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?