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Ghost towns may conjure up images of towering, looming mansions filled with spirits, or deserted settlements in the middle of nowhere. In truth, a ghost town can be either —or both.
The West boasts a rich collection of haunts and historical stops, from the paranormal spirits said to exist at Murphy’s Historic Hotel in Calaveras County to areas so abandoned, there’s nothing left but a historical marker on the side of the road indicating a blossoming town once stood there.
And then there are what can only be described as thriving ghost towns, places that died away, then bloomed once more.
Take Murphys, a Sierra foothills town that boomed during the Gold Rush. The population plummeted as miners moved on — but it has reemerged as a major wine and food destination. Sip your way through Ironstone Vineyards, Stevenot and Hatcher, then explore the town itself.
The small jail that once served as a drunk tank now houses a (fake) skeleton, and eerier early residents call the Murphy’s Historic Hotel home. Guests say Eleanor, a former maid, throws items in the kitchen and across the Mark Twain Ballroom. You can often hear children laughing across the halls. And a man named John occasionally stands watch over hotel guests — only he’s not really there. The guest log in your room makes for some fascinating reading — although probably best read at some hour other than bedtime.
Virginia City, in Northern Nevada, is another living ghost town with a mine-rich history and plenty to see. The birthplace of Nevada’s gold and silver mining processes, today even its saloons are filled with history and lore, including tales of the infamous “suicide table” at the Delta Saloon, a local hot spot that has been shuttered since a mysterious — but probably not paranormal — explosion last winter. Stroll the saloons and charming old town, then visit the museum dubbed The Way It Was to learn more about its history.
There’s a curiosity about ghost towns — not just the paranormal aspects, but the history and mystery, too. Many of the west’s ghost towns were abandoned after the Gold Rush, as mines closed and the promise of riches disappeared. In some cases, water supplies dried up. Fires ravaged others. And in some cases, no one knows what prompted the eerie exodus.
Perhaps it was its remote location that doomed the once-bustling community of Purissima, near Half Moon Bay. No one knows why the residents left, or what became of them after they’d gone. If you visit, you can still see a few graying buildings, collapsing in on themselves, with failing staircases and splintered exteriors, and a Civil War-era cemetery. Take pictures and ponder the past — although if you want to do that pondering over beer or a bite, head for the charming, very much alive town of Half Moon Bay. All that remains of Purissima is atmosphere.
Other ghost towns are still populated, albeit lightly. Johannesburg, near the Mojave Desert, was nearly abandoned after a string of fires devastated the area. The population hovers around 172 now. Most of the town has vanished but eerily enough, a playground still stands and visitors swear you can hear children laughing even when the park is empty. A general store still exists in the neighboring ghost town of Randsburg — population 69 — to supply basics for the two towns.
California’s most famous ghost town is Bodie State Park, a mountain town that was once one of the biggest mining areas in the state. The majority of the buildings are in various stages of ruin but that doesn’t stop people from visiting — and sharing reports of ghosts, curses and music seeping from the windows of long-closed bars.
And over the state border in Nevada, you’ll find plenty more. Head for Paradise Valley, where the dilapidated, boarded-up remains of once-thriving towns fire the imagination.
IF YOU GO
Murphys: Many Gold Rush hotels have tales of ghosts who still haunt the hallways, but the Murphys Historic Hotel at 457 Main St. in Murphys is legendary; MurphysHotel.com. Find information on the area at https://visitmurphys.com and local wineries at www.calaveraswines.org.
Virginia City: Find information on where to say and what to do in Virginia City, including details on The Way It Was museum, at https://visitvirginiacitynv.com.
Purissima: This ghost town in San Mateo County is near the junction of Highway 1 and Verde Road.
Bodie State Historic Park: This state park in Bridgeport is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. through March 7, and until 6 p.m. from March 8 through Oct. 31. Admission is $8 per person ($5 for kids ages 4-17), cash or check only. Find more information at www.parks.ca.gov.