This month, thoughts turn to ghosts and goblins. Ghostly decorations appear in neighborhood trees and school windows, but ghost towns are among us all year. They may not be spooky to look at it—in fact you may not notice them at all because they’ve been absorbed into more successful communities or turned into farmland.
“A ghost town is a place that no longer has any kind of governing body or a post office,” says Heidi Gould, curator of education and exhibits for the Carver County Historical Society. You can no longer mail a letter to San Francisco, Minnesota, but there was a time when it was an actual town. In Carver County, there are around 21 ghost towns, according to the historical society, and include Assumption, Augusta, Benton, Bongards, Camden, Dahlgren, Gotha, Hancock, Hazelton, Helvetia/Hollywood, Hyde’s Lake, Mound St. Clair, Oberles Corners, Purity, San Francisco, Scandia, Schnapesburg, Swede Lake, West Union and Yorkville.
Gould says that in Carver County, the most common cause of a town becoming a ghost town was being missed by the railroad. “Carver was the biggest town in the county when the river was the only way to move goods,” she says. When the railroad bypassed the town, the town lost a major economic driver, rendering it impossible to sustain its population. It happened over and over, when the railroad took the place of the river—river towns faltered. There were other reasons that towns failed. Disease, natural disasters and poor locations were all factors, and a combination of those elements and just plain bad luck came together to cause a town to die.
The story of one Carver County ghost town is pretty typical. San Francisco, named for the California city, was founded in 1854 on land along the Minnesota River. The founder, William Foster, divided the town into lots and built the first store and a warehouse. San Francisco was named the first county seat, and a school was built. On May 11, 1858, San Francisco became an official town with a mayor and a justice of the peace. In 1859, a ferry service began to bring people and goods across the river.
San Francisco had some problems before the town even got started. In 1856, the county seat was moved to Chaska. County business no longer meant a trip to San Francisco, and that meant fewer customers for the town’s businesses. Also, the town was located below a series of rapids on the Minnesota River, creating challenges for river traffic. The rapids also led to some severe flooding. In 1863, flooding washed away the warehouse and several other buildings. By that time, flooding was such a regular occurrence many of the buildings were never rebuilt. In 1868, an area of the town broke away and became the town of Hancock. The population of San Francisco steadily declined. By 1868, it no longer existed. Only 10 years after it was founded, San Francisco was private farmland.
Other towns like Helvetia, Purity and Schnapesburg had different stories but the same ending. The towns failed, the city government disbanded and they were absorbed by other towns or became farmland.
“Some ghost towns still have residents or buildings. For example, what was known as Bongards is still home to Bongards Creameries, and Hollywood Township to the Hollywood Sports Complex,” notes the Carver County Historical Society website.
“Other towns, like logging community West Union, have a church and homes. However, these ghost towns are not incorporated and have no civic institutions, such as town officials or a post office. They exist mainly in history books and memories.”
Every ghost town in Carver County was once the beginning of a new life for the families who lived there. The people who founded the towns had big dreams. The communities may have ended in failure, but their histories remind us of the determination and optimism of the people who built them.