What is a Ghost Town?

“A town for which the reason for being no longer exists” —historian T. Lindsey Baker
Cylinder type logging engine.
A steam donkey, or steam-powered winch used to haul logs, at the Collier Memorial State Park and Logging Museum near Chiloquin. Early logging operations extracted the timber in an area and departed in search of new forests. (Oregon State Archives, 2015) Enlarge Image
Ghost towns defy easy explanation. Many are abandoned villages or cities, often with substantial visible remains. Crumbling buildings, lonely cemeteries, and rusting industrial equipment mark the graves of these communities. Some have no residents besides crows, coyotes, and rattlesnakes. Others are still home to living people - thousands of them, even.

A dredging machine with a scoop sits in an open field. 3 men are perced on the scoop: 2 standing at the top and 1 sitting bottom
This "Muskrat" dredge in the La Pine area in the early 1900s exemplified Oregon's extraction economy. (Oregon State Archives) Enlarge Image
What unites these places is a shared history of decline and loss. Some towns died because the economy which supported them finished or failed. Mines are worked out, timber is cut down, wells go dry, and new routes bypass the community. Still others die from natural or manmade disasters. Floods and droughts, heavy regulation, or total lawlessness ended their share of towns. Famine, disease, pollution, and war have slain innumerable communities through history.

The state of Oregon legally calls a ghost town any incorporated city that: (1) Is on land acquired under a United States patent; (2) Does not have a sufficient number of registered electors permanently residing within the city to fill all offices provided for under its charter; and (3) Is of historic interest. Oregon Revised Statute (ORS) 221.862 defines these characteristics and begins a discussion of the legal ramifications of ghost towns.

In the words of an old-timer from the dwindling Wheeler County village of Spray, recorded in Ghost Towns of the Northwest
“They’s just like any other town ‘cept they ain’t hardly no one livin’ there.”