Shaniko – One of Oregon’s Most Interesting Ghost Towns

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As I crossed over a small hillside, my destination became clear – the once bustling town of Shaniko, Oregon. Stepping from my car, I drew in a breath. A breeze of wind slowly swept past, and I could smell the comforting scent of fresh spring rain from miles away as it fell peacefully to Earth. In the far distance, I watched collected raindrops pouring from the sky like a ghostly curtain hanging from the clouds. Cold rain met a warmer ground and was absorbed into the freeway’s smooth pavement, which stretched for miles across Oregon’s open countryside hills. As surrounding soil drank the rain water, a dark and clouded blue sky hovered overhead, leaving just enough open space between clouds to let an evening sun pass through, painting the town a strongly contrasting bright gold.

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I was taken away the moment I set foot on this town’s main street – absorbing the beautiful and serene setting surrounding me. I became intrigued further by each building or object I would pass, submersed in the brilliant calm that this town seemed to give off. I wandered up and down each intersection, until a large open door caught my attention; an entire garage filled with old, dusty cars. The garage now silently sits as a museum for those interested enough to learn about the history that would have passed through Shaniko. Vehicles from old Chryslers to a 1919 Studebaker – even Chevrolets from as far back as 1918 all sit now collecting dust. One can only imagine the incredible stories these cars would have to tell.

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So how did Shaniko – one of the most famous ghost towns in Oregon, come to existence in the first place?

The year was 1862, and the Homestead Act had just been put into place as people began to settle. By the year 1898, with no efficient way for goods to be transported came the proposal for a railroad to be built. The construction of this railway sparked the idea of a town, and by 1900 the tracks of the Columbia Southern Railroad Line finally made it to the future home of Shaniko, Oregon. By 1901, Shaniko was established and commerce had already begun, with this railway making Shaniko a hub for all of Oregon’s interior trade straight down to the California border. During the year of 1903, Shaniko had become famous for its wool trade, being the town’s claim to fame. World records were set for wool production, with some days yielding up to $3,000,000 in transactions for a single day. However, it was not long after this that the town would begin a sharp decline.

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By 1910, population was at its peak with 495 residents, but never broke 500 before the town began quickly falling apart. With only 10 years heavily involved in trade came a very sudden, very early recession for Shaniko. In the year of 1911 alone, not only was the mayor shot and killed, but so came the end of the Columbia Southern Railroad Line, halting wool production, as well as any other major trade. With its heyday turning to grey days, population quickly dropped, and by 1920 sat at only 124 people – down 74.9 percent from the 1910 census.

Between 1920 and 1970, numerous other incidents continued to negatively impact Shaniko, including several major fires, taking most of the town’s business district and turning it to smoldering ash. With population rapidly declining following these fires, the school shuttered its doors in 1951 – but it wouldn’t be long before a growing interest would arise in the study of ghost towns, and Shaniko would begin to garner attention from many interested travelers. Through the 1960s, this growing interest would bring a small revival to the town of Shaniko from all those passing through, though not large enough to sustain a full recovery to the bright life it once lived. During the late 70s through early 80s, preservation became paramount and a much greater effort was put into effect, attempting to save the town for eyes and ears of future generations to see and learn.

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“Shaniko calls the people she needs to survive,” I was told by one current resident, Debra Holbrook, who moved to the town in 1993. Debra had a goal of bringing Oregon history to people, sharing with adults and children, taking them to places where history happened. Just like me, she was never incredibly interested in history during her school years. Moving to Shaniko opened her eyes to a brand new world of discovery, and the idea to preserve the stories of places such as this one became a quickly growing interest.

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“The only word that could describe it was home,” Debra told me as we talked.

By 1996, Debra was still living in Shaniko, running a shop with her mother and enjoying the peacefulness of this countryside town just as much as ever. As years passed, more shops and buildings were eventually closed including the large hotel, which now sits an empty shell looming over the center of town. Days dragged by, population fluctuated, and numerous people continued passing through just to hear a nearly forgotten history and learn the tale of this once vibrant town. To this day, Shaniko still welcomes visitors with open arms, provided they have open minds and genuine interest.

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With a current population of only 36, it’s no surprise that I was able to meet some amazing and very friendly people – people who were more than excited to share stories of the town’s past, and were incredibly inviting as well as helpful. The remaining life in this town made it easily one of the most unique and peaceful places I have had the pleasure of visiting in my travels. As quantity of people decreases, qualities greatly increase – it seems to happen that way more often than not in towns like this. I think what made this adventure seem even stranger to me than normal is the fact that I have photographed many places, but none that were built up so greatly only to fall so quickly.

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While sometimes it seems like the life of these forgotten places fades faster than interior lights of a locked car – other places, such as Shaniko keep at least a small glow, refusing to go out. I will always say I believe that it’s important for us to save these memories in hopes of making them last forever. I’m here now, and plan to save as many stories as possible while I have the chance.

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