Thursday, May 9, 2019

Ghost towns of Kansas

By Tiffany Amber Stockton

Last month, I shared about higher education and the dawn of the very first Bible College established by D. L. Moody. If you missed that post, you can read it here:

After I moved to Colorado and realized I now truly lived in "The West," I've spent time exploring this general region and have become increasingly fascinated with its culture, history, and people who made this area what it is today. A lot of that history includes what have now become "ghost towns," pale existences of their former glory.

* * * * *

From Thriving to Abandoned 

I don't know about you, but as a historical author, I am always fascinated by the existence and ability to visit the ghost towns of America. Like stepping into a house that was built hundreds of years ago, there's a story to be discovered.

Although every state has its share of ghost towns, I'm going to start with Kansas this month, then move around to other states in the coming months. I know I won't cover all 50 states, but I will highlight a few of my favorites.

Hundreds of towns in Kansas flourished for a few years then died for a variety of reasons or causes. It could have been something as simple as bad weather or depletion of minerals, or the lack of railroad construction and the unpredictability of local politics. This resulted in a lot of historic ghost towns spread throughout the state. Some still stand to this day.

Empire City, Kansas

The site for Empire City is located on 120 acres of land along Short Creek just north of Galena. The town was established in 1877 when the West Joplin Lead & Zinc Company bought the land for mining operations. The discovery of lead brought in more people looking for mineral wealth, and the town almost instantly erupted with saloons, a post office, restaurants, general stores, gambling houses, a school, hardware stores, churches, and company offices.

The city was officially incorporated in June of 1877 and by the end of that summer, it had a population of over 3,000 people. Being close to Galena create a fuse of sorts, with each mining city trying to outshine the other. However, more lead deposits were soon discovered on the side of Galena than those found near Empire City.

By the mid-1880s, lead deposit around Empire City began to diminish and so did its population. The town’s population had reduced to a little over 1000 people in just a few years.

In the early 1900s, the mining around the city was almost gone and the people began to leave. In 1907, Empire City was made a suburb of Galena, and in 1913 the post office was closed down. Today, you can see a number of historic buildings still standing at the original site of Empire City.

Treece, Kansas

Treece is another important boomtown, and unfortunately, it's been deemed environmentally unsafe in recent years. The town is located in Cherokee County in the Southeast corner of Kansas on its border with the state of Oklahoma and about 12 miles from the Missouri border. The town grew as a result of the discovery of lead and zinc in mining explorations.

By 1917, the town had a post office, many businesses, and was producing the highest quality lead, zinc, and iron in the county. At its peak, the town had over 1000 people.

By 1970, lead and zinc mining began to decline and so did the town's population. The post office was closed in 2004, and in 2011 the town was closed down by the government due to environmental impacts of lead poisoning. All the remaining people were evacuated in 2012, and today the site of the original town is now waiting for the environmental cleanup.

Peterton, Kansas

This mining town was established in the 1860s as an important coal mining center in those early days. It was bought by T. J. Peter of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe RR.

Does anyone else have that song from the movie, Harvey Girls starring Judy Garland, playing through their mind right now? (grins) But I digress.

Peter named the town Centennial City before the town borrowed his name. At its peak, the town had over 600 people, 4 churches, general stores, hotels, bars, brothels, a doctor, a judge, and many other small businesses.

The town was kept afloat by 2 strip mines nearby that provided resources to run the town. With no police, the town was rather chaotic, especially at night. The town began to decline in the early 1900s when cheaper coal was discovered in other places within the state, and finally the school was closed down in 1964.

With the end of coal mining, the town was taken over by farmers and ranchers, but tornados that ran through the town destroyed it. Today, it's a ghost town with little to show for its once vibrant life. Only a church, the original schoolmaster’s house, an old coal weighing foundation, and a few houses remain.

Elk Falls, Kansas

Elk Falls currently has a population of slightly over 100 people, so it's not quite abandoned, and it's a rather unique assortment of folks who live here. Some love to tout the tourist attraction of The Outhouse Tour. (winks) Of course, the primary reason people visit is to see the Elk Falls. Nestled in a wooded area along the Elk River, these falls are some of the prettiest in all of Kansas.

The town was established in 1870 by R. H. Nichols and named Elk Falls in 1871. That same year, the town became a temporary county seat for Howard County. In 1875, the town got its own flour mill built by L. J. Johnston and E. A. Hall. By 1880, the town had both Baptist and Methodist churches, a school house, general stores, saloons, a post office, and a population of over 500 people.

The town is also home to the National Register of Historic places’ Pratt Truss Bridge, which was constructed across the Elk River at a significant cost. Although less than 20% of its population remains, Elk Falls receives enough tourism and business to keep it running. It's considered one of the largest existing "ghost towns" because of how many residents still call it home.

Pawnee, Kansas

Most likely won't know this, but Pawnee was the first capital in the Kansas Territory in 1855, and only for 5 days, before legislators suggested moving to Shawnee Mission, which was closer to Kansas City. Pawnee was 150 miles from the Missouri border and the proslavery legislators felt threatened by the distance from another proslavery state.

The first legislature of the territory took place at the capital building, and the session lasted from July 2nd-6th. The majority of legislators were Missourians, fraudulently elected in an effort to make Kansas a slave state. They came in wagons, on horseback, well-armed, and camped out on the prairie. They were determined to legislate closer to home, so they voted in favor of Shawnee Mission.

When the state capital was moved, Pawnee's decline began almost immediately. Sadly, the town was destroyed by order of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Today, only the old capital building still stands, and that is now the Fort Riley Museum. It stood in ruin until 1928, when it was restored by the Union Pacific Railroad, which runs directly in front of it.

Mildred, Kansas

Mildred is one of the more important ghost towns in Kansas because it was a key cement processing location in Allan County during the first half of the 20th century. It was established in 1907 and borrowed its name from the daughter of local industrialist J.W. Wagner.

The city flourished during the heyday of cement production, and thanks to the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, it got a passenger depot and spur lines.

Unfortunately, the town faced a great decline in the 1950s, and now only a handful of people remain. Most of the old structures in the city still remain, although they are unoccupied, as the majority of the businesses closed down when people began moving away. Sadly, they were never revived.

* * * * *


* Have you ever visited a "ghost town" anywhere in the US? If so, where is it?

* If you had lived in a town that showed signs of decreasing due to a significant exit of the population, what would make you stay?

* What was your favorite part about today's post?


Tiffany Amber Stockton has been crafting and embellishing stories since childhood, when she was accused of having a very active imagination and cited with talking entirely too much. Today, she has honed those childhood skills to become an award-winning and best-selling author and speaker who is also an advocate for literacy as an educational consultant with Usborne Books. On the side, she dabbles in the health & wellness and personal development industry, helping others become their best from the inside out.

She lives with her husband and fellow author, Stuart Vaughn Stockton, along with their two children and two dogs in Colorado. She has sold twenty (21) books so far and is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of the Steve Laube Agency. You can find her on FacebookTwitterGoodReads, and LinkedIn


  1. I don't think I've visited an actual ghost town, but in my home village there is a man who has systematically been buying up houses and razing them. Many of my longtime friends and neighbors' homes are just gone. Fortunately he doesn't leave rubble, he just leaves the site to nature but it's disconcerting to see the houses gone. I consider it a tragedy. The larger town is constantly battling to keep its' elementary school and if that ever goes, I don't know what will happen to the town.

    1. Is he razing them because they are unsafe or uninhabitable? Why not purchase and restore instead? Are there plans to build something else in their place? Seems so odd to simply purchase and demolish without any other purpose than to restore the site to nature.

      I agree on old town disappearing though. It's sad to see so much history drift away like sands on a shoreline...gone and forgotten.

    2. They aren't really uninhabitable. One of the homes he removed was a relatively new log style home. He has the money to choose to rebuild if he wanted. I've never met him so I don't know his reasoning. I just find it tragic. There was one home that was destroyed by fire, but it was on the village common and if he had cared about history he could have done something in its' place, in my view.