June 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 4
Every town is a ghost town in a sense—haunted by the shades of people who were born there, and lived there, and now are sone. In America, where it is generally thoueht that the proper prelude to putting up a new buildins is tearing down an old one, towns are haunted too by the ghosts of houses, schools, stores, churches, hotels, theatres. A man of seventy can walk up Fifth Avenue in New York today and see very little of what is there because he is remembering what used to be there a half century ago, and the same is true of streets in San Francisco or Dallas.
But the American West is peculiarly the province of the ghost town in the more usual sense. Abandoned—that is the key word; and many a thriving western community was ultimately abandoned because the thing it existed for had ceased to be. There have been, of course, abandoned towns in other parts of the country—Bruce Catton has something to say about the deserted lumber towns of Michigan in another part of this issue of AMERICAN HERITAGE —but the West is still the best place to look for them. Most of them were mining towns, and when the gold, silver, or lead was gone, the towns just dwindled away.
A ghost town can be evocative even if you have little idea what the place was like when it was alive. But the poignancy is greater when a surviving photograph or two show how the ruined streets and buildings looked when people walked and talked there and called them home. William Carter, who investigated scores of such places for his recent book, Ghost Towns of the West (Lane Magazine & Book Company, 1971), took most of the new pictures in the display that follows; he also dug up some of the old ones. As a complement, there is the late Lucius Beebe’s ebullient memorial to Bodie, California (page 16), whose ghostly presence today is epitomized by Mr. Carter’s photograph, above.