23 Jan Ghost towns haunt the Central Oregon horizon
We exited I-84 in the Columbia River Gorge at the point where Highway 97 heads south. The hustle of the big city to the west was long behind us, and it felt like we might be heading off into nowhere. The lonesome wheat fields blew into a yellow blur as my photographer friend Bryon manned the wheel.
Out here there’s not much, just the long winding road that stretches around dusty old farm towns—mere blips, really—that have largely been forgotten. While most Oregonians think Sunriver or Bend when they think Central Oregon, we were about to take on forsaken corners. The ghost towns of Boyd, Friend, Shaniko and Antelope are the decrepit remains of once-thriving communities, now merely skeletons of the past. Ghost towns come in three versions: those still inhabited, those abandoned and those that are only a blank space on the horizon, not a single building remaining. We sought all three on this journey to forgotten places tucked into the lesser creases of the map.
The first two stops on our ghost town ramble were Boyd and Friend, which are about four miles apart. As we turned left from Highway 197 onto Boyd Market Road, we took in more rolling wheat hills spotted with a few rusty barns. Boyd was established after gold was discovered in John Day in 1861. Hundreds of miners passed through every day, en route between The Dalles and Canyon City. The bustling community had a school, a store, a post office, blacksmiths, a church and a flourmill. Later, the Great Southern Railroad laid track here, and the town continued to boom.
But when we visited, there was not a soul in sight. I later spoke with former resident Pam Clauson, who recounted how her aunt used to ride a cow to school since the horses were needed for farming. The rain started pounding as we came to one of the few remaining buildings, the imposing Boyd Grain Elevator, a tall, wooden grain mill built in the 1880s by T.P. Boyd, whom the town was named after. Despite the faded paint and a few missing boards, the elevator has stayed in pretty good condition. Nearby stands a small wooden shack with a caved-in roof that makes it look like something out of a Tim Burton film. We crossed the bridge and pulled onto the gravel road towards the towering structure, only to be met with a “no trespassing” sign. From the road, we took in the leftover bits and pieces of Boyd—the grain elevator, the wooden shack and the lonely, rolling golden fields.
Back on 197, we drove five miles south until we turned onto Dufur Gap Road, a country roadway scattered with barns and cows, and then left onto Friend Road. Like Boyd, Friend was on the Great Southern Railroad and was a booming town with a barbershop, a hotel, a blacksmith, and a church, as well as the school and store that still stand today. The town was named after homesteader George Friend, whose headstone lies in Friend Cemetery, about a mile from the schoolhouse up Clark Mill Road.
Friend’s one-room schoolhouse closed in 1942 but remains open to the public. The school almost resembles a tiny church from the outside, simply painted white with a bell tower atop. Next to the school are two short wooden outhouses labeled “Ladies” and “Gents,” with sloped roofs that somehow made them charming. Inside the schoolhouse there’s a chalkboard adorned with messages from previous travelers, some tables and benches, and a tattered piano that plays distorted tunes. I walked the creaky floorboards and peered out the window, through which streaks of hazy sun filtered in. I thought of the students long ago who, perhaps when distracted, daydreamed out this same window. On our way out of Friend, we noticed a concrete vault in the field, the lone remains of a bank that never came to fruition. It now stands like the tombstone of a once-bustling village. Boyd and Friend met a similar demise when the train tracks were pulled up and larger roads were built, bypassing these hamlets. The Great Depression didn’t help either, and today Boyd and Friend are merely ghosts of the past.
We zoomed southward for another fifty miles on 197 to Shaniko, our next destination, travelling along the jagged canyon rims of Maupin and through the unassuming farm town of Bakeoven, where only an old wooden barn and a house stood. Punctuated by solitary telephone poles and clusters of rabbitbrush, the desert highway seemed to go on forever towards the big open sky.
Ahead, we saw “SHANIKO” in big white letters atop a red-roofed wool shed. A former wool-processing and trading center, Shaniko was dubbed the “Wool Capital of the World” in 1903. The town was the southern terminus for the Columbia Southern Railroad and a lively commercial center with around 600 residents. Currently there are 35 residents living amidst a smattering of the original buildings. Shaniko stands out amongst Oregon ghost towns because a determined group of locals keep the town’s history alive, and many of the buildings are open for business in the summer. Town mayor Goldie Roberts, who runs an ice cream parlor during the busy season, says, “It’s all volunteer work. We try and do our part to help keep things going.”
I bopped around town for a bit, marveling at the collection of clapboard, false-front buildings, each kitschy but admittedly adorable. The city hall, painted a fading yellow, houses a jailhouse. Inside the jailhouse are three cells with wooden walls marked with various etchings, who knows from when. I walked past the box-shaped Gold Nugget Saloon with its faded blue front that looks like “shabby chic,” only this is the real thing. In the corner of town is a green schoolhouse with an octagonal bell tower on top. Inside are early 1900s desks, an original stove that burned coal and wood, and some vintage games. The Shaniko Hotel, a recently-abandoned two-story brick building, stands as a relic of both Shaniko’s past and, perhaps, an indicator of its future. How long will the residents be able to keep Shaniko alive?
Our next stop was Antelope. OR 218 led us down a mountainous ridge, swerving around hairpin curves and through a slot canyon leading towards town. Edging in, we passed the Antelope Café, which closed in 2013, and the Antelope Garage, bearing a tin false-front and a faded sign that reads “Union 76 Station.” Further down is an Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW) Hall, now a private residence, which bears the old anchor symbol. I peeped into the Antelope Café and spied blue stools lining the counter, some scattered newspapers, a toaster and a clock on the wall, all of which made it appear as if folks had just breakfasted there. Another street over is the storybook-like church, where services are still held to this day.
In its prime, Antelope was a cattle and sheep center with saloons, a blacksmith, a barber shop, a church and a jailhouse. In 1898, most of the businesses were destroyed by a fire. Then came the range war in 1905, which saw the slaughter of thousands of sheep, followed by the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which hit the town hard. Over time, people began moving out to the big cities, and Antelope became a sleepy rural town.
This all changed in 1981 when 2000 followers of the Rajneesh movement, led by Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, moved in and set up a spiritual commune in search of enlightenment on “Big Muddy Ranch.” John Silvertooth, a long-term resident, says, “It was bizarre, like you woke up being taken over by a foreign army.” Many local residents fled town. The Rajneeshees were eventually driven out of town in 1985, after being hit with tax fraud charges, in addition to being investigated for poisoning, bribery and attempted murder. After their departure, Antelope assumed its former quiet-town status, but, according to some residents, it was never the same.
Still standing today are some A-frame cabins the Rajneeshees had built for housing, which are now used for storage and quilting. Currently, there are approximately 49 residents left in Antelope, though hardly anything here is open. With the shortage of jobs in this remote region, it’s questionable whether future generations will be drawn to Antelope, and whether it, too, will eventually exist solely in anecdotes depicting its curious history.
As we made our way south to the booming city of Bend, I tried to process my brief squint into these unnoticed corners of Oregon. Ghost towns are defined by their demise, but there’s more to these places than rickety old buildings. There’s something about ghost towns that fills us with a sense of curiosity, a drive to imagine who the people were who once lived there and what became of them. Behind every dilapidated wall rests the stories of those who once toiled and thrived there. Most of those stories will be forgotten, yet many continue to be romanticized by those of us called to poke around out there among the still, desert plains and lonely roads.