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Originally published Sunday, November 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Spirits of the Old West hang around ghost towns

The ghost towns of the American West recall a desperate era. Located on high plains and open deserts where sandstorms and cold winter nights...

Los Angeles Times

The ghost towns of the American West recall a desperate era. Located on high plains and open deserts where sandstorms and cold winter nights embalm any semblance of life, these towns still whisper their legends to anyone willing to stop and listen.

You'll hear the stories of the men, the women and the children who abandoned their homes, gave up their mining claims and vanished.

Today, these ghost towns offer little more than dusty whiskey bottles on warped shelves, dog-eared hymnals in church pews and framed black-and-white photos veiled in spider webs. Among them are:

Goldfield, Nevada

Whoever chained a young woman to a radiator in the Goldfield Hotel, leaving her for dead, probably thought she would be silenced forever.

Instead, she lives on a century later in this once-flourishing mining town in the Nevada desert.

Here, guests enjoyed French cooking, hot baths and a decorative lobby with dark mahogany walls and gold-leaf ceilings, but the young woman never knew such luxury. After all, she was a prostitute. Prospectors, entrepreneurs and laborers abandoned Goldfield in the 1920s when the boom went bust. As you walk through the darkened hotel with Virginia Ridgway, the head of tourism for what little remains in Goldfield, she swears she is neither crazy nor drunk when she talks about having seen a glowing man in a black hat and hearing footsteps where there should have been none in this four-story brick building.

The room where the imprisoned woman died is empty and hollow.

Directions: From Las Vegas, drive 184 miles north along U.S. Highway 95.

Bodie, Calif.

Bodie is a cursed ghost town. Pilfer anything from one of the old sun-bleached buildings north of Mono Lake on the east side of the Sierras — a nail, part of a clock or even an old bottle — and bad luck latches onto you forever.

Don't believe it? Then tell it to the visitors of this well-preserved ghost town, once a gold-mining town home to 10,000 people, that's now the Bodie State Historic Park. Visitors have been returning stolen stuff with tales of heartbreak, death and serious injury that beset them once they left this settlement. One fearful visitor even returned the nail that pierced her tire as she drove through town.

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Directions: From U.S. Highway 395, take California Highway 270 east. Drive 10 miles to the end of the pavement and continue three miles on a dirt road. (See www.parks.ca.gov for more information.)

Skidoo, Calif.

Pity the hard-luck residents of Skidoo, perhaps the sorriest little mining settlement in the West, in what's now Death Valley National Park.

In its short-lived, miserable history, the town had the misfortune of attracting such desperate characters as Joe "Hooch" Simpson. In 1908, this down-on-his-luck barkeep made the mistake of gunning down the town banker for $20, and when a lynch mob finally got its hands on him, they couldn't wait to build a proper gallows. They hanged him from the telegraph pole that brought news of the outside world to this benighted patch of earth.

When a reporter from the Los Angeles Times showed up back then to take a photograph, the good citizens of Skidoo accommodated him by digging up Hooch, brushing him off and hanging him again. But then the town doctor, in a macabre moment, lopped off Hooch's head to test for syphilis, the possible cause of his sudden madness.

No wonder the twice-hanged, headless Hooch still wanders these empty hills in Death Valley, where all that remains are a historical marker, broken bottles and hundreds of abandoned mine shafts.

Directions: From Stovepipe Wells in the park, drive southwest along California Highway 190 for nine miles, turn left on Wildrose Canyon Road and, after nine more miles, turn left on the first major gravel road and continue for almost eight miles. (More information, Death Valley National Park, www.nps.gov).

Vulture Mine City, Ariz.

A low-hanging ironwood tree drapes over the crumbling remains of an abandoned stone house, one-time home of Henry Wickenburg, patriarch of this forgotten town.

Justice was often swift and harsh in these places. Eighteen miners were strung up from this tree more than 100 years ago, close enough for Wickenburg to see their feet dangling in front of the window. Their crime? Stealing ore from established claims. Although the mines of the area yielded countless riches, Wickenburg ended up a pauper who later put a bullet in his head.

Today, the town's last full-time resident, Marge Osborne, recalls seeing mysterious figures and hearing unexplained knocking whenever she walked the streets at night beside the jail, the assay office, the schoolhouse, the smithy. Although much of the structures have withered under sun and rain, the old ironwood thrives, nearly engulfing what's left of Wickenburg's ruined home.

Directions: Take U.S. Highway 60 west 2 ½ miles out of Wickenburg to Vulture Mine Road. Turn south and drive 12 miles.

Frisco, Utah

George Reese, Samuel Bailie and Hans Roth are a few of the names in Frisco's weed-choked cemetery, the final resting place for many victims of the legendary violence that nearly killed this silver-mining town toward the end of the 19th century.

The bloodshed provided job security for the undertaker, who drove the main street in an open wagon each evening carting away the bodies.

Times changed when the marshal, William Pearson, from neighboring Pioche showed up one day to set things right. First came a warning: Lawbreakers wouldn't be arrested; they would be shot. Then came justice. On Pearson's first night on the job, six outlaws bit the dust.

Today, only a few lopsided, splintery buildings, along with five charcoal kilns used in the silver- and lead-melting process, remain in Frisco. Of course, there are the tombstones in the cemetery that rise from the desert near the Nevada-Utah border like bad teeth sprouting from the ground.

Directions: From Milford, Utah, drive west along Utah Highway 21 for 15 miles.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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