Oregon’s frontier history is a series of booms and busts. It’s no wonder some have alleged that the state has more ghost towns than any other. And while it’s nearly impossible to prove a statement like that true, it’s a fact that dozens of once lively and now abandoned communities dot the landscape — specters of America’s restless heart, shadow monuments to the West’s dreamy-eyed ambition.
“Shifting economics and transportation are what create ghost towns,” says Ian Johnson, who works at the State Historic Preservation Office. “If you’re the town that gets bypassed when a railroad goes in, you’re out of luck.”
The state’s varied ghost towns hold secrets of the speculators, gold miners, traders and Oregon Trail pioneers who once called them home — each decaying community humming its own unique swan song.
Classifications of these ghost towns vary widely (no official system exists), but most experts agree on three main categories: “True” ghost towns have zero permanent inhabitants, “partial” ghost towns have lost the majority of their populations and “tourist” ghost towns have changed their purpose entirely while retaining much of the historic character of their economic heyday.
“Ghost towns are like time capsules,” Johnson adds. “People who visit them see much of how those people lived in a way that archival documents just can’t capture.”
Visiting ghost towns is the ultimate Oregon history road trip. You’ll find the lion’s share in Central, Eastern and Southern Oregon, where you can visit full-fledged Wild West relics set up for tourism, like Shaniko, as well as ghostlier “true” ghost towns, like Golden. Here’s a rundown of some of the state’s most fascinating ghost towns, unscientifically ranked by ghostliness (i.e., how populated and spooky they are today).
“Ghost towns are like time capsules,” says Ian Johnson. “People who visit them see much of how those people lived in a way that archival documents just can’t capture.”
Named after South Carolina’s Fort Sumter, Sumpter is a former mining boomtown. Built around a historic gold dredge (now a designated state heritage area), the town is home to 200 and has a new mission as a place where tourists can legally pan for gold and experience a reenacted train robbery. Many buildings burned in the devastating fire of 1917, which is said to have killed several miners and left hundreds of other residents homeless.
Once touted as the “Wool Capital of the World,” Shaniko survives as a living ghost town with a year-round population of 30. Run-down cars, a darling schoolhouse, an annual festival and guided tours make it a tourist-friendly place.
Set amid the Opal Creek Wilderness, the onetime mining town of Jawbone Flats may be ground zero for old-growth forest wanderers, but it is also a fun destination for history buffs, gear heads and anyone who wants to understand Oregon’s twin magnetic pulls of environmentalism and industry. Abandoned mining equipment and corroding old vehicles rest here, decaying with each passing year.
Formed from the merging of towns called Raw Dog and Yellow Dog, Hardman lived hard and died fast as a favorite stopping point for stagecoaches. But it still has a couple dozen great structures to admire, as well as a kind and welcoming year-round populace of about 20. Sites include an old lodge listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Located 16 miles south of Jacksonville, Oregon’s best-preserved Wild West town, Buncom is a completely uninhabited, old gold-mining camp that gets flooded with people each May for Buncom Day, a festival created to raise money for its continued preservation.
Settled as a mining camp on the Middle Fork John Day River in the 1860s, Galena might be worth it for the drive alone, which winds there on Route 20 along Elk Creek, past old homesteads and abandoned buildings being reclaimed by the sun and gravity.
Perhaps Central Oregon’s creepiest ghost town, Millican had a population that sunk to zero after its last inhabitant was murdered in 1988. Now home to just a handful of people, it has an old gas station and store, and it falls into the category of mid-20th-century ghost towns.
Founded as a mining camp on Coyote Creek amid the 1840s gold rush, Golden benefits from its strong on-site interpretive signs, a charming 1890s church, an uncommonly picturesque setting (even for ghost towns) and its location in its own historic district, established in 2011.
If You Go: Ghost Town Etiquette
Don’t assume that abandoned buildings in ghost towns are not owned. Wherever possible, inquire with locals before treading on private property. Even in sparsely populated towns, there is usually a local person willing to show you around. Debris gathers around these spots, so tread carefully. Pulling boards, artifacts or other materials from ghost towns is illegal. Engage with ghost towns as you would with the wilderness: Pack in, pack out and leave no trace.