Ghost Towns of Route 66: Not So Spooky Remnants of Old West
Take any stretch of famous Route 66 and Jim Hinckley can tell you just about every bush, corner and building in the area.
Hinkley has traversed the highway for nearly 40 years and compiled an impressive list of travel guides on his favorite subject--ghost towns.
“Ghost towns have always had a fascination for people,” said Hinckley, author of Ghost Towns of Route 66. “There’s a romanticism associated with them.”
Sometimes it’s a yearning to understand our past. Sometimes it’s simple curiosity of how people lived and what they did and why they left. Sometimes it’s the Hollywood factor as if the spirit of Wyatt Earp may emerge at any moment.
Robust communities faced financial turmoil as their fortunes turned in an instant. Mines petered out. Some areas became targets for eminent domain and were converted to military bases. Or bureaucrats thousands of miles away established new highway routes that circumvented thriving towns.
“Politics plays a big part,” Hinckley said, recalling how new highways impacted small towns along Route 66. “The plan for Interstate 40 bypassed these old towns. They died in a few years when the business closed and most of the residents moved out.”
Places like San Juan, New Mexico, felt the sting of rejection when Highway 40 sent speeding drivers north of the town. San Juan was part of the historic Santa Fe Trail, and it still evokes images of dusty trails for history buffs like Hinckley.
“Since I was a kid I always loved history and cars,” Hinckley said. “I saw this black and white picture of my grandfather Robert sitting on a front porch with Henry Ford, and that made me curious.”
Problem was, nobody in the family knew anything about the photo. The young Hinckley took it upon himself to dig for an answer. What he uncovered was a man swept into the rising tide of the automobile industry in nearby Detroit.
Southeastern Michigan of the early 1900 was the equivalent of today’s Silicon Valley. Hundreds of companies vied for a piece of the booming demand. The expanding supply chain--vehicle assembly houses, tire manufacturers, parts suppliers, engine manufacturers--catapulted America into the world’s top manufacturer and created a well-to-do class of entrepreneurs.
Grandpa Hinckley was among them. Born in Michigan a year after the Civil War ended, the elder Hinckley settled in a farming community of Jackson. The house was so big his two sons later converted it into a quadruplex building.
The elder Hinckley was an industrious tinkerer and worked as a machinist for auto pioneer David Buick. He also took out a patent on a coaster brake for bicycles, invested in real estate, established a tool factory and became a founding member of Hacket Automobile. His relationship to Henry Ford and the story of the mysterious photo remained unknown, however.
“Nobody in our family really knew,” Hinckley said. “But I loved cars and history ever since.”
Jim’s father, Robert, moved the family to Arizona in the 60s. Every year made the 2,000 mile drive from Arizona to the old farmhouse in Michigan via Route 66. Along the way they stopped at historic sites and abandoned towns.
As an adult, Hinckley continued to follow in his father’s steps. He logged tens of thousands of highway miles working a variety of jobs and can recite all the landmarks he’s visited during the last four decades.
“I went through my John Wayne stage in the 1970s,” Hinckley said. “I worked as a ranch hand and explored old western towns.
“The pay was brutal but it was the best job I ever had.”
At the time he also performed in rodeos throughout the Southwest. Traveling from show to show gave him an appreciation for the rich history of Arizona and New Mexico. He also discovered a serious disconnect between his long-term goals and life as a cowboy.
“I learned you don’t live very long doing that,” said Hinckley, who recalled how the gigs were fun but the mornings after were painful.
The budding wrangler traded stirrups for a pick and shovel. He worked briefly as a miner in underground and open pits. The dangerous work sent him deep into the earth where he learned the art of extracting precious minerals from volcanic rock.
The job paid a paltry wage and opened his eyes to the dangers of underground mining. He said he felt a kinship to laborers who flocked to small southwestern towns during the late 1800s and worked for large mining concerns. They used crude tools, worked long hours and lived paycheck-to-paycheck.
Places like Rholite, Nev., went from tent city in 1905 to a thriving metropolis within five years. Its meteoric rise precipitated an equally steep decline as mines played out.
Within 15 years it became a ghost town. Remnants of the town still exist and were used in several movies including The Island, a 2004 film starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson.
“It’s the boom and bust cycle,” Hinckley said. “It keeps me from taking life overly serious. You realize how fleeting things can really be.”
Hinckley replaced his miner’s helmet with a baseball cap and tractor-trailer rig. He joined for a national trucking firm and drove in a territory that included--what else?--Route 66. He was thrilled.
The gig gave Hinckley more opportunities for him to discover ghost towns and investigate their dimming history. Yet, life on the road didn’t fit his duties as a family man.
Hinckley developed what he called “I” trouble.
“I couldn’t see any reason to put up with their demands,” Hinckley said. “And they couldn’t see any reason to put up with my attitude.”
So he left. Now he spends his days writing about vehicles and ghost towns. Hinckley has filled stacks of notebooks with names and dates and locations and events.
While each ghost town offered a unique story, Hinkcley unravelled a few common threads leading to their demise.
Mining towns never grew roots beyond their main employer. Once the mine played out, miners took their savings and their families elsewhere.
The sudden change impacted everyone from the barber to the grocer. Schools were closed.
Farming communities suffered the same fate for different reasons, Hinckley explained. They had thriving main streets with stores, bars, banks and perhaps a gas station--along with slow speed limits and stop signs. The interstate highway system circumvented Main Street America and enabled drivers to get from Point A to Point B quickly.
“They were old towns but their demise was modern,” Hinckley said. “Improvements to Route 66 bypassed Glenrio, Texas, with Highway 40. Within a year the town was closed except for one bar.”
Hinckley appointed himself unofficial historian of ghost towns before their stories are lost to time. He continues traveling the side roads and looking for details of a past he says helps explain our culture.
“Some of the western ghost towns get all the attention,” Hinckley said, encouraging drivers to take a side road on their next road trip. “But ghost towns are everywhere.”
Ghost towns litter the historical landscape of the United States, not just off of Route 66. Here are some fun day drives located near urban centers and along popular routes.
This ghost town. also known “Cahawba,” was founded in 1819 as a wilderness outpost adjacent along the Cahaba River. It served as the state capitol for seven years, became a haven for freed slaves after the Civil War and fell into disrepair by the end of the 19th Century. Today, the state parks department renovated buildings and turned it into an archeological park.
Home to some 5,000 people at its peak, Vulture City served the needs of Arizona’s most successful gold mining operation. The town was abandoned in 1942 as US War Production Board ordered the closing of non-essential mines during World War II. The town has been restored to it’s former glory.
A well-preserved mining community that operated from 1877 to 1940. Mines produced largely lead, zinc and silver.
Gold miners from the nearby canyons used Ballarat as a supply depot in 1897, and the community was defunct by 1905.
This town thrived in the 1880s through first decade of 1900s. It supported silver miners and was the distribution point for 20-mule teams hauling Borax from Death Valley.
Site of silver mining in the 1880s, Calico is a preserved park worth the visit. This historical landmark was was restored in the 1950s, and in 2005 was named "Silver Rush Ghost Town" by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Progress passed by Amboy when Interstate 40 superceded Route 66 as the main travel artery across the southern United States. Amboy became a ghost town, briefly marketed as a film prop and is now being restored as a historic destination.
A century of development, farming and government diversion projects turned the Salton Sea into a wasteland. There are still buildings from its era as resort destination. Since 2018 the area has become a mecca for squatters and graffiti artists.
The story is similar: Gold and silver drew prospectors from around the Unites States in search of fortune. Saint Elmo was founded in 1880 and peaked in the 1890s. Today, it still remains a highly preserved example of frontier life.
This mining community started on a homestead and became a boarding town for gold miners. It was operated by three brothers, whose father moved from Minnesota and dug the first gold mine in the area. The Smuggler Mine was built on a steep slope, and the three brothers worked in the mines as youngsters before establishing Dunton Hot Springs for other miners.
Built at an elevation of 11,000 ft. elevation, Animas Forks was established in the 1870s by gold prospectors. It is one of the highest mining sites in the United States and part of the Alpine Loop National Backcountry Byway https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpine_Loop_National_Back_Country_Byway
Abandoned mining town from 1860s.
Site of major gold discovery July 28, 1862.
Built during a silver mining boom of the 1870s, this town near Reno still offers an authentic slice of the old west.
Located in Death Valley National Park, Rhyolite was known as a rowdy frontier community
Spanish conquistadors mined in the area and gave up after finding only silver. The big boom came in late 1850s with discovery of gold. This town gained a well-deserved reputation as a lawless frontier settlement of Civil War veterans and star-eyed prospectors. Mining operations closed in the 1940s. In the 1990s it was restored and has become a popular destination about 45 minutes south of Las Vegas.
The community was founded in 1903 as a stop for the Rock island Railroad. In 1917, it became a popular stop for travelers along the Ozark Trail https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozark_Trail_(auto_trail). The town withered in 1975 when it was bypassed by Highway 40 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_40.
Another dusty Texas town that grew, declined and then grew and declined again. The first wave occurred 1890 as a stop for Pecos Valley Railroad. A second wave occurred in the 1960s during an oil and mineral boom. The original town still stands as a reminder of the bygone era while new businesses have moved in during a recent oil boom.
this town near the Rio Grande grew rapidly in the 1880s after discovery of canabar, an ore used for refining mercury. It’s population swelled to 20,00 residents. Today, abandoned mines and vacant buildings remind visitors of it’s mining past.
This coal mining town went from a population of about 10,000 residents in 1920 to 48 souls today. Mining operations started in the mid-1880s. Visitors can tour the W.K. Gordon Cetner of Industrial History https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._K._Gordon_Center_for_Industrial_History_of_Texas.
This authentic frontier town was built in the 1890s and gives a true taste of American western culture.
This ghost town is well preserved and was a stopping point along the Oregon Trail. South Pass City sprang to life in the Wyoming prairie and, like other small mining communities, diminished as prospecting tapered off. By the 1870s South Pass City was mostly abandoned.
This authentic ghost town of the 1870s includes 17 restored buildings and two museums. Visitors can delve into the rich yet tumultuous history of New Mexico--a period marked by the Lincoln Country War and notorious outlaws such as Billy the Kid. The Lincoln Country War is a deadly tale scripted for Hollywood, with rival cattle businesses competing for control.
This boom-to-ghost town served as a rail stop for coal and enjoyed its heyday during the first two decades of the 20th Century. Offices of Chesapeake and Ohio Railway filled the towns coffers and supported a thriving community that also became a tourist destination. Up to 15 passenger trains arrived daily and carried 95,000 visitors annually. As demand for coal dwindled so did the population. Some seven residents still call this historic town home.