Sunday, July 19, 2015

Vanishing Belcherville

Some of you may remember my photos of the Montague County ghost town of Belcherville from 2010-2011. I finally had a chance to take a friend of mine on a ghost town expedition through Cooke County and Montague County over the weekend after returning to college in January, and since Belcherville was the first Texas ghost town I ever discovered, I had to put it on our itinerary.

When we got out to the site, there were some drastic changes. A sturdy fence with numerous "No Trespassing" signs has been erected around much of downtown Belcherville, putting the remains of at least two churches and the Manley homestead on Elm Street off limits. In addition, the Vannoy gas station off Highway 82 has been wiped off the face of the earth. All that appears to be accessible in the original townsite are the old post office and the cemetery.

This appears to mark the imminent demise of the old Belcherville site for all time. My guess is the former downtown area will be razed and converted into farmland. Belcherville's population remains tiny, but the town also remains incorporated - the smallest incorporated city anywhere in the state of Texas. The locals have developed some farms and ranches on the old site, and it looks like we've stumbled upon the latest phase in what appears to be Belcherville's transformation from a collection of abandoned buildings into a quiet, dispersed farming community.

If anyone has further information on these developments, please feel free to share.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Possible renovations for historic mansion in Terlingua

For those of you following the Brewster County ghost town of Terlingua, the historic Perry Mansion maybe be getting some renovations courtesy of owner Bill Ivey, who currently runs the mansion as a hotel. Check it out.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Have you ever misplaced an entire town?

I know this isn't about anyplace in Texas, but there's a wonderful article in The Huffington Post about a small town that was abandoned and forgotten within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. Photographer Jordan Liles rediscovered the site last year, which he calls the Wonderland Club. He has photographed the ruins of several houses and even a hotel at the site. By all means, please check it out.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dexter (Cooke County) - April 2012 photos

I haven't been on a ghost town expedition for quite some time due to financial and personal constraints, and I miss being out on the road, exploring abandoned towns throughout Texas and bringing you pictures of what's left of these forgotten communities. Still, it turns out I still have a bunch of photos I haven't shared with you yet, and one set of photos is of the Cooke County town of Dexter, reduced to a mere shell of its former self. I don't know why, but I've been sitting on these photos for over two years - guess it's time I shared the history of Dexter with you, right?

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County Road 106, winding through what used to be the heart of Dexter

Take a good look at the above image of Dexter's now-quiet main street. Over a hundred years ago, what Gainesville is today, Dexter once aspired to be - the most important stop on the road north before crossing the Red River into Oklahoma. The Captured by Jess blog features a picture of Dexter in its heyday, and I strongly encourage you to visit Jessica's blog for that photo as well as other great shots of what's left of this once-ambitious town. If you wish to visit Dexter yourself, it's approximately 10 miles north of Callisburg on County Road 678 in extreme northeastern Cooke County; when you reach the intersection with County Road 106 and see the church on your left, you have arrived.

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Dexter Community Church, still in use today

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A peek inside Dexter Community Church

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Look closely to see my little furry friend romping the church grounds at Dexter

Dexter's life as a bustling border town was short, but marked by aggressive growth. Founded around 1870 by Dick Collum, S.E. Collum, Jesse Morris, and Bill Munday, it was originally located about three miles east of its present location, next to a natural spring that was certain to draw travellers. The site was originally called Sugar Hill, but Jesse Morris is credited with renaming the town Dexter after a once-famous racehorse.

Jason Schall inaugurated Dexter's post office on March 31, 1873, and the town quickly blossomed afterwards, reaching a population of 300 in the early 1880s. By that time, Dexter was home to 37 businesses, including its own district school, four blacksmith shops, four physicians, three hotels, two steam gristmills and cotton gins, a bank, a barber shop, and at least one church. The rapid growth of Dexter did not go unnoticed by Gainesville, which had become a supply point for cowboys headed north to Kansas with herds of cattle in tow.

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Side view of Dexter's school auditorium

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Front view of Dexter's school auditorium

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A peek inside Dexter's school auditorium

Every town in Cooke County anticipated the coming of the railroad, hoping to be the first town in the county to welcome trains to its own depot. The townfolk of Dexter were apparently convinced that the Denison and Pacific Railway was going to lay tracks right through their town, but as luck would have it, the railway instead chose to build through the town of Woodbine, 20 miles south of Dexter. Stung but undaunted by the financial loss, Dexter held a vote on February 28, 1885 on incorporation; turnout was somewhat light, but the town incorporated on a 30-18 vote. It was nevertheless becoming obvious to Dexter's denizens that the town was declining, with many of its businesses moving north of the Red River to resettle in Ardmore, Oklahoma. Dexter was also beginning to attract a more unsavory lot who occasionally used the town as a hideout; a posse tracked down brothers James and Pink Lee of the Lee Gang to a hayfield near Dexter on September 7, 1885, where both brothers were killed in a gunfight.

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Rear view of the abandoned bank vault at Dexter, now hidden from the road by dense foliage

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Side view of the Dexter bank vault

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Detail of ironwork molding around front door to the Dexter bank vault

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Remains of a wooden shack that reportedly housed the barber shop; said to have finally collapsed around 2000

The city government of Dexter managed to hold out until around 1900, and the post office was apparently discontinued sometime after 1925. The population continued to decline until 70 people were left at the townsite from the late 1960s until 1987, when the population began to plummet even further. The 2000 census reported only 18 people left at what used to be Cooke County's most ambitious town.

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Rusting machinery reposing in the vicinity of what used to be Dexter's general store

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Gate to South Dexter Cemetery - unlike many Texas ghost towns, Dexter has two cemeteries instead of just one

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Tombstone for W.L. Butt and his two wives, located in South Dexter Cemetery

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Gate to Dexter North Cemetery - or North Dexter Cemetery, depending on whether you believe the gate or the nearby sign

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Masonic gravestone for George P. Barclay and wife Rosa, located in Dexter North Cemetery

I hope you enjoyed this pictorial essay of Dexter. If you choose to visit this ghost town yourself, most of the roads are paved, but be advised that some of the roads are gravel and dirt that are prone to bumps and ditches and may be impassable after recent rainfall. Be safe, stay hydrated, and enjoy - and thank you for learning about the history of Dexter!

One more thing: Happy Birthday to my brother Steve! Love you, bro!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Field trip to Picher, Oklahoma

This is a departure from the original purpose of this blog, but this trip was definitely on my ghost town "bucket list," and the window of opportunity to visit this particular site is closing little by little. One day, the last remains of the mining town of Picher will be swept away forever, brought down by the Federal government's wrecking ball. And the demolition process has already begun.

Of the various mining ghost towns such as Cardin and Zincville located in northeastern Oklahoma, Picher was the big daddy of them all. Located just north of historic Route 66 in Ottawa County, at its height in 1926, Picher had a population of 14,525, most of whom were involved in lead and zinc mining operations at the town. Mining activity was so extensive that there was almost one mine shaft or bore hole dug for every man, woman, and child in Picher. If anyone from the United States Armed Forces fired a shot at the enemy during either world war, chances are good that the lead in that bullet was mined in Picher. As the mining operations tapered down, however, so did the population. The mine shafts were abandoned, allowing water to collect in them and become contaminated by the mining waste. Eventually, it bubbled to the surface again as an acidic red soup that left burns on flesh and killed all aquatic life in nearby Tar Creek. And all 40 miles of these abandoned mine shafts are still chock full of this poison.

To make matters worse, some of the abandoned shafts caved in, leaving sinkholes throughout the town, including one behind Picher-Cardin High School. Lead contaminated the town's water supply, resulting in a spike in cognitive disabilities in many of the children who drank the water. On top of everything else, an EF4 tornado slammed into southern Picher in 2008, killing eight people and injuring many others while destroying a lot of houses and buildings in the area. This turned out to be the last straw for the doomed community.

Picher is now the epicenter of the Tar Creek Superfund site, considered one of the most toxic sites in America. The municipality has been officially dissolved, but there's still a handful of diehards who refuse to leave. Less than 20 people are left, including a pharmacist who has vowed to keep his shop in downtown Picher open as long as someone remains in the ghost town. The Federal government has been knocking down abandoned buildings in Picher since 2011 because of the danger of lead contamination from these structures. I visited Picher in early March during a nasty rainstorm, but I was able to snap some pictures of the few remnants of Picher that the Federal government and that tornado in 2008 haven't demolished yet:

Remnants of downtown Picher - the surviving pharmacy is on the left-hand side behind the tree

The abandoned Picher Mining Museum

Picher-Cardin High School building

In honor of the once-formidable Picher-Cardin football team

Forsaken remains of a Disciples of Christ church

A small house in Picher, abandoned but still standing for the time being

As I mentioned earlier, I arrived at Picher during a bad rainstorm that never let up. This was probably a good thing, as the rain weighed down any airborne sediments from the contaminated chat piles that surround Picher, immense mountains of mining waste infiltrated by lead, zinc, and cadmium. If not for the rain, I might have been able to take a few more pictures, perhaps even visit Tar Creek or one of the sinkholes. Under the circumstances, however, safety and discretion were the order of the day. Highway 69 runs right through Picher, but nobody stops here anymore. If you wind up with a flat tire in this town, you simply limp southwestward until you reach Commerce or Miami if you know what's good for you.

Still, these few reminders of Picher remained - for now. One of these days, they'll be demolished, and the rubble will be cleared away. The very name of Picher is being removed from state maps, leaving behind only a network of paved streets that will lead to nowhere except sinkholes, toxic groundwater ponds, and mountains of chat as well as the tainted land, far beyond the current ability of the government to decontaminate. A visitor in the future might stop in the middle of this wasteland, intrigued by some broken or rusted remnant - some discarded masonry, the skeletal remains of a water tower - and ask herself what used to be here so many years ago.

As for me, I'm turning my attention back to Texas ghost towns for the foreseeable future. But there might be another out-of-state field trip or two somewhere down the line.

I've also created an ambient Mixcloud essay of my visit to Picher using field recordings from the townsite if you'd like to check it out.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Mantua (Collin County) - February 2014 photos

Once upon a time, I talked about ghost towns in Texas that have completely vanished from the map, preserved only in the memories of historians and those whose ancestors lived in these communities. Those of you who live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area probably noticed substantial population growth in Collin County over the past 25 years, but as cities such as Frisco, McKinney, and Plano continue to expand and flourish, there is one town on the northern edge of Collin County that has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared.

Mantua (pronounced MAN-too-AY in case you were wondering) was one of the oldest towns in Collin County. Mantua was born in 1854 when a delegation that included James Webb Throckmorton, a state legislator and future Texas governor, purchased 200 acres from one of the sons of Texas hero Collin McKinney; on February 23 of that year, the delegation set aside 25 of those acres for development of a town and a seminary. Proceeds from the sale of town lots were intended to finance construction of the seminary, and in order to ensure a less ungodly environment in which the seminary could operate, Mantua's town fathers forbade gambling, horse racing, prostitution, and sales of alcohol.

Historical marker at the townsite of Mantua, near the intersection of US 75 and Mantua Road in Collin County

Masonic Lodge No. 209, which sponsored the seminary, organized on February 7, 1857, on the second floor of Horatio N. Walcott's store building in Mantua. The town received its own post office the following year, with E. B. Rollins serving as the first postmaster. In 1859, a new two-story building was constructed at Mantua, with the upper floor used by the lodge for meetings and the lower floor serving as the Mantua Seminary, which educated male and female students alike. In 1860, Mantua boasted a Disciples of Christ church, three stores, and a population of 50 in addition to the seminary and lodge. By 1870, the population of Mantua had increased to 300.

Historical marker for Mantua Masonic Lodge No. 209, vital to the development of Mantua

Just as Mantua's long-term prospects were looking up, though, it suffered a fate shared by many forgotten Texas towns in those days - death by railroad. The Houston and Texas Central Railway purchased land in neighboring Grayson County for $20 an acre from the great-grandson of Collin McKinney in 1872, laying tracks through the region that sat around one and a half miles east of the town. A new depot town called Van Alstyne was established on the railroad line just over the county line in Grayson County. The death of Mantua came quickly, with some residents of Mantua quickly snatching up land at Van Alstyne. By the end of 1873, Mantua had lost its businesses, the post office, the lodge, and most of its population to the new town; the church stayed put until 1888.

The Mantua Lodge at its current digs in Van Alstyne in Grayson County

County Road 371, which winds along the northern edge of Collin County, is still identified as Mantua Road, as this is the road that the town was developed on. Today, however, there is absolutely no trace of the old town on CR 371, which has been converted into farmland and housing developments. A historical marker erected on the western edge of the old townsite indicates that there is also a Mantua Cemetery that carries the name of the forgotten community, but a descendant of one of the town's residents has informed me that the cemetery, which was always quite small to begin with, now sits on private property and cannot be viewed from the road; I have also been unable to pinpoint the cemetery's location with satellite images. In fact, the only tangible evidence of what might have been part of Mantua was found after marching through various trees and thorns to discover what looks like a small collapsed structure on the banks of a winding creek.

The final, forlorn remnants of Mantua?

If anyone has information on what this building once was, please share - it will certainly be appreciated. But it is somewhat poignant that this growing seminary town has become such a complete ghost that only a historical marker and a county road bear testimony to its former existence over 125 years later. In another 125 years, will even historians and descendants of the townfolk remember the little town of Mantua?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Ghost town photography project by Noel Kerns

A friend of mine just introduced me to this article on Slate's website about photographer Noel Kerns capturing images of ghost towns in Texas and elsewhere by using a neat photography technique called "light painting." A host of lovely images can be found at the link - and they're giving yours truly some interesting travel ideas for the future. (I'm finally back at work, and can soon afford to go jaunting across Texas once again!)