The Ghost towns have always captivated the attention of millions of people...
Yet, most who have ever read or wondered about Ghost towns have never had any concerte plans to ever actualy visit one.
And therein lies the true value of so much of the American West.
The wilderness, the open spaces, the mountain ranges, the deserts, the gold, the history and the dreams... The value of these places as intellectual resources have always been neck and neck with their value as material resources. For no matter how much we market ourselves, the great majority of our fellow citizens will be unable, or unwilling, to visit these places in person- and, if they should- only the tiniest minority will have the time and fiance to ever come close to seeing it all. Culturally, however, the idea of The West has perhaps been our country's most valuable export. Every year new films, songs, paintings, books, and even fashions are gobbled up by a public thirsty for an escape, a thrill, an inspiration. And so, in the steady march of time, do our actual histories and our fictionial histories merge and blend in the public consciousness.
In the background, quietly, the boards and planks of historic reality continue to wait, and beckon, to the many who cannot content themselves with fiction alone.
How unfourtunate then is it that most of those who do come do so with less than altruistic motives. Vandals armed with spraypaint and looters armed with metal detectors furnish the bulk of most modern day visitors to Utah's abandoned historic places. Mining companies periodically funding a new survey or a re-opening of previously worked mines often do so with little regard to the preservation of historic ruins. In a few places, dirt bikes and paintball players have staked new and rarely contested claims, while in others arson, time, scavangers, and negligence have eliminated almost all trace of settlements that once played a pivotal part in both state and national histories.
Unlike the ghost towns of some neighboring states who have recieved volumous, updated attention in recent years, a modern assessment of the state and the history of Ghost Towns in Utah is sorely lacking. Stephen Carr's work on the subject remains in print but is desperately in need of an updating. Thompson's Some Dreams Die, while accomplishing an ambitious goal of listing nearly every ghost town and mining camp in Utah, pays for this comprehensiveness with short chapters and skimpy histories. And perhaps most damaging to the very places its author has so much interest in, Thompson conciously writes for the souviner hunting crowd, ending almost every chapter with promises of what treasures may remain for ambitious visitor with a metal detector, literary ethics and the Antiquities Act be damned.
Whatever their literary weaknesses, both these texts, as well as a few others that only partially address historic towns and sites in Utah, take very little time to prioritize photography. The best and largest picture in Thompson's entire book is on the cover. Highly effective from a marketing standpoint, the reader is soon dissapointed by a paucity of images, most of them small, all of them grainy and black and white, and precious few apparently selected on the basis of artistic merit.
For after all, isn't that every bit as important as the historical text itself? We are drawn to Ghost Towns not specifically because we need to know the names of the founders, or the exact mundane minutea of life a hundred years ago in small towns. No. These places are special. We know that without even having to visit, or even knowning the histories. Our West. Our mountains. Our abandoned, played out mining camps. Ghost ranches and cattle skulls. Desert Dust. The trestle and the rail road ties, rusting and eroding and collapsing into the smell of tar and wood on a hot summers' day. Or was it still standing? Hopefully, still standing, if for no other reason that to provide a refreshing counterpoint to our own stiflyingly modern hyperactive society.
Shall we then, now, return to Utah's forgotten places? Armed with cameras, libraries, camping gear, a 4x4, and a digital tape recorder. Preserve what of it we can and document the rest before it too is lost. Pictures that we need to see, just to remind us that somewhere out there, the spirit and the romance and the stark reality of the American West remains, and endures.