7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West

Come along on a tour of the ghost towns of America's Old West.
Marcia Wendorf

Drive through the American West and you're bound to encounter an abandoned, or ghost town. Linger a minute, and you're no longer just seeing broken down and dilapidated buildings and bits of metal and glass. Suddenly, you start hearing the clink of glasses, the sound of dance hall music, and raucous laughter.

Recent television shows such as "Deadwood" and "Westworld" have brought the American Old West back to life. Come along as we tour some of America's most amazing ghost towns.

1. Bodie, California

In the hills east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and 75 miles (121km) southeast of Lake Tahoe lies Bodie, California. After the discovery of gold in 1859, Bodie became a boomtown.

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
Street in Bodie, California. Source: Richard Vinson/iStock

The town was named for the prospector W.S. Bodey, who died in a blizzard while making a supply run to nearby Monoville, California.

In Bodie's Chinatown, residents erected a Taoist temple, and opium dens were common.

By 1879, Bodie had a population of 7,000 people, a Wells Fargo Bank branch, several daily newspapers, a jail, 65 saloons, and a brothel, with brawls, shoot outs, killings and holdups being regular occurrences.

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
Bodie, California. Source: miroslav_1/iStock

In 1881, a narrow-gauge railroad, the Bodie Railway & Lumber Company, brought lumber, cordwood and mine timbers to the town. In 1892, a hydroelectric plant brought alternating current, making Bodie one of the first towns in the U.S. to receive electricity over a long distance.

2. Kennecott, Alaska

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
Abandoned factories of Kennecott, Alaska. Source: brytta/iStock

Northeast of the city of Valdez is Kennecott, Alaska. Two prospectors, "Tarantula" Jack Smith and Clarence L. Warner, spotted a patch of green in the hills in the summer of 1900. That green was the mineral malachite, which was accompanied by chalcocite, which is also known as "copper glance." Chalcocite is copper sulfide (Cu2S), a copper ore.

A young mining engineer named Stephen Birch, with money from investors back East began buying up mining claims, and in 1906, Birch entered into an agreement with Daniel Guggenheim and J.P. Morgan, becoming the Alaska Syndicate.

The Kennecott Mine was named after the Kennicott Glacier nearby, with a clerical error by Birch resulting in the different spelling.

In their peak year of 1916, the mines produced copper ore that was valued at $32.4 million. By 1915, that ore was largely depleted, and one by one, the mines closed, with the last mine closing in 1938.

The last train left Kennecott on November 10, 1938.

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
Abandoned copper mine buildings in Kennecott, Alaska. Source: elmvilla/iStock

According to Charles Caldwell Hawley in his book A Kennecott Story, Kennecott mines "produced over 4.6 million tons of ore that contained 1.183 billion pounds of copper." The work Iron Rails to Alaskan Copper by Alfred O. Quinn describes Kennecott as having gross revenues of over $200 million with a net profit greater than $100 million.

3. St. Elmo, Colorado

St. Elmo was founded in 1880 when 2,000 people settled the town while mining for gold and silver. The town hit its peak in the 1890s when it included a telegraph office, a general store, five hotels, a school, a newspaper office, and multiple saloons.

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
Street in St. Elmo, Colorado. Source: DonaldEugeneHammond/iStock

St. Elmo had the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad line running through it. The Mary Murphy Mine recovered over $60 million worth of gold.

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
St. Elmo, Colorado. Source: Gary Gray/iStock

By 1922, the ore had dried up and the railroad shut down. When the town's postmaster died in 1952, postal service was discontinued. Today, the St. Elmo general store is open during the summer months and you can buy antiques and rent ATVs.

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
Cabin in St. Elmo, Colorado. Source: SpiritTaker/iStock

4. Rhyolite, Nevada

The ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada lies northwest of Las Vegas. Named for the igneous rock called rhyolite, the town began in 1905 with the discovery of gold in the surrounding hills.

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
Rhyolite, Nevada. Source: ericsphotography/iStock

Starting in 1906, industrialist Charles M. Schwab invested in Rhyolite's infrastructure, bringing piped water, electric lines, the railroad, telephones, newspapers, a hospital, a school, a stock exchange, a symphony and an opera house to the town.

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
Rhyolite, Nevada. Source: bilbowden/iStock

Between 1907 and 1908, the town's population hit 5,000, making it Nevada's third-largest city at the time.

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
Rhyolite, Nevada. Source: LPETTET/iStock

Rhyolite's red-light district was famous, employing ladies from as far away as San Francisco.

By 1911, the mine closed, and by 1920, the last of Rhyolite's residents moved away. Today, the town is a tourist attraction and the setting for motion pictures. Visitors can see what's left of Rhyolite's bank, jail, general store, and train station.

5. Virginia City, Montana

In May 1863, a group of prospectors discovered gold near Alder Creek, and a mining district was created. On June 16, 1863, the town was incorporated as "Verina" to honor Varina Howell Davis, who was the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. A judge in Connecticut objected to the town's name and recorded it as "Virginia City."

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
Abandoned house in Virginia City, Montana. Source: urbancow/iStock

Without law enforcement, so-called "road agents" robbed and murdered up to 100 people along the trails of the town. Citizens responded by creating the Montana Vigilantes, and up to 15 road agents were hanged. Calamity Jane called Virginia City home.

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
A brewery in Virginia City, Montana. Source: magmarcz/iStock

When the Montana Territory was organized on May 26, 1864, its first territorial capital was Virginia City, before the capital moved to Helena in 1876.

Two reporters for the city's newspaper, which was called the Territorial Enterprise, were Samuel Clemens, who is better known as Mark Twain, the famous author of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," and Bret Harte, author of "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and "The Outcasts of Poker Flat."

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
Virginia City, Montana. Source: kevinruss/iStock

Today, it is owned by the state government of Montana and operated by the Montana Historic Commission. Of the 300 buildings in the town, half were built before 1900. Visitors can gold pan and visit the Boothill Cemetery.

6. Garnet, Montana

20 miles (32 km) east of Missoula, Montana lies Garnet. The town is named after the semi-precious red garnets that prospectors found along with gold. The town boomed during the 1890s, with as many as 1,000 people living there.

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
Garnet, Montana. Source: Chad_Talton/iStock

In its heyday, the town included four hotels, 13 saloons, two barbershops, a doctor and a school. Daily stagecoach service connected Garnet to nearby towns.

When a fire razed most of of the town in 1912, residents left. Today, Garnet is one of the best-preserved ghost towns, and it boasts 16,000 visitors annually.

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
Abandoned building in Garnet, Montana. Source: gnagel/iStock

Visitors can see 30 historic buildings, including a general store, saloon, and hotel. Their interiors still display the furniture, dishes, and clothes of the period.

7. Glenrio, Texas/New Mexico

In 1964, singer Nat King Cole sang, "If you ever plan to motor west, travel my way, take the highway that is best. Get your kicks, on Route Sixty-six." Before Interstate 40 was built in 1973, Route 66 was the way west.

Route 66 ran through Glenrio, Texas, which straddles the border between Texas and New Mexico. The town is part of both states, which benefited it because the town’s gas stations were built on the Texas side, where the gas tax was less, and its bars were built on the New Mexico side, where alcohol was legal.

7 Fascinating Ghost Towns of America's Old West
Glenrio, Texas/New Mexico. Source: Saddako/iStock

Glenrio began in 1903 as a railroad siding on the Rock Island Railroad. By the 1950s, a gas station and diner were built in the prevailing art moderne style.

Today, the town consists of the remnants of a motel, cafe, service station, post office, and a few other buildings. You can still see the roadbeds of Route 66 and the Rock Island Railroad.

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