Baking in the relentless desert sun just off U.S. Highway 6/Interstate 70 near the Colorado border is the crusty railroad town of Cisco, Utah. Truly looking like something out of a scary movie, where a driver’s car breaks down, and he or she disappears forever, this now quiet town was not always so.
Cisco began as a much-needed watering stop for the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad ‘s steam engines in the 1880s. Slowly, a town grew up around the railroad station that primarily supported the nearby cattle ranchers and sheepherders. With the railroad, the settlement quickly became a provisioning and shipping center for the livestock who ranged in the nearby Book Cliffs. In fact, at the turn of the century over 100,000 head of sheep were sheared here, before being shipped to market.
On the main railroad line from Grand Junction, Colorado to Salt Lake City, Utah, the railroad not only maintained a water tank for the locomotives, but also a depot, and several section buildings.
Though seasonal rains sometimes produced grassy fields and filled dry water tanks, the vast majority of the water for the area, first had to be hauled in, and later piped in, from the nearby Colorado River.
In 1924, oil and natural gas were discovered in the region which gave a boost to the town. At one time, Cisco was the largest producer of oil and natural gas in the state. After World War II, when Americans began a love affair with the automobile and began to travel as never before, Cisco was a welcome respite for thirsty travelers headed through the arid desert. Situated on the main highway through the region at the time (US 6/50), a number of businesses sprouted up to serve those passing through, including restaurants, gas stations, and saloons. In the 1940’s the town was called home to about 200 people.
In the 1950’s, when the railroad began to use diesel engines, replacing the coal-powered steam engines and the need for water stops, Cisco became a candidate for a ghost town. However, the small town was saved by the discovery of uranium and vanadium in the area that drew prospectors by the thousands. Cisco catered to the desert prospectors for several years, until the mining “craze” fizzled and the prospectors moved on.
Two decades later; however, Cisco would not be so lucky when I-70 barreled through the region, completely bypassing Cisco and its businesses. The economy immediately declined and people moved away.
One of the last businesses to survive in Cisco was a combination gas station and restaurant. However, when a longhaired biker stopped for gas and took off without paying, the owner shot him. Somehow, in this crusty little town, we are not surprised to hear this tale. The gas station owner was then jailed, leaving the business to be run by his wife. The tale continues that the wife would only serve those whom she felt like serving, with the door kept closed and customers having to knock to get in. If she opened the door, a big dog would often bite the ankle of the customer. If the potential customer kicked the dog, she would refuse to serve them. However, if they stayed calm, they would be allowed to purchase a meal.
Cisco became a true ghost town, with numerous abandoned buildings and businesses, sitting amongst old railroad and oilfield junk and dozens of rusting cars. Nearly everything here is crumbling and vandalized except for a couple of new oil wells that were drilled nearby in 2005.
Though the railroad tracks continue to be used by the Union Pacific Railroad and the California Zephyr still “flies” through, the train ceased to stop here decades ago. During Legends of America’s visit in 2008, we saw nary a soul, not even a roaming dog. However by 2018 it appears the town is now privately owned, with the owner fixing up at least the old post office as an Airbnb.
We weren’t wrong about the old town looking like something out of a movie, as scenes from the 1971 film Vanishing Point, Thelma and Louise in 1991 and Don’t Come Knocking, in 2005, were filmed here.
Cisco is 50 miles east of Green River, south of I-70 at exit 204 (State Highway 128), when traveling eastbound, or exit 214, if traveling westbound.
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