Cursed land. Cold-blooded murders. Satanic rituals. Buildings erected with plans of grandeur only to be forgotten shortly after. The circumstances which 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.
Photographer Susan Tatterson says she’s always been drawn to these places. She began photographing abandoned landscapes in 2008 while attending the University of Baltimore and decided to focus on some of the mills, schools and asylums throughout Maryland for her MFA thesis project.
“These places were left to rot, and they’re just beautiful,” Tatterson says.
She gathered photos from that project and released them in a book, Abandoned Maryland: Ruin and Restoration, in October 2018. She currently lives in Arizona where she 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.
“I’m just in awe of what we leave behind, like the Phoenix Trotting Park,” Tatterson says. “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 50 years. It was finally demolished in 2017, but not before Tatterson stood within the skeletal remains to document the result of this misguided optimism.
“To stand there and watch the sunrise and the silence in this place, it can be quite eerie,” she says. “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 by spray paint along the walls and a layer of debris on the ground. Stables made to hold 1,000 horses are empty and the windows of the grandstand are shattered, but that was the result of an explosion set off during filming for the 1998 movie No Code of Conduct rather than of vandals, and 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 on each site adds context to the alluring photographs, and sometimes this research would reveal an unexpected truth about a place. Two Guns, located 30 miles east of Flagstaff, was built on tales of betrayal and ambush.
Its 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, killing all 42 of them along with their ponies. Ever since, the Navajo have believed the land is cursed by evil spirits. The unassuming Apache Death Cave is surrounded by many more rudimentary stone and wood ruins that aren’t as old as they appear.
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 fake ruins surrounding the Apache Death Cave 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 re-established despite several attempts by new owners. A fire in 1971 closed Two Guns permanently.
To the east and west of Two Guns lie Meteor City Trading Post and Twin Arrows Trading Post respectively, and Fort Courage farther east near the New Mexico border. During the heyday of Route 66, these attractions were created just as much for amusement as they were for filling up on gas and food. Now, the empty buildings remain simply as a reminder of a time when travelers took a more leisurely approach to driving.
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 says. “For the last five years I’ve photographed the landscape in Arizona, but I still love all the abandoned things. It’s a passion.”
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,” she says. “I just love standing amongst these ruins and imagining what had went on.”