I’ve always wanted to know what an official ghost town looked like. Or what it felt like to walk deserted streets knowing that they bustled with activity in the past, but were deadly silent now.
Thurber, Texas, is one of those officially designated ghost towns. It is located a little over 100 miles west of Dallas on Interstate 20. We popped in for a quick visit on the last leg of a road trip. We got off the freeway and all we saw was empty lots, telephone or electricity poles, a small cluster of one-storey buildings, a few cars, boarded up windows in roofless houses, a smokestack.
Grass and weeds grew in every corner: between paving bricks, where wall and pavement met. A few trees offered paltry refuge against the relentless midday sun. Noel Coward conveys the feeling very well in his song Mad Dogs and Englishmen, “Where the sun beats down to the rage of man and beast.” He might as well have been talking about Texas.
There were some vestiges of normal, everyday life in Thurber, like a fire station or a solitary mailbox. Modern life intruded in this ghost town too, like the restaurant where tourists are the only patrons or a pretty mural painted on a fence.
This Texan ghost town has an interesting history. Coal was discovered in 1886 -at least by white men, local Indians probably knew about it. The Johnson brothers, W.W. and Harvey, started a coal mining operation, which gave rise to the town. They later sold it to the Texas & Pacific Coal Company. The town was named after H.K. Thurber, the company’s founder.
Thurber became the largest producer of bituminous coal in Texas. Population peaked at 10,000 in the 1920s. The Texas and Pacific Coal supplied coal to the coal-burning locomotives of the Texas and Pacific Railway Company. Although they had similar names, these two companies were unrelated. The company also manufactured vitrified paving bricks.
Thurber was established as a company town, which means that a company owned the housing, stores, etc., and was also the main employer. Since the company hired union members only, employees agreed to remain within that union, and Thurber thus became the country’s first closed shop.
Two factors contributed to Thurber’s disappearance: the railways switched to oil to fuel their locomotives, which reduced demand for coal and prices went down, and the Ranger Oil Field was discovered 20 miles west of Thurber. The last mine closed in 1921, the miners moved away and Thurber became a ghost town.
Thurber fun facts
- It was Texas’ first fully electric city.
- The Mercantile Building now houses the Smokestack Restaurant, open Friday to Sunday
- The lone smokestack dates from 1908 and was part of the power plant.
- Current population is only 5.