Ghost towns evoke images of dusty streets, ramshackle buildings, and tumbleweed. Popular imagination places them in the high peaks of the Rockies or isolated in the deserts of the Great Basin and the South West. However, Nebraska has its own ghost towns, silent witnesses to the state’s agricultural and transportation history. They also speak to the optimism of the state’s settlers, their aspirations, and the challenges they faced on the frontier. These lost communities are easy to miss while driving along the state’s highways, but with some basic detective work, they arise out of the landscape to tell their story.
Often, the quickest means of discovering Nebraska’s ghost towns is to consult historic maps. Many former communities were established by land development companies or other private land holders, who in the process had town sites surveyed and platted. Comparison between current and historic maps, especially historic railroad maps, helps to identify ghost towns. Aerial photographs also assist in the discovery of these towns, revealing features that are hidden at ground level, such as building foundations, roadbeds, and railroad rights-of-way. Finally, county histories, newspapers, and oral histories also point to the locations of ghost towns.
Railroad ghost towns are the easiest to identify due to their larger size, physical remains, and higher number. Often, these towns were large enough to have graded streets, which are still visible in the landscape. These streets may still be shaded by trees planted by the original settlers. Isolated grain elevators also often indicate a former town, especially when they are oriented at an angle against the common grid of county roads, implying a location along a long-abandoned railroad. Many of these towns were founded during the period of railroad expansion, 1870-1890, and were abandoned by the late 1930s due to the collapsed agricultural economy and the closure of railroad branches.
Another class of ghost towns includes former river settlements. These towns were primarily located at fords or ferry sites along Nebraska’s multiple rivers, and are among the earliest settlements in the state. The sites of these communities often have few, if any remains such as streets or structures, due to floods or changing river courses.
Other ghost towns include speculative settlements, constructed to serve as possible sites for county seats, or as possible railroad depots, or as future centers for an industrial or agricultural area. These settlements are the hardest to find, as they often were in existence for the shortest period of time and were composed of the most temporary of buildings. These settlements are primarily found only on old maps, and have left little impression on the landscape, except for place names, groves of trees, or possibly a cemetery.
Nebraska’s ghost towns, while not as visually impactful as the mythologized ghost towns of the far west, are a key part of the state’s history and are a target for investigation and preservation. Much can be learned from these town sites, which provide us clues on not only the economic and material aspects of prairie life, but also give insight to how people planned for the future and saw their relationship between their community and the larger world.
– Ruben Acosta / National Register and CLG Coordinator, State Historic Preservation Office