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Essay

Ghost Town

By August 8, 2014 3 Comments
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It may well have been the very first time I used a camera for something other than family pics, an old Argus C-3 I had bought second-hand way back when I was in high school. My wife and I, still sort of newlyweds, were walking the desolate streets of an old copper-mining town in the Arizona mountains, a place called Jerome. It was 1973. 

Jerome was, back then, a ghost town. Once upon a time, the population peaked at 15,000, but, by the early 1970s, very few people still lived there. Mining fortunes had been made, I’m guessing–the open mine still gaped dangerously on the north end of town but it was not running. Almost all of those who’d pocketed the loot or run the bank or worked the drills had long ago departed. Jerome was a Twilight Zone, streets broken and abandoned lined with a hundred grotesque houses caught in their own anguished disrepair, as if being forced to undress right there on the street. 

If I go a half hour in any direction from my home, I’ll run into an abandoned farm because they’re everywhere in the rural Midwest. I see them weekly, I’m sure, and they’re still haunting because somewhere in the shape of things falling apart there still lives a remnant of a family’s fallow dream of what could be–and wasn’t.

 

But Jerome, Arizona, forty years ago, was no single family dwelling; it was an entire abandoned city, a mile-high mess of a metropolis almost completely abandoned. Once upon a time kids played on streets that had since grown yellow with weeds. I don’t remember a single house being lived in, but there were a few businesses open in what was still discernable as downtown, a dozen old hippies maybe, selling tie-dyed t-shirts and bangles.

Jerome had visions of becoming an artist’s colony back then, Main Street holding little but goofy antique knick-knacks. For the most part, nothing was afoot on its streets, nothing really but desolation; the whole place had become a kind of open-air museum, post-apocalypse. Absolutely haunting.

I loved it–look at the pics. There are tons more. Their sheer numbers say as much about me as they do about Jerome. I’d love to go back.

But I can’t.

 

Along some Jerome street back then, we met a man who pointed up at a rundown place and told us it was his. He owned one of houses falling apart.

“What’s going to happen here?” I asked him. He was a friendly guy, I remember–and he too loved Jerome.

“I honestly don’t know,” he told us.

“I hope it doesn’t change,” I said. Jerome was a ghost town, pure and simple. “I hope it stays just like this,” I told him. I was just a kid.

“That’s not an option,” he said. “Nothing stays the same.”

I think the man’s name was Sage Hericlitus. You may have heard of him.

There were only two choices, he told us–fix ’em up or let ’em rot. After all, nothing stays the same.

And that, of course, makes these old pictures–a first attempt at art on my part—quite rare. I found them a while ago when we had to make a hurried escape from a flood in the basement.

Were I to go up the mountain to Jerome sometime soon, and were I to lug some 18-megapixel camera with me down those dingy streets, what I’d shoot wouldn’t be what’s here. All that ruin is probably long gone, just like the kids who used to bike down the streets and the miners who climbed down into that open pit every morning.

These pics of mine were 8 x 10s, matted too. I suffered delusions of grandeur, probably still do.

Still I thought these shots were cool, so I went to Jerome’s website, found the address of the historical society, sent them a note with some jpgs, and told them that if they were interested, I’d ship the whole lot to them. We were moving, downsizing.

They were. They called in fact, told me they had all kinds of pictures of Jerome in ye olden days, but very few when it was exactly what it was in 1973. “We’d love to have them.”

So I sent them, all of them, which means that today, in some desk or on some shelf in Jerome, Arizona, a bunch of black-and-white 8 x 10s are filed nicely. Who knows, maybe there’s a shot or two up on a wall? If you ask, some docent or intern could well tell you that a dozen or more pictures were sent in by some old guy from Iowa who happened to take some random shots a half a century ago. “Aren’t they cool?” some docent might be saying, an old man maybe or an intern.  “I’d love to have been here then.”

I think that makes me an artifact.

 

 And that’s okay, but it doesn’t change old Heraclitus—“Ever-newer waters flow  on those who step into the same rivers.” That’s what the man said, at least one translation has it so. Of course, that old bald man was an honest-to-goodness philosopher.

Me? I’m thinking there has to be a sermon here in this ghost-town story somewhere, if I were a preacher.

But I’m not. I’m a photographer.

 

 

 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

3 Comments

  • Henry Ottens says:

    Ah, but the two are not mutually exclusive, Jim. Every slanted board, each cracked pane in your haunting photos is a sermon in metaphor. Meditative lingering and attentive hearts are required, whether sitting in a pew or poking around a ghost town with a camera. Good work!

  • Carol Westphal says:

    So enjoyed this post. All the stories–beautiful, sad, tragic–wrapped in all those bone-weary houses. Like all the stories buried under the grave markers in an old cemetery. Thanks!

  • Holly says:

    I visited Jerome a couple of times during my years in AZ in the late '90's/early '00's. I remember both a gently vibrant artists' community (it wasn't exactly on par with the quality of Sante Fe, but it wasn't Scottsdale-kitsch, either) and the ghostly reminders of the miner's town that came before. Your photos capture the latter perfectly. Thank you for the memory.

    "And he said to them, 'Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.' When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place." (Mt 13:52-53).

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