The best friend on earth of man is the tree: when we use the tree respectfully and economically we have one of the greatest resources of the earth.
Western ghost towns that sprang to life after the discovery of precious metals, usually disappeared just as quickly.
For a brief moment in time, they enjoyed prosperity and a bustling existence, with hotels, shops and saloons. As soon as the metals were depleted, or the railroad changed its route, the towns were suddenly deserted.
But some towns can be reborn. Here are four area ghost towns that have enjoyed a second life as tourist attractions, and are worth exploring.
Virginia City/Nevada City, Montana
Virginia City is a remarkably well-preserved western gold mining town located 50 miles west of Yellowstone National Park (90 miles by road). Here you’ll be transported to a time when rowdy miners mingled in barrooms and desperados roamed the streets.
When gold was first discovered in nearby Alder Gulch in the spring of 1863, several towns blossomed as trade and amusement centers for the miners. Virginia City was the best known of these and one of the few survivors. In fact, by the fall of 1863, it had attracted more than 7,000 residents. It was named the Capitol of the Montana Territory from 1864 to 1875.
Today, more than 100 of Virginia City’s historic buildings have been carefully restored, along with a 1910 steam locomotive and a stagecoach.
Its sister city, Nevada City, is located just 1.5 miles away (a 20-minute train ride). Here, you’ll find 14 historic buildings original to the site, plus a collection of more than 100 historic buildings that were moved from locations all over the state.
The Nevada City Music Hall houses the world’s largest public collection of historic music machines, including pipe organs and player pianos, and even a player violin. All of Nevada City is operated as an outdoor museum. Visit nearby Alder Gulch, where you and the kids can actually pan for gold.
South Pass City, Wyoming
South Pass City, 35 miles south of Lander and just north of the Oregon Trail, is one of the most authentic and complete historic sites in the West.
The town was built in 1867 after gold was discovered in the Sweetwater Mining District. When the Carissa Mine struck a rich vein, hundreds of prospectors rushed to the area, hoping to finally find the mother lode. Within a year, the town’s population soared to 2,000 residents.
Although that first boom only lasted a couple of seasons, it helped establish mining as the foundation for Wyoming’s economy. As eager miners and investors became rudely acquainted with the realities of profitably working the Sweetwater Mines, the gold rush faded into a bust.
The Carissa Mine would be periodically revived over the years, but it never returned to its former glory days. By 1872, most of the people had moved away. But two more booms — first ranching and then tourism — have kept South Pass City alive.
Gold was first discovered at Kirwin, high on the Wood River in 1885. By 1894, the Shoshone River Mining Company and formed and the first ore was shipped from Kirwin by mule in 1897. Before long, Kirwin became well established, with 200 residents occupying 38 buildings, including boarding houses, a hotel, a saw mill, a post office, stores and homes.
Kirwin is located on U.S. Forest Service land at the head of the spectacular Wood River Valley. This small ghost town is surrounded by breathtaking mountain peaks that top 12,000 feet, and is a treasure trove for historians.
Unlike most mining boom towns, however, Kirwin had no cemetery, saloons or brothels. Stagecoaches made the 34-mile trip between Kirwin and Meeteese every other day.
Winters were brutal with deep snows, freezing temperatures, long months of isolation, and the threat of avalanches. In 1907, a massive avalanche roared down Brown Mountain, sweeping several buildings into the Wood River and killing three people. Most of the miners and their families packed up and left the following spring.
Today, many buildings, remnants of buildings and pieces of mining equipment remain in Kirwin, allowing the visitor a glimpse into the past. However, the terrain is rugged; you’ll need a 4WD vehicle in order to get there (or perhaps a bicycle)…
Grovont/Mormon Row, Wyoming
Closer to home, of course, is Mormon Row (also known as Grovont). This abandoned settlement is one of the most iconic historic districts in the state. Unlike most western ghost towns, Grovont was not associated with mining. Instead, it’s one of the country’s best representations of an 1890’s small western farming community.
Grovont consisted of a-four mile stretch of 27 homesteads and ranch houses just southeast of Black Tail Butte. Today you’ll find solidly-built (if decaying) remnants of a community that once thrived, although it would not be considered prosperous by today’s standards.
The Mormon community was comprised mostly of ranchers, who raised cattle to pay for their necessities. The community members subsisted on elk meat in the winter, hogs in the summer, huckleberries, a few root vegetables and milk from local dairies.
Despite the harsh conditions of Jackson Hole, these Mormon settlers grew their crops by using irrigation. They dug ditches by hand and with teams of horses. The intricate network of levees and dikes they built funneled water from central ditches to their fields. In fact, water still flows in some of these ditches.
Over the early part of the 20th century, Grovont became a vibrant community with log barns, granaries, pump houses, a school and, of course, a church. Alas, beginning in the 1950s, the Snake River Land Company began buying up the plots of ground. They offered life leases to the older homesteaders, allowing them to stay for the duration of their lifetime; the last plot was sold in 1990.
Today, of course, Mormon Row is part of the Grand Teton National Park.
To get there, drive north from Jackson along Highway 191. Pass Moose Junction and turn right onto Antelope Flats Road. Follow this road about 1.5 miles until you reach a pink stucco house on the left with a small dirt parking area.