What is it about our fascination with those abandoned places known as ghost towns? Are we hoping to find some long lost treasures? Are we bearing witness to the impermanence of humanity and the overwhelming, timeless power of Mother Earth? Or, is it that deep down we are hoping to see an actual ghost? My toddler was rooting for this last option: the slimier (a la Ghostbusters), the better.
Our trip was inspired by a ghost town road-trip map on the website “That Oregon Life” that we were pretty sure no one else had actually driven.
We printed out the directions because where we went there is no wi-fi or cell service. My wife, two sons (ages 3 and 14), and I made the trip on the cheap: camping, packing food and driving a Prius. The three-day trip cost us $150.
As with many of the towns on our trip, the hopeful pavement gave way to a single lane of dirt along the Cornucopia Highway. Cornucopia was once the sixth largest mining operation in the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century. There were several waves of gold strikes in the town with the population fluctuating from 700 men at its peak, down to about a dozen at its low.
The nail in the coffin for Cornucopia, and many of the easternmost Oregon ghost towns, was the closing of all gold mining operations in the United States by Limitation Order Number 208 of the War Production Board in 1942. They wanted miners to focus on producing metals for World War II.
The main attraction in Cornucopia is the old jail. Several jailhouses seemed to survive in the ghost towns. Because they were built to last? Or, did someone think they might need them again?
Originally known as Cracker City, Bourne is another former gold mining town. In 2013, Bourne was the site of a reality TV show called Ghost Mine, which involved people looking for ghosts and gold. We found neither.
Today, Bourne is still home to 10 or so pleasant people. We found about as many abandoned structures as inhabited places. A couple of the folks offered us a jolly “hello” as they sat around their morning fire.
About six miles south of Bourne is Sumpter. Labeled a ghost town, it is very much alive and ready for tourists. Sumpter holds the record (by my unofficial count) for most pot shops in a “ghost town.” There were two.
Sumpter’s heyday as a gold mining boomtown was in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Founded by a few Confederate soldiers and named, with bad spelling, after Fort Sumter, you’ll find a different kind of ghost — the Confederacy — alive and well in this little hamlet. The Stars and Bars flew near one of the saloons. To be fair, even though everyone we saw was white, all the residents were incredibly nice to our interracial family.
The centerpiece of Sumpter is its historic dredge. Before it was forced into retirement, this device scooped up buckets of gold-bearing earth into its bowels, where it kept the gold and “pooped out” the waste, or tailings. In its lifetime, it collected about $180 million in gold (by today’s value).
With the 90-degree sun beating down, the kids needed ice cream. Unfortunately, Sumpter was not the kind of tourist trap that had ice cream. Unfortunate, because ice cream became our toddler’s fixation for the next 24 plus hours as we traveled the lone, desolate, ice cream-less roads on Oregon’s east side.
With a population of 38, Granite is considered the fourth smallest incorporated city in Oregon behind our next stop, Greenhorn, and the final stops of Lonerock and Shaniko. Founded in the 1860s during a gold boom, it also died unceremoniously with the introduction of Order No. L-208. The population dipped to two in 1960.
These days, there are two employers in Granite: The Lodge and The Outback, which sell fuel, supplies and food. Both were closed. Granite also has a museum that is housed in a former schoolhouse.
As in other ghost towns, newer homes in Granite were clearly designed to match the aesthetic of the older derelict structures.
We didn’t see a single car on the 13-mile, one-lane, axle-breaking road to Greenhorn. With no phone reception or any signs of help nearby, I experienced endless anxiety thinking about what would happen if the boulders in the road left our Prius inoperable.
Greenhorn was yet another gold boomtown abandoned by Order No. L-208, and it felt like a true ghost town. The latest census numbers (2010) put its population at zero, but the Baker City Herald recently reported there are two year-round residents and 20 part-time residents. Nonetheless, Greenhorn advertises that it’s the smallest (population 0) and highest (elevation 6,306) incorporated city in Oregon.
We assumed every structure was abandoned and were bold in our exploration of the town. We went in outhouses. We messed around with rusty stuff. We ignored a sign warning of “Danger Snakes.” We looked for ice cream.
There was an old store with a sign that said, “Come in we’re open.” We went in but didn’t take anything. Our rule was to leave every place as we found it.
Only when we were leaving town did it become clear we weren’t alone: We saw a couple newer model vehicles in the driveway of a cabin. Awkward.
On the final day of our tour, paved roads led us to Galena and gave us hope (soon dashed) of smooth travels for the day. Galena was a mining community formed near the confluence of Elk Creek and Middle Fork John Day River. Named for the galena ore in the area, the town offered plenty of evidence of its mining background along the tailing-lined highway. There wasn’t really anywhere to pull over in Galena. We stopped in a driveway to view a church and old store. There were a handful of inhabited homes nearby.
The next stretch of road on U.S. 395 was nothing short of breathtaking. We soared high above the quiet valley divided by the sparkling river then turned at Long Creek for Monument, where pink rocks formed walls along the highway.
From Monument to Hardman, we went off road again. We didn’t need to. If you stay on paved roads, it only adds four minutes to the trip. But, what’s the fun in that? We took NF-22. Every traffic sign had at least three bullet holes. Somebody hates these signs.
Hardman used to be referred to as “Rawdog,” “Yellardog” and “Dogtown.” Europeans settled the area in the 1870s as a farming and ranching community. The population peaked at 193 in 1920 and is around 20 today.
Everyone was out when we stopped by. An A-frame sign in barely-legible cursive told us to slow down for an event. Older adults kept pulling up, carrying their best potluck dishes. Elsewhere, a group of greasy men worked on cars. The town was bustling.
Hardman embraces its ghost town status. It has a couple wooden ghosts in front of the Hardman IOOF Lodge Hall. Another guy was riding his ATV around, sharing information about the town.
We found we weren’t the only tourists. An older couple in a white Mustang convertible was doing a (paved) tour of eastern Oregon. Excited to finally see other tourists, we exchanged notes sharing the camaraderie of the road.
The desolate dirt roads to Lonerock are brutal. We passed only one other vehicle on the 22-mile drive. Founded in the 1880s as a service center for ranchers, Lonerock was never a sizable town, sporting only 82 people at its height in the 1930s. Today, it has 22 residents.
Lonerock was like The Twilight Zone. Despite parked cars and other clear evidence of people living in the town, we didn’t see anyone during the half hour we were there. We parked by the Community Hall and walked to the eponymous “lone rock,” situated behind the church. Along the way, we passed the “post office” (a line of mailboxes), a lawnmower-bicycle contraption and a beautiful home that used to be the schoolhouse.
The surviving residents in ghost towns make use of the older structures to house animals, for added storage or even renovating them to live in. In remote areas, you make do with what’s available.
The road to Shaniko featured several attractions: the quaint town of Condon (where we finally found ice cream), bonus ghost towns of Mayville and Antelope, and the John Day Fossil Beds Hancock Field Station.
Shaniko can trace its roots to just after the Civil War, when August Scherneckau settled there. By 1910, it was a happening factory town of about 500 residents. At its peak, Shaniko was known as the “Wool Capital of the World” thanks to its wool, sheep, cattle and wheat production facilities serving everywhere from the Cascade Range to Idaho. It was also a transportation hub. However, when the Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Company bypassed Shaniko and built a direct route between Portland and Bend, the town succumbed to its ghostly fate.
Today, with about 37 residents left, Shaniko celebrates its ghost town status. It was the most touristy of all of our destinations. The oldest buildings were clearly labeled and doubled as museums.
It was a sweet end to a trip we will remember for the rest of our lives. We learned something new about our state, and grew a little as Oregonians.
It also taught us that we are just renting this land. As we move on, a combination of future generations and nature will quickly remove all but the faintest evidence of our existence.