no commercial services are available in Bodie with the exception of a bookstore, a museum and flush plumbing located in the visitor parking lot. As part of the Bodie State Historic Park, everything at the site is protected and cannot be removed or collected.
The park is open year round but due to its elevation at 8,375 feet, it is accessible in winter only by snow mobile, skies or snowshoes. For safety, the Park Service advises visiting during summer months.