Driving through the sun struck wheat fields south of Mosier and The Dalles, it’s nearly impossible to believe that the sculpted chasm of the Columbia River Gorge is anywhere nearby. It’s also hard to believe that the ghost towns dotting the map out here were once bustling farming communities filled with immigrants who, like so many of us, followed their dreams to Oregon.
An invisible line divides Central Oregon from the landscape of its river cousin. You can feel it in the shift of color — golden fields of maturing grain against a bright blue sky —and in the heat of this dry country that gets less than 14 inches of rain each year. You can see it in the weathered grey buildings and aging grain silos of little towns that once thrived and are now lingering memories of the 19th century small farming communities that faded away in the 20th century.
Leaving I-84, the first such spot you’ll come upon is the town of Boyd, just 12 miles southeast of The Dalles. Boyd was founded in 1870 on the banks of Fifteen Mile Creek and named for a local miller called T.P. Boyd. The remnants of his 1883 wooden granary still tower above the creek. Visit on a late fall day and listen to the gurgle of the water and song of hidden birds among the cottonwoods trees. Try to imagine this place as the bustling millworks that disappeared in the 1930s when the tracks of the Great Southern Railroad were pulled up.
Little more than a mile south of Boyd, you’ll come upon a pioneer graveyard called the Star No. 23 Rebekah Lodge Community Cemetery. A modest sign marks the 4-acre cemetery, ringed by black locust trees casting shade among the gravestones. To walk amid the stones is to read the postmarks of the former residents, including Giusti Giuseppe, presumably an Italian immigrant, who passed away in 1864 at the age of 45; John Wesley, son of A.W. and Z.E. Quinn, who died in 1900 at the age of 1; and one stone simply marked, “Papa.”
Another mile and a half down the road brings you into the still living community of Dufur (pop. 609). Once the location of the largest dry-land apple orchard in the U.S., Dufur was established in the 1870s and named for a local land owner, Andrew J. Dufur. The town’s most noticeable building is the grand 1907 Historic Balch Hotel, a nine-room, three-story beauty that’s been completely renovated and makes a great location for weddings, reunions, retreats or quiet getaways. A tour of Dufur also yields the Schreiber House, a two-story, hand-hewn log cabin located at the Dufur Historical Society Living History Museum (the cabin was built in 1900 and housed four generations of the Schreiber family). Also on site, you’ll find the Endersby School, a charming and simple schoolhouse dating back to 1882 (and originally located in a nearby town of the same name).
About 12 miles further southwest of Dufur, you’ll find the remains of the town of Friend. Named for homesteader George J. Friend, the town once served local farmers, sheepherders and loggers as the end of the line for the Great Southern Railroad that ran north through Dufur to The Dalles. You’ll find the old general store still standing, its empty windows looking out on what was once a bustling street. The town’s 1909 one-room schoolhouse remains in use as a community center (in recent years it housed the Schoolhouse Rock Festival). About one half-mile from there, the Friend Cemetery lies partly concealed in a grove of trees. Among the headstones is the grave of the town founder as well as many other homesteaders. On your way home out of Central Oregon ghost town country, stop in at Dufur’s Pastime Saloon to toast the spirits and the living who lived out their dreams in Central Oregon.