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Travel Tuesdays, May 4, 2021 - "I Ain't Afraid of No Ghost"
A while back, my friend suggested that I should write about ghost towns. He had lived in Colorado, where abandoned mining towns dot the landscape, and had fond memories of exploring the western landscape. I politely accepted the suggestion and tucked it away. He may have had places like Bodie, California in mind.
Bodie Historic State Park, California
daveynin from United States, CC BY 2.0
The history of this well-preserved State Historic Park, near the border with Nevada, reflects a familiar trajectory: the late-nineteenth-century mining town that expanded rapidly, declined as the ore ran short, and was thereafter abandoned. According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation which manages the property, Bodie “is a genuine California gold-mining ghost town. Visitors can walk down the deserted streets of a town that once had a population of nearly 10,000 people.” Travelers do, indeed, visit. According to a 1999 article cited by Wikipedia, 200,000 people visit Bodie annually. The number is likely higher now. Tripadvisor lists 1469 reviews with the most recent submitted last week. Ghost towns are popular!
Numerous books and articles address this interest in “lost worlds.” U.S. News & World Report’s article, “America’s 15 Coolest Ghost Towns to Visit,” focuses mainly on towns in the American West such as Nevada City, Montana or St. Elmo, Colorado. It’s title says it all: ghost towns are cool. Thrillist also includes the photogenic Bodie and St. Elmo, as well as Rhyolite, Nevada and other western mining towns in “Abandoned Towns Across America You Can Actually Visit.” However, the coverage is broader here, with the authors considering a wider geographic area and various causes of decline. They include, for example, Cahawba, Alabama, the state’s former capital which was repeatedly damaged by floods. And there’s Glenrio, the Texas/New Mexico border town that lost its business when I-40 replaced Route 66. And, the odd case of Centralia, Pennsylvania, whose abandoned coal mine caught fire in 1962 -- and has been burning ever since!
By expanding its definition of “ghost town,” Thrillist’s article also reminded me that I have visited several of them. One is the spectacular Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark.
Concentration Mill, Kennecott, Alaska
Located in the US’s largest National Park, Wrangell-St. Elias, the town and it’s grand copper processing facility, cling to a mountainside in a remote corner of Alaska. This was an exceedingly difficult place to develop a mine and to ship the ore back to civilization. Yet, the purity of the copper and its quantity motivated investors to cross mountains and rivers, to build a railroad and to transport a disassembled steamship, all in freezing temperatures. Between 1911 and 1938, the operation yielded $200 million of copper, which is quite a sum if you account for inflation. Good information can be found at the National Park Service’s site and on its Kennecott Story pdf.
This historic site is still remote, though now it offers lodging and visitor’s services. My companions and I hired a bush plane to reach the area; alternatively, one can drive an unimproved gravel road. Realize that this mining town stood vacant for many years before it was put under the Park Service’s management, and many of its buildings reflect that neglect. It is, indeed, a ghost town.
To my surprise, Thrillist also included Batsto Village, New Jersey in its list of fourteen sites. About twenty years ago (yes, twenty), I made a whirlwind tour of the Pine Barrens on a drive back from Maryland. Batsto Village was a brief stop along the way. It, too, has a mining connection, albeit an east-coast version. With bog iron, water power, and timber at hand, Batsto became the site of a successful 18th-century iron works. “Batsto manufactured supplies for the Continental Army” during the Revolutionary War years. As iron production declined, the village shifted to manufacturing window glass. When businessman Joseph Wharton purchased the village, its focus shifted again to forestry and agriculture. The historic site is now part of Wharton State Forest.
Unfortunately, Batsto’s earliest industrial buildings no longer exist. All the same, the 19th century shops and cottages reflect one stage of the region’s rich history.
Here’s another ghost town in my repertoire:
Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park
Lindsey C. Straub, CC BY-SA 4.0
You may object to calling this a “town” but its size and usage seem, to me, to go beyond a mere building. Fort Jefferson, now part of the Dry Tortugas National Park, was created to protect shipping lanes between the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern seaboard. “It is” Wikipedia tells me, “the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas and is composed of over 16 million bricks.” The structure covers nearly the entire island on which it is built.
Construction of the hexagonal fortress began in 1846. The National Park Service says that “During the Civil War, Union warships used the harbor in their campaign to blockade Southern shipping.” Throughout the fort’s active years, it housed hundreds of soldiers, laborers, and later prisoners. Like the other ghost towns we’ve examined, Fort Jefferson’s most active years were brief: by 1874, the army abandoned the fort, which was used intermittently thereafter. Neglect, tropical storms and vandals caused deterioration in the structure, though it is still quite impressive. And then there are the 100,000 sooty terns nesting nearby.
On a local level, some of you may have visited the Quabbin Reservoir in Central Massachusetts. It is the largest inland body of water in the Commonwealth and a fine place for hiking and other outdoor recreation, but it is, as the title of a classic historical account claims, “An Accidental Wilderness.” This lake, which provides water to millions of people in Boston and surrounding communities, was created by flooding the Swift River Valley. In 1927, the Metropolitan District Water Supply Commission began clearing the valley’s structures and vegetation. Four towns -- Dana, Prescott, Enfield, and Greenwich -- were eliminated, their residents forced to relocate. By 1939, the reservoir began to fill. A good introduction to this story is the brochure entitled “Quabbin: The Lost Valley.” Then compare the images of “A Landscape Transformed” by the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
The End of Enfield (after 1938)
Looking at the reservoir today, it would be difficult to imagine several thriving towns in place of the vast lake and its surrounding forest. Not much remains, but there are some clues such as cellar holes, building foundations, and fence posts. The DCR offers “Be A History Detective Guide” to several walks around Quabbin including the hike to Dana Common. You might also enjoy one of the following books:
Quabbin: A History and Explorers Guide, by Michael Tougias
The Lost Towns of the Quabbin Valley, by Elizabeth Peirce
Ghost towns, that is, abandoned human settlements, are not a new or local phenomenon. Though we may apply the term most often to the boom or bust mining towns, deserted settlements can be found worldwide and through the ages. [See this History article for an international perspective.] Changing economies encourage/force people to move; so do wars and other conflicts. Natural disasters -- floods, volcanic eruptions, fires, and droughts -- have caused hasty evacuations or subsequent decisions to seek safer ground. Pompeii is a popular ghost town. Mesa Verde is, too. Human-caused disasters, like Chernobyl, leave abandoned real estate in their wake. Deliberate flooding (Swift River Valley) or draining (Owens Valley, CA) of a location can disrupt or end a community’s way of life. And, because people need to exchange goods and services, they move when roads and railroads relocate.
Jorge Franganillo from Barcelona, Spain, CC BY 2.0
Sometimes we know the cause, and sometimes it remains a mystery.
This house in Bodie reminds me of an abandoned home that I saw on a lonesome drive from South Dakota to Colorado. It, too, seemed frozen in time, as if someone would be returning any day -- if one ignored the peeling wallpaper, water damage, dust, and other signs of neglect. The intro to the book, Ghost Towns, expresses it this way: “. . . ghost towns are life interrupted. People’s dashed hopes and broken dreams remain in these abandoned homes, deserted storefronts, and crumbling ruins.” They seem to offer a perspective into past lives, with all the physical details in place, and a reminder of our vulnerability in a fickle world.
Interior of the Miller House on Green Street in Bodie
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