Following a boom of Southwest settlements between the late 1800s and early 1900s, an even faster decline saw ephemeral towns forgotten as gold or copper reserves dried up. Later, roadside tourist attractions weren’t always as lucrative as developers expected, and projects were abandoned, leaving behind urban decay along with tales of cursed land, cold-blooded murders, satanic rituals and more.
Photographer Susan Tatterson said she’s always been drawn to such places. She began photographing abandoned landscapes in 2008 while attending the University of Baltimore and decided to focus on deserted mills, schools and asylums throughout Maryland for her MFA thesis project.
“These places were left to rot, and they’re just beautiful,” Tatterson said.
She gathered photos from that project and released them in a book, "Abandoned Maryland: Ruin and Restoration," in October 2018. Now, she lives in Arizona, is a professor of digital media at Central Arizona College in Coolidge and has done her fair share of exploring the Southwest’s forgotten treasures. Her most recent book, "Abandoned Arizona: Ghost Towns and Legends," includes almost 200 full-color photos taken at 10 locations across the state. Decaying buildings are juxtaposed against vibrant sunsets in shades of orange and purple, while brief descriptions at the beginning of each chapter delve into the history and local lore surrounding the locations.
Tatterson will host a discussion of Arizona’s ghost towns during a Night at the Museum event at the Pioneer Museum, 2340 N. Fort Valley Road, Friday, April 12, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. The event is free, but reservations are required and can be made by calling 774-6272 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Books will be for sale, and there will be a signing after Tatterson’s talk.
The circumstances that led to the demise of abandoned businesses and tourist sites dotting Arizona’s landscape vary, but echoes of the past remain in the form of graffiti-covered walls and crumbling ruins full of stories waiting to be discovered.
“I’m just in awe of what we leave behind, like the Phoenix Trotting Park,” Tatterson said. “It was so huge, and the architecture was just so ahead of its time.”
Phoenix Trotting Park was built in Goodyear in 1964 with 12,000 people in attendance for the opening celebration in 1965. While the owners had big dreams of establishing harness racing in the Southwest, the track shut its doors the following year and then sat empty for more than five decades. It was finally demolished in 2017 but not before Tatterson stood within the skeletal remains to document the result of unrealized optimism.
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“To stand there and watch the sunrise and [hear] the silence in this place, it can be quite eerie,” she said. “It really makes you think about the people who were there, why it was built, why it was abandoned.”
Time’s toll on the 640-acre complex is evident in her photos by spray paint along the walls and a layer of debris on the ground. Stables made to hold 1,000 horses sit empty, and the windows of the grandstand are shattered (the result of an explosion set off during filming for the 1998 movie "No Code of Conduct"). Tatterson demonstrates a sharp eye for satisfying geometric patterns when composing the Sierra Estrella mountain range to the east within the empty frames.
Extensive research conducted about each site adds context to Tatterson's alluring photographs, and sometimes the research reveals an unexpected truth about a place. For example, her book says that Two Guns, located 30 miles east of Flagstaff, was built on tales of betrayal and ambush.
Two Guns' history began in 1878 when members of the Navajo tribe retaliated against the Apaches for a murderous raid. The Apaches had taken cover in a cave but were suffocated by a fire the Navajos lit at the entrance. Ever since, the Navajo have believed the land is cursed by evil spirits. One of the first owners to ignore warnings of a curse was Earl Cundiff, who opened the Canyon Lodge Store and a post office in 1924. The rudimentary stone and wood ruins surrounding the Apache Death Cave are younger than they appear. They were built by lessee Harry “Indian” Miller in 1925 to promote the cave as a tourist attraction, but subsequent arguments about property boundaries led to a fight in 1926 when Miller shot Cundiff to death. Miller left town shortly after, and the business was never fully reestablished despite several attempts. A fire in 1971 closed Two Guns permanently.
While some of the places featured in the book are still home to small populations of people, such as Chloride and Cleator, many more have been rightfully reclaimed by nature.
“It takes back whatever we leave behind, absolutely, and [the buildings] really do take on a life of their own when we’re not involved,” Tatterson said.
She already has plans to release a second book of abandoned Arizona sites as well as several other editions focused on those found in New Mexico, California, Utah and Nevada.
“I’ve been all over the place,” Tatterson said. “I just love standing amongst these ruins and imagining what had went on.”