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History lessons on Oregon's ghost towns

Antelope, Ore., started its downward spiral into ghosttowndom after a mysterious fire sparked up in the bowling alley in 1897 (we're guessing it wasn't started by the automatic ball return). The town, located between Bend and The Dalles off Highway 97, was at its peak that year, population 170, with a blacksmith shop, a drugstore, a barbershop, a community hall and, of course, entertainment mecca of Antelope, the bowling alley. After the fire swept through downtown, destroying most of the business district, Antelope never bothered to completely rebuild.

The town had a brief resurgence during land battles between cattlemen and sheepmen in the early 1900s in which the cattlemen slaughtered tens of thousands of sheep and burned down sheep sheds and haystacks, turning Antelope into the ranchers' scorched warzone. And lest we forget, a religious Indian cult occupied a ranch in what the town now refers to as the Rajneesh invasion (1981-1985, commemorated with a plaque in the town square). The new residents officially changed the town's name to Rajneesh. In an act of bioterrorism, cult members sprinkled salmonella in local salad bars to affect the outcome of a school board election in nearby The Dalles, Ore.

Now, Antelope is home to only 47 people and only one post office. The Rajneeshees are gone, the bowling alley is a distant memory, and the 0.48 square miles of land with some sagging buildings officially is deemed a ghost town.

This week, Know Your City, a Portland-based tour company, will make its way around Wasco County, most of which seems to be deserted, in a school bus to learn about Antelope and other abandoned towns in Eastern Oregon.

"You don't really think about these towns, but they were pretty instrumental in how Oregon was built," said Marc Moscato, one of the organizers of the tour.

The bus will stop in the forgotten ruins of the once-booming towns of Boyd, disincorporated 1955 and described by author Nancy Zopf as "a Road, a Railroad, and a Country Store"; current population, zero. Then on to Dufur and Friend, which consists of the remains of the Friend Store, a one-room schoolhouse, and a cemetery. The tour continues to Shaniko, whose mayor, JC Fowlie, was shot dead in the streets of town by Del Howell, after suggesting that Mr. Howell was drunk and should go to bed; current population, 36.

"A lot of the towns were built on the railroad, and there's a history of unsavory factors," said Moscato. "From cowboy stories, outlaws, racism, sundown laws, rot gut whiskey, bootleggers to prostitution and bordellos."

Keith F. May, a Pendleton native and former graduate level history professor, is the authority on ghost towns in Oregon. Author of the book "Ghosts of Times Past: A Road Trip of Eastern Oregon Ghost Towns" along with 11 other volumes of history, May will serve as a guide on the bus tour, telling stories and teaching riders what a being a ghost town really means.

"What's fascinating is the evolution of these towns," explained May, aka the Cosmic Cowboy. "Why some towns survived and why some didn't. What made towns like Bend survive and ones like Antelope not?"

After a lot of storytelling and a night stay in Mitchell, Ore., the tour will stop at the Painted Hills John Day Fossil Beds National Monument for a geological history lesson.

Ghosts of Times Past: Central Oregon Tour

Saturday 20

Leaving from Union Station, Portland

Tickets must be purchased in advance and are available at knowyourcity.org.

$95. Ticket does not include lodging.

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