What exactly is a ghost town? I can’t seem to find a consistent definition of the term anywhere. Yet, as is often the case with obscure concepts, popular culture has shaped us into various interpretations; think Whistle Stop, Alabama in “Fried Green Tomatoes” or one of the many abandoned communities in “The Walking Dead”.
The 1948 western film “Yellow Sky” depicts the classic Hollywood ghost town: an abandoned mining village sitting dilapidated in the desert as nature slowly works to reclaim it. Ghost towns in movies don’t always have to be haunted, like the town in the 1956 western, “Ghost Town.” But in the 1988 horror film of the same name, ghosts play a leading role.
In general, however, most would agree that a ghost town is a deserted place where a hamlet, village, town, or town once existed. In places where wood decays slowly, such as the desert, a ghost town may have remnants of old structures. In humid climates, especially in areas with constant freeze-thaw cycles, residual wood often disappears from the landscape within a generation.
By this definition, several ghost towns dot the landscape of Delaware County.
The three Lenape villages that once existed in our county fit this description, although I hesitate to call them “ghost towns”. Given the inaccuracy of the term, the misleading cultural motifs about “the Endangered Indian” and the disrespectful tropes that appear in our stories on Native American spirituality, the use of “ghost town” to describe Wapikamicoke, Wapikamikunk and Owenachki just seems inappropriate. In addition, many other indigenous peoples, whose names we do not know, lived in settlements along our rivers for thousands of years before the Lenapes. Earthworks in the area also do not count as ghost towns, as the mounds and enclosures were not built like or in native villages.
Some extinct places in Delaware County were abandoned as ghost towns, but never really functioned as a “town” in the first place. Janney, for example, was once a rural stop on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in Washington Township. Today a few modern structures exist near what was once the train stop, but Janney was not (and is not) a functioning community.
The resort village of West Muncie failed as a ghost town but was not abandoned, as its remaining blocks were incorporated into Yorktown after annexation. Unincorporated hamlets like Gate’s Corner, Macedonia, Pittsburg, and Crossroads may seem like ghost towns given their size and the dearth of public buildings, but residents still live within settlement boundaries, even though their businesses are business collapsed years ago.
Despite these exceptions, Delaware County has a few bygone villages that meet most people‘s definition of “ghost town”.
Summitsport is a good example. The village of Salem Township, which was also sometimes known as Mount Summit, was planned in anticipation of two different canals. There are at least three flat maps for Summitsport, the dates of which are 1837, 1839 and 1873.
It is likely that Summitsport was first designed to take advantage of the proposed supply canal which was to connect the Central Canal Road to the White Water Canal passing through Summitsport, Daleville, Yorktown and Muncie. This canal never happened, although it is possible that preliminary digging took place around the village in the 1840s.
Then, in 1868, work in the same area began on a hydraulic canal, a gravity system designed to power the proposed mills along the route of the canal. It is not clear if people lived in Summitsport during the interim, but another flat map was made for the community in 1873. The village then underwent a brief, eh, “rebirth” while it was located. at the head of the hydraulic channel. The idea was for the good sportsmen at Summit to control the flow of water into the canal from the White River. The system failed soon after it opened and the whole project was scrapped, including Summitsport. The extent of the village’s population is unclear, but historian GWH Kemper has suggested that 200 to 300 residents lived in Summitsport at its peak.
Muncie of yesteryear:History of local transit, from the Donkey Railroad to MITS buses
Before disappearing, some ghost towns in Delaware County existed around a central business, or in Cologne’s case, around a post office. There was not much else in Cologne, and the hamlet reverted to farmland after the PO closed in 1884. Culbertson’s Corner, another ghost town in Washington Township, had a school and several mills, but it too failed and its blocks returned to agriculture.
The best ghost towns in Delaware County existed along the Mississinewa River, including Clifton, Georgeville, and Elizabethtown. These extinct villages and their existing neighbors processed grain and handled agricultural riverboat traffic on the Mississinewa for many years. But when the railways took over shipping at the end of the 19th century, many of the “river port mill” settlements disappeared.
Of these, Elizabethtown is probably the archetypal Delaware County ghost town. The village developed around Joseph Wilson’s Elizabeth Mill (named after his wife) and Uriah Power’s general store in the decades leading up to the Civil War. The colony existed just north of the Mississinewa, where County Road 370 West meets County Road 1270 North in Washington Township. In its heyday, Elizabethtown had a blacksmith, carpenter, cabinetmaker, Presbyterian church, distillery, school, sawmill, wharf, covered bridge, and countless residents in addition to the flour mill and general store. .
When Elizabethtown was first created, according to the story, Boosters believed it would be part of a new county in the making, possibly even serving as the county seat. However, when Blackford County was finally separated from Jay in 1839, Elizabethtown was not included in its final boundaries. In addition, “competition” from the neighboring towns of Pittsburg, Wheeling and New Cumberland (Matthews) has reduced the need for a fourth grain processing colony in the area. Finally, a first government road connected many towns on the south bank of the Mississinewa, but did not connect directly to Elizabethtown across the river.
Much like Georgeville and Clifton, Elizabethtown fell into non-existence. No highway or railroad is ever connected to it. Commercial river transport eventually ceased along the Mississinewa when intercity trains crossed the landscape. Thus, the railway towns of Matthews, Gaston, Shideler and Eaton became the new agricultural centers of the region at the end of the 19th century.
But imagine an Elizabethtown whiskey today; one made from the cool waters of the sleepy Mississinewa. It could be a bourbon distilled from organic corn, sustainably harvested at nearby Wheeling and aged to perfection in handcrafted Granvillian white oak barrels up the Eaton River. A fine liqueur for sure, only available on the top shelf of the house Neely.
Sadly, the Elizabethtown distillery burned down in 1870, supposedly by arson. The flour mill remained in semi-operation until the great flood of 1913 destroyed its dam. The mill stood for a few more decades before it was demolished by locals in 1935. Elizabethtown Cemetery is all that remains of the village today, although George A. Ball managed to salvage the millstone from the mill. He is currently resting in Oakhurst Gardens, perhaps waiting patiently for the day when the Mississinewa mills start to turn again.
Chris Flook is a board member of the Delaware County Historical Society and is the author of “Lost Towns of Delaware County, Indiana” and “Native Americans of East-Central Indiana”. For more information on the Delaware County Historical Society, visit histoiredelawarecounty.org.