South of Marfa on Highway 67, 20 miles before you reach the Mexican border, a green sign reads “Shafter Ghost Town.” A dusty drive takes you past adobe ruins and give you a glimpse at what’s left of this once-thriving mining town.
In what had been called “the richest acre in Texas” at one time, most immediate signs of life today are four-legged. Outside the old silver mill, a sign warns not to trespass. In one of Shafter’s few viable houses, Randall Cater offers me a warmer greeting. He’s one of 30 or so people who live in Shafter today. Cater says he loves living here because it’s cheap, and the weather’s perfect.
“And if you like riding motorcycles, which is my passion, the canyon that runs past Shafter is one of the best motorcycle roads in the country,” Cater says.
But it wasn’t the landscapes that once drew more than 2,000 people to Shafter. It was the silver.
In the late 1800s, Chinati pioneer John Spencer was traveling to Fort Davis, a nearby frontier military outpost, when he stumbled upon some glittering silver ore while stopping for lunch. With the help of the fort’s commander, General William Shafter, a mining town was born.
Randall Cater says the promise of silver drew flocks of Mexican laborers.
“It was the biggest town between Del Rio and El Paso,” says Cater.
In those days, Shafter had all the elements of the quintessential western boomtown: Apache raids, Texas Rangers, saloons and a stagecoach. Even General Shafter, the town’s namesake, had a reputation for trouble. He was given the nickname “Pecos Bill” because he, “drank heartily, gambled earnestly, ate plentifully and cursed incessantly.”
Despite the lawlessness, the town was not without moral guidance.
The Sagrado Corazon, or Sacred Heart church of Shafter was built and consecrated in 1890.
“The miners paid for the church out of a weekly and monthly little stipend that they gave to the church, also they provided the labor,” says Brother Paschal, a monk who moved to Shafter around five years ago to establish a hermitage. He’s paid special attention to the town’s spiritual history.
“There was always a priest here, usually Mexican… there were nuns here,” says Paschal.
The Sagrado Corazon became a central part of Shafter life.
Then in 1940, the miners struck water. World War II had lowered the demand for silver and prices fell. The Shafter mine closed in 1942 and soon everything else followed, according to Cater.
“When all the GIs came home all over the United States, there was a huge demand for building supplies,” says Cater.
People came to Shafter and took the roofing tin off abandoned houses, stripped the door and window frames and took out electrical wiring.
“So the town was pretty much dismantled and hauled away and what you see left are just the stone and adobe walls,” says Cater.
But Brother Paschal says the Sagrado Corazon kept beating.
“You know, the Catholics believe in the institution of the church, that Christ founded a church. And there are bishops and so forth and organizations, but here they kind of forgot Shafter but the people took care of the church and that’s pretty interesting,” says Paschal.
One of those people is Leo Madrid. He opens up the Sagrado Corazon church doors every morning before driving to work in a non-ghost town. He lives in Shafter now, but grew up on the border.
“As a kid I would always come to Shafter with my parents and uh mass, of course, and then we would have a picnic around the creek,” says Madrid.
The church still holds mass once a month. Madrid says he holds town potlucks afterwards. The location? An old dirt floor shack he’s turned into a hangout. It’s adorned with license plates, colorful signs and different types of signed currency.
“Most of the stuff that you see on the walls or on the shelves, on the side, are things that people bring on their second time around or their third, fourth,” says Madrid.
He says guests from all over the world have dropped by his unofficial ghost town bar. It’s probably an afterlife General William Shafter would have appreciated.
Photographs courtesy of Archives of the Big Bend, Bryan Wildenthal Memorial Library, Sul Ross State University, Alpine Texas. Images in this gallery are from The Peter Koch Papers, Anna D. Linn Papers and Dolores Garcia Collection.