by Susan Page Davis
What is a ghost town? It depends on who answers the question, but Merriam Webster says it’s a once-flourishing town wholly or nearly deserted, usually as a result of the exhaustion of some natural resource. In many American locations, these towns were located in mining areas. When the ore petered out, the miners moved on to a new location.
Now, my new Webster places the phrase “ghost town” in use by 1931, which scared me for a minute. But English Through the Ages, by William Brohaugh, says it was in use by 1875. Whew. I’m not afraid of ghosts or ghost towns, but disappearing words scare me silly. It’s a huge relief to know that my 1880s characters can call their town a ghost town if they want to.
Two weeks ago, Lena Nelson Dooley wrote about ghost towns, and I studied her post with great interest. That’s because I’m also writing about a boom town gone bust. In my case, my series, The Ladies’ Shooting Club, is set in the imaginary town of
I decided to make up a town for this series because none of the “available” ghost towns in the Owyhee Valley of Idaho is exactly what I wanted. By making up my own town, I can situate it just where I want it and place the streets, buildings, mines, rivers, and mountains where I please, too.
One thing is certain, though. My town of
I’m blessed with the opportunity to visit my daughter Amy, who lives in
To give a little perspective, there were NO permanent settlements in
Gold was discovered along the
On our trip, my daughter and I plan to visit
Murphy is the current county seat, about fifty miles southeast of
I’ve already begun work on my Ladies’ Shooting Club series, and a million questions have cropped up, leading to hours of research. Would my town have rail service? (No—that’s one of the residents’ regrets.) How did they get large, items to the town? (Mule team freighters.) Did they have stagecoach/telegraph/electrical service? (Yes, yes, no.)
These questions were largely decided depending on what I found useful for the story, but also based closely on the way things were in that area in the late 1880s. For instance,
What sort of buildings would be left after the gold mining petered out, I wondered. (Mill ruins, vacant homes and commercial buildings.) How many people did I want to remain in Fergus after the bulk of the population left? (I started with about fifty, but decided a town of one hundred residents—down from a thousand or two during boom times—suited me better.)
The trip to this part of
Fergus will not be a true ghost town, in that some of the people never left. In my stories, it’s slowly coming back as an active town. The people are finding other ways to support themselves than by mining. I include some of the outlying ranchers in the plots as well. At the beginning of my saga, Fergus is a small town—smaller than it used to be. It has no church and no doctor. It does have a telegraph office. The man who used to run the assay office now (in my stories) runs a stagecoach line, operating under the Wells Fargo organization. Fergus has bottomed out and is growing again.
A relative of my husband’s used to have mineral rights on an old mine in the Oregon Cascades. When we lived in
I’ll leave you with a couple of resources. I found the book Southern Idaho Ghost Towns, by Wayne Sparling, helpful. It’s by no means complete and leaves me with more questions than it answers, but it’s a start for my quest for the fictional town of
That’s my hint for the day. You can always find resources locally that you didn’t see online. When you take a research trip, go prepared to check an extra bag coming home—or mail yourself a box of books and other literature you collect in the field.
Another resource for you: www.ghosttowns.com. You can even find photos of
I hope you all enjoy your research as much as I do! Come see me at my Website: www.susanpagedavis.com.