America's Coolest Ghost Towns
<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/dwdavidson/3693182176/" class="external" rel="nofollow">D. W. Davidson</a>
Old mines, abandoned buildings, and the occasional curse: ghost towns cover the United States, and they make for a fun detour.
Some ghost towns are protected
by parks departments. But Bodie, CA, protects itself—with a curse.
For years, visitors to this ghost town have learned that bad
luck will befall anyone who makes off with an artifact—a curse that is lifted
only when the piece of contraband is returned. Sure enough, park ranger Mark
Langner says that a couple times a month, he gets something in the mail—“an old
nail or a piece of glass, with an anonymous letter apologizing—they know
they’ve done something wrong.” Curse or no curse, he says, “karma is karma.”
And yet, people still can’t resist slipping off with a piece
of history. It’s understandable. Abandoned towns exist all over the world, but
there’s something uniquely American, even romantic, about ghost towns. Perhaps
it’s because so many sprang up in the 19th-century Old West, when a
rush to find gold and other minerals created an old-style economic bubble. When
the money or luck ran out, so did the residents, often leaving behind empty
houses, saloons, and brothels.
Of course, gold (or lack thereof) isn’t the only reason
towns have failed. “There are as many reasons for towns dying as there are
towns,” says Gary Speck, a ghost town expert and author of books including Ghost
Towns: Yesterday and Today. “Some towns were bypassed when highways were
built or, in one-economy towns, when production decreased, like in logging
camps. If the need for the town was gone, the town went bye-bye—unless it could
He adds that while plenty of failed towns just got paved
over by modern suburbs, finding the physical remains of little cities long gone
makes for fascinating travel.
When we looked for the most interesting ghost towns around
the U.S., we found various states of preservation and decay. In Virginia City, MT,
remaining buildings have been rehabbed to create festive tourist towns. Bodie,
meanwhile, is kept in a state of “arrested decay”—basically, the same condition
it was in when it became a historic landmark in 1962. “We’ll do repairs as
needed—replace a roof or fix a window—using the right materials from the time,”
says Langner. “If you do too much, it looks fake, but if you do too little, it
become a pile of sticks.”
Some ghost towns have found unique second lives. Terlingua, TX,
got its start as a thriving mercury-mining town during the early 1900s, but
today, it’s the lightly populated home of a famed chili cook-off.
Such an event might seem all the more poignant in a place
where prosperity never took hold—and may be one reason people romanticize these
Or perhaps they just like looking at old stuff. Bodie still
has some stocked stores, and visitors remark on seeing products their parents
or grandparents used to have. “People yearn for simpler times,” says Langner.
“And sometimes they’re just blown away that they’re somewhere that doesn’t get