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Remnents On The High Plains

An Exploration Through Abandoned America

Paul Gallagher

This how­ev­er changed when I made my first trip to the High Plains of Mon­tana and the Dako­tas in the USA recent­ly. Strange­ly, I have been some­what fas­ci­nat­ed by the open, flat vast­ness nestling beneath huge skies for many years. For a pho­tog­ra­ph­er that is dizzy with inspi­ra­tion beneath moun­tain spires, lakes and at the coast, this place could not be fur­ther from the norm for me. Along with the land­scape, the remains of times long ago also had me return­ing to the pages of many books again and again to gain an appre­ci­a­tion of why this was. Where and why did every­body go, or more impor­tant­ly, why did they come in the first place?

Pri­or to 1900, the High Plains of the USA were gen­er­al­ly regard­ed as a bleak wilder­ness, not suit­able for set­tling fam­i­lies or com­mu­ni­ties. This was all about to change when the pow­er­ful rail­road com­pa­nies want­ed to extend their tracks across these vast plains and the trains need­ed to be ser­viced reg­u­lar­ly for this to suc­ceed. The fed­er­al and state gov­ern­ments of the time gave the rail­road com­pa­nies mil­lions of acres of land and they want­ed to get on with the job. A mas­sive cam­paign was launched by the rail­roads to attract incom­ers and promised vir­tu­al­ly free land in the vicin­i­ty of the rail­way lines where they could farm and become pros­per­ous, and come they did!

It was soon realised that life would be hard, even if they had been enticed there from the squalor of over­pop­u­lat­ed cities else ware in Amer­i­ca. The sea­sons were one of the biggest chal­lenges of these set­tlers. The win­ters were extreme­ly harsh and were fol­lowed by bak­ing hot sum­mers in which crops suf­fered, along with the sea­son­al risk of tor­na­does which are still part of life here to this day.

It was clear that these com­mu­ni­ties were incred­i­bly vul­ner­a­ble and when changes ensued such as post war com­mod­i­ty prices falling, banks col­laps­ing and mod­ern farm mech­a­niza­tion, it would only be a mat­ter of time before large por­tions of these com­mu­ni­ties would become unem­ployed and then the out-migra­tion began. With land and hous­es being almost worth­less, peo­ple sim­ply left and it is a result of this trag­ic sto­ry that we see the land­scape and its rem­nants as it is today. 

A les­son I quick­ly learned was, no mat­ter how much I had stud­ied maps to gain an under­stand­ing of the scale of this land­scape, its size and the dis­tances I need­ed to trav­el were vast. Dri­ving is not at all dif­fi­cult though. The roads are gen­er­al­ly in won­der­ful con­di­tion and can stretch for many miles in a straight line. Literally!

It was not unusu­al to trav­el 50 miles or more and hard­ly see anoth­er vehi­cle or signs of human life. The dri­ving gave me my first oppor­tu­ni­ty to under­stand what I was going to pho­to­graph and how I had to adapt to the dif­fer­ences in the land­scape that I had nev­er expe­ri­enced before. You can see for miles. Sounds like an obvi­ous state­ment, but our dis­tant vision in most of Europe is often lim­it­ed by moun­tains and val­leys in the land­scape, and cer­tain­ly by build­ings. Because of the expanse of the High Plains, both the land and the skies stretch to the hori­zon and I soon became trans­fixed by the inter­ac­tion of clouds, skies and light on the land. It was a con­stant and dynam­ic the­atre of light. 

The plan was to dri­ve to loca­tions that were once occu­pied by the farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties and explore and pho­to­graph the frag­ments that remain. I was expect­ing the results of the mass exo­dus to leave entire­ly unoc­cu­pied ghost towns but this was often not the case. Pulling off the dust roads onto the old set­tle­ments, it soon became appar­ent that peo­ple were there, cling­ing on to an often mea­gre exis­tence amidst the dere­lic­tion of the past. More often than not the peo­ple were friend­ly and sim­ply inquis­i­tive. It is dif­fi­cult to describe the moment you stop the car and get out know­ing that there are sev­er­al run down shacks with pick-up trucks parked out­side, clear­ly occupied. 

To add the slight trep­i­da­tion of the moment was the absolute silence once the car engine is switched off. With no roads close by and being sur­round­ed by grass­lands, there are very few sources of sound. Apart from the warm winds that pass across the land­scape, all that you can hear are your foot­steps and the occa­sion­al dog bark­ing announc­ing your arrival. One must under­stand in the USA that tres­pass­ing is tak­en seri­ous­ly. Even though many of the build­ings are decay­ing and way beyond repair, they remain the prop­er­ty of some­one and the words NO TRESS­PASS­ING” on signs and attached to doors and fences were ubiquitous. 

Often the most sen­si­ble approach was to stay out of the build­ings, even the ones with­out signs, and pho­to­graph from the track-side. If peo­ple did approach it often result­ed in a polite con­ver­sa­tion about my fas­ci­na­tion with the Amer­i­can his­to­ry of these lands and I was left to my own devices. Some res­i­dents actu­al­ly invit­ed me into build­ings and told sto­ries of their fam­i­lies and the hard­ships endured. I was guid­ed through hous­es, church­es and aban­doned schools by folk who seemed pleased to have a vis­i­tor, a per­son they could speak with and break the iso­la­tion of liv­ing on the plains, if only for an hour.

The struc­tures that appeared most resilient to the years of aban­don­ment were the church­es and schools. These were of course the most impor­tant build­ings in the com­mu­ni­ties and were clear­ly well built. Hous­es showed the most signs of dete­ri­o­ra­tion and nature was claim­ing back. Some I saw had mature trees grow­ing right in front of the entrance doors indi­cat­ing how long it had been since any­one had tried to enter them. Often through the win­dows you could see cloth­ing hang­ing and old let­ters, wind­blown and curled, sim­ply left on kitchen table. There was a pal­pa­ble sense of the ghosts of the past. The silence inten­si­fied this. The bang­ing of old doors and the creak­ing of wood­en joists, all con­tributed to the experience. 

Old clas­sic Amer­i­can cars and pick-up trucks often became part of these aban­doned home­steads. There are no scrap­yards to speak of but plen­ty of land upon which cars could be left. In some places, gen­er­a­tions of cars span­ning from the ear­ly 50’s through to the 70’s could be seen lined up, rot­ting, being swal­lowed up by the grass­es grow­ing around and inside them. Beer bot­tles, cig­a­rette pack­ets and bul­let holes all con­tributed to the authen­tic­i­ty of the place.

I was less intrigued by the inside of the build­ings, but far more by the build­ings and their sur­round­ings. I found myself fas­ci­nat­ed and pho­tograph­ing how the build­ings stood defi­ant­ly to this day. They were a tes­ti­mo­ny of the peo­ple who had lived and exist­ed here dur­ing very hard times and had been promised a piece of the Amer­i­can Dream which would nev­er last. 

Also syn­ony­mous, and direct­ly asso­ci­at­ed with this part of Amer­i­ca, were the grain ele­va­tors that once sup­plied the rail­roads. These tall struc­tures were often the first indi­ca­tions that I was approach­ing a town or set­tle­ment as they could be seen from miles away. As with the homes and schools, they had stood the test of time but showed the scars of the pass­ing of the years and the extreme weath­er changes that had sub­ject­ed them to a bat­ter­ing over the years. Often in pairs, they tow­ered above the crum­bling-to-the-ground sur­round­ing homes and the rail­way lines could be dis­cov­ered in the long grass­es at their base. 

The objec­tive of find­ing the aban­doned places led me through some of the most beau­ti­ful grass­lands I have ever seen. Stretch­ing to infin­i­ty, I recall the grace­ful and gen­tle sound of the breezes push­ing through them and the heat of the land absorb­ing the day­light sun. I was reward­ed with beau­ti­ful pass­ing storms and rain­clouds tow­er­ing high into the open skies, unin­ter­rupt­ed by land or build­ing. As clouds passed over the sun­light was mod­u­lat­ed by the tran­sient weath­er and often cre­at­ed lat­tice-like pat­terns that danced over the immense fields. To expe­ri­ence this was as impor­tant as pho­tograph­ing in the home­steads. It was these lands that lured fam­i­lies here in the first place, and they are lands that look the same today, as they did to the first settlers.

Occa­sion­al­ly the open space was inter­rupt­ed by the pres­ence of cot­ton­wood trees that most­ly grew close the occa­sion­al riv­er or creak. The only oth­er places you saw any gath­er­ing of trees where clos­er to the towns where they had been plant­ed as a form of pro­tec­tion against the bit­ter pre­vail­ing win­ter winds. 

Hard­ship still presents itself quite vivid­ly on the High Plains today. It can be seen in the people’s homes that nes­tle amidst the old towns and beside the rail­roads which bear some resem­blance to the dere­lic­tion that sur­rounds them. Occa­sion­al­ly on the road I saw clear signs of wealth with some of the big ranch­es with gat­ed entrances and pri­vate tracks lead­ing to opu­lent hous­es. Peo­ple that had seized, and indeed ben­e­fit­ted huge­ly, from mod­ern inten­sive farm­ing prac­tices. Many of the peo­ple I met were warm and made me feel wel­come. I will be hon­est in say­ing I did have con­cerns about being amongst deprived com­mu­ni­ties explor­ing unmarked bound­aries, know­ing that gun own­er­ship is very com­mon­place and I was far away from help.

My trip was so dif­fer­ent from any­thing I had expe­ri­enced before and I found a new inspi­ra­tion in my work that I shall fol­low. The open plains them­selves are abound with beau­ty in its sim­plest form of light and shape which will cer­tain­ly entice me back next year.