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Monday, October 24, 2011

Ghost Towns

Gold rush (and generally rush for any precious metals) has given birth to towns which soon would have anything a town should have: a hospital with a doctor and a nurse, a casino, a red light district, gunslingers and gamblers, and, of course, one or two churches. But this was in the good old days of golden times. Gold and silver are longtime exhausted, people left in search of better horizons, and what remained is what we can see today: houses where wind is the master and ghosts are his advisers.

Elkhorn is home to Montana’s smallest state park — only one acre — designated to protect Gillian Hall and Fraternity Hall, two of the best-preserved remnants of Elkhorn’s 1880s glory days. Located about 40 miles southeast of Helena, Elkhorn was a silver town, and unlike other boomtowns was populated by couples, including many from Europe. That perhaps explains the prominence of the halls, which were the heart of the social community. Theater, prizefights, a brass band and a glee club all met here, and baseball games, bowling and horse racing were other forms of entertainment.

Silver was king during the 1880s in Calico, which had 500 silver ore mines that paid out $12 million to the miners lucky enough to make their fortune here before it ran out. The town in San Bernardino County has been preserved and restored as a historical landmark and is a fun place to explore around Halloween, when weekends turn the town into a Ghost Haunt festival. Take cemetery tours, attend the dead wedding, carve pumpkins and more. Road trippers take note: This is a great side trip from Route 66 near Barstow.

In its heyday, Bodie put the wild in the Wild West. It began in 1861 as a humble home to about 20 miners. Less than two decades later, an estimated 10,000 people crammed into Bodie, creating a scene straight out of a Hollywood movie cast with prostitutes, gunslingers and gamblers. During the glory days, miners pulled more than $14 million in gold and silver from the Standard Mine, so they had plenty of money to spend on extracurricular activities at the 65 local saloons. Come Sunday morning, however, there were only two churches where they could repent. Bodie today is a state park with about 100 buildings still standing, including the jail, livery and gambling hall.

The tiny town of Scenic made headlines in August when it was sold for $799,000 to a church in the Philippines. The township, named Scenic because of its proximity to Badlands National Park, consists of about 12 acres, some padlocked buildings, the Longhorn Saloon and the post office (still operational). It’s unclear what the church’s plans are for the ghost town.

You couldn’t ask for a prettier setting for a ghost town, and Cripple Creek makes the most of it. This national historic district southwest of Colorado Springs preserves the feel of the days in 1890 when 10,000 or more prospectors flooded to the area mines in search of gold. They found it — by some counts more than $500 million worth was pulled from the region's mines. Pikes Peak or bust! was the rallying cry back then, but today people come here for attractions such as the narrow-gauge railroad, mine tours, gold panning, shows at the restored Butte Theater and the casinos. Events are scheduled throughout the year, such as the spooky Cemetery Tour, scenic aspen tour for fall leaf-peepers and, in winter, an ice-carving festival.

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