The first thing John Voight (not the actor) wanted me to know about his home of Sunrise, Wyoming was that it is “not your regular ghost town.” Though Voight lives alone with his dog and two cats on the 225 acres of Sunrise, he doesn’t let his town languish the way, apparently, regular ghost-town owners do.
When we spoke in June, Voight was preparing for a tour of the town’s iron mines organized by a local historical society. “It’s a little crowded up here right now with 25 or 30 people,” Voight told The Outline by phone. “I’m not used to it. I'm used to being by myself.”
But Sunrise, population 1, gets plenty of visitors. Last August, nearly 1,000 tourists descended on the town to witness the solar eclipse; Sunrise was directly in its path. And recently, a newly discovered, 13,000-year-old archaeology site on the property — one of the oldest Native American archaeology sites in the nation — has brought in dozens of researchers to excavate the soil.
Voight’s decision to buy Sunrise in 2011 tracks with his lifelong adventurous streak. When he was in his early twenties, he moved from Wyoming, where he grew up, to Saudi Arabia and Libya to farm wheat and alfalfa. He returned to Wyoming in his mid-twenties to try out real estate. He’s also dabbled in performing music (“did that for a number of years”), owning a restaurant (“I had a steakhouse and dancehall”), and traveling (“crazy stuff, it’s been a lot of fun”).
Voight first met the former owner of Sunrise, a mining town created by the Colorado Fuel and Iron company, in the early 1990s when he was deep in Cheyenne, Wyoming’s commercial real-estate game. Nearly two decades later, when the owner decided to sell Sunrise, Voight jumped at the chance to buy it.
“I was looking for one more good adventure. I still had lots of physical strength and stamina,” Voight, who is now 62, said. “So I thought, ‘well, let’s try mining, I’ve never done mining.’” He paid $12 million for the town, which is now little more than a few abandoned brick houses, a chemical lab, and a YMCA built by John D. Rockefeller at the turn of the 20th century.
“Ghost town” is an unofficial designation that refers to formerly recognized towns whose population has moved out often because of economic change. Many are located alongside mines or agricultural areas.
When the population winnowed to zero, the towns became unincorporated, meaning they lost the traditional political infrastructure of a town (e.g. a mayor) and the census stopped including them in surveys. If you move to a ghost town, the postal service requires you to either keep a PO box in the nearest incorporated town or to place a mailbox along an interstate highway, according to Jake Rasmuson, a California-based real-estate agent who has two ghost town sales to his name. That's because a mailing address in an unincorporated town like Sunrise doesn't count.
John Voight is one of hundreds of individuals, corporations, and churches across the U.S. who buy ghost towns to fulfill an investment dream, preserve a property’s historic value, or abandon society to launch a cult.
There’s Nipton, California, which Arizona-based marijuana company American Green bought for $5 million last year with the widely publicized but quickly abandoned dream of turning it into a weed mecca. In 2012, Vietnamese coffee salesman Pham Dinh Nguyen took control of Buford, Wyoming for $900,000 and renamed it “PhinDeli Town Buford,” after his PhinDeli coffee brand — apparently as an elaborate marketing tactic (he told ABC News that his ultimate hope was to remake the town into a “nerve center of a coffee importing operation that might some day reach every corner of the U.S.”). The restaurant group ATX Brands bought the central-Texas town of Bankersmith in 2012, renaming it Bikinis, Texas to promote its Hooters-esque “breastaurant” chain, Bikinis Sports Bar and Grill. As of January, however, the town was on the market for $975,000.
Churches are also taking advantage of the ghost-town market. Iglesia Ni Cristo, the Filipino denomination of the Church of Christ, bought the abandoned town of Johnsonville, Connecticut for $1.85 million last year with the intent of renovating it for its members. The church’s other U.S. ghost town property — Scenic, North Dakota, purchased for $800,000 in 2014 — has already become home to a newly built congregation. Meanwhile, billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalists Robert and Trish Duggan paid $6 million in 2016 for the former Nazi cult town Holy City, California. Because the Duggans are major Scientology donors, nearby residents fear what they might do with Holy City, though no plans have been announced.
But many people buy ghost towns with no grand ambitions for them. In 2006, for instance, one family bought six acres of the abandoned town of Monse, Washington, which has a school, seven homes, a post office, and a general store, simply because they wanted “peace and quiet and to get out of the rat race,” ABC News reported.
Jake Rasmuson, the real-estate agent, told The Outline that “there is not a demographic out there that does not want to buy a ghost town.”
Rasmuson’s most recent ghost town sale, Cerro Gordo, a former silver mining town on the edge of Death Valley National Park that depopulated following its peak in 1869, went for $1.4 million in mid-July after the listing drew headlines in CNN and The New York Times. The town’s 22 buildings, including a saloon that still has a mysterious bloodstain on one of its walls, make it a rare artifact of the post-Gold Rush boomtown — Rasmuson characterized purchasing it as “buying a piece of history” because the town’s structures are much better preserved than those in most ghost towns.
The interest in Cerro Gordo was overwhelming. Rasmuson fielded hundreds of interested calls from every state in the U.S. and from Japan, India, and multiple countries in Europe.
Rasmuson said that his first ghost-town sale, an old smelting town around 10 miles from Cerro Gordo called Swansea, didn’t “have the panache” of Cerro Gordo; it was small and run-down (though it was the focus of a Joanna Newsom song). Still, when the sellers of Swansea first contacted Rasmuson about putting their town on the market, he was ecstatic.
“If I could just specialize in ghost towns, I absolutely would,” he said. Certainly, ghost towns “require a bit more work” to sell than a regular home, but he’s already identified specific strategies for locking down a deal fast: target buyers who know the area and care about the history, and generate publicity in the media, which never seems to tire of the ghost-town-for-sale articles that are an invaluable source of promotion.
After a month, Cerro Gordo was purchased by Texas-based entrepreneur Brent Underwood and his business partner Jon Bier. Underwood told The Outline that his plan is to establish a bustling lodging business in the town. With a some added infrastructure — a new water system, for example — and some cleaning, Underwood thinks his town can become a destination for history buffs, writers’ retreats, and company getaways. Music festival and theater performance bookers have already reached out to him about having events in the town.
But Underwood said that his decision to buy Cerro Gordo was, above all, an emotional one. “Right now it’s certainly 80 percent dream, 20 percent financial,” Underwood said. “There’s probably better places to put your money right now than buying a ghost town. But at the end of the day, you have to think to yourself, what do I make money for? And for me personally, if I had an infinite amount of money, I would probably do something like buy a ghost town.”
Within a single decade, Brandon Easley turned Albert, Texas — an old farming town that he bought in 2009 — into a major wedding destination. Last year, Easley said he was booking “43 or 44” weddings per year.
But marketing Albert to the soon-to-be-married was never part of the plan. Actually, there was hardly ever a plan. When Easley set foot in Albert for the first time after buying it, he remembered thinking: “Oh shit, what did I do?”
Easley, a real-estate salesman who typically deals in ranches, convinced his family to purchase the town right after the financial crisis. He was looking for a new investment, and he thought, Why not a town?
Albert was about an hour away from his home in Austin, and he’d stopped there a few times after work trips. He was charmed. In the early 1900s, Easley said, Albert was home to a popular storefront that made it the hub of the area — the town regularly filled with wagons — but now all that’s left is a 100-year-old dancehall, an open-air bar (“it has a pretty solid group of regulars”), and a 12-acre pecan orchard.
Easley became hooked on the idea of owning the town in 2007, when an insurance broker named Bobby Cave put Albert up for sale on eBay. “I think it was more of a dream than an idea at that point,” Easley said. But when he told his parents about his vision — “I know this is crazy, but what do y’all think?” — they were enthused. “I was actually very surprised. My dad said, ‘that’s freaking cool.’”
In late 2009, after the housing market collapsed and the price of Albert tumbled with it, Easley saw his chance. He emailed in a cash offer. “Eight days later, we had a town,” he said with a laugh. “We didn't know what the hell we were doing.”
Easley’s initial aim was to turn Albert’s dancehall into a concert venue — he figured musical performances would draw visitors. But then one of his friends asked if him if they could have their kid’s wedding in the dancehall, and Easley realized he could cater to an even better audience: new couples.
The fact that there’s no lodging in Albert hasn’t discouraged wedding planners. Easley told The Outline, “What people like about it is, people can say, ‘Hey, we rented a town.’ That’s a hell of a lot better than, ‘We rented the ballroom at the Marriott.'”
John Voight’s plan to sustain Sunrise through iron mining didn’t exactly pan out.
At first, everything was great. He was selling “tremendous” amounts of iron, and he started plotting ways to resurrect Sunrise and its historic YMCA. But then, in 2014, the iron markets collapsed because of oversupply in China, and Voight had to reinvent himself again.
“I was a little apprehensive, but I don’t let those kinds of things worry me,” Voight said. “Here’s my philosophy: the more people that say I’m crazy when I do something, the more likely it’s going to work because I’m going to have less competition. If no one else has tried it, you know, I’m not going to have any competition for what I do.”
So, like his fellow ghost-town owners, he pivoted to tourism. But not the kind of tourism that goes on in Albert or Cerro Gordo — Voight is not an entrepreneur looking to make Sunrise into a resort-like destination for imitation Bonnaroos and corporate retreats. He wanted to bring people to Sunrise to share the town’s history and resources.
The way Voight tells it, scientists from across the U.S. are flocking to Sunrise to conduct research. In addition to the dozens of archaeologists who are currently digging through local artifacts like bone tools or arrowheads there, bat researchers have dropped by to conduct studies — “we have a lot of unique bats here,” he said — and geologists have visited as well — “geologists love to come here because it's twisting and turning, it’s very unusual.” (Sunrise is home to one of the oldest known quarries in North America.)
Voight paused as he rattled off his list of visitors. “I have a lot of people that want to come up here and look for ghosts, too,” he said. “That’s weird.”
Included in that list of ghost hunters — Sam and Dean from Supernatural, which filmed a 2011 episode in Sunrise.
None of this is to say Voight is actually turning a profit on Sunrise. The recent influx of visitors hasn’t brought any money into the town. But Voight isn’t concerned about that — he's earning a sizable income from his earlier real-estate investments. Plus, there’s still a rare trickle of cash from his iron mine. As he noted to The Outline, “I did have a rock sale last month.”
Listen to an interview with Michael Waters for more thoughts about buying ghost towns on The Outline World Dispatch.