Tomorrow’s ghost towns are sprouting today


It’s hard to believe that in the late 1880s, Bannock, Mont., not far from present-day Dillon, was one of the fastest-growing, most wildly energetic communities in the West. The mining town was even proposed as the territorial capital. Today, it is a ramshackle collection of abandoned buildings surrounded by mine tailings, and open only as a quiet tourist attraction. It takes a powerful imagination to conjure up the place once considered the metropolitan hub of Montana Territory.

Or take Cisco, Utah, once a bustling little town serviced by highway and railroad, but then bypassed by Interstate 70. It now features a landscape of scattered and decaying buildings.

Throughout the West, from the Yukon River in Alaska to the farming service centers of west Texas, mining camps and once-vibrant towns have decayed into relics, their fates sealed by the whimsy of economics, changes in transportation, or the boom and bust of resource extraction. We drive past, wondering what they once were like, or wondering who lives there now, or, perhaps not noticing them at all.

Which of today’s thriving towns will become the next century’s ghost towns? What places will have become forlorn, decrepit and abandoned? This might be wild speculation, but could the answer be the West’s sprawling subdivisions that depend on the automobile and cheap fuel, those far-flung developments miles from Main Street, work, schools and soccer fields, that Americans love for their views, relative quiet and sense of privacy?

What if, over the next generation or two, we wean ourselves from the automobile? What if gas goes to $10 a gallon, or more? What if we decide that fighting traffic and spending 15 percent of our adult lives sitting in the driver’s seat isn’t such a spiffy trade-off for a bigger lot and better view? What if we decide that being married to our car isn’t such a terrific deal? Then what?

A century from now, the idea of living six or 10 or 20 miles from town and from most everything we need to do in a day, might become an alien and unpopular concept. Instead, Americans might start tightening their embrace of communities, packing in closer, living where everything from the public library to the office is in easy reach.

Sound far-fetched? Maybe. But remember, just a century ago there were only a few miles of pavement in all of America, and though cars were coming on, horses were still our main mode of transportation. The infrastructure that bloomed to accommodate the automobile and gasoline industries -- the pipelines, service stations, bridges, highways and interstate system -- all came into existence in a few frenzied decades during the last century. Before that, the idea of living far from your occupation, your school, your community, was foreign indeed.

It could be so again.

In fact, I think it’s already starting. Imperceptibly, perhaps. And yes, I know, subdivisions still sprout across former farm fields and wild landscapes, willy-nilly. People still succumb to nuptial agreements with cars.

But at the gas stations where folks shake their heads at dropping $50 or $75 dollars on a tank of gas -- the same tank they filled only a few days earlier -- and at the busy city intersections where motorists fume and sputter with frustration, and will do so again tomorrow and the day after that; or at home, after a busy week, when suburbanites reckon with the reality that they spend maybe a fourth of their time in the car just doing errands and maintaining their lifestyle, many are considering how that same time might have been spent playing with the kids or reading a book. In all those places, the wheels are beginning to turn, the mental light bulbs are flickering on.

This is an insane way to live! That’s what people are thinking. They may not be in a position to do anything about it yet. They may not be desperate enough to actually make the leap. But I’m telling you, they’re not fools. It’s dawning. Give it another decade or two and you’ll see. The subdivisions will empty, house by house. Windows will crack and fall out. Roofs will sag. Driveways will heave and blister in the heat. Weeds will sprout through the concrete. Like Bannock, Mont., it will be very quiet.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( He is a writer in Bozeman, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Sep 06, 2007 04:48 PM


  Alan Kesselheims article "Tomorrow's ghost towns are sprouting today" is thought provoking  article on an issue thats he alludes to has been cycling so to speak for a 100 years or more.  That issue is how towns rise to great heights and size due to economic reasons (say jobs, mining, industry or whatever) then when the economic reason disappears because of progress, the town turns into a modern day ghost town with few if any residents left.

  As Alan mention  the farm belt of the mid west (Dakotas, Kansas etc) there are many small towns that fit this bill.  Some were booming towns in the 40s and 50s, and have since died as people moved away to the bigger communities so they can access stores, better paying jobs and many other reasons.   The advent of large corporate farmers (as opposed to many small ones) with huge operations that are run semi remotely have also contributed.

  In Wyoming, during the last two oil booms, towns increased in size, grew, people moved in.  When oil went bust, people left looking for jobs that payed better because they were up to their necks in debt from the boom years.   Many people moved to Colorado, or got out of the industry totally because they were sick of the boom bust cycle and wanted steady money.     Towns shrunk and imploded with empty building and fading dreams. 

 During our current oil/gas boom  people I know in Wyoming are telling me cities and government are spending money like their is no tomorrow because they are hearing from the industry that production and jobs  will peak in 2012 (5 years from now)  and be dead or non existant by 2018.  They further tell me that the locals that have been around usually cut those kind of industry estimates in half, based upon what the industry was telling them in the previous two booms bust cycles, and that is a more accurate number.  So they are thinking 2.5 to 5-7 years.  Then they will have empty houses, empty towns, businesses closed and moved out etc etc.

   Back in the 50s a good paying yearly salary was $7500 and people howled about paying $5000 for a cars and $15K for houses.  Now a good paying job is $30-50K, a car is $24-50K and people still howl about buying cars.  The point to this is that the only thing that has changed is the amount of the numbers.

 Bottom line, using Wyoming as an example.  Sooner or later oil and gas will go bust once and yet again.  People will get laid off from their 90K a year jobs on the rigs, not to mention various supporting jobs.    Workers and their families will move to other states look for work.  Since there will suddenly be a glut of houses on the market, house prices will drop more, which means people can't sell their homes and will likely walk away and abandon them.  This  also means a dramatic loss of money to local merchants, which will mean that their business will either drop, or they go out of business.    

 You will see empty or nearly empty towns, closed businesses and gas stations, and empty houses.  Until the next big oil boom cycle which will probably happen about 10-15 years later and a whole new crop of people will come in.  Thus we see the cycle repeat itself yet and once again.

Could some advance technology come along and obsolete oil?  Yes it could and probably will.  But as long as oil is available and more importantly people are making loads of money on it, (not to mention paying loads of money to the workers) gasoline and diseal engines will never be obsolete.

    Should oil supplies become far far less available, it we will hear about some kind of supposed new technology that replaces oil that various companies are doing.  Whatever this new technology is, it will create  new jobs being created to obtain and process that resource.    Then you would see towns springing up, or to life where ever this resouce is found, you would see an influx of people going to that areas, with growth, malls, stores etc, and thus the cycle repeats again.

I do see us going on with gas and oil for a good long time.  Thirty years from now when our grand children are pulling up to the pump, they will likely be howling about having to pay $9.00 per gallon for gas, much like my Father yelled about having to pay 19 cents per gallon and we yell about having to pay $3.00 per gallon.

   Even today, we are much like the gold rush miners of old, who moved from strike to strike, looking for the easier money and the next big payout.  Sure with the Internet we don't have to move and can conduct business remotely, however many people have to be near or closeby whatever the economic opportunity of the time is.    So as we think about this it doesn't appear like the price of gas or transportation at any given point in history is the significant factor.  Sure people yell and howl about paying $3.00 per gallon for gas, but the bottom line is they pay it and keep driving.  The real signficant thing is where the so called good paying jobs are and the various support industries that come to life.


Robert Gates