Texas Primer: The Ghost Town

Who lived there? What were they like? Why did their town die?

Their names speak to us about the aspirations and foibles of early Texans—Liberty Hill, Sweet Home, Vox Populi, Birthright, Hardscramble, Ideal. Some of the names are pure fancy (Frijole, Air, Oatmeal, Pegleg Crossing), and others fit the popular stereotype of the deserted Western town (Gunsight, Lost Prairie, Bitter Creek). They are all places where people settled and built houses, shot each other, bore children, made speeches, governed themselves, worked, made love, and prayed; now they are all, by one definition or another, ghost towns. Texas has eight hundred of them, according to one listing, founded mostly during the frontier era and since vanished, leaving not much more than foundations or a churchyard cemetery, if that.

Towns decline and die for many reasons. The land is overgrazed or overcultivated. The civic boosters from the next town are more glib when the highway is being planned or when the railroad men are buying a right-of-way. Drought comes, as it does in Texas. Mineral riches become scarce or, worse yet, too plentiful. All around Texans as they grow up is the evidence that a town is a fragile and organic thing. Unlike the Easterner, for whom the span of time since settlement and urbanization is measured in centuries (who remembers the ghost towns of New Jersey?), the modern-day Texan may have had a grandfather who helped build the first storefronts in his town, and just down the highway are the poignant remains of another town that fell on bad times or, possibly, simply didn’t try hard enough. I would guess that somewhere in the back of the minds of the West Texas small-town booster and the homegrown Houston office tower developer, there is a ghostly memory: the brief, sketchy history of an all-but-forgotten place somewhere in Texas, a place like Belle Plain.

Belle Plain was established to the


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