The gambling capital of the country, millions come to Nevada each year in the hopes of striking it rich. Largely desert and covered mostly by the Great Basin, the name Nevada means “snowy” after the snow capped mountains the Spanish encountered in its north. However, cool temperatures is not exactly the state’s most famous trait. Lenient laws and instant wealth have long been the two biggest draws to this state - even before the first casino went up on the Vegas Strip.
Nevada has always attracted those wanting to get rich quick, whether that be from mining the ore found throughout the state, banking on the need for water in its dry climate or tricking others out of their hard earned cash. Many of the ghost towns and lost cities found ruined throughout the state are testaments to those who came here in the hopes of finding their fortunes, and, despite the ruins they left behind, occasionally succeeding. From native peoples to religious hopefuls to cowboys to day laborers to prospectors,profiteers, shysters, hucksters, charlatans and thieves, ghost towns set the stage for some of the Silver State’s most colorful characters.
As a result, many towns across the state may seem like ghost towns despite the fact they have thriving communities by Great Plains standards. However, there are towns that have disappeared back into the prairies and rolling hills. Forts along the frontier aided white settlers in westward expansion while native peoples attempted to regain their land. Early black homesteaders managed to eke out a community of their own on the prairies. French, German, and Bohemian settlers made their mark on early communities while industries like potash, silica mining, and the railroads created others. Mormons and Catholics searched for religious freedom west of the Missouri. All of these stories can be told through the ghost towns of Nebraska.
By tracking down the old and forgotten places of Missouri, we can learn much more about the history of the state that served as a crossroads between east and west. A once-thriving railroad town is now known as the location of a violent typhoid outbreak. An ingredient used to make Agent Orange leads to the evacuation of an entire community. Flood waters wash away prominent transportation hubs on the state’s major rivers while healing waters attract visitors from around the country to a former resort.
From a frontier outpost named after a type of wild turnip to one named after a shipwreck to a village famed for its missing postmaster, the former communities that once helped make up Minnesota help tell the story of this state. Cities gave way from Native American settlements to military towns and even county seats. River crossings, iron mines, and the lumber industry provided early and sometimes periodic economic engines for the state's cities and towns, though some were unable to survive with the changing times. Ojibwe, Dakota Sioux, French Canadian, British, and other European settlers worked together to build these Minnesota communities as well as those that still survive, proving that even a state as seemingly white bread as Minnesota can have a multicultural history.
Michigan in the present has seen the depopulation of its major cities as its reputation as a manufacturing mecca wanes. However, this is not the first time economic and cultural changes have erased communities from the state’s historical record. Towns centered around once-profitable mines and logging mills saw their populations tumble along with the surrounding industry. Disease, religious mistrust, and fire destroyed others. Some remain buried under the dunes of Michigan beaches while others have retreated into rivers and farm fields. Uncovering each also uncovers a piece of Michigan’s past.
The Great Sand Dunes have been inspiring people for ages. Native peoples considered it an important scared landmark, a place of food and medicine. Explorer Zebulon Pike described the moving sands as “exactly that of the sea in a storm.” Settlers came west in order to find gold and attempt to farm this isolated area. Bing Crosby even wrote a song about the singing sands. Established as a national monument in 1932, it would take more than 70 years for this icon of Colorado to attain national park status, making it the second youngest national park in the country.
Less than 30 miles from Columbia, S.C., Congaree National Park is still a hidden gem among largely urban and suburban surroundings. One of the nation’s youngest national parks, Congaree has long served as a beacon of shelter for those facing oppression. It was here that the Congaree people, for whom the area is named, did their best to survive despite European encroachment. Slaves from South Carolina plantations used the swamplands as a refuge and a way to escape, making their own villages hidden in the forest floor. Even today, numerous threatened and endangered species find a nice, safe habitat within the bounds of the park.
Cuyahoga Valley is the only national park in the state of Ohio and is located between two of the state’s biggest cities: Cleveland and Akron. It may seem an odd place to stick a national park, but the Cuyahoga River the national park surrounds became a focal point of the environmental movement after the amount of pollution in the river caused it to “catch fire” at least 13 times. Today, the water quality has improved and fish have returned to the river. In addition to preserving the environmental quality of the Cuyahoga, the park also preserves the man-made ambition that built Ohio by preserving portions of the Erie Canal also located here. As a result, Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a testament to both conservation and industrial progress.
While native peoples, cowboys, homesteaders, miners, emigrants, and moviemakers have all passed through Joshua Tree, much of what is known about the park’s history and the efforts to conserve it are thanks to two women, early leaders in the national park movement. Today, the park is a favorite place for musicians and artists to gain inspiration as well as for stargazers to view the uninhibited night sky. Geologists and rock climbers are both drawn to the millions-of-years-old cliffs, formations and outcroppings that make up the park’s unique scenery.
Named for the Carnegiea gigantea or the saguaro, this national park is famous for being home to the largest cactus in the world. The saguaro is both a living plant, a habitat and historically a source of fruit and water in the dry desert. While the iconic cactus is the park’s namesake and most famous resident, it is far from the only thing to see here. Desert tortoises, gila monsters and javelinas roam the parklands. Native tribes, Spanish explorers, miners, ranchers, homesteaders, CCC workers, and scientists have all called this area home. Saguaro has long beckoned travelers to visit the king of the cacti in his own domain.
Dedicated to all things travel, places I have been and places I want to go.