​The spectres of America's ghost towns

In a ghost town, every day is Halloween, or so it seems to those who know America's deserted communities best. Barry Petersen knows all the favorite haunts:

If you listen hard enough when the hot afternoon wind rustles, you might just hear echoes of 1870s Bodie, Calif., on Main Street -- the days of rich mining and fast money.

"You would be hearing saloon music coming out of the saloons -- people probably hootin' and hollerin'," said Terri Geissinger, an historian and guide for the Bodie Foundation, that works to preserve the town, the largest unrestored ghost town in the country.


In its heyday (from about 1877-1880), the town boasted 70 saloons -- and not a single church.

"We like to have the people guess, 'Who do you think was really making the money here?'" said Geissinger.

And the answer is? "The whiskey and the women," she said. "The girls here in Bodie were making in a week what a miner was making in a month."

In those few boom years, Bodie was one of California's biggest towns, with a population of some 10,000 -- a rival to Los Angeles and San Francisco. Two thousand buildings, 200 restaurants that often stayed open 24/7, just like the hillside mine working a lode of gold.

And then, as fast as Bodie grew, when the gold played out, Bodie died.

sm-ghost-town-bodie-ca-pool-table-620.jpg
Bodie, Calif. (population 10,000 in its boom times) had 70 saloons and four breweries. CBS News

Unlike so many Wild West towns that have disappeared throughout the years, Bodie -- now a National Historic Landmark -- still stands (or maybe we should say, leans).

Buildings like the old hotel are preserved as they were, so people can imagine what it was like then -- such as the cue sticks on the pool table.

"Yep, well, for the benefit of the folks that come today, as they peer through the windows, they're really peering through the past," said Geissinger.

sm-ghost-town-bannack-mt-02-244.jpg
When the gold ran out in Bannack, Mont., so did its population. The abandoned town is now a state park. CBS News

A past with characters like Madam Mustache, who got her name from hair growing over her lip as she aged, and ran her gambling house her way.

"She served milk and champagne; no beer or whiskey was allowed," said Geissinger. "No foul language, and no dirty men. They all had to be showered before they sat down at her table."

And there's the house of Lottie Johl, a former prostitute who married a successful businessman and came to Bodie. But she couldn't escape her past as "Naughty Lottie," the soiled dove.

"In fact, there's still mystery around her death, whether she was poisoned, or whether she took too much medicine, we don't know," said Geissinger.

Turns out, some of the dead are not quite at rest.

Ghosts in "ghost towns"?

Geissinger is a believer, because she and others often stay in town overnight as part of their jobs. And one night: "I felt somebody, that sense that somebody's looking at you. I didn't open my eyes at first. And when I did, I had a little boy in my room. He was in a old-fashioned baseball uniform.

"What came out of my mouth was, 'Don't.' I don't know why. But when he disappeared it was as if somebody was pulling a blind. He went very slowly, and just disappeared."

He vanished into thin air, just like the residents of the ghost town Derry Ranch Placer high up in the Colorado Rockies, where thousands rushed in -- and left almost as fast.

"In some cases they left so quickly, they left the dirty dishes on the table," said author Kenneth Jessen, who has studied ghost towns across the American West.