Ghost towns have always been a fascinating subject for me, in part because I love to imagine what the energy was like when it was thriving. Towns are not created with the intent to become vacant. What celebrations took place in its streets? How did its founders envision the future? What hopes did settlers have when they arrived to a new life? I had heard about Shaniko a few years ago and knew it began as a wool processing and export platform for the railroad. In 1900 actually it held the title as the “Wool Capitol of the World.” When a new, faster route for the railroad bypassed the town about decade later, so began the town’s slow decline in population.
When I found myself solo for a weekend in Bend, I decided it was the perfect opportunity to go exploring. I wasn’t sure just how “abandoned” Shaniko really was. I received mixed reports of what businesses were open, and even read that the town and buildings were actually for sale. I decided to load up my camera, an iced coffee and snacks before making the 90-minute drive from town, and find out for myself. The drive along highway 97 is entertaining enough on its own, and I marveled at the beautiful fields of purple flowers that hold an intoxicating, wonderful smell. Noted was the sign along 97 warning the next available gas was 92 miles away (confirming Shaniko’s gas station, was indeed out of commission) The rest stop located just before the turn off for the town was a welcome sight.
My plan was to wander during sunset and chase some golden-hour light. I was surprised to arrive to a lively scene, quite a few cars parked as curious tourists wandered the streets. The Shaniko Hotel stood proudly in the center of town, and up until recently was apparently still open. The trademark field truck and red building were in the background and the jail, town hall and various storefronts sat fairly well preserved. While obviously void of employees, most buildings were left open and accessible, some even housing artifacts and stories from the town’s former residents. A small diner was busy serving sandwiches and ice cream adjacent to an antique store that was closed for the evening. A large building housed a great collection of classic cars that I could still admire even though they were protected by fences. I circled the town on foot several times, finding the school that had been a labor of love to refurbish. Tours are available, but I arrived past the hours of operation.
I was surprised to see the number of homes still occupied, and I later learned the town’s population hovers around three dozen. I wanted to respect the folks that did still call Shaniko their home, and was careful not to trespass on occupied property. The opposite end of town is where I found a pretty little wedding chapel with the same rustic charm as the rest of the buildings. It is fascinating to walk around and appreciate how much of the town’s past is still preserved. Shaniko is a great, tangible lesson in local history that should be added to the list of places to see when exploring Central Oregon. Pack a lunch, fill the gas tank and take time to stop and smell the wildflowers.