Have you ever lived in a ghost town? If you’re a Texas resident, it’s more likely than you think.
As of July 2022, Texas joined California as one of the only two states with a population greater than 30 million, clocking in at an estimated 30,029,572. Texas saw the fourth-largest percentage of growth in the country in 2022 at 1.6%, according to the US Census Bureau, and southern states generally outpaced other regions in population growth in 2022.
However, driving through hours-long expanses of the state – whether it’s navigating traffic with tumbleweeds in the Panhandle or following riverbeds through the South Plains – it can be hard to tell.
Depending on where you find yourself, Texas can feel as full of ghosts as it is living residents. Half-rotted churches, rusted wells, closed-down general stores, and fallen barns mark the remains of communities as much as the literal gravesites and cemeteries left in their wake.
At the same time, it isn’t as if ghost towns are always empty. Students in Fort Elliott will carry their backpacks into school in the spring semester just the same as those in Amarillo or Austin. Lipscomb is as much its county seat in 2023 as it was in 1887.
If they aren’t always abandoned, if some can be a major center of government in their surrounding communities while others are remembered only by their leftover bricks, what does it mean to be a ghost town? Who signs the death certificate of a community? Why?
Defining a ghost
Historians and scholars vary in what they consider to be a “ghost town” or not. However, as noted by authors such as Philip Varney or T. Lindsay Baker, they are generally described as communities that have lost their reason for being.
Varney defined a ghost town as, “any site that has had a markedly decreased population from its peak, a town whose initial reason for settlement (such as a mine or railroad) no longer keeps people in the community.” Meanwhile, Baker used the phrase, “a town for which the reason for being no longer exists.”
Regarding policy, the state of Texas doesn’t appear to have a definition or record in its property guides about “ghost towns” specifically, though it does discuss how to govern abandoned property. Meanwhile, other states might define the term; for example, Oregon legally describes a ghost town as an incorporated city that “(1) is on land acquired under a United States patent; (2) Does not have a sufficient number of registered electors permanently residing within the city to fill all offices provided for under its charter; and (3) is of historic interest.”
This range of definitions means that lists compiling ghost towns across regions like Texas tend to include completely deserted towns like Gray Mule, waterlogged relics like Pickwick, towns with small populations like Medicine Mound, and those that were absorbed by their neighbors.
So how do you know if you’re in a ghost town in Texas, if the definitions vary so much?
One option is to depend on local experts. TexasEscapes.com is a digital magazine self-described as about Texas, by Texas. It hosts a comprehensive list of ghost towns based on available historical records and submissions, divided by each region of the state. Historians and academics have also worked with Geotab to compile another list of ghost towns in Texas. Ghosttowns.com is another list source commonly referenced on the subject which has served as an archive since 1998. For those who consider ‘rural’ Texas towns among those that qualify for the ghost town title, the US Census Bureau has published data on the towns that have received that designation.
With a range of definitions and a range of lists, there is also a range of answers when it comes to the question of how a town becomes a ghost.
How a city dies
Authors and historians, such as Baker, have posed that ghost towns are often created through a decline in economic activity, natural or human-caused disasters like floods or government actions, or towns that have seen significant drops in population from their peaks.
Ghost towns in Texas have been born from “boom towns,” such as Desdemona in Eastland County. According to the Texas State Historical Association, after oil was struck in Desdemona in 1918, speculators and workers flooded into the area and brought the population at one point from 340 to 16,000. By 1919 the Desdemona oil field was among the largest in the oil belt, with massive payouts for the ruling company’s shareholders. However, pollution from the oil, torrential rains, high rates of diseases like influenza and typhoid, and violent crime also engulfed the community.
The TSHA noted that Desdemona’s oil production fell from over 7.37 million barrels in 1919 to below 2.5 million in 1921, in a more significant bust than what was seen by other boomtowns in the county. Its city government dissolved in 1936, its 12-grade school closed in 1969, and by 1980 the town had an estimated population of 180.
A large number of other ghost towns in Texas were made so as a result of railroads or major highways, though some towns like Kirkland in Childress County made an attempt to move with their people. While it was originally in Hardeman County on a stagecoach line, according to the TSHA, residents moved the town’s position onto new tracks when the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway came through in 1887. Once called the “Biggest Little City in Texas,” Kirkland had multiple churches and businesses and a three-room school by the 1920s and a population of 500 by 1940. However, its decline was credited to modern farming methods and changes to transportation and infrastructure.
The creation, movement, and subsequent shift away from Route 66 were also responsible for a number of Texas towns and their ends, according to reports from the TSHA. Glenrio in Deaf Smith County was a bustling community with cattle and freight shipments in the early 1900s, with multiple businesses and a newspaper that ran until 1934. However, Route 66’s movement and its transformation into I-40 were noted as a major factor in shifting cornerstone businesses away from the community. Route 66, school consolidation, and the breaking up of big ranches and other businesses also contributed to the decline of towns like Ramsdell in Wheeler County.
Shifts in water infrastructure also brought the death knell to a number of Texas towns. Pickwick in Palo Pinto County boasted a cotton gin alongside a school, church, sawmill, and general store. However, the community was purchased by the Brazos Conservation and Recreation District in 1939 in preparation for the waters of Possum Kindom Reservoir. While the city moved eastward away from the original site, its store and post office closed in 1946. The TSHA noted that its old iron bridge is sometimes still visible when the reservoir’s waters are low.
Natural and otherwise, the TSHA records describe a number of Texas communities that were left as ghost towns after major disasters impacted the population.
Phillips in Hutchinson County was once a booming community made of two – Whittenburg and Pantex – that merged together in 1938 and had been thriving off of their respective petroleum and refinery companies. However, in the 1950s and 1960s, changes to the highway system and local transportation shifted much of the town’s business to its neighbor, Borger, and sent the population dropping to just over 2,500 by 1980.
In January 1980, a hydrocarbon explosion destroyed two gasoline-producing units and a steam-generating facility, according to TSHA record, which caused millions of dollars worth of damage to homes and businesses in both Phillips and Borger. While Phillips remained a residential area for employees, its population continued to drop.
On an even more dramatic and deadly scale than Phillips’ explosion, according to the TSHA, was the flood that destroyed Ben Ficklin in Tom Green County in 1882.
After beginning as a headquarters for Benjamin F. Ficklin’s San Antonio – El Paso Mail line in 1868, the man’s sudden death in 1871 (which, according to his dedicated historical marker on US 306, was the result of swallowing a fish bone) led his associates to establish the town of Ben Ficklin in 1873. Its founders were among those later appointed to organize Tom Green County and had a rivalry with San Angela (now San Angelo) for the county seat, around 1875. The two towns competed against one another between growing numbers of businessmen, buffalo hunters, and their related enterprises.
However, a wet summer for the nearby Dove Creek, Spring Creek, the Middle Concho, and the South Concho came to a head in August 1882. Heavy rains caused the already-high waters to swell and flood, combining to destroy the town of Ben Ficklin and killing an estimated 65 people in the process. While two families remained in Ben Ficklin after the flood, according to the TSHA, other survivors moved to San Angelo and other nearby communities. With its people gone, the Ben Ficklin cemetery and a 1965 historical marker from the Texas Historical Commission now mark the nearby area.
The people left behind
While the US Census Bureau doesn’t recognize “ghost town” as an official designation for a community, it does track population changes, urbanization, economic trends, and empty homes.
Although Texas saw a population increase overall, it appeared to mostly impact larger cities and urban centers. Meanwhile, both due to shifts in bureau definitions and populations, other communities in the state lost their ‘urban’ designations and slipped into rurality. Whether or not these communities now qualify for the “ghost town” moniker depends on who is answering the question, but the people still living in those areas will see changes in the ways that local, federal, and state governments offer resources.
The National Association of Towns & Townships published a guide for grants that rural communities may be eligible for to put towards costs related to rural development, healthcare, broadband, and wastewater. However, grant funding may still not be able to cover needed costs for municipal matters like transportation, housing, education, and water infrastructure.
While different federal programs and agencies may consider different definitions for whether an area is urban or rural, those funds or their absence have a broad impact on the day-to-day function of those communities. Gas prices tend to rise in more rural areas and more isolated communities as well as prices for groceries and other goods and services, according to historians and researchers. Extra costs could also come from importing essential home and agricultural resources like water, feed for livestock and crop fertilizer, and creating new water infrastructure or working to replace infrastructure left over from faded municipal governments.
At the same time as rural Texas communities lose people and funding, they also play major parts in the agricultural industries of both Texas and the broader United States. According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, Texas exported a record number of Made-in-America goods to the world, and the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service noted in 2021 that Texas had ranked as the top exporter among US states for nearly two decades.
It remains to be seen how state and federal government agencies will shift their legislative perspectives on Texas rural communities and the “ghost towns” that dot the landscape in the immediate aftermath of recent census definition changes and released population data, or how those perspectives will impact the access people might have to everything from satellite phone service to healthcare. However, the 2023 Texas legislative session and the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill may present lawmakers on state and federal levels with opportunities to invest in infrastructure and resources for communities of every size, from vast metropolitans to “ghost towns” in the making.
More information on the US Census Bureau data can be found on its website, as well as other resources regarding the census and legislative districts. Further information on the US Department of Agriculture’s rural development grants and programs can also be found on its website, alongside other related resources.