It is such a wonderful experience to walk through the many dusty and crumbling ghost towns of the American West. With a little luck and a lot of preservation, hopefully these old towns will still be there for our children and our grandchildren to enjoy.
What is a Ghost Town?
Basically, a ghost town is any historical town or site that leaves evidence of a town’s previous glory. This could be in many forms — all businesses closed, municipal services at a minimum, rubble and old nails strewn about, ruins of former buildings, etc. Some places that are categorized as ghost towns; however, still have people living in them and though sometimes they don’t want to be called a ghost town, most historians will continue to reference them that way if the reason or purpose for it’s original “boom” is gone. This would include towns like Tombstone, Arizona; Cripple Creek, Colorado; Madrid, New Mexico, and dozens of others.
Other places which are considered truly “real” ghost towns, having very little left but foundations, sometimes still make use of an old cemetery, such as Elizabethtown, New Mexico.
These old sites can be wonderful places to explore as we speculate about the once vibrant lives that lived there. In other old towns, you may see former business buildings such as schools and churches used as residences. A true ghost town is one that has been abandoned entirely.
Philip Varney, the author of several popular ghost town books defines these old communities as: “any site that has had a markedly decreased population from its peak, a town whose initial reason for settlement (such as a mine or railroad) no longer keeps people in the community.”
Varney divides ghost towns into three categories: completely deserted ghost towns like Loma Parda, New Mexico; towns with a minimal population like Elkhorn, Montana; and still-thriving towns like Central City, Colorado.
Further, he defines what to look for in a ghost town.
- Scattered rubble or site where nature has reclaimed the land
- Roofless buildings or partially demolished buildings
- Boarded up or abandoned buildings, no population
- A community with many abandoned buildings and a small population of residents
- Historic community or town, functional, but much smaller than in its boom years
- A restored town, state park, or replica of an old town, community or fort
Ghost Town Code of Ethics
I Will Not
- Destroy, damage or deface any buildings or other structures.
- Disturb any structures that are locked or appear to be occupied.
- Remove anything from the site other than obvious trash such as candy wrappers, soft drink cans, etc.
- Enter a site that is posted as “No Trespassing” without permission.
- Take in a metal detector without the permission of the owner. These are often the badge of a vandal to local residents.
- Observe all rules and regulations be they local, state, or national.
- Camp and make fires only in designated safe locations.
- Leave the land and vegetation as it is.
- Fill all holes or excavations.
- Remove and properly dispose of any trash I find, and will not litter.
- Respect the rights and property of landowners, leave gates as found, and obey all posted signs.
- Appreciate and protect this nation’s ghost towns and the heritage they represent.
- Always conduct myself in a manner that is courteous and polite, and always show consideration for others.
The above partially taken and modified from Gary Speck’s Ghost Town Ethics, Ghost Town USA
© Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated September 2020.
See our Ghost Town Photo Galleries HERE
Ancient Cities of Native Americans
Forts Across the American West
Cemeteries – Outdoor Museums of the Forgotten Past
Emerging Ghost Towns of the Plains