A photographic journey through Montana’s vanished towns

  • Neeko and Rylee Ferguson watch their grandmother Julia Ferguson drive a combine near Cartersville.

    Jeremy Lurgio
  • Karl Morledge skis with his grandson across the icy lake near Alpine, actually a small group of private cabins.

    Jeremy Lurgio
  • Frank Hartman gazes at the old schoolyard in Horton; his father, the town's last resident, was killed by a train a year before the town was erased from the map.

    Jeremy Lurgio
  • The community of Flatwillow preserved the old hall and began hosting annual community dances like those of the hall's heyday.

    Jeremy Lurgio
  • Frank Hartman walks by old farm equipment in Horton.

    Jeremy Lurgio
  • Seen through a knothole in an old structure, the sun sets on the remnants of Vananda, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has kept its place on the map despite being uninhabited.

    Jeremy Lurgio
  • A few families still farm near the town of Fergus.

    Jeremy Lurgio
  • Julia Ferguson drives a combine near the town of Cartersville, a former stop on the Milwaukee Railroad.

    Jeremy Lurgio
  • A handful of families call Christina home, where a red barn with the words "Christina, Montana" marks its existence.

    Jeremy Lurgio
  • One of the few remaining structures in Moorhead.

    Jeremy Lurgio

Note: This story is part of a special HCN magazine issue devoted to travel in the West. We recommend that you use the Gallery View option to enjoy these photographs.

When I arrived at the crossroads of Cartersville Road and Highway 446, I expected to photograph only a decrepit old schoolhouse; after all, I was searching for a vanished town called Cartersville, which had shrunk so small that Montana's state government dropped it from the official state highway map. Instead, I saw signs of life: two farm kids standing on a truck in the field while their grandmother drove a combine. They led me to several farming families, who steered me to an old-timer who had lived there his entire life, and they filled me in on the history of Cartersville.

That was just one of the intriguing experiences I had in my recent exploration of nine towns that were erased from the Montana map 12 years ago. I also visited nine tiny towns that the state considered erasing but ultimately kept on the map.

Their stories, past and present, offered an unusual perspective on the fragility of place in the rural West. These towns were the smallest of the small -- one family, one year-round resident, one schoolhouse or one grain elevator. Ironically, I discovered that some towns that had vanished from the map more than a decade ago had as much life in them as some that remained.

If the last man in Horton, Mont., hadn't been struck by a train, Horton might not have vanished from Montana's highway map. One hundred fifty miles away, the community of Flatwillow faced the same fate, but the town's two families fought for their spot on the map and won.

For a photographer and adventurer, this was the perfect lens for exploring Montana. I found honest characters, back-roads lessons in history and unique Montana landscapes. After 7,000 miles on the road, I learned what the Montana Department of Transportation learned: When you propose erasing a town, it's about so much more than just words on a map.

The next time you itch for adventure, pull out an old map and compare it to a new map. Look for towns in your state that have seemingly disappeared. Hit the gravel roads in search of homestead shacks, abandoned post offices, grain elevators, schoolhouses and stories of places that used to be.

Jeremy Lurgio is a freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer, and an assistant professor of photojournalism and multimedia at The University of Montana School of Journalism in Missoula, Mont. His full "Lost & Found Montana" project can be viewed at www.lostandfoundmontana.com.

Linda VanFossan
Linda VanFossan says:
Mar 21, 2013 08:37 AM
Great article. One of the most enjoyable reads ever! Thanks HCN!!
mike ferguson
mike ferguson says:
Mar 23, 2013 08:25 AM
This is a very great story i grew up there and yes them are my childern
karolynk11@yahoo.com says:
Mar 26, 2013 03:15 PM
Nice photos but wish they had captions so the rest of us would know where these places are (other than Flatwillow). The author could just as easily do the same thing out here in western Kansas.
Ray Ring
Ray Ring says:
Mar 26, 2013 03:48 PM
The photos do have captions, but it's a bit tricky -- hold your cursor over each photo and the appropriate caption appears. Thanks for your interest. -- Ray Ring, HCN senior editor
john yingling
john yingling says:
Mar 30, 2013 03:09 AM
As someone who has just 6 months ago moved to Montana, for a year total, from a life in the midwest, you know I like this article. Great photos. The area keeps blowing me away, and I'm sure a full summer will seal it up as being one of the best experiences one could ever have. Cheers.