What Killed America’s Ghost Towns?

A unique theory on the cause of collapse of communities across America in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Ever since I was a kid I have been intrigued by ghost towns. Growing up in Iowa, Wyoming and Colorado, there was always a ghost town nearby and I always made it a point to visit as often as possible. There is so much mystery in a place that not so long ago was full people and their dreams, but was then abandoned for reasons lost to time, that I think this appeal is pretty universal.

Last year I began working on a documentary for a ghost town I knew well; Rushville, Iowa. During the course of my research I spent time in libraries and museums digging up relics and clues to help me understand what the place must have been like and how it could have just petered out of existence in such a short time. The prevailing opinions I came across seemed to indicate that the failure of Rushville was that it was bypassed by highways and railway alike.* And yet another Ghost town nearby, Turner, threw that hypothesis on its head, since it was located on a prime stretch of tracks and just a half mile from the first highway in the area. Not only that, but Turner had been a place with thriving industry and a robust local economy. So if it didn’t die because transportation passed it by, or because there was no work, what happened?

*This same reasoning was given in almost every other ghost town I read about.

I began to research more ghost towns across Iowa, Nebraska and elsewhere. The main similarity I found between almost every one of these abandoned communities is that their social lives tended to revolve around church and school activities. As I tried to imagine what life must have been like in these places I decided that it was probably rather boring. Unless spelling bees and choir practice are your idea of a great time, you would probably agree. And so, I think, did many of the young people who grew up in them. With boredom as a central feature of these communities, keeping the youth from abandoning them would have been nearly impossible.

When I looked at nearby communities that had succeeded where the ghost towns had failed, there are indications that very early on they had built pubs and dance halls and other places where hedonism and night life flourished. As community members grew through their adolescence and early adulthood, they were not forced to go seeking excitement elsewhere, and so these communities were able to retain young people as they matured into stable adults whose idea of fun required less excitement.

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Of course it would be impossible to verify this. It is purely conjecture. But if we consider that it is possibly true, we might be able to apply it elsewhere by asking the question –

How much does social cohesion of any group rely on shared activities that offer excitement?

Would a community of rugby players be more stable than a community of Baptists over time? And if so, should we consider the importance of this when attempting to create social groups and communities? Are entertainment interests of greater value than economic or practical ones in insuring long term stability?

My guess is that they are. And I would love to see some kind of experimentation conducted to determine how valid my intuition here is. But while I wait for science to latch on to the study of experiences, maybe you can share some instances with me that tend to support or negate my idea. I look forward to your input!

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8 thoughts on “What Killed America’s Ghost Towns?

  1. Being in the fine arts I had early to come to terms with the absolute essentiality of beauty, relaxation and “recreation” to every aspect of personal and societal health and growth. The introduction of even the simplest arts program to a school has been known to augment math and science scores across the board by as much as fifty percent

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    1. Modern western society is predicated on a myth of objectivity. Everything about our cultures are centered around a naive realism and materialist outlook, both philosophically and as a lifestyle. This pervasive lie at the core of our identity is a refutation of the subjective nature of our existence. It is not in truths and facts where life is worth living, it is in feeling. Because we have forsaken this we are violent, miserable and attempt to wallpaper over our existential malaise with mindless consumption. This consumption is not just products, but consumption of media and of political narratives and other stand-ins for the identity we failed to nurture when we forgot that to exist is to feel…and that is beautiful! 🙂

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    1. “/pol/ is winning because it’s funnier than the people that despise it, it’s that simple. Being authoritarian isn’t funny. Tumblr, leddit, they’re funny like a commercial is funny, they can be clever, they can be witty, but they’ll never be gut-laugh, -holy shit- funny, because they never confront anything they’re not supposed to, they never color outside the lines. They talk like they’re resisting something, but all they do is agree with each other. They slay the sacred cows they’ve been conditioned to hate, and they ignore the elephants in the room they’re conditioned not to see, and they’ll always be like that because they’re clever, educated pussies.

      /pol/ is full of angry racist conspiracy theorists, but it’s fucking hilarious. /pol/ might not always tell you the truth, but it will tell you the closest thing to an honest truth it can see, and it will laugh at you for being offended by it. The fact that /pol/ is starting to influence 4chan in general means that the sacred cows we’re slaying are actually sacred, and people are laughing in spite of themselves. It’s stupid and weird and it’s too simplistic and old-fashioned to be true, but you’re laughing anyways.

      That’s how it begins.”

      http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1062170-pol

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      1. I have no idea what /pol/ is and I am guessing that is a very good thing! Edge-logic makes my humanity hurt.

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