What makes a town a ghost town? Is it a town overrun with paranormal activity? Fun, but not quite. Is it a completely abandoned town with decrepit buildings and not a soul in sight? Not quite either. (Some ghost towns are home to handfuls of people—sometimes even thousands.)
The state of Oregon, which has more than 200 ghost towns (more than any other state), legally defines a ghost town as an incorporated city with land acquired under a US patent, that does not have a sufficient number of registered electors residing within the city, and is of historic interest. But there's a bit more to ghost towns than all that technical mumbo jumbo, and it often defies explanation. Through a dwindling economy that failed to support its people, or through the people who failed to see the damage they'd done and the seeds they sowed, many ghost towns share a history of decline: a once-was timber manufacturer that exhausted its resources, a mining boomtown that succumbed to fires and the Depression, places that time forgot.
From the eastern desert to the Pacific coast, Oregon's many ghost towns hold remnants of the state's past. Getting there can be a long drive, but worth it. So fill up your tank, grab some snacks, queue up Portland Monthly's fall playlist, and venture out. These Oregon ghost towns await.
About 30 minutes from Portland
You don’t have to travel outside of Multnomah County to find an Oregon ghost town. Bridal Veil, a once bustling lumber town home to Oregon’s first paper mill, lies just 40 minutes west of Portland and its namesake Bridal Veil Falls is one of many waterfalls that dot the Columbia River Gorge. For about 70 years since its establishment in the 1880s, Bridal Veil functioned as the Bridal Veil Falls Lumbering Company which logged at Larch Mountain. By 1988, most of the timber in the area had been extracted, while fires (including one in the nearby town of Palmer), and a change of ownership sealed Bridal Veil’s doomed fate, and most residents of the town left in the months and years following.
Visitors today will find only a cemetery and a post office—the third smallest post office in America. But despite Bridal Veil’s reputation as a ghost town (and a Christmas Eve break-in that shuttered its operation in 2018), its post office is alive and well, particularly during wedding season, when newlyweds can get a specialized stamp on their wedding invitation.
Boyd, Friend, Shaniko & Antelope
About 1 hour and 30 minutes from Portland
About an hour-and-a-half drive on the I-84 gets you to the US-197 in the Dalles, along which you’ll find a handful of ghost towns in Wasco County. First up, the former farming town of Boyd, named after local miller T.P. Boyd and founded in 1870. The town, once home to about 200 or so people, boasts only a few residents nowadays and the remnants of an 1883 wooden granary. Another 15 or so miles down the 197 brings you to Friend where you’ll find the town’s old general store, a one-room schoolhouse (now a community center for the few residents in the area), and a cemetery. About an hour southeast of Friend, tourist-friendly Shaniko, the former “Wool Capital of the World,” awaits off the US-97. Shaniko is easily one of Oregon’s most famous ghost towns, with beautifully weathered buildings and a surprisingly lively atmosphere. (The town is home to some 30 or so residents who hold annual events, festivals, and jamborees.) Finally, about an eight-mile drive south you’ll find Antelope, an old ranching town that briefly became home to members of the Rajneesh Movement.
About 1 hour and 4o minutes from Portland
More of a ghost site then a ghost town, Fort Stevens, now managed by Oregon State Parks, is a former military installation established to defend the mouth of the Columbia River during the Civil War, but it wasn’t until World War II that the site saw combat. The attack by an Imperial Japanese submarine fortunately suffered no casualties and only minimal damage, but it did bestow on Fort Stevens an accolade as the only military installation in the continental U.S. to be attacked by the Axis during World War II.
Visitors now can explore the abandoned historic military site and, during the summer, take underground tours of a gun battery that served during World War II. For an added abandoned bonus, check out the wreckage of Peter Iredale. In October 1906, the British barque sailing vessel ran ashore so hard that three of the ship’s masts broke off. Visitors can walk up to the 100-year-old wreckage during low tide.
About 3 hours and 40 minutes from Portland
Originally a gold mining camp established near Coyote Creek in the 1840s and ‘50s, the aptly-named Golden developed into a fully established town around 1890 and was home to around 100 or so people—mostly religious sorts who had forsworn saloons and bars in favor of churches and orchards. Early miners recovered upwards of $1 million in gold from nearby streams and hillsides, but by the 1920s, with mined-out creeks and a downward-sloping economy, Golden was abandoned.
Today, only four structures remain in the town: a church, store, post office, and one home, all of which are now known as the Golden State Heritage Site which is open for day use year round.
About 5 hours and 15 minutes from Portland
In Portland we put a bird on it. In Sumpter they put a “P” on it. According to the Rust, Rot & Ruin: Stories of Oregon Ghost Towns online exhibit, this former mining boomtown found its name when early settlers discovered a “large, round stone which reminded them of a cannonball and, inexplicably, Fort Sumter in South Carolina.” Shortly after its founding in 1898, the railroad came (expanding the city and bringing people and goods), the city expanded its deep-shaft gold mines, and the population grew. Before a devastating fire in 1917, Sumpter had become a bustling modern town, with a brewery, saloons, an opera house, and a few newspapers. The fire, which had burned down nearly 100 buildings in town, and a dwindling mining industry caused many to relocate.
Sumpter is still home to about 200 people, and offers gold panning and rides on the historic Sumpter Valley Railroad for visiting tourists. The city is also a gateway to adventures at Elkhorn Crest Trail and Olive Lake, plus other nearby ghost towns like Bourne, Granite, Greenhorn, and Whitney.