March 6, 2007

Sunday Drive: Living ghost towns

Grass Valley church

Kent, Oregon

It seems I’m woefully undereducated about ghost towns. As a Westerner I thought the term ‘ghost town’ meant a cluster of abandoned shacks in an out-of-the-way place. In actuality, ghost towns are rated by their attributes -- ranging from barren ground with a few glass bottles in the dirt to preserved historic towns.

Using that qualification Central Oregon has at least three Class D ghost towns (a small resident population with many abandoned buildings), all in very in-the-way locations: right on Highway 97.

The farthest a field, some 90 miles north of Redmond, is Grass Valley. Incorporated more than 100 years ago, Grass Valley is probably more fairly rated as a Class D+ ghost town, somewhere between a true D and a Class E (busy historic community, yet still much smaller than in its boom years).

With about 165 residents and a handful of viable businesses, Grass Valley would be hard-pressed to say it has a ‘busy historic community’ because the majority of the older buildings are vacant or abandoned. But it does have a diner, a gas station, a small market and an elementary school. Yet it is definitely much smaller than it was in its prime. The town is littered with visible reminders of the days when the wheat farming community must have been bustling with people and commerce.

High on the hill overlooking town is the former school building, boarded up but still showing its last coat of pastel paint on its stucco walls. A stone’s throw away sits an old church building that according to the Oregon Historical Society has been empty for at least 45 years. The dry desert climate has been more than kind to the church, which despite its lack of windows still has most of its finely-crafted interior board-and-batten woodwork in place and more white paint than bare wood on the exterior. The church is dangerously close to being overrun with trees that have since taken over its grassy site but is clearly visible from the highway and – from a distance – looks nearly inhabitable.

A block or two off the main street someone has lined a field with vintage tractors and farm trucks. A faded sign declares it to be the “Horses to Horsepower Museum”. The prettiest spot in town is a little creekside park dominated by huge old cottonwoods and an old grange building. The Grass Valley Market is located in a beautiful old brick building screaming for renovation and down the block an antique/collectibles shop is open for business but looking for a new owner.

Six miles south of Grass Valley lies the bonafide Class D ghost town of Kent, with nary a commercial building left open (save a tiny post office and Baptist church). The biggest viable things in Kent are the pair of grain elevators, a grand modern steel structure next to a mammoth wood tower constructed of crude two-by-sixes notched together.
What everyone remembers about Kent, however, is the classic gas station/diner with “EAT” in huge white letters now barely discernible on its roof. The pair of battered gas pumps out front are frozen in a time when fuel was 67 cents a gallon and Orange Crush was a contender in the soda pop world.

Kent is an unincorporated town, with a best guess of 20-plus residents. For every manufactured or stick-built home Kent must have two abandoned buildings, some dating back to the early part of the last century.

Closest to Redmond and better known as a ghost town -- due to its persistent self-promotion -- is Shaniko. Once a thriving city centered on wool production and distribution, the town was gradually drained of vitality after the railroad extended the line into Redmond and Bend in 1911. Shaniko was incorporated around the same time as Grass Valley and shows its history in the humongous sheep ‘shed’ (easily the biggest building in town) and proliferation of abandoned wood buildings, many of them moved in the city center for better tourist viewing.

Shaniko has about the same small number of year-round residents as Kent but is markedly different in other ways. The Shaniko Hotel has been renovated and many of the buildings lining the town’s wooden sidewalks have retail businesses catering to the tourist crowd and are open at least occasionally. The entire town can be viewed on foot, in a few hours or a day, depending on your hunger for picturesque old shacks and farm equipment.

Central Oregon has more ghost towns, some a mere bump in the landscape, others at least a few buildings. But the Highway 97 ghost towns are especially good for Sunday Drive, none being too far from a snack, a bathroom or a fill-up for the trip home.

-- Leslie Pugmire Hole

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