If you ask people about some of the strangest or scariest places in the country, there’s a good chance they’ll point toward ghost towns.
You’ve probably heard of them — small, abandoned towns, usually from the railroad days of the United States, usually nestled out in the plains outside of major cities. And even after all these years, there’s plenty of them to go around — especially in North Dakota.
When railroads first came to North Dakota, they set up towns all across the pathways. Now, there are believed to be 43 sites in North Dakota designated as ghost towns. What happened to all of them?
In order to understand the history of ghost towns, we visited one of ourselves — specifically Arena, one of the most famous in the state, located halfway between Bismarck and Steele.
Primarily settled by German immigrants and their descendants, very little is left of this once blossoming town. But what happened to the area that led up to it falling into the disrepair that so many ghost towns end up in?
While we don’t have too many specifics, there’s enough reports from historical sources and websites to at least get a general image of life in Arena until its abandonment. Much like the surrounding area, residents of Arena were primarily invested in agriculture and were known for using more experimental farming techniques and equipment, as well as specializing in farming corn and livestock.
The issue, of course, is actually finding evidence of more. Aside from a few old photographs, very few records of the town still exist that we were able to dig up. Therein lies one of the hardest parts of researching the history of places like Arena — finding history to research in the first place.
Unfortunately, speaking to former residents to recall their stories is nearly impossible.
“The most recent source I found was from 1978, and it named people…but of course, that’s 40 years ago,” explained Lorna Meidinger with the State Historical Society of North Dakota. “I would say if there is anybody left from Arena, they’re definitely retirement age. For these situations, you’d have to find somebody who knows somebody, because those records are still private right now.”
Arena was settled in 1906, and until the population started leaving en masse, the town was actually quite bustling for a small community at the time. Postcards from the 20s, which we’re unable to present for copyright reasons, show businesses that are nowhere to be seen in modern times, like general stores, hardware shops and a pool hall. There was even a baseball team, which frequently played against other nearby small towns. But now, 100 years later, everything I’ve described has vanished from the area entirely.
When we arrived in the town, we found ourselves in all that was left — a home, a wooden schoolhouse, a church, two grain elevators and a few sheds. Even putting the passage of time away, it’s baffling to see how much things have changed since the old photos. What is it that drove people away from this place?
Small towns are common here in North Dakota, and if the farmers and ranchers who are still out there are anything to go by, the area near the town is more than capable of supporting farming. In the case of Arena, it was a profitable place in its early years — but there were a few things that eventually ceased any chance Arena had of growing. We can of course blame the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, which have been cited as major causes, but there’s another huge aspect to the creation of ghost towns: the advent of the big city.
“What caused Arena’s decline was probably twofold,” said Meidinger. “The proximity to Bismarck and other towns caused people to migrate towards those. That whole era of right-sizing your farms and access to more jobs also contributed. There was a lot of migration into the cities or totally out of the area just for pure economics.”
As people searched for increases in availability and opportunity, they left Arena for greener pastures, metaphorically speaking, of course. This took its toll on the population, and by 1935 only 35 citizens were left in the area. This was all before the earliest aerials could be taken in Arena (the earliest known was captured in 1938).
Despite the condition of the area, Arena still stands…or, at least, parts of it do. Some ghost towns across the United States are well-preserved, but from the looks of it, North Dakota’s aren’t that lucky. While the residents of Arena are doing their best to keep the area closed off and maintained, there’s not much that can be done to bring it back from the brink, especially when you consider the years of harsh weather beating down on the buildings.
Adding to the deterioration, locals who seek to maintain the town have noted that trespassers have frequently visited ghost towns to steal property and leave their marks. Unfortunately, judging by the graffiti and the overturned furniture in every building house, these comments come from an understandably worrying place.
In spite of this, Arena actually managed to stick around for quite a while afterwards and even received some more additions. The wooden schoolhouse standing there, now indistinguishable from the rest of the town, was actually moved to the area in the 1970s as a voting site. A local story recounts that the original brick schoolhouse is said to have been buried on a hill near the town.
It seems ironic that our interest in these small towns only develops when they’re gone. Is it morbid curiosity? Maybe. But there’s still plenty we can gain from them, even if it isn’t what the town’s owners expected. But for those who do seek to visit and investigate these ghost towns, tearing them apart in search of a lost history, there’s one simple request.