McLean, TX: Route 66's nearly-abandoned "ghost town" frozen in time


Located in Gray County, Texas, McLean is an abandoned, virtual ghost town, located along historic Route 66.

My son Bruce and I recently completed an amazing road trip down Route 66. We had planned the route meticulously, I'm a bit OCD and I didn't want to miss anything that I'd regret later. Some days we drove for four hours because we kept stopping at some roadside attraction, then other days we'd drive for hours on end when there was just stretches of road without any real compelling place to stop. I hadn't planned on stopping at McLean, Texas. But, I noticed there was the first Phillip's Gas Station in Texas there, so I thought it might be a cute place to get a picture, and it was right on 66, so I packed up my baby and headed to McLean for a quick photo. Little did I know, I'd end up spending half the day there photographing this incredible town.

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Located in Gray County, Texas, McLean is an abandoned, virtual ghost town, located along historic Route 66. As of 2000, according to the United States Census Bureau, the town has just under 830 people and covers an area of 1.2 square miles. When planning your route 66 road trip, it's quite easy to miss McLean. There aren't any iconic diners or motels still in operation (though there is Red River Steakhouse, which claims to be the "best-kept secret in Texas". I was there in the morning, so it was closed unfortunately). The local museum is quite nondescript, and in general, it's a town that flies very much under the radar. However, you'd definitely miss out if you drive past it without stopping for a visit. It's one of the best-preserved, most obscure ghost towns along Route 66. It's a hidden gem that's incredibly enchanting.

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The town's land was donated by a rancher from England in 1901. The rancher was Alfred Rowe, and just 12 years after donating the land for the town he would die aboard the RMS Titanic. According to reports, Rowe survived the ship's sinking by swimming to a piece of ice, where he was found frozen to death. WJ Lewis bought Rowe's ranch from his widower and it's still around today as the Lewis Ranch.

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After the town's founding it grew quickly. Named after Judge William P. McLean, who served in the Texas Legislature and on the Railroad Commission, McLean established 3 general stores, livery stables, a lumberyard, a bank, wagonyards and even a local newspaper, the McLean News. Citizens pumped their water from a well in the middle of Main Street.

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When Route 66, AKA the Mother Road, was built through the town in 1927 it became a popular stopover for tourists. 

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It also had a relatively booming livestock, agriculture and oil industry, which you can learn about at the McLean-Alanreed Historical Museum.

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Population increased to about 1,500 by the '40s, and the town boasted 6 churches, dozens of businesses and even a POW camp that was in operation from 1942 to 1945, housing thousands of German prisoners. 

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The town is covered in gas stations like this one...

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Unfortunately, as the years went on cities like Amarillo became more popular, construction dwindled, the population decreased and the final nail in the coffin was the construction of Interstate 40.

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I-40 is responsible for the decline of many great towns along Route 66. 

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The median income for the town's households is between $22k and $34k. 

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If you visit McLean today you'll find two working museums. The Devil’s Rope Museum was closed when we went. I'll have to check it out on my next trip.

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Today, McLean is home to the McLean Tigers, and the girls basketball team placed second in the State Basketball Tournament in Austin, Texas recently. Go Tigers!

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In 2006 the McLean Commercial District was formally listed in the historical register. 

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McLean is a town trapped in time. Since the interstate came along she hasn't been able to recover. But that's not to say she's without her charm.

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Luckily, the Cactus Inn is still in operation.

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When you visit McLean today, you won't find lots of people walking around. Perhaps the occasional tourist, pulled over to take a quick picture. And believe me, there are plenty of photo ops here.

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Have you ever visited McLean? Feel free to leave your memories of this great little Texas town in the comments. 

Places explored in this article:

This was originally written for Roadtrippers, a great resource for anyone interested in travel.
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