The Ghost Town of Auraria, GA

Out West, gold rush ghost towns become tourist attractions. The old settlement of Bodie, California has become a state park, its buildings preserved “in a state of arrested decay.” Visitors to the tiny town of Gold Point can “help preserve Nevada history” by spending the night in one of its many historic buildings. And in Virginia City, Montana, a ghost town until the tourism industry overtook it in the 1950s, stagecoaches still bump along the roads and visitors still fill the theaters as if nothing ever happened in the 150 years since the miners left town.

Unlike its flashier neighbors to the west, the gold rush ghost town of Auraria, GA has actually stayed a ghost town. It may have a historical marker, but the people who come up the mountain to see it are relatively few. Mostly ghost town hunters and relic hunters, maybe the odd visitor or two from nearby Dahlonega. These days, Dahlonega attracts the tourists with its charming town square and its Gold Museum, while Auraria, one of the country’s very first gold rush towns, sits all but forgotten.

In the 1830s, it was a rowdy place, complete with taverns and hotels and primitive cabins. After gold was discovered there in 1828, miners flocked to the area, trespassing on land that at the time belonged to the Cherokees. The Indian Removal Act  of 1830 gave Georgians permission to take the land from the Cherokees, and the gold only gave them more motivation. By 1838, the Trail of Tears was well underway in Georgia, and Auraria was a gold rush boomtown.

It wasn’t to last for long, though. Auraria’s population started dwindling when the Lumpkin County seat and a US mint set up operations in nearby Dahlonega. And when gold was discovered out West, miners abandoned Georgia altogether for the allure of California and Nevada. Auraria grew smaller by the year. Buildings were torn down; some burned down or fell down on their own. Within the last few years, the Graham Hotel, a barebones building that had been there since Auraria’s start, finally collapsed into a pile of wood scraps and kudzu.

The building next door is still standing. Originally a tavern, Woody’s served as a general store up into the 1980s, which honestly is hard to imagine. When we looked into the windows all we saw were rustic shelves and rows of old bottles. It looked more “arrested decay” and less like anything that could have operated in my lifetime.

Posted in Abandoned, Georgia, History, Native American | 4 Responses

Fort Pulaski

In 2012 a straight-to-video zombie movie was filmed at Georgia’s Fort Pulaski, and for a few days the grounds were full of local extras in costume, wandering around with dead eyes and outstretched arms.

I felt kind of like them when I was at Fort Pulaski a few months ago. It was the last day of our family vacation at Tybee Island, and even though it was still morning we could already tell it would be the hottest day of our trip. The humidity was heavy in the air, and I wished I was still in bed.

Though our tour guide was very good, I didn’t listen. I leaned against the bricks, eyes closed (my brother-in-law got an embarrassing picture to prove it), I sat down with my little niece and nephew, who were busy pouring over the tourist map and wouldn’t be distracted. I left the group, walked through passageways and half-heartedly listened at audio tour stops. I don’t remember what they said; I only remember the sound effects of howling wind and winter storms and how unconvincing they seemed on a hot morning in late June.

The truth is that old forts don’t move me in the same way that preserved battlefields do. In a place like Chickamauga, with its long empty fields and white monuments, it’s easy to feel a connection to the past. I can imagine soldiers marching and fighting in forests and pastures, skirmishing by old log homesteads and split-rail fences. It’s even easier to conjure up the Battle of Lookout Mountain while I’m standing on the rocky overlooks at Point Park. Nicknamed the “Battle Above The Clouds”, the engagement was romanticized from the start—a little too much, according to General Grant, who called it “one of the romances of the war. There was no such battle and no action even worthy to be called a battle,” he said. “It is all poetry.”

The poetry I found at Chickamauga and at Lookout eluded me at Fort Pulaski. I’m not sure why; the walls of the fort are beautifully kept up and intact, except for a cannonball hole here and there. Cockspur Island, where Pulaski is located, is covered in sand and green marshland. It’s pretty. There’s even a lighthouse at the tip, and if I weren’t so tired and lazy that day I would have walked out to see it.

When I was at Fort Pulaski I couldn’t get my head around the stories of what had happened there. I only heard bits of the tour guide’s talk: something about a young and handsome Robert E. Lee; a brand new kind of cannon that could penetrate walls that were supposed to have been impenetrable; a quick surrender.

Pulaski wasn’t interesting to me until later on, when I got home and read about the Immortal Six-Hundred.  If I couldn’t quite imagine the young Robert E. Lee helping build the fort in the 1820s or the Confederates’ surrender of the fort during the Civil War, I could picture the remaining Confederate soldiers from the original Six-Hundred, starved and imprisoned there during a particularly cold winter. Thanks to the audio commentary I heard last June, I imagine howling winter winds too, and this time they seem all too convincing.

Posted in Civil War, Georgia, History | 2 Responses

The Old Mill Town of Rex, GA

If you just saw it in photographs you’d think that the tiny town of Rex, Georgia would be located in the most rural part of the state. Maybe somewhere down in south Georgia, or among the the cotton fields out by Bostwick. Before we went to Rex I figured it would be the kind of town we’d have to drive miles in the country to find, most likely getting lost a couple of times, probably losing cell service. But that’s not the way it went at all.

Rex is only 20 or so miles south of Atlanta, and in Atlanta the suburbs stretch far. The farmland that once surrounded Rex gave way to subdivisions and gas stations years ago. If Rex was hard to find at first, it was only because we were so surprised that it was to be found there, right off a highway, practically under an overpass and directly under Hartsfield-Jackson’s flight path. But for a 19th century village completely surrounded by modern subdivisions, Rex is surprisingly well-preserved. It still has many of its original office buildings, including a bank and brick mercantile store complete with fading ghost signs. An old farmhouse or two can be found just off the railroad tracks.

The heart of old Rex village is its mill. It’s been there for over a hundred years, sitting right by Big Cotton Indian Creek. Up until at least the 1930s, local farmers were bringing their grain to be milled, maybe stopping by the store across the tracks to buy some Ballard’s Obelisk Flour. The mill is still the town’s biggest draw, but for different reasons. Hollywood film crews looking for a bit of the rural south close to the comforts of Atlanta have already discovered it. So have amateur photographers, apparently. While Drew was taking pictures the mill’s owner pulled up and told us to photograph all we want, but handed us a liability release form just in case we happened to fall off the stone dam or into some long-forgotten well. You never know, he said.

It was a peaceful place, but standing on the dam (liability waver signed) and seeing rows and rows of boxy houses encroaching upon Rex made me nervous. I thought it would be only a matter of time until they swallowed up the village whole. Fortunately some things have changed since then. There has been talk of turning downtown Rex into a folksy tourist destination, converting the old bank and store and maybe even the mill into restaurants and shops and bed and breakfasts.  So far that’s just talk.

There’s also been a lot of talk about Michelle Obama and her roots in the area. After learning that the First Lady’s great-great-great-grandmother, Melvinia Shields, had been a slave on a nearby plantation, the village of Rex put up a monument dedicated to her. The unveiling made local headlines, but the monument’s vandalization a year later put tiny Rex into the national spotlight.  It was a setback, but the monument is being fixed (if it hasn’t been fixed already), and it’s still—along with Rex itself—an important stop on Clayton County’s heritage trail.

Posted in Abandoned, African American History, Georgia, History | 2 Responses

Bonaventure Cemetery

When John Muir camped out in Bonaventure Cemetery in 1867 the spanish moss-shaded grounds were already heavy with history. Muir wrote of the ruins of the plantation house that had once been there, of the laid-out roads and paths, of the graveyard’s iron gates and marble monuments, by then corroded and reclaimed by nature. But he saved his most enthusiastic praise for Bonaventure’s live-oaks, calling them the “most magnificent planted trees” he’d ever seen.

Never since I was allowed to walk the woods have I found so impressive a company of trees as the tillandsia-draped oaks of Bonaventure. I gazed awe-stricken as one new-arrived from another world. Bonaventure is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are powerless in such a depth of life.

Many of those live-oaks, a century old when Muir saw them, are still at Bonaventure today. They were planted in the 1700s by John Mullryne on the grounds of the original Bonaventure plantation house. That house eventually burned down, as did its replacement. By the mid-19th century the land and its small family graveyard were sold to Savannah hotel mogul Peter Wiltberger, who could see the plantation’s business potential. Rural cemeteries were all the rage in Victorian America, and it probably didn’t take much imagination to see that Bonaventure’s riverside location and wildly landscaped pathways could draw in crowds. Soon, locals were having the bodies of their loved ones moved from other cemeteries and re-interred at Bonaventure, memorializing them forever with the creepy kinds of monuments the Victorians could do so well: Corrine . . . Eliza . . . Little Gracie . . .

Those monuments alone make it hard for me to imagine camping out at Bonaventure overnight, Muir-style. In 1867 the place may have seemed alive, but in 2013 it feels frozen in time and covered with a thick layer of Victorian era dust. The overgrown live-oaks and all of its spanish moss make Bonaventure seem dark even on a sunny day in July, and the humidity in the air—heavy enough in town—is even heavier in the cemetery by the river. I wouldn’t go there at night, but as for the daytime I can’t think of a place in Savannah I’d rather go. Even after 250 years, those great live-oaks still have the power to startle.

Posted in Cemeteries, Georgia, History | 2 Responses