The allure of ghost towns has always piqued my attention and drawn me in. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s the mystery behind the relics. Perhaps I just like imagining what a place looked like when it had people and action – the hustle and bustle of life. The mere images conjured from the name, “ghost town,” produce unseen characters lurking around every street corner, behind every house, and even beneath the floorboards of the old, abandoned buildings. Where there once was life and activity, there is now dead silence. Perhaps there’s a tell-tale heart hidden deep within the dilapidated infrastructure wanting to come alive – wanting to tell its story. But there is no voice, only silent tales of forgotten history.
The first time I walked the deserted Main Street of Leesburg, Idaho, population 0, was when I was eight years old. The year was 1972, a couple years before Leesburg was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. My family was camping at nearby Napias Creek and decided to divert from the doldrums and become absorbed in some Idaho history. Incidentally, that same day, I had nearly drowned in the creek, so I was also absorbed in gratitude to still be alive!
The first thing I noticed were the “short” doorways of many of the cabins that lined the weed-ridden dirt street. “Back in the days when this town had people, many of them were Chinese miners. They liked short doorways on their cabins,” dad said. Sounded reasonable to me. I looked around for anything I could pack home. I was a packrat of the first order.
Dad taught his kids about what he coined, “The Law of Salvage.” That law was one he made up on his own. In short, it determined that anything laying around that nobody wanted could be claimed by anyone else. Some of the tools and useless junk dad had stored in our old tool shed, he had claimed through his law of salvage. Incidentally, no stealing was allowed.
So, stuff found in the murky shadows and spider-infested corners of the ghost town of Leesburg seemed to fit nicely into dad’s law of salvage. It never occurred to me that I should just leave stuff alone; that as a landmark, the crap laying around, unclaimed, added a bit of mystique to this place. Alas, I gathered a few treasures – a belt buckle, the sole of an old pair of boots, and a piece of newspaper torn from a cabin wall. Apparently, newspaper during Leesburg’s heyday was a good wall covering when nothing else was available.
I walked into one of the old outhouses. As I looked down the hole, I saw weeds and dirt. But I imagined piles of brown waste left by the people who enjoyed this flushless commode decades before, who liked short doorways. My dog sniffed around the outside of the outhouse and seemed to be interested in something she could smell and I couldn’t see. “What is it, Sally?” I implored. Suddenly, I heard the unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake. I ran from the outhouse and called to the dog to follow. Defying death twice in one day was not on my agenda!
When gold was discovered near Leesburg in 1866, people flocked to the area and set up shop, either as miners or as merchants supporting the town. It seems many of the settlers were Southerners who wanted to memorialize their favorite general, Robert E. Lee. Seven thousand people called Leesburg their home in its heyday.
Only about 200 yards were visible of the old, mile-long Main Street that originally stretched between the 100 or-so businesses that used to line the street. But another fascinating thing I noticed were the many ditches all around the town that were reportedly used for the sluicing operations of the miners. According to reports, over USD $16,000,000 in gold was pulled out of the ground before Leesburg became a ghost town.
A short distance from town lies the old cemetery. See the names of Leesburg residents and you will know a little about their culture – their victories, their defeats, and their dreams. Etched in stone and wood are the names of the forgotten people. Some of the grave sites are surrounded by broken-down fencing; some have trees and shrubs sprouting from the ground – a confirmation that life will go on despite the people’s disappearance.
The forgotten people are what really fascinates me. Who lived in Leesburg; what did they do in their spare time; where did they all go? There were no Chinese living in or around those parts of Salmon, Idaho in 1972. I knew of no miners who dug for gold in Leesburg, despite the fact I lived near the old ghost town for 18 years. It seems the folks who made it a boomtown just left and never looked back. Only their rotting and broken down structures are left to tell the tales. But there are no words. Relics from a hundred years ago tell the stories; people dug for gold and sought their fortunes.