Trip Report: May 2010

As of this writing, Rat and I have just completed our longest ghost town trip ever.  Two days, eight counties, sixteen towns, four tanks of gas, and 1058 miles.  This is a brief summary of the trip.

We left Fargo at 7am on I94, met up in Mapleton with our documentary film crew, Dave Grant and Sarah McCurdy, and headed off down the road.  Just over an hour later, we were at our first town — Leal.  We stopped at an abandoned farmstead outside of town to “stage”.

This is one of the things we got used to in quick fashion — getting mic’d up with wireless mics when we arrived in a town.  I wish we had a five dollar bill for every time we had to put those mics on.

We took a few photos in Leal, stripped our mics off, and headed back down the road to Heaton.  And when we arrived, we had to mic up again.  We would do that over and over for two days.

We were a little saddened to see how hard the last six years have been on Heaton.  There were quite a few structures that have vanished, including the former bank, the bar, and several homes.  Heaton now more resembles a rural neighborhood than a former town.  Just a few homes, and a few very big dogs.

Our next stop was Lincoln Valley, a true ghost town we’ve visited on four occasions now.  We spent a little longer than we should have in Lincoln Valley, probably because we have a special affinity for the town.  It’s as quiet as any place you’ve ever been, and there is absolutely nobody around.  You can just stand there and imagine what it must have been like a hundred years ago.  This was the first time we visited Lincoln Valley since the demolition of the Opp house.  There are no signs of its existence remaining.

After leaving Lincoln Valley, we took the short jaunt to Kief — a cute little town with a dwindling population, but still plenty of activity on a sunny weekend. 

After we finished with Kief, we made our first decision to cut a town from our list.  To save time and make sure we made it to our campground at a decent hour, we cut Ruso, ND from our trip.  We wouldn’t find out until we got home that Ruso may now be a true ghost ( a site visitor reports it’s possibly empty now).  We saved ourselves about an hour and a half by cutting it.

Kief was the first really photogenic new town we visited on this trip, and when we left for Bergen, we had no idea that we were about to run together an incredible string of towns that would really suck up a lot of our time.  So many photos to be taken.

Bergen was great, shockingly small for a town just off a major highway like 52.  But you could say the same for Balfour, which is just down the road.  This section of North Dakota along Highway 52, which parallels the rail lines, holds some of the strongest concentrations of ghost towns and near-ghost towns in the state.  We spent more time than we should have in Bergen, then left for Berwick.

We passed through Verendrye on the way to Berwick and got a couple quick photos of the Falsen School.  We had to photograph it from the raod since the land is private property and clearly posted.

On arrival in Berwick we were very pleased to see lots of photo opportunities, and even more pleased to talk with some local residents who were fixing up one of the homes there.  I exhanged pleasantries with one of the residents and asked him if he would mind us taking some pictures.  He asked, “This isn’t for that North Dakota ghosts thing is it?”  Although we don’t do paranormal stuff, I knew what he meant.  It’s a little flattering when we show up and people know who we are.  Even in the tiniest of North Dakota towns.

Bantry was next on the list.  I think it was about this time that we started to realize we were really onto something with this trip.  It seemed like every town we went to got progressively better than the last.  We took lots of photos and called it a day.

Our campsite was in Minot.  Here is a truth for you.  It’s hard to find a good campground in the Minot area.  We originally booked a spot at the KOA on the southeast edge of town.  But before we arrived, we found out there are no fires allowed at the Minot KOA.  All of the firepits have been removed, even the grills!  The owner told me that was because they don’t have a fire department that serves their campground.  Sorry, but we had plans to sit around a fire and grill some brats that night, so no KOA for us.

Our second choice was the Roughrider Campground on the southwest side of town.  We were excited about this choice because it was right across the highway from the Gassman Coulee Trestle.  Unfortunately, we found the operators to be less-than-friendly, the customer service lacking, and the wireless internet connection worthless.

The real clincher though was the fact that if you’re camping in a tent at Roughrider, you’re not allowed to drive your car down to your campsite.  You have to park in an area I would only loosely describe as a parking lot, unpack your entire vehicle, and wheel all of your stuff down to your campsite on wheeled carts.  So there we are, with two vehicles full of camping equipment, camera equipment and all the rest of it, and we have to unload EVERYTHING.  In the morning, do it all in reverse.  We won’t be camping there again.

Sunday morning we were up at 5am, and on the road by about 6:30, headed for Lostwood.  Every town we visited on day two was a bonanza.  We had no idea what we were in for.  In Lostwood, Lunds Valley, McGregor, Corinth, Appam, and Alkabo, we spent much more time taking photos than we had planned.  Everything was just so picturesque!  Corinth and Alkabo were some of the best towns we’ve ever visited.

By the time we left Alkabo, Dave and Sarah began to wonder how many more towns we had to do.  When I rattled off the list, Dave informed us they might need to break off early to get back to Fargo at a reasonable hour.  After all, we were literally at the opposite corner of the state.  Unless you’re in Wahpeton, you really can’t be further from home and still be in North Dakota.

We began to realize we weren’t going to get it all done.  We scaled back our planned visit to the Fortuna Air Force Station, so much so that we ended up getting no photos of any significance there.  We went to Ambrose, and wanted to photograph the whole thing, but we didn’t have the time.  We moved on to Larson, another great town with too many photos to be taken.

When we left Larson, we made the decision to cut Coteau and Niobe, meaning our next town, Northgate, would be our last.  And Northgate didn’t disappoint.  We got so close to the international border, we could have thrown a baseball and hit a house in Canada.

So, that concluded our trip, and we had a long drive back home.  And when you drive that far through North Dakota, it’s hard to bypass towns because you’re on a schedule.  But we did.

Funniest moment from the drive home… we drove by Bergen on Highway 52 and Rat looked at me and said “Have we been there?”  And I said, “Yeah man.  Yesterday.”  We were exhausted.

On a positive note, we caught a brief glimpse of the Manfred hotel as we zipped by on the highway.  It is indeed being restored, and it was looking great with a fresh coat of white paint.  We’ll be going back to see that again sometime soon.  Those people in Manfred know what’s up.

We intend to go on one or two more shorter trips this summer, and we’ve handed out nine assignments to other photographers as well, so we expect to have a lot more photo galleries for you soon. — troy

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7 Responses to “Trip Report: May 2010”
  1. Crystal says:

    Great update on lots that I’m familiar with. Makes me reminisce. Thank you!

  2. Sharon Klemm says:

    You guys are keeping life interesting. Keep up the great work.

  3. I just want to say that as a graphic designer and photographer I absolutely love that picture. Ghost towns are a fun hobby of mine whenever I head west, but I’ve only done it a few times. I would love to go on an extended tour capturing the beauty and feeling the energy from the people that once lived there. Loved your trip report, sounds like a blast.

  4. Mark J says:

    Curious about your observations about the impact the oil activity is having on towns and infrastructure (roads).

  5. sandra felchl says:

    Thanks for the update on your trip!!! Sounds like you guys had a blast!

  6. Lillian Anderson says:

    Enjoyed the pictures of McGregor, I was raised there but have not been back for awhile. People living there are excited about the towns 100th. anniversary coming up this year. Thanks for including it on your tour.

  7. David Seaman says:

    Ruso is still there, i lived in velva for a few years and used to go on smokin cruises just puffin a doob and driving around in my grandfathers 68 olds to see what there was to see out on the boonies all around velva for hours. i drive past ruso a few times a year omw to strawberry lake to go fishing. there are two houses that look inhabited and someone recently (last ten years or so) redid the 41 club diner that was there and did reopen it but i havnt seen it open in a few years tho i havnt actually stopped to check.. most of the older structures are gone and what is there is fairly new relativly speaking.

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