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Ghost Towns of the American West, by Bill O’Neal

Review by Steve Voynick

History – December 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Ghost Towns of the American West
by Bill O’Neal
Published in 1995
by Publications International, Ltd.
ISBN 0-7853-1241-2

Anyone looking for the traditional gift of a coffee-table book about western ghost towns need search no farther than the remainder table at the local bookstore. There’s no shortage of ghost-town books, and one could question whether another is really needed. But Bill O’Neal’s Ghost Towns of the American West stands at the head of a big class.

So what is a “ghost town” anyway? Webster says it’s a “once-flourishing town wholly or nearly deserted usually as a result of exhaustion of some natural resource (as gold).”

If Webster is right, there are precious few, if any, authentic ghost towns left in the West. Almost all have fallen prey to vandals, wood collectors, and the elements, or to reclamation or development. Yet O’Neal includes no less than thirty-one purported ghost towns, one of which is Leadville, Colorado. And I doubt that any of its current 3,100 residents consider Leadville a ghost town, certainly not in the social, economic, or demographic sense.

But O’Neal avoids just that point of criticism by providing a personal definition of a ghost town. “Whether you end up wandering alone among the few remaining structures of an abandoned mining camp or negotiating crowded streets filled with tourists, if the place is `haunted,’ you’ll feel it,” O’Neal writes. “That, as much as anything else, is what defines a ghost town.”

What the author means, of course, is that some old western towns radiate a profound, almost tangible sense of frontier history. Leadville is certainly one of those, as are his other choices, which range from Deadwood and Medora in the Dakotas and Bannack and Virgina City in Montana to White Oaks and Lincoln in New Mexico, Terlingua and Mobeetie in Texas, Nevada’s Tonopah, California’s Bodie, Idaho’s Silver City, and Washington’s Port Blakely.

No, you won’t find St. Elmo or Stumptown in the Colorado section, but along with Leadville, you will find Creede, Central City, and Cripple Creek.

To his credit, O’Neal doesn’t leave the reader dreaming of Cripple Creek the way it was before gambling wrecked it. “In 1991, when gambling was legalized,” the author writes, “many of the old buildings were remodeled as casinos, although most true ghost-town buffs would find the pre-casino Cripple Creek far more appealing.”

Ghost Towns, with 312 pages in glossy stock, is produced in an attractive 10″x10″ format. Its selection of 400 superb photographs is nicely balanced between historical black-and-white and contemporary color.

O’Neal has written eleven books on various aspects of western history. He’s a member of the Western Writers of America, former president of the East Texas Historical Association, a board member of the National Association for Outlaw and Lawman History, and a twenty-five-year member of a college history department.

That amounts to a lot of experience, and O’Neal uses all of it, for his excellent writing and fine sense of history combine to set this book apart. Space limitations prevent the author from presenting each ghost town as more than a vignette. But his thoughtful selection of which historical aspects to include — and which to omit — makes the book and its towns come alive.

So, if you’re looking for that traditional western ghost-town book in an unpretentious coffee-table format for a gift, I see two choices. You can head for the remainder table to spend a lot less to get a lot less. Or you can spend $29.95 for Bill O’Neal’s Ghost Towns of the American West, and be sure that all those folks Back East will at least get the story straight.

— Steve Voynick