It was sometime during the summer of 1986 that the idea of exploring old west ghost towns first entered my mind. I was visiting the store of a friend who sold old west and other historical memorabilia. It was like a museum with everything for sale, although I never could afford to buy the kind of things he sold in those days.
As we were talking about our common interests in history and the outdoors, he mentioned that occasionally he would take a trip over to Arizona or Nevada to explore and photograph ghost towns. I was instantly intrigued, it had never really occurred to me that there may still be old, abandoned towns that hark back to the pioneer days. How fascinating, I thought. He showed me a photo album full of images of various abandoned towns and I knew I was going ghost town hunting.
Jump forward to 1990. After a few years of locating, exploring and camping in some of the more accessible ghost towns, a friend and I are starting to search a little deeper into the backcountry for the more hidden, and less vandalized sites. There really are some amazing sites out there if you are willing to push your skills, and your vehicle beyond your comfort zone. I’ve repaired many flat tires, and hiked out for assistance on more than one occasion. For me that is half the fun. I enjoy the challenge and the risk. As with most things, being prepared is the key.
While passing through the remote mountain town of Crown King, AZ., nestled atop the Bradshaw Mountains west of the Verde River, we stopped to talk with a Forest Ranger who was parked next to the General Store. He looked like a veteran, someone who might know this range and some of its history. We talked about mining, railroads, ghost towns and history. He had been a ranger in the Crown King district for over 40 years. I think he could tell we were genuinely interested in the history of these sites, and not just artifact collectors or worse, vandals.
After awhile he just kinda shook his head and said “sorry fellas, but I think you’re 25 years too late to find what you’re looking for.” He then proceeded to tell us a story about how in 1976 they caught two vandals using their truck winch to pull down the top story of the old hotel in the ghost town of Oro Belle, just to see how strong their winch was. At that time there were no laws against such actions, and so there was nothing they could do.
So what time and weather hadn’t destroyed. people had. But still I thought, there had to be something left to show what had happened in these pioneer boom towns. So we persisted in looking anyhow, and oftentimes were rewarded with more than we expected.
Most of whats left are the scars on the land from the mining and railroads that brought these towns into existence in the first place. Usually some “jackass” prospector (miners who carried their gear on a donkey and walked the hills in search of gold) would locate a placer deposit or a vein of gold, silver, lead, copper or a combination thereof. If the claim proved valuable, it didn’t talk long before the rush was on. Soon the hills were crawling with prospectors. Next came the promoters, hopefully the investors, and before anyone knew it they had a booming town growing up around the mines. When the mine deliveries became large enough, some enterprising railroad promoter would build a line to the mines or mill, and then the boom was really on.
But as often was the case, as soon as the veins pinched out, or the mines flooded, or the value of gold or silver dropped, the mines shut down, and the town slowly died. Oftentimes in the desert, where milled wood was scarce, buildings would be dismantled, and re-built in the next boom town. Once the buildings were gone, all that was left were the glory holes, railroad grades, and eroding adobe buildings and foundations. But there is more. Find the old trash dumps, and you can find wonderful old lead-glass bottles that have turned aqua or blue over the years. Broken tools, dishes, even old boots. All garbage to be sure, but an interesting glimpse at the life and times of that area. Find the old cemetery – every old town had one, oftentimes referred to Boot Hill – and you find a very human connection to the struggles of life on the frontier.
When you see the grave of a little girl who only lived for 1 month, you realize how difficult life really was back then, in that very spot.
Nowadays there isn’t much left to see of the really old pioneer towns. But they are still there, or at least the scars still are. And when you do stumble across some reminder of the old days, the pioneer days, and if you can imagine in your minds-eye the events that may have occurred there, you can, for a moment, leave the modern world behind and feel the silence telling a story of a time gone by.