Coalition of caretakers keep Wyoming’s ghost towns alive

By Elise Schmelzer And Christine Peterson Casper Star-tribune

JAY EM, Wyo. (AP) — They used to hold Saturday night dances on the top floor of the general store that grew so large the building started to sway.

While Jay Em was never officially incorporated as a town, it had everything it needed to be one — a rock shop that produced fireplaces that still rest in Wyoming's Capitol; three blacksmith shops that repaired wagon wheels and car chassis; a weekly newspaper; a bank that once was robbed and a gas station that once sold 6 gallons of gas for $2.04.

But better cars eventually took people to bigger towns. The population slowly dwindled.

When it all closed down for good in 1976, this eastern Wyoming town's founder passed it onto his daughter, who passed it to her kids.

Two grandkids still clean the buildings. But at 80 and 78 years old, they're hardly kids anymore. They drive over to Jay Em from their homes in Glendo and Wheatland to give tours to visitors in the summer. Donations are accepted.

They're not sure who will take over once they're gone, so the oldest daughter, Marjorie Sanborn, has decided not to think about it.

"He wanted to keep the town in the family so badly that I am just going to hang onto that wish of his as long as I can," she said.

It's hard to know how many places like Jay Em still exist in Wyoming. There isn't an official inventory on ghost towns — or nearly ghost towns.

What is clear is the future of these places are left to a haphazard coalition of government agencies, casual volunteers and dedicated caretakers who stick out harsh winters and make long drives for their towns.

It's worth it, they say, to preserve the remnants of Wyoming's hardscrabble past, to make sure future generations know what it took to put down roots here.

Unlike most towns that cropped up to support a coal mine, timber mill or railroad, Jay Em was created for homesteaders.

Lake Harris, a 21-year-old from Wisconsin, filed for land under the Homestead Act in 1912 in an empty stretch of prairie along Rawhide Creek.

He was one of the few people in the area who sold critical windmill parts, and success blossomed.

"They had a bustling business with their hardware and supplies," said Sanborn, Lake's granddaughter.

He started or eventually bought nearly everything in the town from the rock shops to the newspaper (run by his wife until her untimely death by flu in 1918).

At its largest, Jay Em hosted more than 200 residents, including 67 European refugees from World War II at one point.

Sanborn went to school for a time in the one-room building on the outskirts of the town.

But by 1972, business had dwindled and Harris and his partner decided to retire.

He left the buildings — his life's work — to his daughter and her children to maintain.

High Pass City

In 2003, Joe Ellis moved from Casper and his job at the Nicolaysen Art Museum to the high desert at the base of the Wind River Range to become one of four permanent residents of South Pass City.

He never expected to become the superintendent of Wyoming's best known ghost town, which is part of the state parks system. For hundreds of years, the site had served as a convenient point for travelers to pass through over the Continental Divide. Then, in the 1860s, soldiers in the area reported they had found gold. Thousands of hopefuls flooded the area, establishing South Pass City, Atlantic City and Hamilton City in their wake.

But the gold supply eventually waned. The towns' populations followed suit. Once considered a possibility for the territorial capital of Wyoming, South Pass was nearly devoid of residents by the turn of the century.

Now, it's left to the care of the state historic site's four full-time employees and a coalition of volunteers. Fifteen years after his move, Ellis has developed an affinity for the approximately two dozen structures scattered about his cabin.

"It's a pretty extraordinary place," he said. "It's high and harsh. The people who came here were tough people. They really worked to make a life here. Telling that story is really exciting."

Other Wyoming ghost towns are also managed by state and federal agencies. A coalition of volunteers and governmental entities — including the Shoshone National Forest, the State Historic Preservation Office and the Abandoned Mine Lands Division of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality — worked to restore the buildings of Kirwin, a remote ghost town in the Absaroka Mountains southwest of Meeteetse.

Marit Bovee, an archaeologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, helps to oversee the ghost town of Gebo, located about 14 miles north of Thermopolis. About 1,200 people lived in Gebo at its peak in 1929. But when the mines closed in the late '30s, the residents left the company town.

In 1971, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management bulldozed many of the structures, though a few escaped destruction, Bovee said. A water tower, a row of stone houses and parts of the town's cemetery remain. Mining apparatuses and debris, like glass and pieces of metal, are still scattered around the site.

Bovee's role is fairly hands off. She visits Gebo three or four times a year to check on the structures. Mostly, she makes sure the site remains safe for visitors and keeps an eye out for vandalism. It's not a widespread problem, she said, but she'll occasionally find a fresh mark on a tombstone, or trash in the water tower. A few years ago, it appeared that a group of people had a paintball game around the stone houses.

"There hasn't been anything too severe," she said. "(Gebo) is holding up to the elements very well."