What’s awesome about the 10 best American ghost towns is how well they’ve been preserved as communities that demonstrated what the pioneering spirit really looks like. Before the United States of America became the nation we know today, the earliest settlers dared to venture across an untamed landscape. From east to west, these brave men and women primarily cared about finding a place to call their own that wasn’t confined to the congestion of a growing city. Like eagles, these people chose to spread their wings out and see how far their adventurous pioneering spirit could take them.
As settlements began to incorporate themselves on land they felt had much to offer, each pioneer had their own concept of what the perfect home looked like. Some of them became farmers who specialized in cultivating the land while others became ranchers, preferring to work with livestock. There were even some who fancied starting up a brand new town, knowing there was the potential to build a community. In fact, some of the best-known cities in the United States originally started off either as cattle towns, farming communities, or simply locations of convenience.
Among those cities dedicated to preserving history, they’ve gone to great lengths to preserve as much of its earliest settlement roots as possible. In some cases, they’re viewed as ghost towns. Designed as historical sites that behave like living museums, they offer locals and visitors of today an opportunity to peer into America’s past for what it really was. Some of these park-like ghost towns perhaps stand out more than others as each of them have its own unique story to tell. While every single ghost town does indeed have its individual charm, the standout favorites usually have enough material to make a blockbuster movie or a popular television series.
10 Best American Ghost Towns
#10 – St. Elmo, Colorado
St. Elmo, Colorado, is just over eighty miles southeast of Aspen. It is one of the state’s best-preserved ghost towns that has a history dating as far back as 1880. Like many other boom towns of the American Frontier, it thrived when miners flocked to the community in their quest to find either silver or gold. This continued until the final passengers boarded the last train in 1922, never to return. St. Elmo, along with its neighbor, Tin Cup, is known for its ties to the shady outlaws of the American Wild West. Check out the spooky cemetery, as well as the collection of wooden storefronts that graced St. Elmo’s main street when the quest for gold and silver brought prospectors was at its peak.
Originally, St. Elmo was founded as Forest City but was changed as there were several other towns that had the same name. St. Elmo got its name from the title of a novel read by one of the town’s founding fathers, Griffith Evans. During the 1890s, St. Elmo was at its peak that had five hotels, as well as its own collection of dancing halls and saloons. It had its own general store, newspaper office, schoolhouse, telegraph office, and town hall. Once upon a time, the Denver, South Park, and Pacific Railroad had a line that ran through town that had over one hundred patented mine claims in the area. Mary Murphy Mine was the largest and most successful at the time.
The majority of St. Elmo’s residents worked for them. It was the last mine still in operation until the railroad was abandoned in 1922. As soon as this happened, St. Elmo’s population took a nosedive as the miners and their families moved on to find gold and silver elsewhere. Its postal service was shut down in 1952 after the death of its postmaster. Although regarded as a ghost town, there are people who still call St. Elmo their home. In 1979, it was officially recognized as a National Register of Historic Places.
#9 – Dearfield Ghost Town, Colorado
Once upon a time, there was a farming community known as Dearfield that sat on the plains of Colorado. It was established by Oliver Toussaint Jackson, a man who was born to formerly enslaved people before moving to Denver in 1887. Dearfield was founded by Jackson as a farm by Jackson just outside of Boulder. What started out as a family farm grew into a small Black American farming community that embedded his catering talents to include restaurants that would also appear in Boulder and Denver. He managed his catering and concession services from the historic Chautauqua Dining Hall. he also served as a messenger for several Colorado governors for over twenty years.
In 1909, Jackson was able to file for a homestead, using the Homestead Act. This allowed him to invite his fellow Black Americans to a refuge to get away from the persecution and racism exercised by certain Americans who felt skin color defined a person’s value instead of their inner character. By 1920, Dearfield had about seven hundred residents, two churches, and a church. It also had a blacksmith shop, dance hall, and restaurant.
In order to sustain the community, Jackson had plans to set up a cannery and soap factory. The timing of Dearfield’s establishment took place just fifty years after the American Civil War. At the time, it coincided with the creation of Denver’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. It was a rare occasion where both groups ignored skin color in favor of relying on each other to survive the harsh seasons of the Colorado plains.
Up until the Great Depression, Dearfield was a town of promise. However, by 1940 the population only had twelve residents left. The final resident, Jackson’s niece, passed away in 1973. There had been several attempts to preserve the town’s history but have so far met with minimal success. There are only a couple of dilapidated buildings left, along with a historical marker on the site.
#8 – Eckley Miners’ Village, Pennsylvania
One would think after visiting Eckley Miners’ Village in Pennsylvania was carefully preserved by the ghosts of this community themselves. This wonderful gem offers visitors to follow the footprints left behind by the 1860s miners that used to call this ghost town their home. It was actually made famous by Sean Connery’s 1970 movie, The Molly Maguires, as its wooden coal breaker processing plant was prominently featured in the film. This actually saved Eckley Miners’ Village from becoming nothing more than a distant memory as it spiked interest and popularity to learn more about a ghost town that’s part of the Foster Township. Now owned and operated by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, there are about twenty villagers that still remain in Eckley. Most of them are descendants of the original miners that once lived there.
Before becoming a mining village, Eckley was first named Shingltown. The families who called the village their home immigrated from England, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Lituania, Poland, Slovakia, and Wales. It was one of many patch-style towns that were owned by powerful mining companies as a means to have some of the wages the workers earned from them go back into their pockets in the form of rent money. In order to keep the families there, they also provided amenities such as a church, a general store, a saloon, and a stable. A sawmill was also built so the community had a steady supply of lumber to build the village from the ground up.
When taking in the historical aura of shacks and single-family houses, visitors will also encounter a most impressive Gothic-style house that belonged to a mine owner known as Richard Sharpe. He was one of the four founders who shaped what started out as Shingletown. He, along with Asa Lansford Foster, John Leisenring, and Francis Weiss, formed a company that held a twenty-year lease for the establishment and operation of a colliery that sat on fifteen hundred acres of land. Shingletown’s name was changed to Ellmore as the men opted to honor President Millard Fillmore who left office in 1953.
In 1957, it was changed again, this time honoring Eckley B. Coxe, the eldest son of Judge Coxe, who allowed the businessmen to open up and operate their own post office in town. Eckley Coxe was seventeen years old at the time when this happened and became an engineer operating in the very town that was named after him. Today, Eckley Miners’ Village is run as a museum with indoor and outdoor components that feature a collection of originally built and preserved buildings, as well as the company store prop that was built in 1969 for Sean Connery’s movie.
#7 – Garnet, Montana
When the United States of America had yet to establish a paved highway system that would stretch across the country, people traveled by horse, train, and steamboats to explore the wild frontier. This included homesteaders eyeballing Garnet, Montana, as it became one of the boom towns that sprung up when the great gold rush was on during the mid-1860s. As a town, Garnet’s history began in 1895, a late bloomer as far as a nineteenth-century boom town was concerned. For several years, eager miners used dynamite, hoping to blast their way to realizing a fortune. As they did so, Garnet flourished as a town that had hotels, saloons, and stores. There was a school, an assay office, and a weekly newspaper, suggesting Garnet’s presence as a thriving community would last. However, this would not be the case as it wound up joining the ranks as yet another ghost town. After the largest strikes were depleted by 1912, a fire broke out that raged its way through the town.
After this, miners moved on to find their fortune elsewhere. This resulted in Garnet becoming a ghost town that is now publicly owned. Run by the Bureau of Land Management, this is one of the best preserved gold rush towns in the American nation that still stands. The dedication to preserving its history sees to it the survival of the two dozen buildings that survived the fire and offer visitors a chance to see what life was like in Garnet, Montana.
#6 – Bodie, California
Just east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Mono County, California, is Bodie. It sits about seventy-five miles southeast of Lake Tahoe, Nevada, and twelve miles southeast of Bridgeport, California. In 1876, it became one of the American Frontier’s boom towns after gold was discovered in the region. Three years later, it had a population count of up to ten thousand people. When the rush was over, its popularity began to decline until it officially became a ghost town in 1915. Now designated as Bodie Historic District by the U.S. Department of the Interior, it has become a National Historic Landmark. In 1962, it was officially recognized as Bodie State Historic Park by the California Historical Landmark registry. Annually, about two hundred thousand visitors come to Bodie to check out this popular ghost town’s surviving collection of buildings that have been carefully preserved.
Bodie was built as a mining camp that boomed into a busy town before it went into a state of decline. By 1920, only one hundred and twenty people continued to call Bodie their home. Until 1942, Bodie still had an operational post office. This was the same year the final Bodie mine was closed. Unfortunately for Bodie, vandalism became an issue that would result in the family who owned the land at the time hiring caretakers to help maintain and protect what was left of this ghost town.
Currently, Bodie is in a state of arrested decay and is preserved as such. Only 110 structures still stand, each of them serving as a remnant of what used to be a thriving community. One of those buildings includes an old gold mill. Visitors are invited to walk along the deserted streets of this ghost town. As they do so, they’ll observe the interior of these buildings remain that stocked a variety of goods. They’ll also observe the litter on the streets that were left behind by the people who used to call Bodie their home. As tempting as it may seem to pick one up and take it home, this is considered a violation of the park’s rules.
#5 – Silver City, California
Just south of Lake Isabella in Bodfish, California is a certain ghost town named Silver City. The collection of ramshackle buildings paints a picture of the Wild West’s colorful past for visitors who come to experience a bit of American frontier history. The old mining buildings are arranged around a large courtyard that dates as far back as the 1850s. Upon the discovery of gold, eager prospectors headed for the West Coast, hoping to strike it rich themselves. The rush of people flocking to the west witnessed a series of towns spring up in order to accommodate, including Silver City. However, as soon as the rush was over, most of these towns died off. Silver City was among them. If it wasn’t for Dave and Arvilla Mills and family, Silver City’s fate would have fallen to dust with the vast majority of other ghost towns that have since faded into the wind like dust.
Silver City became a ghost town that’s been carefully preserved so that the public can personally visit a piece of the past. At the moment, Silver City sits in a stage of arrested decay. This is the term used by preservationists that focus on keeping historical structures still standing as-is. This doesn’t mean the buildings are restored back to their former glory but it also means they’re prevented from falling into a heap of rubble. This is the ideal method to bring home the full feel of what makes ghost towns so great. Adding to the appeal are housing artifacts and mannequin stand-ins that some visitors may regard as creepy. Silver City also has its own town jail that apparently has a paranormal feel to it.
#4 – Calico Ghost Town, California
Located in southern California is the remnant of an Old West mining town known as Calico. This ghost town earned its name from the array of colors that came from its surrounding mountains. The height of Calico’s boom took place after it opened up a post office in 1881. This community had access to over five hundred silver mines that produced what was twenty million dollars worth of silver at that time. Today, the equivalent value would be well over one billion dollars. Located in the Mojave Desert, just three miles from Barstow and Yermo, Calico Ghost Town once upon a time had more than three thousand residents. In order to accommodate, Calico had three hotels and five general stores, as well as a boarding house, saloons, and restaurants. It seemed as if Calico was destined to become a city, full of promise.
However, when the price of silver bottomed out, so did the future of Calico. In just twelve years, it went from a boom town to a ghost town. As hard as they tried to hang on, many of the town’s buildings were moved to nearby Barstow. At the time, it seemed as if Calico’s fate was about to become nothing more than another faded memory. If it wasn’t for Walter Knott, Calico would have become no more. This is the same Walter Knott behind the infamous Knott’s Berry Farm.
Thanks to his vision, Calico experienced a rebirth. That rebirth included a restoration that also had some of the buildings that were moved out of town rebuilt in their place. Thanks to Knott, Calico now serves as an old ghost town that’s open to the public as a country park and museum depicting the Old West. When visitors go there, it’s like stepping back in time. Calico Ghost Town is now regarded as a National Historical Landmark and is one of the most popular tourist attractions as an American Frontier town.
#3 – Deadwood, South Dakota
The historic ghost town of Deadwood, South Dakota, once upon a time served as the home to the legendary Wild Bill Hickock. This was also the former home of Calamity Jane. In fact, this is where their bodies are buried. Deadwood was founded in 1876 after gold deposits were discovered here. This brought on the Black Hills Gold Rush, resulting in a population explosion of twenty-five thousand residents. Deadwood was the “it” city to be until the excitement began to die down after 1879. Before Tombstone, Wyatt Earp came to Deadwood and lived there during the 1876-77 winter season. When he was unable to secure any mining claims, he moved on, along with his younger brother, Morgan.
Currently, there are over one thousand residents that still call this ghost town their home. Visitors who are interested in having a closer look as tourists can travel about forty miles northwest of Rapid City by car. While there, take an opportunity to ride one of Deadwood’s iconic stagecoaches. If you’re either thirsty or want to simply satisfy your curiosity, check out the ghost town’s collection of saloons.
Should you be a traveler not afraid of ghosts and the stories about them, stories have it they can be found at the Bullock Hotel, Mount Moriah Cemetery, and Saloon No. 10. Thanks to the National Historic Landmark District, Deadwood’s architecture, while it was at the peak of its popularity between 1876 to 1879, remains carefully preserved. If you’re into early American history and how Deadwood’s role played a huge part in the nation’s development, it would definitely be worth your while to visit what has been a National Historic Landmark since 1961.
#2 – Jamestown, Virginia
The first permanent English settlement in the United States of America was Jamestown. Before America officially became a nation of fifty-two states, Jamestown was a community founded in what was known as the Colony of Virginia at the time. The appeal of this community was its location on the northeast bank of the James River. Now as a ghost town, it sits just under three miles southwest of the center of Williamsburg, Virginia.
It was first established as James Fort in 1607 by the Virginia Company of London before the fort was briefly abandoned three years later. It was during this time German and Polish colonists settled in the area but most of them died, which led to the fort’s first abandonment. Among the survivors who did return, they only did so after they were resupplied by a convoy at the James River. Going into the summer of 1619, the first recorded slaves were brought from Africa to British North America by a privateer ship that waved a Dutch flag. Among travelers who visit the historic ghost town of Jamestown, Old Point Comfort received about twenty Africans. The earliest examples of the slave trade that took place on American soil began here.
Until 1676, Jamestown was a hub of activity until Bacon’s Rebellion had it burn to the ground. Despite the devastation, the community was quick to rebuild. However, by 1699, the British opted to relocate their colonial capital a few miles away to what we know today as Williamsburg. This resulted in Jamestown officially becoming a ghost town. Currently, it serves as an archaeological site known as Jamestown Rediscovery. It is one of three locations that make up the Historic Triangle of Colonial Virginia. Williamsburg and Yorkton are the other two. On Jamestown Island is Historic Jamestowne, an archaeological site. Operated by the Jamestown Yorktown Foundation, this ghost town also serves as a living history interpretive site.
Historic Jamestowne is where visitors can see the original 1607 James Fort. They can also see the church tower and the settlement, as well as tour the Archaearium, a museum dedicated to the archaeological findings of this must-see ghost town. There are about two million artifacts the Jamestown Rediscovery team has unveiled so far. There are a variety of tours offered to allow visitors to view the archeological team at work. To this day, the team still finds new discoveries that are frequently shared as old Historic Jamestowne doesn’t seem to be finished yet with its own collection of ghost stories.
As for guests wanting to experience a living history park, Jamestown Settlement is the place to go. It’s just over one mile from Historic Jamestowne, adjacent to Jamestown Island. While there, visit the museum complex that features a reconstruction of Powhatan, a village belonging to James Fort from 1610 until 1614. Here you will find replicas of the ships that brought the ghost town’s first settlers, namely the Discovery, Godspeed, and Susan Constant.
#1 – Tombstone, Arizona
If there was ever a ghost town that stood head and shoulders above the rest with a long list of historical stories to tell, it would be Tombstone, Arizona. No other ghost town in the world has the celebrity status Tombstone does. Regarded as “The Town too Tough to Die,” it was originally founded in 1879 by a prospector named Ed Schieffelin. The heart and soul of the American Frontier can really be felt in Tombstone as one of the nation’s last boom towns to be developed. The location of Tombstone itself sits on a mesa above the Goodenough Mine. Tombstone got its unusual name after an associate of Schieffelin suggested the only thing of value he’d find there is his own tombstone.
As fate had it, Tombstone grew quickly during the mid-1880s, thanks to the abundance of silver bullion to be found in the mines. In less than a decade, Tombstone’s population exploded from one hundred people to approximately fifteen thousand. It was in Tombstone the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place between two sides who took their political and social differences to the extreme. One side was led by the Clanton Brothers while the other was by Wyatt Earp. Aside from this ghost town’s most popular attraction, Tombstone also happens to be where Arizona’s best brewery calls home.
If there was ever a boomtown that felt the effects of two vastly different political and social points of view, it was Tombstone. The majority of the settlers living in town originally came from the Northern states where they mostly shared a Republican-style point of view. Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and their associates were among these townspeople who shared a common goal when it came to Tombstone’s future. This contradicted the points of view shared by many of the ranchers and rustlers, as well as criminal organizations that were led by the Clantons and The Cowboys. These people fancied themselves Confederate sympathizers, as well as Democrats.
Because Tombstone was only thirty miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border, stealing cattle from ranches in Sonora, Mexico by outlaws like The Cowboys. These outlaws were led by Billy, Frank, and Ian Clanton, as well as Billy Claiborne and the brothers of Frank and Tom McLaury. They often clashed against Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Morgan and Virgil, as well as their close friend, Doc Holliday. On October 26, 1881, these two opposing parties violently settled their dispute by shootout near the O.K. Corral. While this historic gunfight has been glamorized as something that took place in front of the corral itself, it was actually on an empty lot on Fremont Street that was a short distance away. While this historic event definitely put Tombstone on the map as a favorite tourist destination people still visit today, this wasn’t enough to put an end to Tombstone’s growth.
Going into the mid-1880s, the silver mines that were underneath much of Tombstone’s homes and business dwellings penetrated the water table. This resulted in the mining companies investing in specialized pumps to control the water flow. However, an 1886 fire destroyed the Grand Central hoist and the pumping plant. This put an end to Tombstone’s growth as it was deemed too costly to rebuild the pumps. By 1910, only 646 people were still recorded as its residents. Although deemed a ghost town, people still do live there, now with a population of over one thousand people.
In movies and television, no other ghost town has been as glorified as Tombstone. They’ve played a key role in its popularity that has influenced tourists from all over the world. Aside from learning more about the O.K. Corral, visitors have the opportunity to visit Boothill Graveyard. These are where the bodies of the McClaury Brothers are buried, as well as Billy Clanton. They join the population of the dead who literally died with their boots on. In the infamous Wild West, there were several Boot Hill cemeteries that served as final resting places. The one located in Tombstone is the most famous.
Among visitors interested in Tombstone’s silver mining history that played an instrumental role in its rise and fall. Oddly enough, as poorly developed as Tombstone was as a community as there was no such thing as safety codes at the time, not even all the fires and other disasters were enough to completely kill the town off. As America’s most beloved ghost town of all, there are nearly half a million visitors who come to visit the Tombstone Historical District. In order to keep Tombstone alive as one of America’s favorite tourist attractions, the National Historic Landmark District continues to either preserve or reconstruct this ghost town so that it can keep telling its tales of the Wild Frontier.
10 Best American Ghost Towns article published on BigCityReview.com© 2023
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