An American Ghost Story through the Old West

170 years after the start of the California Gold Rush, we take a tour of Old West ghost towns—an eerie and curiously wistful expression of the American Dream. 

An American Ghost Story through the Old West

Photography Myles Pritchard. Above: An abandoned homestead in Bodie, CA.

“To me, ghost towns aren’t just collections of derelict buildings. They’re living, breathing spaces, where people had hopes and dreams. Every nail in every building was put there by someone who once saw a better future.”

Gary Speck, the author of two books on ghost towns and one of America’s foremost experts on the subject, is explaining why these abandoned, often spooky outposts have captivated him since he was a child.

Speck guesses there are as many as 35,000 ghost towns in America—from forgotten railroad stops like Thurmond, West Virginia, to the former border town of Glenrio, Texas, or Cahawba, once the state capital of Alabama. All of them, he says, are places where “the dream was interrupted,” whether by economic pressures, natural disasters, exhausted resources or even a new highway.

The most common types of ghost towns, particularly in the American West, are former mining communities: rudimentary and dusty places where speculators—mostly men—came from across the country and the world to make their fortune. Or not.

The California Gold Rush started 170 years ago, when a sawmill operator named James W. Marshall discovered gold in Coloma, in the northern part of the state. According to Speck, the clamor that followed “didn’t change the history of just California, but also the whole of America. Back then, it was like the first man on the moon, and it drew hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life to go West. Before it, San Francisco was a sleepy Mexican mission town and Sacramento was a swampy little supply town.”

While places like San Francisco continued to thrive after the Gold Rush, others saw the dream turn to dust. Today, you can feel that history in places like the Californian town of Bodie, Speck’s favorite example. “It’s the real McCoy—the state intervened at just the right time, so it looks exactly as it did when it ceased to be a town,” he says. “I’ve been going since I was a teenager, and it gets me every time.”

But the abandoned mining towns of the Old West take many forms, as illustrated by the four I visited on a triangular road trip between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Yosemite, via Death Valley: Bodie, Calico, Rhyolite and Nelson. Even during their heyday, these places were far removed from the Rawhide romanticism that has hooked generations of schoolkids. “They were tough, dirty places,” says Speck, “and 99 out of a hundred people who came with a dream left broken and broke.”     

And yet, he adds, there’s a profound beauty—a kind of “spiritual feeling”—to towns like Bodie and Nelson. “It’s like experiencing art, when you can’t explain why it touches you. But I can go to the same ghost town 10 times, and I still feel something. It might be that, in these decaying old buildings, I can still feel something like hope.”

The authentic one | Bodie, California

Few ghost towns have thrown up legends like Bodie. If you came to the town in its 19th-century prime, you were warned about the Bad Man from Bodie, a catch-all term for the ruffians who started brawls and gunfights in the 65 saloons that lined Main Street. Today, you have to beware the Curse of Bodie, which bestows bad luck on anyone who takes anything from the state historic park.

“We don’t know exactly how the curse started,” says park interpreter Catherine Jones, “but if it was a ploy to get people to stop stealing stuff, it was smart.”

At the end of a dusty mountain road northeast of Yosemite National Park, Bodie—California’s official Gold Rush ghost town—is unlike the other places I visit. Run by the state, Bodie has been kept in a condition of “arrested decay” since the post office shut its doors for the last time in 1942 (before the curse, there were armed caretakers guarding the site from looters). There are still old pianos and frayed mannequins in shop windows, and you’ll find shards of china and square nails scattered among the buildings holding out against the sagebrush. The sense of lives interrupted is palpable. 

With some 200,000 visitors a year, Bodie is the king of American ghost towns—but it also did pretty well as a real town. Gold was discovered here in 1859, and more than 34 million dollars’ worth was subsequently extracted. By the 1870s, Bodie had as many as 10,000 residents, and the scores of restaurants in town would serve oysters and champagne. There was even a mini Chinatown with a Taoist temple to cater to the town’s Chinese service workers.

As more saloons opened and more men came in search of a fast buck, the Bad Man from Bodie became a very real risk. But then, in the early 1880s, miners began moving to even bigger, more prosperous towns. By 1910, the population had dropped to 698; in 1912, The Bodie Miner newspaper printed its last issue, and in 1932, a fire ravaged the town. By the time the post office shut during World War II, Bodie was essentially a ghost town.

Jones gives me a tour of the old mine, the Miners Union hall (now a museum gift shop) and the Swasey Hotel, a tilted structure that looks like it might collapse with a prod. Finally, we stop at the modest grave of Waterman S. Bodey, a man from the East Coast who—after a decade of searching—finally found gold in these hills in 1859, only to die in a blizzard later that year. 

While you’re there
Bodie is situated in a beautiful part of Northern California. Mono Lake, with its limestone rock formations, is worth a trip, and just down the road is the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park, which can be seen by car if you don’t have time to hike into the wilderness.

 

Tony Werly of Nelson, NV

The gritty one | Nelson, Nevada

It’s fair to say that things have changed around the El Dorado Mine near Nelson, Nevada, a 45-minute drive into the desert south of Vegas. Where once this was a violent place marked by greed and suspicion, today it’s the setting for selfies and alternative weddings, where they’ve filmed everything from Top Gear to Cirque du Soleil promos. “We have something going on just about every night here,” says Tony Werly, who owns this stretch of canyon road with his wife, Bobbie.

The drive to Nelson is spectacular, with the little settlement appearing over the brow of a hill, the mountains of Arizona shimmering in the background. For all the cinematic Western beauty, however, the only showdowns I see on arrival are between young visitors trying to get the best angle of the ’50s-style gas station for their Instagram feeds.

The town, centered around a mine that opened in 1861, is a curious visual cocktail. The 20 or so wooden buildings are right out of the Old West, but midcentury oil signs litter the streets, along with photogenically weathered vintage cars. “I collect a lot of old rusty stuff,” says Werly, a big man with a moustache and a cowboy hat. A trained carpenter from Vegas, he bought the land 23 years ago as an unusual retirement project.  

There were only four buildings here at the time, but Werly enlisted his wife, brother and five children to help bring the old mining structures scattered around the canyon back to the main settlement. Nine of the family live here now, and three Werlys are buried on the land. “It’s a real family job,” he says. “It may be wild, but it’s our home.”   

The family’s affinity for strange collectibles extends to the interiors. The reception building is packed to the rafters with bric-a-brac, ranging from taxidermied animal heads to, bizarrely, a room full of life-sized aliens. Off the entrance room, there’s a mini museum dedicated to the history of the Techatticup Mine, and the Werlys provide their more stouthearted visitors with guided tours through its tunnels, which extend deep into the surrounding hills.

The men who worked the mines were largely Civil War deserters, who nonetheless had no qualms about fighting among themselves. With rich veins of gold, silver, copper and lead, and access to the nearby Colorado River, Nelson became one of the most lucrative mining towns in Nevada. But it was also a tough, lawless place, where murders were a common occurrence.

What really killed the town was a railroad, built in the early 20th century across Southern Nevada, which rendered the river steamboats obsolete. By 1907, the post office had closed and the miners had moved on. “It was no picnic being out here,” says Werly. “Luckily, I’m not the sort of guy who believes in ghosts.”

While you’re there
Head north beyond Boulder City to the Hoover Dam, a 1930s engineering masterpiece that is a National Historic Landmark, partly for its innovative design and giddying scale, but also for its strange beauty.

 

Calico is located off Highway 15 in San Bernardino County.

The Disneyfied one | Calico, California 

I arrive at Calico, off Highway 15 a couple of hours northeast of L.A., just before closing time. With the sun setting over the desert hills, the town could be a themed area of Disneyland. There are trinket stores selling dream catchers; a Western-kitsch saloon serving sarsaparilla; the Calico & Odessa miniature railroad; and the Mystery Shack, where water flows uphill and tourists in cowboy hats get photographed leaning at 45-degree angles. 

All of this makes sense, given that the town was bought in 1951 by Walter Knott, the berry farmer-turned-amusement park entrepreneur (and friend of Walt Disney), whose uncle had founded one of Calico’s mines. Having worked as a carpenter here as a young man, Knott created a replica of the town as it was in the 1880s, adding gunfight shows and faux saloons to draw in the tourists.

For all the yee-haw showmanship, Calico’s short history is very real. With silver discovered in 1881, it quickly became California’s biggest silver mine, and by 1890 the population is said to have grown to 3,500. There were schools and hospitals, a Wells Fargo office, a newspaper and three hotels.

As ever, the good times didn’t last. The 1890 Silver Purchase Act drove prices down, and by 1896, Calico’s mines were no longer economically viable. By the turn of the 20th century, only a few stubborn locals remained.

Near the top of the hill, I bump into cheery tour guide Larry Trabu and his wife, Patty Mae, who are clearing up after a day’s work, still dressed in their period costumes. Trabu used to do stunts for movies and tourists at the Old Tucson Studios in Arizona, where Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was filmed. “I’d grown up playing cowboys and Indians, and the obsession has just never left me,” he says. “I feel at home like this, somehow.”   

He and Patty Mae met in an Explorer Scouts group as teenagers, and realized they shared a passion for all things Wild West. A decade ago, when Trabu’s back started acting up, the couple moved to Calico to make a fresh start. Their tours are peppered with nuggets of local lore, such as the one about the ghostly dog whom they say you can still hear barking in the mine.

“We like to say Calico’s not haunted, it’s occupied,” says Patty Mae. “Unlike much of the Wild West, Calico was and remains a happy place.”

While you’re there
There are a number of abandoned attractions off Highway 15, including the eerie Lake Dolores Waterpark, and Zzyzx, a “health spa” built around a nonexistent mineral spring by a huckster named Curtis Howe Springer in the 1940s.

 

Keeping watch near the entrance to Rhyolite are sculptures of 12 ghostly figures, titled "The Last Supper"

The arty one | Rhyolite, Nevada

Standing beneath the hulking skeleton of the Cook Bank building in Rhyolite, Nevada, it’s hard to believe that this was once an active town with an ice cream parlor, a stock exchange, a school and even an opera house.

Rhyolite, overlooking a long desert plain just northeast of Death Valley National Park, is so forsaken that the bank, the general store and a handful of smaller buildings take on the air of Roman ruins. A town that once thrived is now so still you can hear desert winds through empty window frames.

Rhyolite’s glory days began when prospectors Shorty Harris and E.L. Cross found gold here in 1904. By 1907, Rhyolite had electricity and the man behind its most famous mine, Bob Montgomery, bragged that he could take $10,000 worth of ore from the ground daily. The three-story bank, which dominated the skyline then as now, cost a whopping $90,000.

Almost as soon as Rhyolite had hit the heights, several events set the stage for its decline. First, the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco ravaged local investors, as did the 1907 Bankers’ Panic. By 1910, the Montgomery Shoshone Mine was operating at a loss. The facility closed in 1911 and the lights in the town went out for good in 1916.

Near the entrance to the town is an unexpected reminder of its demise: 12 ghostly figures, in flowing robes, keeping watch over the desert plain. This dark vision is The Last Supper, put here in 1984 by Belgian sculptor Albert Szukalski, who saw echoes of the Holy Land in the lonely vistas of the Mojave Desert.    

More artists were drawn to this place over the years, and it has become one of America’s strangest sculpture parks. Among the show-stoppers are Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada (1992), a 20-foot pixelated rendition of a nude woman, made from pink and yellow cinderblocks by Hugo Heyrman; and Tribute to Shorty Harris, a rusting iron silhouette of a miner and a penguin, by Fred Bervoets.

The prospector and the penguin make an odd couple—but, then, so do the crumbling ruins and the modern art in this unsettling place of whistling winds and unfulfilled ambition.

While you’re there
Death Valley may be the hottest place in America, but the drive through it must rank as one of the country’s most beautiful—from the spectacularly riven hillsides of Zabriskie Point, which Ansel Adams shot in 1942, to the pastel-hued Artist’s Palette rock face, on a road that dips and winds like a thrill ride.