Saturday, March 13, 2010

Western Castles

Reminders of the hardscrabble pioneer past are everywhere in the West. Drive a few miles in any direction and you'll find abandoned homesteads where Willa Cather characters tried and failed to scrape a living out of our stubborn, scrubby ground, and the mountains are filled with abandoned cabins where Gabby Hayes look-alikes tried to pick-axe their way to riches. When a mine failed or a drought killed cattle and crops, whole towns could end up abandoned.

While many of these ghost towns have been preserved--the lawns mowed, the houses labeled, the residents remembered in plaques and museum displays--there are some that have been utterly forgotten, and those are my favorites. In a town that's truly gone to the ghosts, there's nothing between you and history. You can stll sense the presence of the living town in the decaying grandeur of the buildings, and the hopelessness of its decline in the blank stares of the empty windows.

My favorite of these is Castle, Montana. It's an old silver mining settlement just southwest of White Sulfur Springs that was home to over 2000 residents in the 1880s. It had a school, a jail, a church or two, seven brothels and more than a dozen saloons to keep life lively on a Saturday night.

What it didn't have was transportation. The residents waited in vain for the railroad to build a spur that would allow them to ship ore without hauling it by wagon, but the silver panic of 1893 killed their hopes. The town gradually died as residents left for greener pastures and more accessible mining claims.

It's a common story out here, but most of these mountain towns have totally surrendered to the elements. You're lucky if you can find a few stone foundations or some scattered mining machinery. But because Castle is in such a remote place, it's been left in peace since the last residents departed in 1938. And because it's on private property, the buildings have been allowed to decay in quiet isolation. It's a miracle the town never burned in this dry climate, and even more of a miracle that vandals have never destroyed it.

Looking at the houses scattered over Castle's hillsides, you can't help wondering how is residents saw that view all those years ago. They might have started out picturing the miles of sagebrush tansformed into fertile fields, the scrub pines tamed into pasture, the dirt paths paved into busy streets. But as the town declined and businesses failed, they must have seen only the miles and miles separating them from home.

I've been lucky enough to do my share of traveling to exotic lands and foreign countries, but this remote, little-known town, tucked into a forgotten valley in Montana, is my favorite place in the world. To me, it's the essence of the West.

What's your favorite place in the world? What historical site or landmark defines your home state or embodies its history?


  1. Great post! I was just reading a book on ghost towns that was being sent to the book sale in the fall because no one cared. But I find it fascinating to see abandoned barns or houses in the middle of no where that at one time housed families and livestock.

    I've lived all over, so no place really feels like home anymore, but when I lived in Poteau, Oklahoma, south of the city, Viking symbols were carved on rocks. Yep, in eastern Oklahoma (mountainous out that way--many think the whole state is all prairie and sagebrush.) But to look at those rune stones on rocks and know that Viking explorers were in that neck of the woods is really fascinating to me. We also had the Spiro Mounds north of us--huge burial mounds where people between the 800s and 1500 CE had built a town. Twenty more villages had been set up within five miles of the town. The graves were robbed, but human skeletons, feathers, cloth, and baskets were left behind.

  2. Thanks for the pictures of the ghost town. Interesting to read your musings about them. I visited one in Colorado, although I'm not sure it was a true ghost town, since it had turned into an "artist colony," but since I saw no art or artists, that might be ad-speak for "tourist trap."

    I'm sadly watching towns in Eastern North Carolina turn into ghost towns, as commerce moves to chain stores and chain restaurants located in shopping centers on highway interchanges.

  3. Oh, Joanne~

    You make me so homesick. *sigh* I loved Silver City, just over the boarder of Idaho and Oregon. It's slowly being fixed up, but for years, the Catholic church was the only building in use. Ever since I was a kid, I'd travel around and explore old towns. I always make it a point to also visit old grave yards. You can learn so much from them. I'm always fascinated.

    My next book, Yours For the Taking, is set in Brooklyn and in a fictional town of Three Whores Bend, Idaho. Three Whores Bend is between two mining towns which have since turned into to ghost towns. Atlanta (which really exists) still has a small population living there, and the locals keep the history alive. You'll hear about Peg-leg Annie and Dutch Em, the whores who died or came close to freezing to death during a freak blizzard while traveling from one mine to the other over the mountain pass. I heard the story, read about it in an old miner's journal, and never forgot it.

  4. That old town is prime fodder for a romance writer--or any kind of writer, for that matter--to let their imagination fill in the blanks and make a story of it.
    Great post, Joanne!

  5. Awesome post Joanne! I never knew too much about ghost towns, and often don't think too much of the people who lived in them before they were deserted.

    One of my favorite places in the world that I felt so lucky to visit is the Ruins of Ostia outside of Rome. They have the most complete ancient Roman ruins in the world and it's really unbelievable to see how well-preserved things are, and also how advanced the Romans were.

    As for my hometown, Chicago has such great architecture; one of the first building I think of is the Art Institute with those majestic lions outside of it :)

  6. Terry, now I want to go to Oklahoma! I'd love to see Viking carvings. Imagine the adventure they had getting there!
    Mary Margret, which Colorado town was that? You highlight what I love about Castle - it's been left alone, with nothing but an interpretive sign on the road. But the commercialism saves a lot of towns that would otherwise be destroyed or vandalized.

  7. Robin, I saw you had a book coming where your Brooklyn girls go West to Idaho and I can't wait! It sounds great. And yes, I love the old graveyards. Often they outlast the town, and some of them have old porcelain photographs of the deceased mounted on the stones.

  8. Cheryl - Funny you should say that! Yes, there is an idea in my head for a story with a ghost town in it, and I'm eager to write it. It was definitely inspired by Castle...

  9. Danielle, I need to go to Italy one of these days! Ostia sounds amazing. I've never spent much time in Chicago (except at the airport en route to elsewhere!) One of these days...

  10. I love London. I like seeing the old houses with the bootscrapers at the door. But I'd like to visit some of the historical sites in America one day as well.

  11. I went to college in Montana, and it's been eons since I saw that place. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

    We've got some cool ghost towns in Oregon as well, and my favorite is Jacksonville in Southern Oregon. Such fascinating history.

    Thanks so much for sharing your story and all these cool pics!


  12. Oh I want to go there!!! I love American history and everything to do with it. Living in California and traveling through many of the Western states, I have seen hundreds of the ruins you talk of. You are right, evidence of long ago residents are everywhere.

    My favorite mostly complete ghost town is Bodie. We have been there 3 times now and it is an awesome experience. Bodie is kept in a perfect balance of preservation without completely halting the decay of time.

    All this travel talk is making me antsy! Great post Joanne!

  13. Shana, I'd love to go to London. We went to Scotland, but haven't done England or Ireland yet. Someday...
    And Tawna, did you go to school in Missoula? I lived there for a while, and loooved it. I'm going there for a visit next month, and to do book signings; Billings, too!

  14. Shana, I love Bodie! I have a lot of photos from our visit there, too. And I agree - they've done a great job of preserving it without ruining it. And it's definitely the biggest ghost town I've ever seen!
    Some others I love are Garnet, in the mountains near Missoula,MT, and Bannack, near Dillon, MT, which has a fascinating history involving the vigilantes and sheriff Henry Plummer, who was supposedly robbing stagecoaches in his spare time while posing as a lawman.

  15. GREAT post, Joanne! Here in NorCal we were pretty much defined by the Gold Rush and some of the old mining towns in the foothills have preserved many of the old buildings and the 'flavor' of the 1850s. I lived for a few years near Grass Valley/Nevada City and the cemetary in Nevada City was one of my favorites. As you said, the elaborate carved tombstones are awesome and many in Nevada City are from the Gold Rush era.

    Of course, my favorite ancient ruins are those of Ephesus (in Turkey). I love to imagine what it must have been like to live there over 2,000 years ago when the place was a thriving metropolis of over 250,000 people!


  16. Aunty Cindy, I LOVED your post on Ephesus. Now THAT'S a ghost town!

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  18. “The past is really almost as much a work of the imagination as the future.” -- Jessamyn West

    Maybe all of you fiction writers like ghost towns because you can do what you do best -- take a somewhat real situation and turn it into anything your imagination desires.

    You can look at a ghost town and picture prosperity or calamity; health & prosperity or disease & famine; sweet smelling women or dust & despair.

    A "real" town provides too many constraints. A ghost town, on the other hand, provides a canvas where can brush on your words in thick depth and let your imagination flow without too many restrictions.

    As the Chinese fortune cookie says, “All that’s needed is just a little something to tickle your imagination.”

  19. Joanne,

    Nope, not Missoula (that's UofM) but Bozeman (MSU). We were bitter rivals, though I must admit, Missoula is the cooler town. Haven't seen either one for about a dozen years though. After college, we lived for awhile in a town called Polaris, MT about 40 miles from Dillon. Teeny little place in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a ski hill (which is why we were there -- husband was ski school director).

    Hope you have a great time on your book tour! Enjoy Montana!


  20. I love ghost towns and we visited a lot of them when I was growing up. I especially remember Bodie with its ghosts and other towns that felt so special.

  21. You've inspired me to visit the ghost towns here in Arizona, Joanne! Loved your 'castles'.