Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A Dusty Fairytale

There was no way we could have driven through the desert without visiting at least one ghost town. We'd been given advice on the best ones from all the people we'd met so far on our travels. Marfa was supposedly pretty cool, while Shakepeare near Lordsburg in New Mexico was another name we'd had slung at us over a few beers. 

However, tourist-gawping season was over in Shakespeare and they weren't inviting people in over the winter. But there was a place just twenty miles down Interstate 10 from Lordsburg named Steins (pronounced STEEN) in Hildago County that was open and happy to allow us to poke around. 

Steins Railroad ghost town is fantastically preserved, thanks to the efforts of the town's current guardian Melissa Lamoree and her late grandfather Larry Link, who bought Stein back in 1988. 

Larry worked on this town his whole life, living out of a trailer at first when there was no electricity and then eventually moving into one of the timber houses with his wife. Their grandkids would come and play in the abandoned homes that smelled like a thousand musty charity-clearance-rail jumpers, littered with rusting horseshoes, spiky cacti and toys that were last played with by children of the frontier. 
Larry rebuilt the schoolhouse and was fixing up the blacksmith store when he was murdered in Steins last year. No one knows why, and the culprit is still at large. 

The incident made international headlines, even finding its way into the Daily Mail's website (who in its signature style pointed the finger at illegal immigrants from Mexico). 'I don't think it could have been', Melissa explained. 'We're ninety miles from the border so if any illegals do come our way, they just want food and water and for us to call Border Patrol to take them home. They're that tired'. She believes the murderer was someone her grandfather knew, and that he had to die because he'd seen and recognised their faces. 

Melissa made the tough decision to continue preserving the history of the town and reopened in May this year. She's a lovely lady - sharp in her knowledge and articulate with her storytelling - blonde and petite with a cheerful four year old, who scared the beejeezewax out of me in one faded forgotten room by pulling at my dress and singing nursery rhymes, and another little 'un on the way. She led us through the gated-off remains of Steins, revealing tidbits about each of the buildings as we passed by, into and through the guts of them. 

Steins was abandoned in the mid-1940s when Southern Pacific railway switched from using steam engines for its trains to diesel. It had a population of just over 1000 and helped trains along their way between the Gulf of Mexico and the Californian coast. 

Chinese labourers were made to live outside the city (where they were vulnerable to attacks from surrounding Indians), in the foothills of the mountain where they quarried stone. When they did the census, they counted the Chinese and their families as livestock. Deep

The last train going through the town offered people a ride out, but there was no time to pack the delicate lace and silverware. They had to leave then and there. The entire community upped and went, carrying what they could and left behind.
Steins vanished. 

We walked around, fascinated at the things people had chosen to abandon and yelping with surprise when we spotted familiar, used-in-2012 homewares. 1940 isn't that long ago and there's stuff here that you probably still use at home. 
An iron sits on the board, clothes are laid out on the bed, spices in glass jars topped with four inches of dust sit waiting for their long-dead (probably) cook in the pantry. Prostitute's knick knacks lie on the beds of the Bordello and yet more dust coats the kitchen tables, like icing sugar on a birthday cake. It's the worst case of housekeeping I've ever seen, and I used to cohabit with three footballing boys. 

This was not a Disney'd up, cartoon version of the West. There were no cardboard cutouts for cheesy photo opps, artificially faded posters of John Wayne, air-conditioned gift shop stocked to the rafters with cowboy tat or cafe set up next to restrooms. 
Steins was, by and large, exactly how it was back in the '40s. 
Wild West proper. 

A number of the original buildings, made of timber, adobe and railroad ties, are still standing including the Bordello, a room where they prepared bodies for burial, laundries and some apartments, as well as the town's outhouse and communal kitchens. Cactus' stretching into the cobalt sky, reaching heights of a London double decker, sprout from the perimetre of the wooden shacks, cracked and dying in the New Mexico sun. 

However, the hotel on Main Street which used to run alongside the train tracks, burned down years ago. All that remains are some sad stumps of foundation, left to the mercy of the desert winds.  

It's an amazing place that really hits home how hard it was back in the day, for the poor and ethnic minorities in particular. 
Melissa allows visitors to make their own donations for the Steins tour, staying true to her granddaddy's vow to keep the town preserved for history's sake, not for profit gains. 
It sees its share of visitors over the course of the year, but as tourists are its lifeblood, Steins is a ghost town that could always use a couple more to keep it alive.

Who: Melissa Lamoree (operator) or Linda Link (owner)
Where: Steins, Hildago County, New Mexico
When: Fri- Sun 0900 -1700
Don't miss: The outhouse!
Email: steinsghosttown@gmail.com
Call: 001 602 821 8495 

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