New Jersey rarely gets a fair shake. The majority of people get their information about the state from movies and television. This means they see the cities and, usually, power plants, dumps, generator farms, and not much else. Some people only know what they see when they fly into and out of Newark Airport. Which is cities, power plants, generator farms, and maybe a dump or two. New Yorkers don’t seem to look past Hoboken.
     What fewer people see is that once you get past the cities and past the suburbs there are farm lands, hills, swamps, and the odd mountain. There’s also rivers and bays. Even an ocean, if you know where to look for it.
     There is one thing in my life that I do, truly and deeply, regret and that is not having the foresight to write things down and photograph things when I was a child. I won’t beat myself up about it, though, because what kid really thinks about that kind of thing? An open field with horses and trees will always be an open field with horses and trees. Until it gets paved over for condominiums. Or a Wal-Mart. Or a Home Depot. Or another named subdivision. Then it’s gone in everything but memory.
     When I left New Jersey, those open fields and farm land and all that were still there. I don’t know if they are, now. I just wish I had paid more attention when I had the chance (and that’s going clear into my twenties).
     All this was going through my mind when I was traveling around Austin the other day. We were on a minor highway and then went off to a smaller road. The GPS showed a straight line through a field of gray. There was nothing around but fields, horses, and the occasional house. But we weren’t that far outside of Austin and, eventually, the city is going to catch up. The land will be bought and all of it will be replaced with more named subdivisions, strip malls, probably another Wal-Mart and Home Depot.
     Letting the mind wander it’s not unreasonable to think that in five years, give or take, the area I drove through might be a large parking lot. What about ten years from now? Or fifteen?
     Just like it’s changed how some people watch TV, the Internet has changed how we shop. Malls, once the mighty shopping king of the 1980s, devoured the competing smaller stores by having everything in one place. And now they are turning into dinosaurs, dieing where they stand with slowly emptying innards.
     It’s not inconceivable that the current dinomagazi, such as Wal-Mart, Target, (maybe) K Mart, and the like will die off. After all, if Amazon can deliver product to you on the same day (and the others, if they can adapt) then is there any real reason to go out to a store to buy something? Yes, but I think more people will decide not to go shopping in a building and just have it delivered.
     If going out shopping ends up becoming rare then what will happen to these big buildings scattered around? I suppose they’ll be torn down or re-purposed. I’m assuming a lot of that land will be sold and turned into more subdivisions. Or, maybe, they’ll be left standing.
     Buildings from the 1800s and early 1900s have a tendency to disappear whether from catching fire, falling down, being moved, swept away in floods, or taken down so the materials could be re-used. Today’s buildings are more likely to be used as crack dens than to disappear into history.
     That’s kind of sad. It’s probably also the last time we’ll get any kind of ‘ghost town’ for some time, if these structures do stand abandoned even though I think it’s unlikely.
     From what I can tell, the life of a ghost town goes like this:
  • Settle down somewhere
  • Put up with a group of people deciding to live near you
  • Petition the government for a post office and hope they don’t turn down your name six times
  • Go through a period of growth where more people move in and set up shops
  • Open a school
  • Build a church (school and church as switchable since people did have services in schools until a church was built and also had classes in church until a school was built)
  • Encounter one or more disasters: major road does NOT get built near your town; railroad does NOT get built near your town; you lose the bid for county seat; major fire; get washed away in a flood; lose crops to drought and/or bugs; major company leaves or gets bought; end up on the wrong side of a dam
  • Close the post office
  • Have the schools get absorbed in the next town over (probably the county seat)
  • Leave the church(es) and cemetery (sometimes)
     Sometimes a town just gets annexed by a nearby growing city. One day your mail is addressed to Smithville, USA and the next your address is Metropolis, USA, and it’s business as usual.
     It’s unlikely, then, that any current town or city will become a ghost town. We’re not tethered by roads or railroads anymore and we sure don’t have to rely on going to the post office to get our mail, especially since regular mail is on the way out thanks to email. It’s far more likely that a smaller town will get absorbed by a larger, growing, city.
     It’s the lost cities that I’m interested in, though. Maybe you drive down a road call Three Points Rd. and one day wonder why it’s named that and find out that it used to lead to a settlement called Three Points. Or you see a cemetery that has a name that doesn’t appear to have anything to do with anything nearby and find out that it was named after the thriving community that once was nearby but is now quite gone.
     I’m a sucker for old buildings. I drive past them and I wonder what they were for, who used them, what happened to them. Around here it’s not too difficult to find them and I always assumed they had been part of the ranch upon whose land they were sitting. I’m finding out, though, that’s it’s likely that the buildings were a part of a town that had grown up on a piece of land and were just incorporated into the parcel when the land was bought, sold, annexed, or whatever.
     Unfortunately, sit a lot of them are sitting on private land it’s not possible to go poking around in them. At least, not without the possibility of being arrested for trespassing. Or shot.