looking for ghosts

A couple of days ago, me and my pal Bill Brown drove out to Eastern Oregon to search for ghost towns. Bill was in town for the PDX Fest showing his new film “The Other Side,” and once the fest was over we jumped in my minivan and drove out to the sticks. Before heading out, we checked in on www.ghosttowns.com, but quickly decided that we should just get on the road and read about it later. It sorta seems wrong to drive all day to see something you saw a picture of on the internet, so we figured it would be better to just get lost and see what happened.
A century ago, the region just south and east of The Dalles, Oregon, was spotted with small farming towns that dated back to the early pioneer days and the Oregon Trail. These little towns started as trading posts and transportation hubs, but for various reasons many of them didn’t last long. Some of the towns were on a train line owned by a company that went out of business, while others didn’t have an adequate water source. And if that didn’t do them in, then the advent of trucks and the highway system left them in the dust (both figuratively and literally). Bill and I were pretty excited to find some of these old ghost towns, and hoped we might even find some ghost tenants, but what we found was that the visual reality of a ghost town is not nearly as romantic as we had thought. I suppose it is expecting too much to be able to drive your minivan on paved, public roads right into a perfectly abandoned ghost town, but we did find some interesting stuff and came to realize that these days it seems like there are three categories of ghost towns existing in Eastern/Central Oregon.
The first type of ghost town is one littered with old, abandoned buildings, but still has a few inhabitants. It would be easy to confuse these ghost towns with a run down trailer park that just happens to be out in the middle of nowhere. Kent, Oregon is a good example of that. There is an old abandoned grain silo that marks the center of town, and a strip of old store fronts that line what one can assume was Main Street. There are several abandoned, ghostly looking houses, but behind them are what appear to be even scarier mobile homes with mean dogs tied up in front of them. There is an old, half burnt down school and an abandoned gas station, and two or three little houses that actually look pretty nice. Kent looks like it stopped being a town several decades ago, but there is another layer of ghostly evidence of the town’s second life as a home for old, kooky folk artists. Maybe these were original inhabitants that never left, but my guess is that in the 80s and 90s Kent was a hot bed for back-woods eccentrics. One house in particular was lived in by a guy named Leo Decker, who decorated his yard and house with whirly-birds and other airplane-style paraphernalia. Apparently he was an old air-force pilot who flew in Korea and then spent his last few decades in Kent decorating his yard. On the roof of his house there is a single chair mounted to a platform that is pointed toward Mt Hood, and it was nice to imagine Leo sitting there and watching the sun set. But these days it looks like old Leo has either passed on or moved away, leaving his house and yard to whether away like the rest of the town.
The second category of ghost town is the type that was probably a really cool ghost town twenty years ago until somebody came along and renovated it in hopes of it becoming a tourist attraction. This is about as disappointing a ghost town as you could find. Sure, it’s cool to see some old buildings, but at a certain point you can’t even tell the difference between the old, original buildings and the new, fake ones. Shaniko, Oregon is a perfect case in point. The ghosts in Shaniko have clearly been run off, replaced with busloads of Elder Hostels, and the entire place just takes on the vibe of some big Las Vegas theme-park casino. Scary, for sure, but certainly not ghostly. What is even scarier is that the town’s renovation is being financed by super-rich-super-freak Robert Pamplin Jr. I am all for the renovation of old buildings, but there just seems to be something wrong with the idea of visiting a ghost town and finding soft-serve ice cream and machines that will smash a penny into a personally engraved souvenir, especially when you know it’s funded by the guy who brought the world “Bible Man.”
The third type of ghost town are those that simply are no longer there. If you stop and look really hard you might be able to identify were the old train tracks had been, or maybe find an old foundation or pile of rusty metal artifacts, but for the most part everything is gone. But the one thing that probably is still there if you look hard enough is the cemetery. The old town cemetery is the one thing that the wind couldn’t knock down, a fire couldn’t burn down, and a farmer wouldn’t plow over. It seems to me like these are the real ghost towns- the ones that only leave a scant trace and a lot of questions. Ghosts are notorious for hiding out and playing tricks on you, and what is more mysterious than an entire town that has vanished?
Bill and I got to wondering if a town that becomes a ghost town feels self-conscious about it. I mean, is a town that stops being a town considered a failure, or is it kind of like retirement? It seems like there might be a joy in being able to go back to nature, and not have to bear the weight of a city or feel jackhammers pounding into your back. But I could also imagine that there could be a sense of failure, as the ghost town sees other towns around it grow and prosper. I think my favorite ghost town in Oregon is a town called Friend. It’s mostly on some rancher’s private property, so you can’t really hang out there for too long, but it consists of one abandoned store, an abandoned school, and an old cemetery. You can make out the grade that the old train tracks once sat on, and you can tell by the placement of the buildings that the town was fairly big. But now it is primarily wheat fields, and it seems perfectly content to sway back and forth with the breeze and greet the occasional ghost town hunter or lost road tripper with a sense of calm melancholy.

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7 Responses to looking for ghosts

  1. piu piu says:

    ghost towns… don’t really happen in the uk. i guess its too small. perhaps in the middle of wales, or scotland…? maybe on one of those crazy islands the scots have that live off red cross food parcels and hermit crabs…?

  2. jj says:

    In the UK they are called “ruins”

  3. welcome to UHX, Matt! I really like your films!

  4. Lu says:

    There are actually several ghost towns in the UK. Two of which are now under water- a bit like the lost city of atlanta… the other 5 were claimed by the army in one of the world wars and people were moved from them towns… nobody ever returned there.

  5. Jennifer Martin says:

    Leo Decker was my grandpa and he has passed on. Kent was such a fun place to visit. As a little girl visiting my grandpa, my brother and I had so much fun there. It’s such a small place that we could explore the whole territory. Grandpa loved making his windmills, and little odds and ends. He loved when strangers stoped by to visit. I will always hold a special place in my heart for Kent and it’s residence. I have the fondest memories of Leo Decker’s little tree acres!! Miss you and love you gramps!

  6. tabby says:

    Are these actual ghost towns.With real live ghosts if not its not cool.With missing people reports.Because they went through the town and never came back. If not its stupid.

  7. trkelley says:

    Alleluia! I am sick of 40+ years of living in the dark rainy timber ghost towns of the wet side (swisshome, deadwood, blachly) i am ready to see that thing called “sun”, give me sky! yes i am an “eccentric folk artist” in search of a dry sunny wild place far away from normal people…… will trade 5 acres and a funky cottage on the Siuslaw river for a lonely eastern oregon rancho with an unobstructed view of the southern sky and absolute silence.

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