Author Philip Varney has visited more than 600 ghost towns in the American West since 1974. His latest book, "Ghost Towns Of California" tours 70 such towns, from the Mojave Desert to San Francisco Bay.
The book cleverly maps out the towns in geographical order and thus makes it easy for people who wish to visit them in some sequential order. With each entry, Varney gives a complete with a history of each town, how to get there and even vehicle recommendations. As California has such a rich history, especially with the Gold Rush, his book provides readers a great window into the history of the state.
Varney defines a ghost town as having two characteristics: "the population has decreased markedly, and the initial reason for its settlement (such as mining) no longer keeps people there." Herewith, a snippet of Varney's guide to California ghost towns.
All photos by Philip Varney.
The former mining town of Volcano sits off Highway 49 in what Varney calls "The Mother Lode" in northern California. The town's population soared to 5,000, but after hydraulicking was used to unearth gold around 1865, the boom was over. This building is the Masonic Hall, which was built in 1860 and was the home to the <em>Volcano Weekly Ledger</em>.
Mexicans originally settled Camp Seco, which sits 11.7 miles southwest of Mokelumne Hill, in 1849. Half of the population left by 1850 after water became scarce. Yet in 1853, gold was found once again, causing a building bonanza. The town had 2 churches, saloons, a brewery, two hotels, stores and a post office. That same year, the town burnt down, forcing residents to rebuild in stone. Those stone buildings are around to this day. This building, the Adams Express Agency Building, still stands.
Columbia is one of California's more notable ghost towns, equipped with a museum and a hotel. Once hailed as the "gem of the southern mines," the town is now a state park. Built in 1858 by William Daegner, the town's Wells Fargo office was in service until 1917.
Helena, roughly 15 miles from Weaverville, was settled around 1853 by two brothers named Meckel who opened a packing business. They were joined by Harmon Schlomer in 1855. The two families became intertwined when a Meckel and a Schlomer married sisters; Meckel married a German woman named Helena. The town's post office was so named in her honor in 1891. This home sits northwest of the main area in Helena.
Harmon Schlomer built this three-story brick building in 1859. He lived in the building's top 2 floors and ran a saloon in the basement. Over time, the building was used as a schoolhouse, the site for Catholic mass and offices.
Callahan, which sits at the southern end of the Scott Valley, was named for M.B. Callahan, who built the area's first cabin in 1851 and opened a hotel - -the Callahan Ranch Hotel -- the following year. The hotel, seen here, served as a stage station until 1887. It was closed in 1930, but Varney writes that it is now being restored.
A two-story home in Callahan, complete with a modern metal roof.
Angel Island makes for an easy day trip from San Francisco. Founded in 1775 by Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala, it has been the site of Indian villages, a Spanish rancho, a Civil War fortification, a military detention center, a quarantine station, an immigration facility and even a missile base, among others. On arrival, visitors will first see Ayala Cove, which housed a quarantine station. The Artillery Barracks, seen here, housed some 600 soldiers.
The back of the artillery barracks.
The island's Camp Reynolds was established in 1863 to "repel a potential Confederate attack on San Francisco and its enormous gold and silver supply," Varney writes. The officers quarters, seen here, sit beside the parade ground.
Bodie is one of California's more famous ghost towns. Now a state park, is has nearly 170 remaining buildings, mostly made of wood. Varney recommends taking a day to tour Bodie, which he calls "the best" of the ghost towns. Named for a prospector from Poughkeepsie, New York, Bodie was developed around 1860 and quickly became a boom town, featuring some 65 saloons, a red light district, and crime. The boom lasted about three years, and by 1862, the town's population dwindled from 10,000 to less than 500. The town was kept preserved for some 40 years by Canadian Jim Cain. When he left for San Francisco, he provided the town with a watchman and in 1962, the town became a state park.
Manzanar, meaning "apple orchard," began as an agricultural town in Owens Valley in 1910. Its proximity to Los Angeles may have meant its downfall: When the LA Aqueduct was completed in 1913, the area's water was diverted. The town was abandoned in 1930. In 1942, however, the town was used as a "relocation center" for all people of Japanese ancestry following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Some 120,313 people lived in these camps along the west coast. The last of Manzanar's internees left in November 1945, three months after the war ended. A Japanese-style entrance station sits in the forefront of the town's former auditorium.
Manzanar's cemetery includes an obelisk memorializing those who died in the town.
Skidoo sits in Death Valley, and was named by the wife of prospector Bob Montgomery, after he told her that he had purchased 23 claims. She reportedly said, "Twenty-three Skidoo!" The town had its own newspaper, a fine dining club and even a telephone line. Its mines produced roughly $1.34 million in gold until 1917. That same year, the post office closed and the town's pipeline was sold for scrap. Getting to Skidoo isn't so easy. Varney suggests driving nearly 56 miles on 190 into Death Valley. His book offers incredibly detailed directions on how to get there.
The town of Calico produced more silver than any other mine in California during the 1880s, Varney writes. Over a 15-year period, roughly $86 million in silver was extracted. By 1890, the town's population rested around 3,500 people. Yet in 1893, a steady decline of silver prices initiated the town's decline. By 1896, the it was being deserted. Yet in 1915, a cyanide plant was constructed to recover silver by Walter Knott, who, in turn, both created the boysenberry and started the famous Knotts Berry Farm. In 1951, the Knotts purchased the town and donated it to San Bernardino County in 1966; it is now part of the parks system of that county. A replica of Calico's schoolhouse, built in 1954, was built on the same spot as the one that was used during the town's heyday.
The town's cemetery.
Ghost Towns Of California