I was hooked on ghost-town photography the instant I viewed my pal’s photographs of Belmont, Nevada—the crumbling old buildings, abandoned mining equipment, dilapidated fire truck, crumbling courthouse, and all manner of detritus scattered through the site. Images flashed through my mind of the town in 1905, when it was fully functional as the county seat of Nye County. That was almost thirty-five years ago. Since then, I’ve been an avid aficionado of the ghost-towning craft.
Caution. Ghost towning can be serious business that requires a detailed operating scheme and sober execution. Consistently, I have found that it takes me one day of planning for every day in the field. I block out our routes on several scaled typographic maps and make a proposed schedule for each day.
Note. I always travel with a trusted partner—one who can take charge of the operation. We carry extra water, communication gear, and survival equipment. Please see my monograph Ghost Towning for Fun, Adventure, and Discovery for details.
Background. Over the years, I’ve made approximately fifty trips into Western states to document ghost towns and mining camps. At first, I focused my activities in Nevada, with its wealth of interesting sites. Often, the sites with the most attractive remains are buried deep in the mountains. Traveling to such sites requires a four-wheel drive vehicle and an experienced driver. I recall our trip to Gold Park in Nevada—it was a serious four-wheel drive up a steep, rocky trail in the Shoshone Mountains. At times, very carefully we just inched along. Frequently, I had to clear rocks from the trail. Finally, after several hours, we spotted the top of the head frame. Great site. We spent a couple of hours photographing—a material reward for the strenuous trip.
Sometimes, after an arduous trip to a site, we have been disappointed. All that remained of the site was a hole in the ground and a couple of tin cans. Occasionally, there was nothing remaining—absolutely nothing.
There are a few great ghost towns on paved highways—for example, Orla in Reeves County, Texas, where many ruins sit alongside the highway. Another is Moapa, Clark County, Nevada, about forty miles northeast of Las Vegas. In its heyday, Moapa was a Union Pacific town. When I visited Moapa, twenty-two years ago, the site was well preserved: four or five wood buildings, some concrete structures, and the usual detritus.
Exhibition. In the summer of 2004, fifty-three of my Nevada ghost-town photographs were displayed in the Nevada State Library, Carson City, Nevada.
Preservation. It’s imperative that we understand that ghost towns are precious remnants of our past—fragile and nonrenewable resources. They are vulnerable to a harsh environment, artifact collectors, and lawless vandals, all of which have done incredible damage to these sites. Enjoy your visits and be an assiduous conservator in protecting them—take out everything you brought to the site and leave everything that you did not bring to it.
There are strict federal and state laws protecting our ghost towns. Yet, some folks ignore those laws to satisfy their illegal and untoward activities: serious looting, senseless damage, and infantile graffiti. I’ve seen it all, and then some. Once a ghost town is sacked, it’s lost forever.