All across the Western region of North America lie towns once thriving with saloons, miners, opera houses and the occasional pistol duel. Nowadays, these locales have faded into dusty villages populated with tumbleweeds and rickety buildings. Ghost towns in the U.S. and Mexico represent a bygone frontier era fueled by silver and gold, and while the hunt for precious metals may have dried up these local economies, leaving solitude in its wake, these olden towns represent a unique piece of North American history and a glimpse into the past.
Virginia City, Montana
Few places capture the look and feel of the classic ghost town quite like Montana. This sprawling western state is home to a myriad of ghost towns in every corner of its vast landscape, each one reminiscent of bygone time of cowboys, miners and vigilantes. One of the state’s premiere destinations is Virginia City, a once-populous valley town in the shadows of Baldy Mountain and a mere 20 miles west of Yellowstone National Park. In the mid-1800’s, the town personified the Gold Rush, as a haven for miners flocking westward and establishing home base in an area just south of a promising gold site. With a booming populace of lusty prospectors, Virginian City quickly fell into the stereotypical ghost town pigeonhole of rampant robbery and murder, due to the town’s lack of law enforcement. As time went on, as the gold dried up and police-like agents mercilessly clamped down on crime, the town began to wane. Nowadays, it’s population is roughly 200, with the Bovey family responsible for preserving the barren land into a historical district for tourism. Nearly half of the buildings in the town pre-date 1900, retaining their “wild west” motifs and decor. Now owned by the government, Virginia City is a veritable museum in and of itself, home to a vintage hotel, a cemetery, a long-running summer theater program, tours, blacksmith shops, a steakhouse and gold panning activities.
Deadwood, South Dakota
Similar to Montana, South Dakota found itself in the throes of the Gold Rush during the 1800’s, begetting colorful towns like Historic Deadwood in the Black Hills. One of the most renowned and unique of its kind in the U.S., at one time home to famed Wild West figures like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, Deadwood stands as a prime example of Old America thriving in New America. By retaining its sense of history and the antiquated look of the frontier era, Deadwood is an immersive and interactive experience unlike any other ghost town in the states. It’s got the clamor and character one might imagine of a ghost town in its heyday, but nowadays the rampant crime and shoot-offs have been replaced by quaint hotels and Black Jack tables. Check out Mount Moriah Cemetery, resting place to some of the country’s most notorious outlaws. Built in 1877, not only is it awe-inspiring to experience, but it affords a beautiful vista of the town below. True to form, Deadwood popularly features reenactments with gunslingers and rodeos, while parades, boisterous saloons and allegedly haunted buildings provide different kinds of attraction. Deadwood’s oldest hotel, The Historic Bullock Hotel, is home to the ghost of Seth Bullock, the building’s original owner and a one-time sheriff.
From 2,000 residents down to 60, Terlingua, Texas, has changed substantially since its bustling popularity in the 1800’s, when prospectors flocked here for cinnabar. Even though it currently houses the most popular dinner and entertainment destination in the region, the Starlight Theatre, along with a quaint daytime cafe and numerous lodging options scattered across the property, Terlingua is the quintessential dusty ghost town that looks like it’s faded into its desert backdrop. Situated in a particularly sleepy portion of West Texas, on the fringes of Big Bend National Park, Terlingua remains a popular tourist destination for its rare glimpse into Texas’ mining past. It’s convenient location by the National Park, the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande makes it an apt stopover for outdoor enthusiasts looking for a unique place to rest their heads.
Guerrero Viejo, Tamaulipas
Just on the other side of the Rio Grande, in Mexico’s western Tamaulipas state, Guerrero Viejo is a city that was abruptly abandoned due to a flood from Falcon Lake. Due to its low elevation, the city remained submerged to some degree for years, and currently it’s a ghost town that acts like a tide pool, only accessible when the water ebbs. Prior to its flooding, the town went through several name changes since its colonization in the mid-1700’s, all the while serving as a hub for precious metal-mining for residents of nearby Texas and Nuevo Leon. Due to water damage, many buildings in this deserted town are rundown, while others have been uniquely preserved, in part by Mother Nature herself. The most famous example is the Church of Nuestra Señora del Refugio (aka the Church of Our Lady of Refuge), with original walls supported by new roof and interiors. In addition to visiting the town itself, many tourists like to fish in the lake and marvel at the might of the Rio Grande.
Mogollon, New Mexico
Nestled amidst its namesake Mogollon Mountains in western New Mexico, the sleepy town of Mogollon once buzzed with the riotous din of prospectors flocking into the nearby hills in search of silver and gold. A single mine called Little Fannie singularly employed a majority of the town’s population during the late 1800’s, which eventually ballooned to more than 3,000 people. Due in part to its mountainous isolation from the rest of the state, Mogollon exemplified the notion of the wild west; a solitary place where transient individuals could easily skirt what little law the town had. At one point, the town boomed with restaurants, saloons, brothels, stores, a theatre, a bakeshop and two red light districts. Over the years, in addition to diminishing resources, a series of unfortunate fires served to decimate Mogollon’s buildings and its population. Between World War I and World War II, its residents all but disappeared entirely. Currently preserved on the National Register of Historic Places, the once-wild town now contains several small businesses for visitors and the historic Silver Creek Inn, said to house ghosts for its heyday.
Atlantic City, Wyoming
Although the town of Atlantic City has long since quieted from its frenzied boomtown days in the late 1860’s, it’s still one of the liveliest ghost towns in the west. At one point, the town in western Wyoming, established as an encampment for nearby South Pass, entertained and enthralled passersby with a brewery, opera house and dance hall. Currently, it’s outfitted with numerous original log homes, a church, restaurant a mercantile store.