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Entries in ghost town (3)


Blue Highways: Playas, New Mexico

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapA town is transformed, in the emptiness of New Mexico, from a collection of trailers when William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) drove through thirty years ago to a bustling company town to an abandoned set of buildings used for a training center focusing on terrorism.  Thirty years is a long time, and a blink of an eye.  Click on the map to see where this interesting New Mexico location is situated.

Book Quote

"For the fourth time that day, I crossed the Continental Divide, which at this point, was merely a crumpling of hills.  The highway held so true that the mountains ahead seemed to come to me.  Along the road were small glaring and dusty towns: Playas, a gathering of trailers and a one-room massage parlor ($3.00 for thirty-five minutes the sign said)...."

Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 12

This is what your likely to see in Playas, New Mexico (also known as Terror Town) these days. Photo at the InfraNet Lab blog. Click on photo to go to host page.

Playas, New Mexico

How things can change in thirty years.  When LHM traveled through Playas thirty years ago, it was, as he describes above, "a gathering of trailers" and a massage parlor.  Playas was located in a state, New Mexico, that is the fifth largest in terms of area in the nation, and the sixth smallest in terms of population density at 17 persons per square mile.  Only South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska have less people per square mile than New Mexico.  Of the two million people that live in New Mexico, over half of them live in the Albuquerque and Santa Fe metro areas.  In other words, there is a whole lot of empty space in New Mexico.

In my frequent drives from Albuquerque to Lubbock in 2008-2009, I traveled through a lot of those empty spaces.  Because business and commerce tends to cluster around freeways, one doesn't get a sense of just how empty New Mexico can be until one ventures off onto the blue highways that LHM writes of.  Between Santa Rosa and Fort Sumner, I got a sense of just how empty New Mexico is.  Also, if one, rather than driving northwest from Fort Sumner to the freeway, continues driving west, the emptiness is sublimely beautiful.  Arid grasslands, with hardly a tree to be seen - just some scrub bushes here and there along with the lonely sound of a railroad horn.

Because of its relative emptiness, New Mexico is bursting with military and law enforcement training activity.  Near Socorro, where New Mexico Tech's campus is located, the air force practices bombing runs with low flying planes.  White Sands Missile Range, besides being the place where the first atomic bomb was tested, has been used to test rockets and missiles for military and peacetime activities.  It is in some of these empty spaces, down by Truth or Consequences, that New Mexico has begun building an international spaceport which will be anchored by the activities of Virgin Galactic.  In the next few years, the company plans to take tourists to the edge of space in a rocket-powered plane that will then glide back to earth after the space tourists experience about ten minutes of zero gravity.

One can find throughout New Mexico these lonely places.  Where there are towns, they look like they are just barely hanging on to the edge of the world.  I imagine that Playas was like that - a set of trailers that looked like they might be carried off by the next gust of wind, leaving nothing but a dirt devil their wake.

Today, however, Playas as a town is no more.  According to its entry on Wikipedia, the town was begun as a company town for a copper smelter.  All residents of the town were evicted in 1999 when the Phelps Dodge Company closed the plant.  By then, the town had grown to include 250 homes, some apartments, a bar, bowling alley, a rodeo ring, and a fitness center.  The town lay dormant, a skeleton crew its only inhabitants, until New Mexico Tech University purchased it in 2003.  It is now used for training for counter-terrorism efforts, first responders, and for awhile, US military assisting Border Patrol agents.  That last fact is a supreme irony, since the lights of the smelter has evidently been nicknamed by illegal immigrants crossing the border as La Estrella del Norte, or The Star of the the North.

Even as people take control of aspects of their lives through technology and commerce, some things, like time and market forces, are beyond control and may cause the birth and death of settlements, towns, villages, and even cities.  We reach out to the stars, using man-made stars to guide our way north across borders in hopes of a new life, or using rocket fuel to take us to the brink of the void, and yet even as these activities are ongoing, towns are evicted, wars cause deaths, and natural earth movements fling towering waves of destruction against our strongly built, seemingly impervious structures.

But still we sit in the emptiness, look about us, and continue to work with what is while dreaming of what will be.

Musical Interlude

For today's musical interlude, since I wrote about stars, I go back to Terri Hendrix of Texas, and offer you her song Lluvia de Estrellas, which literally means "rain of stars" and is really a very poetic description of a meteor shower.  Enjoy!

If you want to know more about Playas

Albuquerque Journal: N.M. Tech Buys Playas for Terror Training Center
Center for Land Use Interpretation: Playas
Washington Post: New Mexico Plays Home to Terror Town
Wikipedia: Playas

Next up: Animas, New Mexico


Blue Highways: North Zulch, Texas

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWilliam Least Heat-Moon's (LHM) passage through North Zulch, Texas occasions my musings on what constitutes our U.S. archeology.  I conclude that it's ghost towns.  We can't claim what the Native cultures left us, and we're a young country.  North Zulch is an artifact that has as much archeological value as anything our United States and its culture has to offer as an archeological treasure.  Click on the map thumbnail to see where North Zulch is located.

Book Quote

"I left and went through North Zulch..."

Blue Highways: Chapter 4, Part 1

Old gas station in North Zulch. Photo by Sam Starkey. Click on photo to go to host site.

North Zulch, Texas

In a past post conceived as I read about LHM's travels through Indiana, I wrote about ghost towns.  These towns, remnants of commerce and lives long past which saw their establishment and high times come and go in the life-cycle of things, litter the landscape, especially in the west.  But what caused these towns to fade from existence?  Sometimes their fates were tied to a specific natural resource, usually a mineral like gold or silver, copper, turquoise or another valuable commodity.  Some were lumber towns that died when the merchantable timber had been tapped out.

But sometimes it was more simple.  Sometimes towns died because technology literally passed them by.  In many cases in the west, that technological marvel was known as the railroad.  The creation of railroads was a function of business.  Railroad companies saw potential in establishing these two thin slivers of rail through various places, but like any business, it took capital to build them places.  Railroads had to acquire right of ways.  When crossing public lands, they had to persuade federal, state and local governments to grant them a right-of-way - a strip of land equal to the railbed on each side of the tracks - upon which they would be given the right to put the tracks down.  This right-of-way was often granted in perpetuity.  When crossing private land, the railroad companies negotiated right-of-way terms with the owners of the land. 

Like any business, railroads would go where it was economically most feasible, not necessarily always the most commonsense places.  Railroad companies wanted to have their rail lines go through populous business centers, but they were less concerned about whether they hit small towns.  If a railroad went through a small town, it could automatically increase the business in that town.  But railroads missed a lot of small towns either by chance or design depending on market economics, and those towns that were missed often withered and died on the prairie, or in the shadow of the valley that was not chosen for the railbed.

But some towns, like North Zulch, came about because a railroad missed the town.  It is the testament to the determination of a people to not let their town die to which North Zulch, Texas owes its existence today.  North Zulch came into existence because the original town of Zulch was bypassed by a railroad.  In 1907 many citizens of Zulch, named for the founder of the town Julius Zulch, moved their homes and businesses two miles north to where the Trinity and Brazos Valley Railroad had laid its tracks.  By doing so North Zulch prospered, as small towns go, especially when a branch of another railroad, the Houston and Texas Central, was surveyed through the region.  In 1931 the town peaked at 1000 residents.  But, like the railroads themselves, the town dwindled, until now today it too spends its quiet waning moments as an unincorporated community along a vanished railroad line.

In a young country like the United States, the remnants of towns like Zulch and North Zulch are our archeological legacy.  We don't sport the ruins of Rome, or the wonders of the ancient monuments of Greece.  We have no great pyramids.  We have no mediaeval walled cities or towns.  We cannot point toward the Caddo Mounds or the ruins of Chaco Canyon or the cliff dwellings of the Southwest as products of our culture, even though they are within the United States.  We have our living cities and towns, which must move beyond their usefulness before they become artifacts of our civilization.  And unfortunately, we'll have long joined the dust before our gleaming buildings and our soaring monuments become archeological discoveries of a future age.

But, we have our ghost towns, sitting silent on prairies, in deserts and in the long evening shadows of valleys that once rang with the shouts of children, the metal-upon-metal ring of industry, the call of livestock, and the rise and swell of voices bartering, buying, selling, commercing, conversing, laughing,  We have small places, once larger and more prosperous, reduced like North Zulch to a sleepy remnant of their pasts along a railroad line that once was a conduit of wealth and plenty and a road to those faraway places only read about.  These are our legacy, our artifacts, and the archeological treasures that represent us.

If you want to know more about North Zulch North Zulch
Texas State Historical Association: North Zulch
Wikipedia: North Zulch

Next up: College Station, Texas


Blue Highways: White Cloud, Indiana

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

Meandering eastward, we journey with William Least-Heat Moon through the backroads of southern Indiana.  Click on the map to see our journey thus far.



Book Quote

"On through what was left of White Cloud..."

Blue Highways:  Part 1, Chapter 5

White Cloud, Indiana. Photo by Robert Powell and featured in Panoramio. Click on photo to go to host page.White Cloud, Indiana

There really isn't much to say about White Cloud.  In one way, White Cloud is a symbol of the forward march of life and time.  White Cloud was once a town, and now it really isn't.  It sits, unincorporated, in Harrison County, Indiana.  Harrison County was named for the ninth president of the United States, William Henry Harrison, who once owned much of the land in the area.

Even in a country as young as the United States, there are remnants of life and evidence of time's passage all over.  In New Mexico, where I live, there are many ghost towns littering the landscape, products of booms then busts in precious minerals.  You can find evidence of such places all over the West.  Perhaps the price of the mineral being mined suddenly dropped, the mines closed, and the people drifted away to other more profitable ventures.  Perhaps a promised rail line didn't materialize, and the life blood of the town was cut off. 

My wife and I recently stayed in a bed and breakfast in Chloride, New Mexico. It was an amazing place, now populated by only about a dozen families, but around 1900 had 5,000 people.  The town was built around silver mines.  It had a newspaper, saloons, a general store.  But by the 1920s, the people had drifted away, the paper had closed down and the general store was boarded up and left, with all its merchandise still inside.  It is now a fascinating museum stocked with most of the merchandise that was left.

I co-own some property with my sisters near what isn't even a ghost town anymore, but around 1900 there was a thriving community built around a lumber mill in Northern California.  The town, Irmulco, was named for the Irvine and Muir Lumber Company.  Old pictures show a sawmill with a small train to carry logs from the logging areas into the mill.  However, the mill was built to be portable.  When the area was logged out, the mill moved, and the town disappeared.  All that are left are some very old and crumbling wood buildings, the foundation of the sawmill (with indentations still in the grass where the sawmill once sat, a crumbled dam used to back up Olds Creek where the logs were floated until ready to cut, and an old roadbed and track bed.  One can still find artifacts from the times - a huge steel circular saw, old beer, soda and occasionally, medicinal bottles.  Once, I even found a penny from the 1900s stuck on a horizontal support beam in the shelter that served as a railway station.

Everywhere you go, there are remnants of humanity that have gone by and disappeared, from the pueblo ruins in the Southwest to the forgotten and buried subway stations in New York City.  I'm fascinated by these remnants of the past.  They are the true time capsules that, when we discover them, give us a glimpse of what life was like.  William Least-Heat Moon only gives a passing mention to White Cloud, but even a mention of a forgotten place contains whispers of what it once was, if we bother to listen.

If you want to know more about White Cloud

This is all I could find, folks.  White Cloud continues to hold its secrets.

Wikipedia: White Cloud

But here's some info on ghost towns around the world:

10 Most Amazing Ghost Towns
Ghost Towns
Ghost Town Gallery
Ghost Towns of the American West
Ghost Town USA
Wikipedia: Ghost Town

You can also find information individual region's ghost towns on Google, Bing or your search engine of choice.

Next up: Corydon, Indiana