Ghost Town Road Trip
The Klondike Gold Rush that brought an estimated 100,000 prospectors through Seattle on their way north to the Yukon during the last days of the 19th Century left behind scores of dreamers who dug for their own fortunes in the dusty rolling hills of Eastern Washington.
Those prospectors and pioneers established a string of communities in the Northeast corner of the state that continue to attract photographers and history buffs in search of legends from our recent past.
In many cases, all that is left of what were once thriving communities are a few empty barns and hollow foundations. The eight-hour visit to the Ghost Towns of Okanogan provides all the ingredients a Hollywood screenwriter would need to create an epic journey of adventure and romance. The lonely highways between the eerie collection of abandoned townships and boarded buildings represent an era of unfilled dreams.
Unlike the towns that were abandoned when prospectors moved on to other locations in search of precious metals, the valued commodities mined in the Okanogan ranged from gold and silver to sand and timber.
The 363-mile loop through the Okanogan Highlands provides visitors with an up-close view of empty, century-old buildings and dozens of historic relics of former towns as well as a first-hand glimpse into the fascinating past of the region and into the history of the state. The northern half—what is now the Colville Indian Reservation—was thrown open for mineral exploration in 1896. Within weeks, an estimated 1,500 prospectors flooded south from British Columbia and north across the Columbia River to stake their claims.
The story goes that signal fires were built when official word of the opening was received. Those fires touched off a short-lived gold rush in Washington state that generated a hot bed of mines and camps filled with dreamers with visions of wealth that could be discovered on the Lower 48. This is the area that would become known as Okanogan County—the mountains, valley and foothills were the home of Native American chiefs from another time in history. Men like Moses, Tonasket, Joseph and Sar-sarp-kin.
White men of the early West also made names for themselves in Okanogan County as well. Men like Hiram F. “Okanogan” Smith, Jonathan Bourne Jr., Charles and Hazard Ballard. Others like David McLoughlin, Guy Waring, Colonel Tom Hart, Alex Barron, and Chee Saw created the largest and one of the most fascinating counties in the state of Washington; an area is still consumed by legend and filled with mystery.
Okanogan is a Salish Indian word meaning “rendezvous.” Sometimes called “the late frontier,” the Okanogan Valley was inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years before a succession of explorers, prospectors, miners, trappers, cattlemen, settlers, loggers, farmers, missionaries and orchardists carved out a colorful history that lives on to the present day.
A visitor only has to use their imagination and to wander through long-abandoned town sites with distinctive names such as Ruby, Bodie, Gold Hill, Barron, Loup Loup, Nighthawk, Toroda, Sheridan, Circle City and Silver to conjure images of the past.
There’s much to hold the history buff’s attention, including legends of hidden gold and long-lost million-dollar mines, several of which are still occupied by treasure hunters today.
Several of the area’s historic boom towns of yesterday are still standing. Other places such as Gilbert, Loomis, Republic, Old Molson, Chesaw, Gold Hill, Nighthawk, Bodie and Riverside are silent monuments to the past that have changed little over the past century.
Before beginning your driving trip into the past, it would be a good idea to get an overview of the area and its history with a visit to the Okanogan County Historical Museum at 1410 Second Avenue North in Okanogan; contact them at 509.422.4272. The Society has a vivid collection of photographs and docents who are happy to provide first-person tips for a memorable journey.
There are no road signs to mark the start of the Ghost Town Road Trip, but a logical place to begin would be in Bodie, a collection of barns and empty farm houses 140 miles northwest of Spokane in a pocket of land surrounded by the Colville National Forest.
Prospectors Tommy Ryan and Phil Creasor discovered a continuous mineralized ledge in the north of Okanogan County in 1886 and claimed the area as Eureka Gulch. The area quickly became known as Republic. In the city’s rapid heyday, Republic boasted seven hotels, 20 saloons, nine general stores and an undisclosed number of brothels. The quality of ore discovered spurred the establishment of many nearby mines and townships, including Bodie.
The town was established in 1888 at the mouth of Bodie Creek, two years after Ryan and Creasor’s lucrative discovery. High-quality ore was extracted, milled and processed right in Bodie until 1934 when falling gold prices closed the township’s mine and the busy grouping of buildings fell vacant.
In the days and years that followed the discovery of gold surrounding the town, Bodie was actually relocated to what was known originally as the Bodie Mining Camp. An estimated $1.2 million in gold was processed through the camp. Visitors say that Bodie Creek still runs the color of the precious metal.
Bodie continues to attract historians, mining buffs and photographers to the slanting buildings, rusty equipmentand mysterious log cabins. There is only one intact structure remaining of the original “Old Bodie.” It is a small two-story house converted into a storage building with the help of local resident Doug Prichard. The largest, most visible structure still vertical in what is Bodie today is often cited as a schoolhouse which doubled as a saloon, but local legend disputes that fact. Old Bodie has often been confused with an assembly of cabins north of the Bodie Mining Camp at the junction of Toroda Creek and the road to Curlew, which functioned as a saw mill.
As long as you’re in the area, it pays to swing by the community of Chesaw, about 15 miles west of Bodie. This ghost town was alive from only 1896 until 1900, but the area is still filled with old buildings and forgotten cabins.
South of Brodie are the remnants of the sleepy town of Sherman (no relation to the player of the same name in the Legion of Boom the Seahawks) in Lincoln County, just north of Wilbur.
Like many small towns in Eastern Washington, Sherman sprang up in the agricultural boom of the 1880s and 1890s, spawned by the federal government’s many homesteading acts. Sherman was abandoned as the price of wheat fell, the average farm size increased and better vehicles and roads made traveling easier. The shell of a school, a beautiful church and a cemetery are all that remain.
The next stop on your road trip through Washington history should be Govan, established in 1889 as “a place in Lincoln County” by politicians at the time.
The discovery of a large sandbank in the autumn of 1890 created a boom-town atmosphere that attracted work crews with steam shovels to extract the sand for road construction. The town was named in honor of R.B. Govan, a construction engineer employed by the Central Washington Railway.
The town has a mysterious past based on several unsolved murders that date back to 1902. According to legend, “The most brutal crime ever committed in the county took place when Judge J.A. Lewis and his wife, Penelope, were the unwilling victims of an axe murder.” It is believed that the motive for the double homicide was robbery because Lewis was known for keeping large sums of cash in his home.
The demise of the community happened virtually overnight when the town was bypassed during the construction of US Route 2 in 1933. The last store in Govan closed its doors in 1940.
There isn’t much left in town, but it is still possible to walk around the old abandoned schoolhouse, as well as the original post office and a few other crumbling structures. Visitors can still find remnants of old pottery in the deserted buildings, but explorers should keep an eye out for the rattlesnakes, scorpions and cougars that have become the primary residents of the town. Summer is probably the best time to visit Govan due to the deep mud created by the spring rains. “Lots of mud,” according to one historian. “Watch out for ticks and monster mosquitoes the size of dimes. We were attacked within seconds as we approached.”
Before looping back, be sure to stop off in the old town of Dyer. This former community in Douglas County has been empty for years, but it’s still home to several deserted homesteads, old pottery and other relics.
Not far from the Canadian border is the boom-and-bust town of Molson. The city’s first growth can be traced as far back as 1900. In only a year, the population shot up to 300 and was complete with a newspaper, stores, attorney, doctor, saloon and even a hotel. A post office was opened on July 14, 1900, with Walter F. Schuyler as first postmaster. (The post office closed in 1967.)
The prosperity did not last long. The population fell to only 12 people when the mine began to fail in 1901. The community boomed again in 1905 when news came around that a railroad would be routed through the area. In the meantime, a local who ran a barn and stage line filed for a homestead that included most of the town. By 1909, the man published a notice for everyone on the land to relocate, forcing citizens to found the site of New Molson about a half mile north.
The empty town is now preserved as an “open-air museum” with pioneer buildings (including an old schoolhouse), farm machinery and other vintage artifacts.
The logical endpoint to the ghost town road trip is a stop in Nighthawk on the Similkameen River. Named for the now-closed mine, Nighthawk was originally a productive logging area along Loomis-Oroville Highway west-northwest of Oroville.
The town has survived as a daylight Canada-U.S. border crossing along the Burlington Northern Railroad. The border crossing is commonly known as “the Nighthawk Crossing” on the Canadian side, though the official name of the Canadian-side locality is Chopaka.
The town of Nighthawk was a booming mine town at the turn of the century with hotels and a burlesque house. The population is currently less than 10 permanent residents. Situated by the Similkameen River, Nighthawk got its cool name from a nearby mine that is now closed. In the early 1900s, it had been a booming town with hotels, a saloon and even a railroad depot. But as with a lot of the towns in the Okanogan area, the mines were eventually shut down due to the high cost of operation and the drop in the price of precious metals. Several of the structures that remain date back as far as 1903.
The ghost town road trip through the Okanogan may not be as famous as Apache Junction or the OK Corral in the Southwest, but it can be a memorable day of exploration and education right in your own backyard.
And just like the current residents of the Evergreen State, the ghosts that inhabit the deserted towns in Eastern Washington are friendly.
Dan Aznoff is a freelance writer who captures the cherished stories of past generations so they can be preserved for future generations. Dan lives in a four-generation household in beautiful Mukilteo, Washington. He can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.