Texan ''ghost towns'' tell the story of the Wild West

Posted Jun 15, 2001 by Joerg-Michael Dettmer
SANCO, TEXAS (dpa) - A warm wind is caressing the town of Sanco in the westernmost part of the state of Texas. The streets are empty. In front of a shut-down shop there is a rusting fuel pump, the windows of the old school are nailed over with boards, and spiders are spinning webs in the door of the small church.
The only sound is the clattering of a broken blade of an old windmill as it turns slowly in the breeze. Buzzards are flying circles above the fields. Time appears to have come to a standstill.
Sanco, once a lively and proud place, is now deserted. And it is just one of dozens of so-called "ghost town" spread throughout Texas. For the visitor, these towns tell the history of how the American West was once settled.
Some of these once-flourishing places fell victim to a tornado, while the fates of others were sealed when the railway company chose to lay its route somewhere else or when local oil fields dried up. Others literally dried up when drought came and the drinking water ran out.
Sanco was founded by cattle ranchers in 1880. But after flourishing briefly, its downfall set in. Its location was a difficult one, and the Great Depression of the 1930s added to its problems.
But the end came in the 1940s, when new highways were built in the region and farmers used them to go shopping in the cities instead of in Sanco.
The term "ghost town" is a flexible one. States like Arizona have cultivated lucrative tourism business with ghost towns. Busloads of visitors are carted to erstwhile gold mining towns and are treated to a show of a pistol shootout.
But even the less spectacular ghost towns are often worth a visit. One is Fort Phantom Hill in western Texas, where the ruins of an old U.S. Army fort can be seen. Then there is what remains of a place called Indianola on Texas' Gulf of Mexico coast, where in the mid-19th Century hundreds of German immigrants had settled.
"These places have more to tell than any history book," says Jack Thompson, a visitor from New York as he tours the Texas ghost town of Thurber. Now retired, Thompson is like many Americans interested in the past of his still relatively-young country.
"I think it is fascinating to search for traces," he said. "A town once stood here and now there's nothing. So many life stories, so many fates."
Thurber is located in northern Texas, on the Interstate 20 highway. There is a huge chimney stack and a few houses all made of red bricks. It was founded in 1888 by the Texas & Pacific Coal Company, and at one point was home to more than 10,000 people.
There was even an opera house and the town had electric street lamps everywhere. But then the coal mine closed in 1920 and a famous brickworks shut down in the 1930s, and Thurber's residents moved out.
A special species of ghost towns are the "Boom Towns" - those place which had an extremely short history, one of rapid growth followed by an equally rapid disappearance.
One example is the buffalo hunting town of Rath City, which existed for all of about four years, 1876 through 1879. The reason is that after the settlers had all but wiped out the once-huge herds of buffalo, hunters' bases like Rath City were no longer needed.
Then there is the case of the town of Fry in central Texas. It was built in just six months' time in 1926 when oil was discovered, and a refinery was even built there. But the oil ran out in 1934 and Fry ceased to exist.