Ghost towns–towns that are extinct or so diminished in population and function as to be virtually extinct–are the most common category of towns in the Great Plains. Daniel C. Fitzgerald, author of Faded Dreams, estimates that there are 6,000 such places in Kansas alone. Towns withered on the land and disappeared from the maps even in the very first years of Plains settlement as speculative ventures failed or highly mobile populations moved on to better opportunities, generally to the west. (For example, Omadi in northeastern Nebraska, founded in 1856, emptied out to the Colorado gold mines in 1859.) Ghost towns are still being created as the rural population that once sustained them thins, leaving schools and stores closed, young people gone, and perhaps only an elevator or a church as a reminder of a more vibrant past.
In the Rocky Mountains the archetypical ghost town was the product of a collapsed mining boom, and there are examples of such towns in the Great Plains also. Hundreds of Black Hills mining towns lasted only as long as the gold, often only months. In Crawford County in southeastern Kansas, dozens of clapboard company towns sprang up during the coal boom of the early twentieth century, went into protracted decline in the 1930s, and disappeared when the mine shafts were sealed. Just to the south, in Cherokee County, a similar cycle in lead and zinc mining left towns like Treece (which once sustained a population of 749) abandoned. Farther south again, oil towns (like Three Sands in Noble County, Oklahoma, founded in 1921) started quickly, roared briefly, then, as the oil and gas became too expensive to tap, went into a long decline.
In the Great Plains, however, the characteristic ghost town is the diminished rural service center. After farm mechanization reduced the need for labor on the land and automobiles increased the distance that farmers could travel to the elevator and implement store, there were simply too many of these towns, which had been founded during the horseand- buggy era when farmers needed local access to goods and services. The first towns to drop out of the network were the "inland towns," those places that never secured a railroad and that were, therefore, at a great competitive disadvantage. As John C. Hudson shows in his detailed study of town building and competition in northern North Dakota in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, farmers would generally make a longer trip to a railroad town to buy cheaper goods rather than shop locally at the more expensive inland town store. Consequently, the inland towns went under. Many successful railroad towns of the late nineteenth century such as Blaine in Pottawatomie County, Kansas, also fell victim to transportation changes. After the 1930s, as railroad companies consolidated their lines, Blaine was left stranded inland. Its grass-covered Main Street is now deserted and lined with crumbling buildings that once housed hotels, livery stables, retail outlets, and a bank. Only the St. Columbkille Catholic Church remains (albeit with drastically reduced services) to recall the better times.
The number of towns in the Great Plains continues to decrease as the rural population shrinks. In North Dakota all but six of the fifty-three counties lost population during the 1990s. Nelson County, for example, in the northeastern part of the state, suffered a 17 percent population decline during those years. There, the neat Norwegian town of Whitman is not yet a ghost town, but it is heading in that direction: its four bars, two general stores, and grain elevator are closed; deaths far exceed births; the Lutheran church still offers services but only to twelve members.
Towns like Whitman are still greatly valued by their residents not just for nostalgic reasons but as good places to raise a family. But in those parts of the Plains too far from prosperous cities to serve as dormitory suburbs, from the major highways to reap the benefits from gas stations, restaurants, and motels, and from the "oases" where abundant surface or groundwater provides the irrigated agriculture that sustains feedlots, implement dealers, and grain processing, many of the settlements seem destined to dwindle, eventually to join the ranks of ghost towns.
David J. Wishart University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Fitzgerald, Daniel C. Faded Dreams: More Ghost Towns of Kansas. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994.
Hudson, John C. Plains Country Towns. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Kilborn, Peter T. "Boom in Economy Skips Towns on the Plains." New York Times, July 2, 2000: 1, 13.