As America expanded westward, prospectors and missionaries fanned out across the vast terrain in pursuit of silver, gold or salvation. While some outposts grew into major cities (e.g., San Francisco), others withered as mines were stripped, water ran dry or the faithful were called elsewhere, leaving ghost towns (e.g., everyplace pictured below).
In recent years, the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that maintains millions of acres of public land, has worked to preserve these ghost towns—providing an eerie reminder of the life no longer lived there. As part of this project, BLM photographers have documented the hauntingly beautiful tattered remains of each forsaken town, which they’ve shared with Playboy. Here are the five most captivating.
WHAT HAPPENED: Named after the semiprecious stone found in the surrounding mountains, Garnet filled and emptied as fickle fortune seekers abandoned it for better claims. Settlers didn’t develop the town with longevity in mind, but, ironically, it’s the best-preserved ghost town in Montana. Its first mini-boom occurred in 1897, but by 1905, most of the active mines had shut down and the population had dwindled to a mere 150 people.
The town rose from the dead, however, in 1934, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt doubled gold prices. The mountains provided returning miners with a bit more fortune, but the suppression of domestic dynamite use and the start of World War II finally did in Garnet for good. By 1948, everything that wasn’t nailed down had been auctioned off or lifted by souvenir hounds.
SOME OF WHAT’S LEFT: Two dozen structures, including J.R. Wells Hotel, Dahl’s Saloon, Kelly’s Bar and the F.A. Davey’s Store.
LAKE VALLEY, NEW MEXICO
WHAT HAPPENED: A deposit of high-quality silver 25 feet thick and almost 200 feet long—dubbed the “bridal chamber”—put this New Mexico boomtown on the map. By 1882, it was producing more than 2.5 million ounces of shining silver, valued at about $2.8 million. One particularly impressive chunk sold at the 1882 Denver Exposition for $7,000, when the going rate was leveling out at about $1.11 per ounce. But in 1893, when the price of silver plummeted from 83 cents to 63 cents per ounce, the bridal chamber’s honeymoon was over. Busted shareholders took their leave and families moved to safer locales. Though the town’s heyday was over, the town didn’t fully empty for more than a century, when the last resident left in 1994.
SOME OF WHAT’S LEFT: A schoolhouse, a chapel, water towers and a rusted-out car.
WHAT HAPPENED: In 1859, Mormon leader Brigham Young settled Grafton, just south of Zion National Park, as a cotton-farming community. Believed to be the most photographed ghost town in the West, it served as a backdrop for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Ultimately, it was undone by flooding and skirmishes with Native Americans. Originally called Wheeler, the entire settlement was destroyed by the Virgin River’s Great Flood of 1862. Undaunted, the residents started over about a mile upstream, calling the new community Grafton. However, floods continued to plague the settlers, and the silty soil was less fertile than they’d hoped. The Black Hawk War of 1866 made matters even worse. The Mormon settlers evacuated during the frequent attacks; after the war ended, the barren land was not worth returning to. A few stubborn families held out, but they shuttered the last remaining homes in 1944.
SOME OF WHAT’S LEFT: A cemetery, several homes and a schoolhouse that doubled as a church.
WHAT HAPPENED: Aurum, also known as SilverCanyon, was a mediocre mining town straddling Nevada’s eastern state line. The hilly landscape led to it having two separate neighborhoods of differing elevations—an “uptown” and a “downtown,” if you will. The uptown area, known as Doughburg, was filled with boarding houses for miners, while the downtown area consisted of private homes and community buildings such as the post office. The sputtering silver mines first wound down in 1882, sputtered again during an 1898 revival and emptied out entirely by the 1920s. While the demise of Aurum was somewhat uneventful, a tragic event cast a shadow over its history: In 1884, an avalanche destroyed a boarding house in Doughburg, killing several men, who were then buried in the town cemetery.
SOME OF WHAT’S LEFT: Scattered graves, remains of a mill, rusty pieces of track and remnants of mining equipment.
WHAT HAPPENED: God drew settlers to Harrisburg. In 1862, a handful of Mormons were called by the LDS church to the banks of the Virgin River in Utah, not far from the doomed town of Grafton. They used the area’s abundant river rock to construct their small settlement. Unfortunately, Harrisburg’s fate paralleled Grafton’s. Native American attacks, grasshopper plagues, floods and the eventual diversion of water away from the homestead doomed the Mormon settlement. By 1891, most of Harrisburg had headed for higher ground. A notable exception was the Adams family, who had no interest in questioning the church despite all signs indicating otherwise. But when Orson Adams was widowed in 1892, he finally threw in the towel and headed for Leeds, Utah. By 1895, the last stragglers had moved on, and Harrisburg emptied for good.
SOME OF WHAT’S LEFT: Several foundations, a crumbling stone wall, the restored home of Orson Adams, a white picket fence and a dirt road.
All photos courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management. Bob Wick (Garnet); BLM New Mexico/Flickr (Lake Valley); L. Martin (Aurum); Iris Picat (Harrisburg)