Shakespeare Ghost Town: from lawless Wild West town to National Historic Site

This town's got it all-- outlaws, gunfights and scandal!

What started as an outpost for the Army Mail line soon became Shakespeare Ghost Town which, despite its elegant name, was one of the most notorious towns in the Wild West-- and like most notorious Wild West towns, it's now mostly abandoned. Its history covers all of the classic tropes of any good ghost town-- outlaws, gunfights, mining booms and busts, and even scandal.

The Army choose this particular location for an outpost because it was located near a spring, then called "Mexican Spring", which was the perfect place to water up while riding across the desert. It was used on and off as a stopoff for various mail and coach routes until 1870, when silver ore was discovered in the hills. It didn't take these prospectors long to convince some very weathy men, including William Ralston, president of the Bank of California, to invest in opening a mine and town to extract it. The town was actually called "Ralston" originally. Soon, all the silver had been mined, and the town, which had grown to about 3,000 was looking for something new. Rumors began to swirl that diamonds had been discovered on Lee's Peak, just West of the town. This was quickly revealed as a hoax, and people began to leave the town in droves, hoping to avoid being associated with the scam. The year was 1872.

In 1879, a man named William G. Boyle began to buy up the town to revive it. He even changed the town's name from "Ralston" to "Shakespeare" to further erase the association with the diamond scam-- and besides, naming your town after a classy author definitely makes it seem like a nicer place to live. He got together some money from backers in St. Louis and opened up the mines again, this time attracting slightly less rowdy miners-- although the town was never big enough to warrant a school, a newspaper, or even a church. This new town was also fairly short-lived-- a copper mine just South of the town opened, taking miners away from Shakespeare, and that coupled with the economic depression of 1893 and the fact that the railroad missed the town by a mere 3 miles for the settlement of Lordsburg spelled certain death for the town of Shakespeare. The town didn't have any good news to report until 1935, when a couple purchased the land for a ranch and decided to preserve as much of the town as they could. Finally, in 1970, the town was declared a National Historic Site-- probably the first time in the town's history that it was guaranteed any measure of protection and safety.

There's a good reason the town should be preserved. Despite the "respectable" name change from Ralston to Shakespeare, the town still attracted famous outlaws-- lots of them. Curly Bill Brocius was, according to local legend, the leader of the "hired fighting men" hired by the mining company to keep the town of Ralston in line, and after the diamond scam was revealed, he drifted off into the desert and disappeared. The Clanton family, of O.K. Corral fame, also had roots in Shakespeare-- after the Clanton brothers were killed in the shootout, the people of Shakespeared were saddened to hear of the death of their well-respected friends. Even a young Billy the Kid reportedly spent some time as a dishwasher in the local hotel in Shakespeare before heading off to Arizona to gain notoriety as an outlaw. Members of the Wild Bunch and Black Jack Ketchum's gangs also allegedly hid out in the empty mining tunnels and bought supplies in town, too. 

Today, if you visit Shakespeare, you'll be able to get an even more in-depth look at some of the town's most memorable moments with re-enactments of events like the hanging of Sandy King and Russian Bill and the time the Silver Nuggest (a traveling group of Can Can girls) came to town. Naturally, most of the re-enactments feature someone dying. The place is not commercialized at all, but if you bring a picnic lunch, you can enjoy it in the town's Grant House dining room before you explore the abandoned buildings.

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Header via Facebook/Shakespeare Ghost Town

Places explored in this article:

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