A farmhouse south of Chadron, Neb., speaks of homesteaders who couldn't overcome the area's sandy soil, frequent droughts and economic conditions.
A farmhouse south of Chadron, Neb., speaks of homesteaders who couldn't overcome the area's sandy soil, frequent droughts and economic conditions.
Gary Anthes

Ghost Roads of Nebraska

Grain elevators tower over Great Plains towns in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming.
Grain elevators tower over Great Plains towns in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming. (Photo By Gary Anthes)
By Gary Anthes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 2, 2007

W hen I thought about Nebraska before my recent four-day trip -- and I almost never did -- I imagined an utterly flat place populated by legions of cows and mega-acres of corn. It is the Cornhusker State, after all. Asked to sum it up in one word, I would have said "boring."

Okay, it can be boring, but I'll get to that later.

First, here's what's not boring. I'm an avid amateur photographer who enjoys shooting ghost towns, abandoned buildings, ancient rusty cars and other detritus from decades and centuries past. There are quite a lot of those things in Nebraska, especially in the western half of the state, in a Great Plains region that some photographers call Abandoned America.

My idea was to drive the highways and byways of western Nebraska and photograph the accoutrements of abandonment. I planned to follow four of the nine routes that the state has designated as scenic or historic. "Nebraska's back roads invite you to drop down to low gear, prop your arm out the window and just cruise," informs the state's helpful travel guide.

That's pretty much what I did. I cruised Nebraska's Gold Rush Byway (U.S. Route 385) 160 miles from Sidney to Chadron; the Lincoln Highway (U.S. Route 30) 230 miles from Sidney to Kearney; the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway (Highway 2) 200 miles from Ansley to Alliance; and the Western Trails Historic and Scenic Byway (U.S. Route 26) 55 miles from Bridgeport to the Wyoming border. I also drove countless dusty miles along dirt and gravel lanes -- chosen mostly at random -- with evocative names like County Road 136. Starting and ending at the Denver airport, I made a grand loop through northeastern Colorado, western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming, some 1,400 miles in six days.

I especially liked Nebraska's two-lane Lincoln Highway, the nation's first transcontinental auto route, which runs through the Platte River Valley and parallels the country's first transcontinental railroad. Every few moments, the view of agricultural land would be punctuated by glimpses of the beautiful Platte River. A few moments later, the dual red-and-yellow engines of a train would come roaring past my car.

The Lincoln Highway -- now sleepy, seedy and sad, but fascinating and somehow wonderfully relaxing -- lost its status as a major east-west route years ago when Interstate 80 was built nearby. Now only photographers, railroad buffs and locals drive it. Motels, diners, gas stations, houses and whole city streets lie deserted along the way.

Towns, generally with populations between 200 and 600, are strung out at six- to 10-mile intervals along the route. You can see each one approaching from miles away by the giant grain elevators that tower above the plains at trackside, still poised to download corn or wheat to trains at harvest time. Typically, half or more of the stores in these towns have been forsaken yet left standing in faded testimony to better times.

No One Home

Early one foggy May morning, I was driving one of the narrow, gravel county roads between Thedford and Valentine when an abandoned farmhouse emerged at the top of a hill. Vacant, black windows stared like eye sockets through the mist. I half-expected Norman Bates to come out and greet me.

I happily walked around the property, photographing the old wood house, a barn, various outbuildings and assorted rusting farm paraphernalia. The house seemed unsafe to enter, but I could see the remains of habitation -- broken furniture, a few dishes, an ancient TV set -- through open doors. But the building belonged to the birds now, and a surprising number of them, including an owl, flew in and out through broken windows. In more than an hour, not a single car passed on the road below.

I find these deserted homesteads deeply mysterious and profoundly sad. What happened to their owners? Why did they go? What were they thinking on the day they left? Why did they leave so many belongings behind? Why has no one come to take their place?

Some of these prairie houses are the product of the Homestead Act of 1862, by which settlers were lured to the Great Plains with gifts of 160-acre land parcels. But sandy soil, frequent droughts and economic conditions made it a tough go for farmers, and some just gave up and moved out. Others declared bankruptcy, and their property was seized by a bank, which was then unable to dispose of it.

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