The Life of a Ghost Town

The abandoned settlements of the West offer beauty and solace and make us question what happened to drive everyone away—and lure others back.

Century-old houses stand empty at the former Idarado Mine, near Silverton, Colorado. The homes were moved here in 1948 from Eureka, a nearby ghost town.
Century-old houses stand empty at the former Idarado Mine, near Silverton, Colorado. The homes were moved here in 1948 from Eureka, a nearby ghost town.
GORDON WILTSIE

There is a ghost town, high in the Colorado Rockies, inaccessible to all but the most rugged four-wheel-drive vehicles, that I’ve visited since I was a child. I’ll call the town Inez, instead of its real name, since the folks who live in that solitary spot are there for a reason: they don’t like being around a lot of people, and they aren’t interested in attracting tourists. Many of them are my relatives, too, and I’d like to stay on speaking terms. They aren’t hermits, exactly, but they aren’t very sociable, either. “This is my hideout,” one put it.

Inez, surrounded by a fortress of peaks, has always seemed like a remote and rustic Shangri-la, far from the rest of the world and the current time period. When I was a child, my family would jeep up the narrow, rocky shelf road that leads to Inez, climbing over the final crest and into an aspen valley and a town that wasn’t much more than a handful of old log cabins in various stages of decay. There was no electricity or plumbing up there, but having no modern conveniences was part of the fun: we cooked on wood-burning stoves or over campfires, lit gas lanterns, cooled our perishables in river water, and wandered to the outhouse when we needed to. The ghost town, with its abandoned saloon and one-room school, gave us kids plenty of fodder for stories. At night, roasting marshmallows, we’d tell creepy tales about miners, bandits, and crazy hermits and feel the spirits of those who’d lived in the 1880s-era cabins crowding around the campfire.

If you grew up in the West or have been on road trips to some of its more desolate corners, you might, like me, have a fascination with ghost towns. The region is littered with abandoned settlements where prospectors lived more than a century ago, hoping to strike it rich, and then disappeared when their dreams turned to dust. They left behind rickety cabins, rusted machinery, falling-down barns, and shuttered schoolhouses—all remnants of the booms and busts that fueled the American West.

These skeleton towns seem to whisper tales of the schemes, fortunes, high times, and disappointments of the people who once lived in them. Most were mining encampments that scattered when the price of silver or gold plummeted, or were buried when snow avalanches or rockslides wiped out their precarious mountain perches. Some were supply centers or way stations for railroads that stopped running, taking away their lifelines. A few lie in watery graves at the bottom of man-made reservoirs. Even the ones above-ground are wispy and disappearing, haunted by history and by their former inhabitants.

Gravestones at the Hillside Cemetery in Silverton, Colorado, bear witness to mining accidents and illnesses like pneumonia, typhoid fever, diphtheria, and the flu epidemic of 1918 that killed many of its citizens.
Gravestones at the Hillside Cemetery in Silverton, Colorado, bear witness to mining accidents and illnesses like pneumonia, typhoid fever, diphtheria, and the flu epidemic of 1918 that killed many of its citizens.
GORDON WILTSIE

In Colorado alone, where miners set up a shack along every creek they hoped would lead to a vein of rich ore, one guidebook lists over 1,000 abandoned towns and mining camps. All the states of the West, from Montana to New Mexico and out to the Pacific, have hundreds of boomtown ruins. Their names evoke the reckless, gold-fevered atmosphere of their heyday: Tombstone, Arizona; Whiskeytown, California; Ruby Gulch, Montana; Eureka, Nevada; Bonanza, Idaho (and Oregon and Colorado). Most of these ghost towns are completely abandoned. A few are historically preserved, like Ashcroft, Colorado; others, such as Virginia City, Nevada, and Central City, Colorado, have turned into kitschy Wild West tourist destinations. Several mining towns, including Aspen and Breckenridge, Colorado, and Park City, Utah, eventually used their history and mountain charms to transform into ski destinations. What makes them all ghost towns, even those where people still live, is that they are shadowy semblances of their original selves, worn and faded monuments to the history of the West.

Inez, like other abandoned towns, seems filled with ghosts. The original settlers were Ute Indians, who were forced out of Colorado in 1879; local legend says that the Indians left behind a fire and a curse in the valley. By that time, not coincidentally, miners were beginning to move into the more remote regions of Colorado. Prospectors who were late to the ’49er rush in California had found gold in Cherry Creek, in what is now Denver, in 1858 and come down with their own gold fever, fanning out into the Rockies, cutting improbable stage roads into sheer mountain passes, and building towns far from any trace of civilization. By the 1880s, mining towns were booming, including Inez, which had a population of about 500.

At its peak, Inez was busy, with a couple of saloons, a general merchandise store, a hotel, a men’s club, a dance hall, a post office, a barbershop, a schoolhouse, and two newspapers (the town was settled mostly by men, and the nearest church seems to have been six miles away). The town ran its own stagecoach line up and down the valley to nearby settlements. The miners dammed the river and built a mill with a waterwheel that generated compressed air to power the drills that made holes in the mining shafts for dynamite. Kerosene lamps hung from metal poles along the street, extinguished every night at 10 o’clock.

Inez, and the region, had its colorful characters. Local tall tales have it that one local miner wore his hair in ringlets, believing it would keep the Utes from scalping him. Another old story asserts that in the next town upriver, the woman who owned the hotel was reputedly such a clean freak—probably in reaction to the hordes of unwashed miners—that she hung her laundered cats out to dry by the napes of their necks and even washed her firewood before setting it alight. Maybe because the old newspaper office in Inez is still standing, I particularly love the story I found in the archives of one of the town’s newspapers about the feisty lady editor who was so incensed when a man refused to put out his pipe upon entering her office that they ended up in a tussle; he knocked her down and was jailed after being chased over a mountain pass. That particular pass was so rugged that when former U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant visited in 1880, riding a white mule, he allegedly called it by its nickname, Sonofabitch Basin. (The stage road was never much improved, and it remains narrow and notoriously treacherous.)

Dilapidated buildings and deserted machinery decay at the historic PN Ranch in the Upper Missouri River Breaks of central Montana. The ranch is part of the American Prairie Reserve.
Dilapidated buildings and deserted machinery decay at the historic PN Ranch in the Upper Missouri River Breaks of central Montana. The ranch is part of the American Prairie Reserve.
GORDON WILTSIE

Life in Inez, whose men worked seven different mines, was difficult. At an altitude of almost 9,000 feet, snow fell up to eight months of the year, and winters saw frequent avalanches that cut the town off from supplies. The town’s few wives and children left to spend the worst of winter in lower-elevation climes. After a snowfall, everyone would shovel out a track so the packhorses could make it down to the next town for food. Miners and postmen had to snowshoe over high mountain trails with their heavy loads (“snowshoes” were really short skis back then, and what we think of as snowshoes, they called “webs”). Most of the shacks were grubby, slapdash structures filled with filthy miners who collapsed with a whiskey after an exhausting day of laboring in the mountains.

But because Inez is so scenic, surrounded on all sides by imposing mountains, stands of aspen trees, and cascading falls, the town eventually attracted visitors, and its more prosperous residents led a bustling social life. Newspapers from nearby towns mention locals taking the stagecoach to Inez for luncheons and parties. Ladies organized a social club, a small orchestra, dances at the town hall, and a flower club. There was one fancy home, which I’ll call the Springer house, where the wife held proper afternoon teas and served lavish dinners cooked from delicacies packed in by mule, keeping them cool in mountain snow. For their Christmas dinner in 1898, the stagecoach delivered 200 pounds of turkey.

The silver panic of 1893 drove most residents out of the mining towns of the West. Investors had overbuilt railroads and opened too many mines, silver was flooding the market, the stock market crashed, there was a run on banks, and suddenly it was no longer worth the trouble to try to hack gold and silver out of the ground. In Inez, a few dreamers and desperate characters stayed on, burning wood from abandoned houses for fuel—the reason only a few cabins remain. Some held on to their places as summer homes, presumably owing to the beauty of the spot. By 1910, though, the town’s population was down to four people. The last mine stopped producing in 1913. My relatives tell me a hiccup of renewed interest occurred around 1917, when an entrepreneur sold shares in a new mining scheme and built two hotels, but the boom-and-bust cycle lasted only a year.

However, another entrepreneur, whose first name was Emmett, had been eyeing Inez for several years, first visiting by stagecoach from Aspen in the early 1900s. His brother was my great-grandfather John, who was the town doctor in Aspen for a few years around 1905, before returning to the relative comforts of Denver. At the time, Aspen had declined from a boomtown of 15,000, with an opera house, two railroads, and the first electricity in Colorado, to a community of about 3,000—of course, that would change with the scheme to get people “skiing” on the “white gold.”

Built in 1892, this wooden powerhouse helped supply compressed air for mining operations near Crystal, Colorado.
Built in 1892, this wooden powerhouse helped supply compressed air for mining operations near Crystal, Colorado.
GORDON WILTSIE

Emmett began buying up mining claims in Inez, waiting for another boom. In the summer of 1938, he brought his daughter and granddaughters to visit and to work, shoveling ore. His granddaughter Carolyn later remembered sitting in the back of a truck filled with dynamite; Emmett had told her to “tap on the glass” if anything exploded. He died without ever realizing his dreams of mining success, and during World War II, Inez was abandoned again, since Emmett’s family had moved to California, and gas was too precious for his family to drive there to visit.

After the war, Carolyn and her sister, Maxine, returned to the town. There were a few other inhabitants—some people who had bought the fancy Springer house and an Indiana plumber and outdoorsman who had settled with his wife in a couple of cabins at the end of the street. My aunts began to spend their summers fixing up the remaining cabins in town, inviting their cousins—including my family—to come help hammer on roofs, dig holes for outhouses, chase out rodents, and otherwise make the structures at least minimally habitable.

My aunts, fundamentalist Christians who believed in simplicity and being close to God by living in nature, were adamant about preserving the old-fashioned feel of the town. They even made sure that repairs to the buildings were done with weathered wood, to fit in. Most of the cabins were kept up just enough not to fall down. The ones they lived in all summer eventually had propane stoves and two had flush toilets, but no one was interested in actually modernizing anything. The town was so remote, and the road up to it so harrowing, that getting supplies was not much easier than when they came on pack mules.

The town’s inhabitants shared a sense, as one of them put it, of being “imprinted” with the natural beauty of the place. The town became a kind of vacation community where my extended family could come and spend time with third cousins whom, without that place, we likely would never have known. Inez created a common history for the people who made it up there, chopped their own wood, told stories around campfires, and set off to explore the mountains.

Vegetation sprouts through a vehicle abandoned at the defunct Idarado Mine.
Vegetation sprouts through a vehicle abandoned at the defunct Idarado Mine.
GORDON WILTSIE

My aunt Maxine, who had been the energetic force behind resettling Inez, inviting gangs of cousins and friends up to ride horses, pound nails, and jeep around, died when I was 10. She was my first ghost. Her presence is still in town, and it seems like her broad wooden cabin bears a shadow of her face. Years later, her mother, Helen, Emmett’s daughter, also died, followed by Helen’s sister Dorothy. I can’t look at the porch of the old hotel without seeing the two of them in their rocking chairs. Once a year, they’d put on 19th-century dresses and bonnets, just to entertain the sheepherders coming down after a summer in the high country.

Recently, Carolyn, the last of my mother’s generation, also passed away. Her kitchen had always been the warm heart of the town, where people wandered in, borrowed eggs or flour, shared stories, and listened to her ready laugh. Now that cabin, with its upright piano in the living room and sloping bedrooms on the second floor, is boarded up and drooping, falling apart.

Other homes in town have new life. The great-grandson of the original occupants of the Springer house was able to buy it from its previous owner, and he and his wife have taken pains to restore it to its onetime glory. They took the siding down piece by piece, numbered the boards, stuffed the walls with insulation, and put everything back in the right order. They peeled off remnants of the wallpaper to give to an artisan, who re-created the patterns, and then they found people who could hang the wallpaper the old way—on linen, with rabbit glue, creating a drum-tight finish. The porch, with its rockers, is screened in, and flowers bloom in boxes outside. They recently held a wedding with a band for one of their children that must have rivaled the groom’s great-great-grandparents’ parties.

Old mine buildings teeter on mountainsides in the Red Mountain Mining District of southwestern Colorado. Known as the Million Dollar Highway, nearly 40 area mines produced silver during a 10-year boom, which began in 1882 and ended with the Panic of 1893.
Old mine buildings teeter on mountainsides in the Red Mountain Mining District of southwestern Colorado. Known as the Million Dollar Highway, nearly 40 area mines produced silver during a 10-year boom, which began in 1882 and ended with the Panic of 1893.
GORDON WILTSIE

Another resident, Roger, whose father settled in the area in the 1940s, is the unofficial historian of the town. His narrow cabin, warmed by the original cast-iron stove, is filled with photographs of old miners and other bygone inhabitants as well as a framed certificate of a share in a mining scheme. He pointed out my great-granduncle Emmett in a photograph and described his short-lived 1940s Starlight Campground operation, in which socialites came to Inez and camped in tepees near a chuck wagon with a domed roof, dining on rainbow trout and wild-strawberry shortcake with snow-chilled ice cream. He told me stories about my various aunts who had lived in town, which brought back memories of them chopping wood in high-waisted jeans and gingham shirts and ringing one another on the wall-mounted telephones that were strung between cabins. Roger remembered how my mother always liked to get up early to hike on days when our religious relatives held church services in the meadow. “Your mother was one of my favorite people,” he said, and it seemed as if she, too, briefly appeared and glided through the wooden walls.

There is something about ghost towns that makes you conscious of the passage of time, and aware of your connections to history. The way the towns are situated, flimsy structures set amidst huge, impartial mountains, makes you aware, too, of how fleeting human time is. Our busy human efforts feel insignificant in the face of such a vast and rugged wilderness. The older I get, the more I understand some of the disappointments of those early prospectors, whose dreams didn’t always turn out the way they’d hoped. Still, the vast scenery itself must have provided consolation. I appreciate the reverence my relatives have always had for the isolation and wildness of Inez. It’s one of the only places, with no cell or wireless service, where I can truly disconnect, gaze at a granite mountain face or a white rushing river, and breathe.

The question that looms over the future of Inez and ghost towns like it is whether they will be developed, or sold, or left as ruins. Given the boom-and-bust cycles of the West, and the remoteness of these places, it probably doesn’t matter. Something will still be standing in a hundred years, causing the next visitors to wonder what went on there.

Laura Fraser is the author of four books of nonfiction, including the New York Times bestselling memoir An Italian Affair. A fourth-generation Coloradan, she has driven the treacherous road to Inez many times but would prefer to walk. This is her first article for Alta.

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