ghost town trivia roundup

It’s Thor’s day, so let’s give thanks to the god of thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, healing, and fertility. Also hammers. The trivia roundup is merely the god of late-week faffing, but like Thor, it is foretold that in the end times, the trivia roundup will slay the great serpent.

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1. Palisade is a Nevada town that…well, no, more accurately, it was a Nevada town that now exists in a probabilistic quantum state of town-ness. It was one of many towns to spring into existence thanks to the transcontinental railroad and the promise of great riches buried just beneath the earth’s surface. Supposedly it was lamented by a passing traveler that the placid town of Palisade—which did not have a sheriff—was not as lawless and filled with posses, gunplay, stagecoach robberies and high-noon duels as popular culture had led him to believe. So for a few years in the early 1870s, residents staged elaborate fake shootouts, bank robberies, duels, and other assorted Old West mythologies every time the train rolled through. It’s not clear if this was done to encourage tourism or just because it was great fun, but the spectacle employed dozens of people, gallons of beef blood, and fooled more than a few visitors and journalists. But as the mines, railroads, and beef blood dried up, Palisade lapsed into abandonment and ghost-townery. Please see this wonderful list of ghost towns here.

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2. Another ghost town is Ulao, on the picturesque shores of Lake Michigan in what is now the town of Grafton, Wisconsin. Ulao was founded in 1847 by James Gifford, who sold lumber to steamships traveling up Lake Michigan. Growing his business, Gifford built a thousand-foot dock into the lake and a cut a chute down the bluff, allowing him to slide lumber down to water level. Ulao has two primary claims to fame: it’s home to one of that last remaining privately-owned lighthouses in the US (the Kevich light), and from 1850-1855, was the residence of one Charles Guiteau, famed assassin of the nation’s 18th president, James Garfield.

A privately owned lighthouse

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3. Guiteau, born 1841, was massively narcissistic and wildly delusional, and probably gave chills to any narcissists who examined his skull. A preacher who never preached, a lawyer who didn’t practice law, and a sometime resident of the utopian Oneida Community commune/cult, Guiteau was a man desperately searching for someone to recognize his genius. Not that it mattered, he would just assume their admiration in either case.

guiteauGuiteau’s downward spiral to political assassination begins in 1880, when he wrote an essay called Grant vs. Hancock, supporting Ulysses Grant for the presidency. Grant then lost the Republican nomination to Garfield, so the treatise had to be renamed, but Guiteau, quite naturally, presumed it was responsible for Garfield’s victory and expected remuneration in the form of an ambassadorship. After being told to bugger off five or six times, he got the message. Unfortunately the message he got was “you should definitely kill Garfield.” So he bought a gun—picking out the model that would look best in a museum—practiced shooting, and began tailing Garfield. When he finally ginned up the courage to do the deed at a railway station, he paid a cab to wait—to take him to jail, not to escape—then sidled up, shot Garfield twice in the back, and shouted “I am the Stalwart of Stalwarts!” before being wrestled to the ground (the Stalwarts were a Ulysses Grant-supporting faction of the Republican party, opposed by the Half-Breeds. Brief musical interlude:

Thus wounded, Garfield became the model for every back pain commercial ever:

ohhh, my back!

He eventually died of an infection three months later. Modern doctors believe he would have survived had his surgeons not continually probed his wounds with their bare hands (a behavior still not entirely out of vogue in the medical community). Indeed, Garfield might well have survived had the doctors done nothing at all. That’s a long, hard look in the mirror right there.

While Garfield was bedridden and his bullet holes being probed daily, Guiteau employed one of the first prominent insanity defenses. He played the part at the trial, cursing the judge, joking with the audience, arguing with his lawyers, and reading testimony in the form of epic poems he’d composed. He dictated an autobiography and ended it with a personal ad; he planned a lecture tour and a run for president after his (in his eyes, certain) acquittal. I suspect his psychiatrist/alienist had it right, if vastly understated: Guiteau “misinterpreted and overly personalized the real events of life,” never quite recognizing that the attention lavished on him was from a ravening crowd who wanted him dead, not adoring fans. One imagines he was taken rather aback by his execution.

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4. Herbert Hoover was not assassinated, but in 1932, Palisade—by then well into its decline into complete abandonment—may have been the site of an aborted Hoover assassination attempt. A railroad inspector checking the tracks in advance of Hoover’s passage stumbled across a “vagrant” carrying 22 sticks of dynamite near a railroad trestle (did he stop to count?). After a brief skirmish, the dynamite-carrier escaped. He was never found, and the story never verified. At the time, Palisade—literally, the town itself—was owned by a family named the Sextons. In 2005, businessman John Sexton auctioned off the town—again, literally, the town itself—to fund his daughter’s college education. Despite being barren and nearly bereft of human life—and certainly devoid of a tax base—it was sold for $150,000 to an “unknown” buyer who was clearly either a) a super villain planning to build a desolate but impenetrable secret lair or b) a super villain plotting a reenactment of Tremors.

File photo: Palisade purchaser

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5. The idea for the giant man-eating wormlike creatures in Tremors may have come from a mythical cryptozoological beast: the Mongolian Death Worm. According to Mongolian lore, the creature is anywhere from two to five feet long, has no eyes or discernible mouth, and is bright red. It exudes a yellow acid that corrodes metals and kills humans instantly; it can even kill at a distance by either electrical discharge or a spray of poison, depending on which version of the story you read. The death worms live in the most remote regions of the Gobi Desert, travel largely underground (except for a brief period of above-ground activity in June and July), and are very, very ill-tempered. There’s even a Mongolian Death Worm movie, but it only gets a 3.6 on IMDb so you should probably stick with Tremors. Sure, the MDW is almost certainly a myth, but I’m considering a Kickstarter-like system of tiered rewards for physical evidence of its existence; the highest level would be bringing me two of the beasts so I could put them in a washtub and watch them fight.

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6. Tremors was set in the fictional 14-person town of Perfection, Nevada, itself a ghost town.

Perfection, Nevada

Perfection’s not a real place, so most of the movie was filmed in California’s Alabama Hills, which have served as backdrop for any number of old Westerns, including Gunga Din, The Gay Caballero, the Hopalong Cassidy movies, and newer films like Iron Man and Gladiator. Of the two most common types of rocks one can find there, one is biotite monzogranite, which “weathers to potato-shaped large boulders” and is probably also the name of the super-villain who bought Palisade. Incidentally, before the release of Tremors, Kevin Bacon broke down in his tears, confessing to his wife that ‘I can’t believe I’m doing a movie about underground worms!’” I can’t imagine the level of emotional trauma inflicted on him when he starred in The Air Up There.

aut1 aut2

aut3  aut4

Anyways, the hills were named after the warship CSS Alabama by Confederate-sympathizing miners. After the war, pro-union miners named a nearby town and mountain after the USS Kearsage.

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7. Why Kearsage? Because the USS Kearsage sunk the Alabama in the Battle of Cherbourg, in June 1864. Yes, Cherbourg. Yes, France. Am I the only one that wasn’t aware Union and CSA ships were fighting it out in French harbors? How am I only hearing about this now?

The Alabama, under the stewardship of Raphael Semmes, was a “commerce raider” that sunk some 60 Union ships in two years, sailing from Galveston to South Africa to South America to Europe. The Kearsage, a Union ship, was close on its tail the entire time. When the Alabama docked in the harbor at Cherbourg, the Kearsage closed in and a battle ensued; the Alabama was sunk. Amazingly, Semmes and several crew members were somehow spirited away on a privately owned British yacht while the ship sank, thereby escaping capture. I imagine Semmes shaking his fist as his yacht slips past the horizon, smoke rising from the slowly sinking wreckage of his warship, his scream trailing off I’ll get you next time, Kearsage. Next tiiiiiiime……

*twirls mustache evilly*

But so anyway, there’s a Confederate sloop-of-war wreck just off the coast of France. The Alabama was so feared by the Union that its sinking was said to be celebrated by the public; Manet even did a painting of it.

Some non-European naval battles of the Civil War happened at Pig Point, Cockle Creek, Fort Pillow, Yazoo Pass, Trent’s Reach, and Rainbow Bluff.


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