Bannack is a ghost town in Beaverhead County, Montana. Its founding in 1862, followed the discovery of gold on Grasshopper Creek, by John White. Its name is derived from a local tribe of Native Americans (the Bannock). It served briefly as the capitol of the Montana Territory in 1864. Bannack’s peak as a gold rush town was relatively short as prospectors moved with the news of new discoveries in nearby Virgina city. However gold mining continued in the area until the 1950’s. Its last permanent residences left the area in the 1970’s.
Today the town is a Montana state park, and has over 60 structures for visitors to explore. The best point of access to the site is from Dillion, MT on highway 278.
Bodie, a gold rush mining town, began in 1859 following the discovery of gold by W. S. Bodey. The discovery coincided with the discovery near by of silver in Aurora, Nevada, and the famous Comstock Load near Virgina City, NV. While never as rich as the Comstock load, Bodie is speculated at its height to have housed nearly 5000 people, and a significant population remained in the area until the 1920’s.
Today it is a California state park, and is considered the best preserved ghost town in the state. Over 100 standing structures and other relics are available for visitors to explore and photograph. It can be accessed heading south from Reno, NV, on highway 395, near Willow Springs.
Chesterfield is a ghost town in Caribou County, Idaho. It was founded in 1879 by Chester Call as a ranch along the Oregon trail. It quickly grew into a Mormon agricultural settlement as friends Chester and other immigrants entered the area. The town hits its peak in 1900, after which a series of cold winters, national recessions in the 1920’s and agricultural problems caused many people in the town to leave. By 1941 the town was mostly deserted, and only about 200 people lived in the area.
Today Chesterfield is managed by the Chesterfield Foundation, and contains many restored buildings, including the Mormon Meeting Hall, School House, Tithing office, the Town store, and numerous brick and wooden homes.
Dawson City, Yukon Territory , Canada
Dawson City is a living ghost town, situated on the banks of the Yukon River. The townsite was founded by Joseph Ladue and named in January 1897 after Canadian geologist George M. Dawson. Dawson stood at the center of the Klondike Goldrush, and was the end point for many fortune seekers that traveled over the fabled and dangerous Chilkoot Pass. Of the estimated 100,000 people who attempted to reach the Klondike Goldfields, only 30-40 thousand succeeded. By 1898, little more than a year after it started, the rush was over and miners began chasing after new discoveries in Nome, Alaska and Atlin Lake on the Yukon River.
Today just over a thousand people call Dawson home. And while little remains in the gold fields but the tailings of dredges, many of the towns original buildings have been preserved, and include themed shops, art galleries, bars, and a theater/casino.
Grafton is a ghost town, just outside of Zion National Park in Washington County, Utah. The town was originally founded in 1859 as a cotton growing project ordered by the president of the Mormon Church at that time, Brigham Young. The location proved a poor choice, not only because of the threat of flooding from the Virgin River, but also because of the heavy silt load in the section of the river where Grafton was located. This caused constant problems with the irrigation system put in place to water the cotton. This lead families of the settlement to move to better locations on the other side of the river, where the modern towns of Springdale and Rockville are located.
Today several well preserved and maintained buildings, as well original orchards and pastures from the settlement remain. The town site is maintained by the Grafton Heritage Partnership Project. The access road to Grafton is not obvious from Hwy 9. One should watch closely as they drive through Rockville for a street called Bridge Rd, which as the name suggests leads to a bridge that crosses the Virgin River. After that signs direct you to the site, as well as the town cemetery.
Jerome is a living ghost town that developed around rich copper deposits in the Black Hills of Yavapai County in the State of Arizona. The first miners were local tribes of Native Americans, who were followed by Spanish miners looking for gold. Jerome’s population reached a peak of 10,000 in the 1920’s, and as the copper reserves depleted the population decreased to less than 100 people in the 1950s. To keep the town alive, and preserve its history, a concerted effort was made to diversify into tourism and other industries. Today many of Jerome’s historic buildings and surrounding land are occupied with art galleries, coffee houses, restaurants, wineries, a museum and a state park
Located in El Dorado Canyon, in the Eldorado Mountains, on the southern edge of the Eldorado Valley, one might correctly guess that Nelson’s history has a lot to do with gold, or at least a Spanish obsession with labelling everything Eldorado. But in this case the Spanish who visited the area as early as 1775, were onto something, as Nelson would eventually stand at the center of one of the first major gold strikes in Nevada’s history. Pioneers to the area discovered gold and silver deposits in 1859, and with it came a rush of prospectors a few years later. Between 1859 and 1945, several million dollars in gold, silver and other metals were mined.
Today the town is notable for its colorful wooden buildings, and relics from the past, including antique signage from prominent US brands, Coca Cola, Texaco, among others.
Nevada City/Virgina City, Montana
Nevada City’s roots are firmly planted in the gold mining booms and busts of the American West. Along with its neighbor Virginia City, Nevada City was the center of one of the major gold strikes in the Rocky Mountain West. Between 1863 when the town was founded, and 1922 when major mining activity had ceased, its estimated that as much as $2.5 billion worth gold had been extracted from the area.
While time and carelessness led to the destruction of many of the city’s original buildings, 14 buildings from the original town site remain. In addition, 94 other historical structures from across Montana were brought to the area to form an open air museum.
Rhyolite was a relatively latecomer in the precious metal booms of the American West. Founded in 1905 it was one of several mining camps that formed as gold-seekers entered the area following news of the latest discovery. But, like many mining boom towns Rhyolite’s fortunes rose and fell quickly, with the population peaking in 1908 at around 5,000 people. Not only did investors believe the mines in the area were being overvalued, but larger macro-economic issues in neighboring California, and the country as a whole drew interest away from Rhyolite, Among these issues were the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and troubles on Wall Street, known as the “Panic of 1907”. By 1911, many of the miners who had come to live in Rhyolite had moved on to better prospects. And by 1920 it had become a side attraction for visitors coming to see Death Valley, and other points of interest in the area.
Today, among Rhyolite attractions are its train station, general store, a building constructed almost entirely of bottles, and artistic sculptures that have been added in recent years to its entrance near the highway into Death Valley.
Spring City, Utah
While less of a ghost town than any other towns on this list, I include Spring City because it has managed to preserve much of its historic character and original buildings. In fact the entire town has been listed on the National Historic Register for this reason. The town began in 1852 as Mormon pioneers settled the area. For a brief time the town was abandoned due to ongoing conflict with the local Ute Indian tribe, which eventually led Spring City to be one of the battlefields in what would become known as the Black Hawk Wars (1865-1872). The war included over 150 engagements with 16 Indian tribes of the Ute, Paiute, Apache and Navajo, led initially by the Ute Chief Antonga Black Hawk.
Today Spring City remains a small rural town engaged primarily in agriculture and ranching, the same as its early residents. It is located on Utah’s Highway 89, between the larger towns of Mt. Pleasant and Ephraim.
St. Elmo, Colorado
St. Elmo is a former gold mining town founded in 1880. Situated at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet, it lies high in the Sawatch Mountain Range. The town reached its zenith in the 1890’s at which time it had multiple hotels, dance halls, saloons, a newspaper and a school house. The largest of the nearby mines, the Mary Murphy Mine, recovered nearly $60 million dollars in gold. From the 1890’s onward the town gradually declined.
While St. Elmo was never truly abandoned, it has very few year around residents. Today St. Elmo stands as one of Colorado’s best preserved ghost towns, even after a 2002 fire destroyed several prominent buildings.
The town can be visited via Nathrop, CO, by traveling west up Chalk Creek Canyon on Chalk Creek Rd. (Chaffee County rd 162).
While Tombstone is probably seen as the quintessential ghost town of the America West, given its history as the spot where the Earp brothers and Doc Holladay faced off against the Clanton and McLaurey brothers at the O.K. Corral, it was never really abandoned after the silver boom that got it started in 1877. At its height in the 1890’s more than 14,000 people called Tombstone home, and it boasted more than 100 saloons, three newspapers and 14 gambling halls. Its estimated the nearby silver mines recovered between $40-$80 million in ore.
Today the town has about a thousand permanent residents engaged largely in the tourism business. While many of the original buildings remain, the National Register of Historic Places has threatened to pull its designation of the town’s historic district, due to inauthentic changes made to historic buildings. Tombstone is just over an hours drive south from Tucson.
Further Reading Suggestions
- Ghost Towns of the Mountain West: Your Guide to the Hidden History and Old West Haunts
- True Tales and Amazing Legends of the Old West: From True West Magazine
- Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West – Hampton Sides
- Men to Match My Mountains: The Opening of the Far West 1840-1900 – Irving Stone
If you would like to dig deeper into the hundreds of ghost towns that dot the American West. Here are some resources of potential interest.