Living in Portland, it’s easy—if not encouraged—to forget about the vast, generally conservative acreage beyond our damp slice of Oregon. When the chance to vacation arrives, I’ll bet getting to know The Beaver State isn’t your first priority. What if I told you there’s more to the Great Out There than endless fields and Trump ‘24 banners? Scattered within rural Oregon are dozens of abandoned settlements, eerie cemeteries, and industrial relics practically begging for noisy tourists. Better still, a coterie of amateur journalists equipped with an electromagnetic field (EMF) reader, a Subaru Forester, and plastic-wrapped sandwiches; a formidable combination to behold.
It began with a fun, and as I’d later discover, likely false factoid I’d read at the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” attraction in Newport. A plaque in the museum claimed Oregon as having the most remaining ghost towns, or abandoned settlements, of any state in the country; an exhaustive study, I’m sure. Visiting these bygone towns, and exploiting the trip for writing material, was but a fantasy for months; what with gas prices, and the blatant “House of 1,000 Corpses” scenario we’d be setting ourselves up for. By the will of friendship—or specifically, by the will of Franklin senior Maybe Golden—we pulled the trip together.
While my co-writer, Lucas Lash, and I were straightening the logistics of the trip, it turned out that Maybe’s mom, Kathy, was beginning the remodel of their heirloom home in Medford; relatively near a couple of locations on our wishlist. Hillcrest Orchard was purchased by Kathy’s great-grandparents—Maude and Reginald Parsons—in 1908, and is owned by their descendants. They recently purchased the property to “protect it from some aspects of the family;” including talk of having the property removed from the National Historic Register, and selling it. In hopes of digging Hillcrest out of the “money pit”—Kathy’s words—they’ve begun fixing the house for event rentals. With this classic Hallmark romantic comedy setup, Maybe invited us to Medford for the weekend. Who could resist the offer to vacation in a hundred-year-old, allegedly haunted manor? We’d also be sleeping in the bedroom in which Mrs. Maude Parsons passed away; fun! Thus, Lucas, Maybe, Franklin junior Amelia Cummings, and I headed down South. I’m sure Rob Zombie could cram four additional corpses into his franchise.
It should be mentioned that Kathy flatteringly entrusted me with driving her Subaru to nearly all of the following locations. That’s a lot of faith to put in a teenager driving towards the middle of nowhere to write about rotting shacks with her friends. But I did, after all, write the article on how to become a driver.
Jacksonville Cemetery, Jackson County
Our first day of adventure was spent mindlessly attempting to find where we were going, losing cell service, and spending a good hour trying to find a hole in the side of a mountain. But before we get to that, off to our first destination; Jacksonville Cemetery. As mentioned the night before by Jud (a member of Maybe’s family), Jacksonville Cemetery is one of the oldest historic cemeteries in the state of Oregon and contains some of the earliest pioneer grave sites in all of Southern Oregon. Setting the theme of our travels, we started with Alyson almost running over an old couple on the way into the cemetery as we were frantically searching for a parking location. As we were getting out of the car after parking, we realized that we had angered God as the rain started to pour. Panicking, the three of us started shaming Alyson for traumatizing the old couple and scapegoating her for the bad weather. The cemetery had some interesting gravestones, but what caught our attention was a certain “Independent Redmen order.”
We originally thought this was a law or some form of segregating Native American people. But we soon discovered it was a cripplingly ironic fraternal organization descended from the Sons of Liberty, solely catered for white people, where they would perform ceremonies and traditions modeled after Native American traditions. This “only white people” law was disposed of in 1974, but the whole point of this “secret society” is appropriating Native American culture. Walking away in disgust, we went on to look at the rest of the grave site. Seeing beautiful gravestones and many… many crosses. One section of the graveyard really stood out with a stunning depiction of Jesus’s crucifixion. After a bit more wandering and observing, we decided to head to our next destination.
Sterlingville Cemetery, Jackson County
The town sprung up in 1854 after two miners; James Sterling and Aaron Davis, struck gold, and when one strikes gold many people settling the area are to follow. The town had saloons, a casino, a dance hall, a barbershop, blacksmiths, and many houses. After a few years, the population had reached 800 people, and with time it peaked at a stunning 1,500. This town soon became home to a mine ditch trail leading to Oregon’s largest hydraulic mine. But natural resources didn’t last forever, and soon the town began to dry up. And with a lack of gold, what is the incentive to stay? After the Great Depression, the town took a huge blow to its economy, and with little business, a lack of natural resources and a lack of population, the town soon became abandoned. Nature soon took over the town, only leaving the graveyard as the last remnant of this once great town standing. Perfect for our entourage to come barging in and investigate.
As we entered the graveyard, we were met with the site of a surprisingly beautiful yet well-maintained site. With every gravestone, there were flowers, as a remembrance for the people that were there kept up by the locals. Though there was nothing directly enticing about the graveyard, it had a few quirks, with an old rusty chair; and a fake disguise nailed to a tree, probably meant to deceive tourists entering the location. Most of the original residents were buried there, but there were some more recent deaths of war veterans who were buried there. But off we went to our next destination, Buncom.
Buncom, Jackson County
Nestled in the Little Applegate Valley in Jacksonville stands a trio of withering cabins, a bulletin board, and a stop sign on which someone has scrawled “woke.” This is all that remains of Buncom, a settlement founded by Chinese prospectors in the mid-nineteenth century. Once American settlers caught wind of gold being panned in nearby Sterling Creek, the construction of the hydraulic Sterling Mine Ditch—a job which took half a year to complete and relied mainly on Chinese laborers—transformed the site into a boomtown. Unfortunately, the arrival of the cursed automobile trivialized the town’s proximity as opposed to Jacksonville, now merely a half-hour ride away. And as the creek’s fortunes eventually dried up, so followed Buncom’s dwellers. The Sterling Mine was subsequently deserted in the 1930s.
Situated smack on the intersection of Little Applegate and Sterling Creek Road, the town was hard to miss. The initial thing travelers might notice about the settlement are signposts and arrows pointing to where you surely meant to go. After parking to eat our sandwiches, and decidedly only teasing about the chainsaw noises within the near distance belonging to Leatherface, we stepped out of the Subaru to investigate the dehydrated structures. Adjacent to the car stood the aforementioned bulletin board, on which neighbors in the surrounding Little Applegate Valley community had posted advertisements for pick-up trucks and livestock; including a goat listed for a negotiable $500, which we reasoned would be swingable if split between the four of us. Tragically, I lost the number listed to contact the seller.
To our disappointment, entering the cabins wasn’t permitted; peering through the dust-smudged glass would have to suffice. With our hands against the window panes to deflect the sun’s glare, the old post office appeared dim and sparse, as did the smokehouse. Nailed to the exterior paneling of the cookery hung a showcase filled with articles about the Buncom Historical Society. Founded in 1990, the Society has taken responsibility for preserving the ghost town and sponsors community festivities such as the annual Buncom Day; a celebration which includes, among other activities, a “chicken splat” contest. Use your imagination.
Staked in the gravel between the two cabins stood a signpost Lucas and I recognized from our research. Below the header “PRESERVE HISTORIC BUNCOM” it read: “Buncom is the only remaining ghost town in Southern Oregon, one of the few sites that remind us about our heritage.” The message didn’t sit particularly well, the vibe being that “our heritage” likely wasn’t written with the exploitation of Asian immigrants in mind. Wincing, we decided to cross the street and peer inside the bunkhouse.
Isolated beneath a cluster of pines, the lodge was longer than the previous cabins, with what I’ve decided to call a “roofed porch with no porch, as where the porch should be there is only dirt,” because I can skim architecture glossaries for only so long. Apologies. Looking inside, Amelia observed a Christmas tree and decorations in storage. Not necessarily the old-timey relics or bones, or at the very least vermin we were hoping for, but you can’t always get what you want. Turning back towards the Subaru, a white pick-up suddenly raced by. “He saw your [Amelia’s] dyed hair, and my (unfortunately, the term she used can’t be published) aura, and sped off,” Maybe commented. I prefer to imagine the driver realizing at the glimpse of us, with crushing dread, that “woke” can’t be stopped after all.
Having thoroughly explored the remains of someone’s heritage, we decided to head off for our next destination.
Sterling Mine Ditch Trail, Jackson County
Without, it should be mentioned, actually knowing where we were headed. With no internet, we decided to rely on what information we had: a signpost pointing vaguely North, towards a trail farther up Sterling Creek Road.
At Hillcrest, an interior designer had told us of a trail taken by Chinese miners in the late eighteenth century, describing entrance tunnels leading to bygone mineshafts. Instantly sold at the notion of dark, cavernous tunnels to re-enact “The Descent” in, we added—following a bit of research—what we decided must be the Gin Lin Mining Trailhead to our itinerary. We should’ve known as soon as the designer suggested removing the flowery wallpaper in our bedroom that she was not to be trusted.
With Lucas reluctantly agreeing, we decided to travel in a direct route North, making zero turns, to find any trace of the trailhead. After driving no more than 10 minutes—at one point passing a flock of grazing turkeys, which I assured Amelia she’d be able to take a photo of on our way back—we noticed a signpost mentioning the word “trail.” Figuring there could only be so many trails in Jacksonville, we hesitantly followed the signpost down a gravel road lined with “NO TRESPASSING” placards. We were led up to a steep incline overlooking the valley before parking to consult a bulletin board with directions and courtesy paper maps. The laminated map confirmed our creeping suspicion that we were nowhere near the Gin Lin Mining Trailhead; however, it’s said that when one door closes, another opens. Reading the infographics provided, we learned of a tunnel supposedly located not too far from our location. The tunnel was apparently a shortcut through the hillside used by Sterling Mineworkers.
Despite being unsure where this tunnel was, the renewed prospect of an old hole replenished our spirits; the darkening clouds, empty stomachs, and ever-present risk of being whacked by a paranoid Southern Oregonian now seemed insignificant. There was a hole to be found; and by God, we had to try.
With Maybe consulting a paper map in the backseat, we discovered the tunnel—located along the Sterling Mine Ditch Trail—to be a ways down Little Applegate Road, in the opposite direction. To our relief, the trek to the hole itself would be relatively short, about two miles. We eventually found ourselves on a winding gravel path that seemed to stretch endlessly along a mountain, sided by dry brush and peeling Manzanitas. Between an ongoing Lamb Chop rendition I’ll title “The Road That Never Ends,” the remoteness of the mountain range turned our conversation to worst-case scenarios, warranting our appearance in the evening news; mainly being mauled by a black bear, the discussion followed by a grim moment of silence for Timothy Treadwell (R.I.P.), the animal rights activist who attempted to co-exist with bears. I’ll let you fill in the blanks. Putting this tragedy far from mind, we finally spotted a marker for the Tunnel Ridge Access Trail. By this time, the clouds had darkened to a menacing pewter. Exiting the Subaru to the muddied trail, the threat of rain quickened our pace. And so, still only half certain of where we were, we began our trek to the hole.
The trail was slippery, and conveniently bordered a deep gulch; it was only now that I would admit my flats were a poor choice. The trail was also unpredictable, teasing us with promising bends only to reveal stretches of pure incline for yards. Being the whiny babies we all are, what we figured to be a light hike turned into a “who’s most out of shape?” contest. We took any chance we had to marvel at the majesty of mother nature* (*catch our breaths).
“I swear to God when I reach this hole, I’m going to throw myself into it and die,” Maybe proclaimed. In moments of weakness, the lifetime elation we’d doubtlessly feel in finding the hole seemed not enough to justify this torment.
We eventually came upon a signpost atop yet another incline. Panic ensued, as we all had assumed the hole would be visible from this viewpoint.
“Okay, so where is this hole at?” Lucas questioned aggressively. We frantically consulted the paper map, and the arrows pointing in all directions towards separate trail branches.
“I’m not walking anymore, I can’t do it,” Amelia declared. I agreed, disappointedly.
“Well, maybe it’s a little farther up this way,” Maybe proposed, pointing towards where our current trail continued. “If it’s not, we’ll just turn back.” With this reasoning, Maybe continued on the trail, down a muddy slope; stubbornly waiting by the signpost. Suddenly, we heard shouting within the near distance:
“It’s here! I found the hole!” Maybe yelled. Seemingly never more overjoyed with anything in our entire lives, we rushed down the trail after Maybe. As I said, you can’t always get what you want; but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need. We reaped the benefits of our find, although I only reluctantly crawled into the tunnel; I immediately bailed after Maybe’s echoing voice caused an itsy-bitsy landslide of sediment. Not an hour went by for the remainder of our trip that we didn’t express our gratitude for finding that hole.
Golden, Josephine County
With every adventure, there has to be an ending and soon came ours, but not without hitting two more locations. Our first priority was Golden, a town born early in the 1840s after small amounts of gold turned up near Coyote Creek. But like many mining towns in Oregon, when the economy went into the trash compactor during the Great Depression and the gold dried up, it was abandoned; left for four mischievous high schoolers to come and investigate. What originally sparked our interest in this location was a mysterious picture of a man in a bandana staring ominously at the camera while in a church, we knew we had to check it out when we saw that.
Entering the town there were a few interesting buildings, but we were mainly focused on the church. As we walked in, we noticed a bible sitting on the pulpit, and also the freezing temperature. After recreating the bandana man photo, reciting a few bible verses, and investigating the smelly church we set off to the rest of the town. There, we discovered a few collapsing buildings, an ancient outhouse, and an old schoolhouse, which we promptly investigated. There we found old desks, some marshmallows, and a few dolls sitting on a bench (probably haunted). Soon after wandering around the ominous town a bit longer, we departed on a long and treacherous journey across the freeway to the Wolf Creek Inn.
Wolf Creek Inn & Tavern, Josephine County
We entered the humble redneck town with high hopes that we might finally find some ghosts. But, we were soon met with something more sinister. When entering the inn, everything seemed nice and lovely; very normal, almost too normal. We decided to get lunch, and after deliberating on the menu for a bit, we were ready to interrogate the waitress. When we began to ask questions about the inn being haunted, she maniacally laughed and denied knowing anything about ghosts. Extremely suspicious behavior, but nonetheless there was nothing we could do legally to get information out of her. So, we settled on eating our food instead.
We understand that vacation within Oregon isn’t the sexy option. Sure, you could always visit Palm Springs, or spend a tacky three-day weekend in Las Vegas. Or just maybe, whether by the influence of our eventful trip or not, you’ll consider exploring what’s hidden within the empty fields and red counties of good old Oregon.