Ghost Towns of America

Independence, Colorado

By: Grainne Rhuad

I love ghost towns.  They are amongst my favorite places to stop off on any trip.  Full of history and stories, both told, untold and muffled.  Or imagined, however you chose to look at it.

I can remember one summer, when we stopped at the ghost town of Independence.  Once the highest town in America.  Independence, sitting atop the continental divide in Colorado.  Or should I say slumping, as it was gradually sliding down the steep mountainside and likely had been since its inception.

Human beings aren’t meant to live at such elevations and the town was only there due to Silver.  Once the silver mine there played out, it disappeared leaving only foundations and a few shacks.

I sat there that summer in the chilly sun, while my small ones scrambled in and out of the doorways pretending they were pioneer children.  I sat in the grass that never grew tall smelling wildflowers huddled close to the ground that smelled sweet but could not last and dreamed stories of women beleaguered by chores at such an elevation.  Women who in my mind begged their husbands to move to the lower elevations where life would be easier if only because it were easier to breathe.  Women who dreamed of going to Denver where perhaps they could wash their laundry at a mile high and hang it without losing their breath rather than take half a day with it as it surely did at five miles high.

It was an impossible town and so lasted only a scant amount of years.  It had likely few stories.

There are other towns with more stories.  Like the gold rush town I lived in when I was little; Columbia, California, which is still there as a working and living town.  Gold is still in those hills but it’s also a tourist town.  When I was little we received free rent for our cabin if we dressed up during the day in period dress and my mum hung her laundry out front for the tourist to look at.  They watched us and pointed from the stage coach during the day.  The same coach we caught rides on in the evening as it went through the back of the town to the barn.  We stared at them too, the visitors.  I was only four but it seemed strange to me that they would pay money to have their picture taken on the back of my mule Mariah in town, which is how my family made money for the year we were there.

What I am wondering now is if we should expect to see more ghost towns in our country’s landscape.  Unsustainable towns that used to have what Politians like to call “main streets.” Mom and Pop shops and small individualized economies.  Like fishing towns on the coast, which surely will pass away with the infections of the sea and our fear of heavy metals and nuclear fish or farming communities that can no longer exist due to wall street tycoons buying up farms over the last 20 years as they saw the crash coming before we did.

With coal mining raging unchecked and polluting water to the point where it is undrinkable, unusable even for irrigation in places like Blair, West Virginia, will these places become new ghost towns or Tatoine-like outposts with few people manning them while the rest of us pile up in cities?

21-peer reviewed study confirmed that people living near the mountaintop removal cites of Blair are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer and 42 percent more likely to be born with birth defects compared with other communities in the Appalachia region.  Local communities near such projects have a 70 percent increased risk for developing kidney disease, and there are 313 excess deaths every year from coal-mining pollution.

While it is clear that government interests do not care about people as much as they do coal; as was made evident when the trial of the Spruce permit was derailed by a photo taken of a 5 year old bathing in polluted water; which was labeled porn and can no longer be found or seen. (Links to it have been broken pending pornography allegations); what is not clear is what if any plan is in place for the ultimate migration of people who will no longer be able to sustain life in these areas.

The landscape of our country is changing.  What will it end up looking like?  Cities overcrowded because we refuse to believe in global warming?  Even to the point of outlawing it in some states like Texas, Virginia and North Carolina.

Some people still believe in rural areas being the best places to be, but if we decimate our rural landscape to support our nation’s urban lifestyles what choice will be left to people other than to adapt to dwindling resources or move to the cities which will also eventually run out of resources.

The landscape of a country always changes.  Of course going home to our hometowns after leaving makes them look and feel smaller, different.  However we may be sending off the first generation that will bring their children to a museum, a ghost town of their hometowns.  The quickness and cavalier attitude with which we are depleting our resources and ability to live in areas is frightening.

And it makes me remember Independence, Colorado which sprang up and disappeared within 11 years.  It makes me wonder who will be sitting on my foundations making up stories…It might be me.