Maybe sadder are towns that don't realize they're dead, yet. Youth leaving for better opportunities elsewhere, generations erode until only old-timers sitting on sun-bleached porches remain. More abundant than ghost towns, dying towns receive few tourists; no one wants to view the terminal patient but the wake.
Central Oregon is an inhospitable landscape, making early migrant settlers some of the most stout in American memory. But the arid climate also preserves much of what they left behind - What Remains - on the high desert, hillsides and grasslands. Oregon is speckled with dozens of failed mining and/or forgotten towns, leaving us to wonder why a decrepit barn is so beautiful; have we learned from their mistakes?
Leaving Bend at pre-dawn before a mighty winter storm hits there are tumbleweeds blowing across Highway 97. How cliché - Going on a ghost town tour and Hollywood's symbol of desolation is raking before our headlights. Our goal is to see such places not in spring or summer but winter, when settlers felt the full wrath of Central Oregon. A 100-mile northeastern swoop, weather permitting, we pass the silent Madras stock auction yards at first light.
Wool is what put Shaniko on the map. Established in 1900 with a population of 172 at the terminus of the Columbia Southern Railway, Shaniko became the center of the "Wool Capital of the World" (Central Oregon at least) with sales exceeding $3 million in 1903 and $5 million by 1905. Within a decade, however, Bend played a part in the demise of Shaniko, when the competing Oregon Trunk railroad was completed along the Deschutes River. Shaniko was the end of the line by 1911, and a fire that same year consumed most of the downtown. World War I opened inexpensive wool imports from Australia, and Shaniko was mostly silent by 1942. You will find no cemetery because the ground is too hard, which is fitting because Shaniko's founders wouldn't recognize the town today.
Reminiscent of Lago, the town Clint Eastwood exorcised in the movie High Plains Drifter, Shaniko has been revived as a tourist destination by Dr. Pamplin. False clapboard fronts and annual events ("Shaniko Days" are held every August) bring tourist dollars to town. One business owner who refused to be named estimated the population at 25, "except when the grandkids are visiting." A decade ago his wife and sister were driving through, saw an old building needing fixing, so they stayed. Asked why people like to come to these towns, he groaned, "Beats the hell out of me."
Me too, on a miserably chilly day with 40 mph winds and no other tourists in sight.
Yet this town's former importance is obvious, and its structures impressive. And expensive - to maintain at least. When compared to pictures from Lambert Florin's 1973 book Ghost Towns of the West, Shaniko gets more love than most. The Shaniko School was built in 1902 and its unusual octagonal steeple stands proud with a fresh coat of paint; the Shaniko Hotel is truly authentic while the Shaniko Wedding Chapel awaits an eloping couple.
Taking 218 towards Antelope it all became clear. Shaniko is in fact misnamed - it should have been Schernechau - and has been bought before. The tourist ghost town behind us actually brought the end to the once thriving stagecoach town before us.
A half-mile south of Shaniko stands two structures: A double-cupola barn and a single-room shack whose sole occupant is a rusty mattress. This is where Shaniko started, at the intersection of two gullies where people boarded stagecoaches to The Dalles and beyond. Cross Hollows was a prosperous community with a post office built by John and Elizabeth Ward, who were then bought out by German immigrant August Schernechau in 1874. The local Indians are said to have liked August but mispronounced his surname as "Shaniko." With the departure of the postmaster in 1887, arrival of the railroad terminus and, ever essential, the discovery of water to the north, Cross Hollows was abandoned in favor of Shaniko.
Cross Hollows is an actual ghost town, population zero, exempting the dead badger someone slouched over a roadside stump. Other structures have crumbled, leaving only aged poplars as signs that more once stood here. Migrants often brought seeds to plant - lilacs and poplars - making circles of trees the sole evidence that this was once known as home.
The dozen-mile stretch to Antelope on 218 is like Lombard Street in San Francisco: S-curves as it descends through Big Pine Hollow, along Sore Foot Creek, into the valley named in 1862 after the antelope that once grazed there. Here too is another town killed by Shaniko - Antelope had one of the earliest post offices in Central Oregon in 1871, supplying ranchers and writing regional religious and murderous history for well over a century. The sign outside town reads "Welcome to Historic Antelope, Pop. 37" but the 2000 census shows a population boom of 59 total residents (we saw only one).
Similar to Shaniko, the structures of Antelope are period and well maintained. The little church recalls the town's early affluence, and recent upkeep, compared to photographs in Philip Varney's 2005 book Ghost Towns of the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile the decrepit jailhouse murmurs of murder. In 1885, Ed Gleason shot his business partner, Benjamin Pratt, dead, all due to rumors that Pratt had a crush on his wife. Gleason spent time in the jailhouse, and was later found justified of the killing.
A devastating fire in 1898 claimed most of the business district, and the establishment of Shaniko was fatal to Antelope. Still people were drawn here, including the founder of The Bend Bulletin, Max Luddemann, who married a local gal after building a chain of weekly newspapers, including the Madras Pioneer and the Ashwood Pioneer (based in another ghost town southeast of Antelope, of which little remains). Antelope's remoteness was only exacerbated when the state re-routed Hwy. 97 in 1917. But Antelope would be resurrected - rather divisively.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh arrived with thousands of devoted followers clad in red in 1981, and a cult-like commune was established outside Antelope. Their town soon renamed Rajneesh, Antelope looked more like Jonestown over the next four years, with charges ranging from food poisoning to embezzlement and immigration fraud. Rajneesh was ultimately deported. Facing an uncertain future, residents unincorporated the town and reverted to the original name of "Antelope" to avoid similar episodes. A plaque in town reads: "Dedicated to those of this community who throughout the Rajneesh invasion and occupation of 1981-1985 remained, resisted and remember..."
Curiously, Antelope's future is again entrusted to a religious group; Rajneesh's compound is now the Young Life church camp known as "Wild Horse Canyon."
Route 218 passes padlocked grange halls and corporate ranches, revealing a political, commercial past and present. Crossing John Day River at Clarno offers optimism but barns stripped of sun-dried boards are all that eager eyes can see. Entering a fertile valley of crushed velvet green peaks and ancient fossils, seasonal recreational seekers seem the sole sign of life.
For $3 anyone may dig behind the Wheeler High School in Fossil. The only public fossil field in the United States, Fossil is selling itself. As it must: Established in 1876 as a post office and made the county seat of Wheeler County in 1899, Fossil is now drawing tourists with annual rodeos and a fledgling bluegrass festival. Locals only seem to smoke Marlboros and Kent menthols here: "We stock what people buy..." said the woman at the market. She'd just said a mouthful. Still supplied by the gravity water system installed in 1899, the 500 or so residents of Fossil seem resigned to remote relegation.
The weather has held out but dark clouds and winds are growing in the distance. To the east are other ghost towns, Lonerock and Hardman, but we must make our way back to Bend so we don't find ourselves freezing overnight in structures proven deficient and abandoned long ago.
The church and school are both fenced, no trespassing allowed, perhaps because the pews of the church were removed and are now in the Fossil Museum; Richmond has suffered enough indignity. The community center is crumbling. A sampling of automobiles decomposes nearby. For such a splendid location - Iron Mountain in the distance - Richmond whispers a melancholy refrain. Century old echoes of a time when 450 people filled this little hamlet for the gathering of the Wheeler County Pioneers.
Now there's only a lonely dog and posted structures. So we drove away like all the rest. The automobile undermined Richmond; young people refused to stay - the school that once taught 40 students closed in 1952 with one teacher for one student. Four miles south of Richmond on 207 is the 1874 Waldron School, easily the best-preserved structure so far on our journey, yet another school lacking students.
Mitchell and the Ochocos
207 to 26 and Mitchell: A town dying faster than Fossil. The 170 or so residents surely sense this, having suffered multiple floods (1904 and 1960) and fires (1896 and 1899) along Bridge Creek. Sometimes you must accept that you simply aren't wanted.
A seasonal fishing and hunting town, Mitchell is for sale - A gray, frail building with a second-floor porch downtown is available for $69,000 "Price Reduced!" Leaving Mitchell, and only then seeing that town has crawled up the slope and wisely relocated at higher elevations to avoid flooding, we are heading for home, into the Ochocos and the face of the storm.
Oh, the Ochocos! Cabins and barns, in use or abandoned; route 26 is the only road to follow after eight hours and over two hundred miles of touring ghost towns. Wondering why we're attracted to ghost towns, others' failures, I now realize that we've missed the point.
They're everywhere - Wherever we go, Americans especially, we leave messes. Buildings soon to be abandoned, we are conspicuous constructors: Our failed mines and forgotten structures are evidence of our itinerant earnestness.
Yet, only in ghost towns is this so vivid because of the void. Of people: At one time, in each of these empty places, it was admitted that all is lost. They left so now we return, to wander, to wonder. What if Cross Hollows had said no to Shaniko? Antelope become atheist? Richmond ignored the automobile and invited the Amish? Are Starbucks our new Grange Halls?
In this age of pre-assembled structures and planned obsolescence, what will remain? Are we as sturdy as those before? Or will we leave only ruins - piles of aluminum siding, sinkholes from septic tanks, toxic earth beneath engine blocks? Cracked concrete, our contribution, our legacy. What remains is who we are.
"Who Shot Paulina?"
By April of 1867, Howard Maupin was enraged by the persistent theft of livestock. So Maupin, who ran a stagecoach line, rode out with rancher James Clark to Trout Creek. Finding stolen cattle, they shoot at several Indians. One was wounded in the hip and didn't return fire. Accounts vary on whose shot found the mark, Maupin's or Clark's; neither knew the significance at the time. Still they scalped the indian and left the body where it lay. Unbeknownst to Maupin or Clark they had killed Chief Paulina. Howard Maupin would get the credit and was later named postmaster of Antelope. Streets and a town named in his honor memorialized the deed. Meanwhile, lakes, valleys and peaks throughout Central Oregon eulogize Chief Paulina.