June 23, 2009

Ghost towns

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 Fergus, Idaho, in the late 1880s.

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 Fergus is located not too far from the real life Silver City.

I’m blessed with the opportunity to visit my daughter Amy, who lives in Idaho, this summer. We’re emailing and phoning a LOT to plan our trip into the mountains to view Silver City and the ruins of several other boom towns that are now empty or sparsely populated. The Owyhee Valley (a corruption of “Hawaii,” it is named after three Hawaiian fur trappers who were murdered there in 1819) was overrun with miners in the 1860s.

To give a little perspective, there were NO permanent settlements in Idaho in 1859. In 1860, the Mormons founded the town of Franklin near the Utah border—in fact, they thought they were still in Utah. And gold was discovered. By 1862, the Florence Basin was mobbed with 10,000 miners. That’s the year Gold was found in the Boise Basin.

Gold was discovered along the Jordan Creek in the Owyhee Mountains the next year, 1863, and people rushed to dig it out. Both gold and silver were discovered in this area in southwestern Idaho. Boise City was still a young, raw town. It became the territory’s capital in 1865. Toll roads were built to open up the valley for freighting and to get the ore out. It was a wild and rowdy place to be, and more than one dispute between mine owners ended in bloodshed.

The Silver City area held many mines. It was one of the first settlements in the valley, along with Booneville and Ruby City. Silver City still stands. Ruby City, a mile south, was the first county seat, but by 1867 that town was already declining. The offices were moved, and many of its buildings were moved to Silver City. Today the cemetery is nearly all that is left to mark the site of Ruby City.

On our trip, my daughter and I plan to visit Silver City, one of the best preserved ghost towns in Idaho. It still has a large mill, a church, an old hotel, houses and other buildings. We also hope to visit the sites of some other abandoned mining towns nearby.

Murphy is the current county seat, about fifty miles southeast of Boise. A railroad was built through Murphy in the 1860s to serve the mines. When that industry waned, the railroad line was used some for livestock, but was later abandoned.

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, Silver City had telegraph service by 1874, but no phones until the 1880s, and electricity in the 1890s. I decided to delay the phones a few years in Fergus; the rest follows the pattern of Silver City.

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 Idaho will give me a better feel for the terrain and the struggles the pioneers endured to live in the Owyhee Valley.

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 Oregon, we were able to go up there and sleep in the old bunkhouse and explore the ruins of the old stamp mill. That adventure piqued my interest in mining, and I expect to find inspiration again in Idaho. Seeing the actual setting of a story and walking over the same ground the early settlers walked helps me to “see” the town and bring it to life for my readers.

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 Fergus. It shows how to get to existing ghost towns and sites of now departed mining towns. It tells you what’s still there today. But it doesn’t tell nearly enough about the history of those towns to satisfy me, so I’ll be haunting local bookshops, museums, and historical societies on my trip to find more resources.

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 Silver City there. One of my favorite pages is the “virtual museum” that shows you old tools and mining equipment.

I hope you all enjoy your research as much as I do! Come see me at my Website: www.susanpagedavis.com.

Trail to Justice

by Susan Page Davis

The Sheriff's Surrender

by Susan Page Davis

Ladies Shooting Club Series

Available December 2009!




Lena Nelson Dooley said...

Interesting article, Susan. My June post was about ghost towns, too, but they are totally different. So much to learn.

Vickie McDonough said...

Very interesting, Susan. It's amazing the amount of research that goes into a book. Wish I was going to Idaho with you. Sounds like an interesting state.

Susan Page Davis said...

Thanks, ladies! I'm looking forward to it. The history of the area is complex, and I know a trip there will be a big help!