By WILL PRESTON
After the mine fell quiet, the town slowly went to sleep. The barber changed his hours to Thursday and Friday, by request only. The bank hung a handwritten note to transfer accounts and securities by the end of the month. The last passenger bus pulled up to the curb and drove away.
The streets lie empty now, so quiet you can hear the leaves breaking from their branches. Ghosts on the baseball diamond, in the bowling alley, in the gymnasium. Long shadows across overgrown grass. The afternoon sun sinks early into the mountains.
It’s a rare day that a ghost town makes headlines. Ghost towns, after all, are not particularly newsworthy. They’re deserted scraps of places, melancholy indicators of bad land or failed enterprises. In many cases, almost nothing remains: a rusted grain elevator, a few wisps of buildings, a long-abandoned road veering off from the highway. There’s little to attract anyone besides history buffs or ghost hunters, least of all journalists.
Yet here I was, urging my exhausted Honda Civic up a winding forest service road in the Chilcotin Mountains in British Columbia, looking for a ghost town called Bradian. It was October, and the evergreens crowding the dirt track were punctuated here and there with startling bursts of yellow—birch trees that had not yet shed their leaves. The ground tumbled away sharply to my right, only to rise again across the valley in a shadowed wall of mountains. When I stopped the car to stretch my legs, there was no sound except the quiet ticking of the engine.
This was the Hurley Wilderness Road, a notorious stretch of unpaved road that claws its way up into the mountains north of Whistler. In addition to being littered with small boulders and car-swallowing potholes, the Hurley gains four thousand feet in about twelve miles and is closed for seven months out of the year—buried under twenty feet of snow. Its website is titled ISurvivedTheHurley.com and advises that “a spare tire is essential.” Tackling it in a Civic, in other words, was asking for trouble. But the Hurley is also the most direct route to Bradian from Vancouver, and I wanted to see Bradian with my own eyes. With the road about to close for the season, I’d decided to risk it.
I’d first heard about Bradian from a July 2015 article in the Huffington Post titled “Bradian, B.C. Ghost Town For Sale Once Again.” I was intrigued—not only by the idea of somebody owning a ghost town, but by the thought of somebody else buying it. I read on. Initially, Bradian’s story appeared to follow the usual ghost town narrative. The town had been founded in the 1930s by the Bralorne Mining Company, which owned a pair of gold mines deep in the mountains of southeastern British Columbia. For forty years, those mines were the largest producers of gold in all of Canada, churning out some 4.15 million ounces altogether. Bradian, and its sister town of Bralorne, boomed. The towns grew to five thousand people altogether; what began as remote mountain outposts became bustling suburbs with tennis courts and hardware stores. But that changed in 1971, when the company abruptly shuttered the mines, sealed the shafts with cement, and laid off its workforce. The citizens of Bralorne and Bradian suddenly found themselves hours and hours from civilization with no income and no reason to stay. The population dropped seventy-five percent literally overnight.
For most ghost towns, that’s the end of the story. But in the four decades since the mine closed, Bradian and Bralorne have become the unlikely object of a series of bizarre get-rich schemes, implemented by private owners convinced they can bring the towns back to life. To date, not a single one has succeeded. The current seller—a Chinese investment firm called Zhong Ya—had owned the property for just six months before putting it back on the market.
Reading the article, I couldn’t grasp what made this abandoned town so alluring, let alone what convinced all these developers that they could succeed where others had failed. With the real estate market exploding across the BC Lower Mainland, I was sure it was only a matter of time before somebody snapped Bradian up again. I wanted to see it before that happened, before whatever was there was lost. I wanted to see the ghost town that wouldn’t die.
It took almost an hour and a half to ascend the thirty miles from the base of the Hurley to the turnoff to Bralorne. The two villages are only 150 miles north of Vancouver—practically next door when you consider that Barkerville, the province’s best-preserved ghost town, is almost five hundred miles away. But proximity is deceptive, and comes with a price. By the time I reached Bralorne, my hands were slick from gripping the steering wheel so tightly.
The odd thing about Bradian is that, depending on whom you ask, it’s not a ghost town at all. The village lies in the Bridge River Valley, a sprawling wilderness dotted with lakes and home to some 225 residents. Before driving up, I got in touch with the area’s elected official, Debbie Demare, and asked her about the town. What she said surprised me. Bradian, she acknowledged, had been long abandoned. But she insisted that the “ghost town” label had been cooked up as a marketing gimmick by the real estate company. “Bradian is a neighborhood of Bralorne,” she explained. “And Bralorne is a community that’s still alive.”
It’s true that Bralorne remains inhabited, but only in the loosest sense of the word. Its population consists of seventy-seven people and twenty-nine dogs. The nearest grocery store is two hours south. The closest gas station is eight miles down the road, in the neighboring town of Gold Bridge (population forty). As I slowly drove the length of Bralorne’s main street, I had to admit the town tried to present itself as a cheery place. The houses were all brightly painted, and had sailboats and homey stacks of firewood in the driveway. A few people, bundled against the cold, were out walking their dogs. But I couldn’t help but notice the shuttered pub, the empty motel parking lot. The barren bulletin board at the community center.
I parked just as the sun started to sink behind the mountains. Although I wouldn’t have much time, I decided to walk up to Bradian regardless. From what Debbie had said, it wouldn’t be far. Leaving my car at the motel, I followed the road as it led out of town; it climbed abruptly to a switchback, then another. Bralorne vanished behind me. The autumn air was sharp against my skin.
Ahead, Bradian slipped out of the trees like fog. A toppled milestone, a No Trespassing sign propped up against a pile of rocks. A few houses huddled back against the hill, their windows empty and paint peeling. But then the road turned, and I found myself at an intersection, and I stopped and blinked in disbelief. I had been expecting ruin, crumbled foundations, a narrative of devastation writ across the town. Instead, the road was lined with a dozen houses with pointed roofs, wooden awnings, and faded brick chimneys. The normality was surreal. The yellow house on the corner even had a working meter.
The late afternoon sun filled the street with a soft light, the autumn ground a tapestry of yellow and orange. This could be any quiet street in any quiet town, the houses waiting patiently for everyone to come home for dinner. Except the stairs had collapsed and the windows were boarded up, and the trees that had pushed up through the porches were dry and white and bony.
“We’ve had a bunch of weird schemes up here through the years,” said Debbie Demare. It was the following morning, and I was sitting in Debbie’s home on the banks of Gun Lake, down the hill from Bralorne. Debbie has served as regional director of the Bridge River Valley since 2011, and has lived in the area since 1979. She’d agreed to meet me during my visit, but she had cautioned that, as there was no cell service, I would have to use the pay phone in Bralorne to reach her, “so bring some quarters.” Her property was literally off the map (“look for the satellite dish mounted on what looks like a wooden oil derrick,” she directed), and lurched dizzyingly down toward the lake, so that everything—the shed, the mailbox, the bulldozer out front—seemed to be on the verge of tipping over. But her house was beautiful, a spacious wooden cabin, and Debbie was a passionate advocate for the region.
“There’s opportunity there,” she said when I asked why Bradian had attracted so much attention. She ticked off the reasons: it’s close to Vancouver, relatively speaking. It’s a haven for backcountry sports. And it’s a “snowmobiling mecca,” she added proudly. “So the opportunity exists, should somebody choose to look at what’s possible.”
She’s not lying: the area is beautiful, with alpine lakes and snowcapped mountains to rival Canada’s most popular national parks. And indeed, a few such resorts have popped up in the area. There’s Whistler, which lies about two hours south and hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics. Even closer is Tyax Wilderness Resort, just twenty miles north of Bralorne, which offers activities like skiing, mountain biking, and floatplane glacier tours.
But instead, with rare exception, Bralorne and Bradian seem to inspire their new owners to pursue their most lunatic ideas. After the mines shut down, ownership passed to the Whiting Brothers, two Vancouver developers who took one look at the remote, barren town and thought: Retirement community! You can’t say they didn’t try. The Whitings renovated all of Bralorne. They installed streetlights and new water mains, and placed ads in the Log & Register boasting about “The Town with the Golden Future.” They promised Unbelievably Low Prices, wood cabins, easy days of fishing and skiing in the peaceful mountains. But they had the misfortune of purchasing the town just as the Canadian economy tumbled into a recession; out of a hundred homes, fewer than half sold. It also seems not to have occurred to the Whitings that retirees might not want to brave a road that some have deemed “the worst-maintained road in British Columbia,” let alone relocate to a town several hours from the nearest major hospital. The developers went bankrupt. Bradian, next on the list for renovation, was sidelined and forgotten.
From there, the schemes only got stranger. In the mid-1970s, a group of hippies moved in, intent on transforming the town into some sort of commune. That failed. Then came the guys who decided that the abandoned gold mine would be an ideal spot to start a mushroom-growing operation. That too had to be aborted when the would-be entrepreneurs realized they had no feasible way to get their giant pile of fungi from the top of the mountain to the bottom.
I asked Debbie about the recent sale to the Chinese investment company, Zhong Ya. She shrugged resignedly. Their ostensible goal, she said, was to fashion the town into a recreational resort, a la Whistler or Tyax. But in reality, it was another wild scheme: a ploy to take advantage of BC’s Provincial Nominee Program. The policy, which provides work permits to immigrants who invest $200,000 in a business and create at least three new jobs, is essentially a fast track to Canadian citizenship. Through Zhong Ya, a revamped Bradian would have been a kind of landing zone for Chinese immigrants: an entire town with jobs ready and waiting. But three months after the group purchased the site in early 2015, the BC government abruptly froze the program, citing a sudden and unmanageable flood of applications. They reopened the pool a few months later with tougher criteria and fewer permits. “And when they did that,” Debbie said, “the whole plan went out the window.” Zhong Ya ditched the suburb and put it back on the market for $1.2 million. It remains there, unsold, two years later.
Even the now-closed pub was collateral damage from a brazen scheme—shut down after the owner, Bruce Simon, was caught trying to smuggle marijuana and ecstasy across the U.S. border. “He owned a small white helicopter,” Debbie told me, and, in a rather spectacular display of bad luck, managed to land literally in the middle of a Homeland Security surveillance operation (“the duffel bags appeared to contain heavy contents as Simon struggled to remove them,” the official report notes, with palpable amusement). At his sentencing, Simon pled guilty to the charges, saying that he had smuggled the drugs “not for personal gain, but to try to salvage … the small community in which I live.”
Attempt after attempt was made to squeeze some sort of life out of the region, and attempt after attempt failed. The quality of life plummeted. “Bralorne’s in a really bad spot at the moment,” Debbie admitted. “We’re not at a sustainable level.” In the end, even the Bralornians began to cannibalize their sister town. For decades, they drove up to Bradian in search of raw materials for their homes: furnaces, floorboards, closet doors wrestled off their hinges. And every time, they repeated the tug-of-war over the neighborhood’s existence until it was no longer possible to say what rightly belonged to whom: which house, which door, which story.
Outside, on the road along Gun Lake, a heavy fog hung low across the morning. The cloud and the water were the same non-color, the color of milk, and it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. A pair of logs seemed to hang, disembodied, somewhere in between. I drove back to Bradian.
At the edge of town was a ruined rock shop—a place where, I later learned from the writer Johnnie Bachusky, residents once bought jewelry made “from gold nuggets and small chunks of jade.” But no one had bought jewelry here in a long time. The store’s front window was smashed, the glass in shards across the porch. Inside, the rafters had been picked apart and the counters were an unholy mess of paint cans and milk cartons and ripped-out insulation. The boards creaked and sagged alarmingly underfoot. Next door lay the remains of a tin shed—collapsed, as if dropped from a great height. Then another house, debris scattered around it like wreckage from some horrible accident: a rusted oil drum, a punched-out window screen. The front door had a heavy padlock, but the side was unsecured. I shouldered it open and stepped into the kitchen.
For a moment, I thought I’d made a mistake. It was like the owner had just popped out to grab some eggs. The shelf across the room still had wine glasses, a blender, an unopened and long-expired tub of blueberry yogurt. The cabinet, ajar, held a huge glass jug of preserved peaches. None of the lights worked; the house lay entombed in stillness. In the next room, a half-smoked cigarette lay in a pile of ash on the wood stove. A Financial Times, dated April 1993, sat unfolded in the easy chair.
I moved from room to room, bracing myself, half-expecting to see a decomposed body slumped across the floor. It was hard to shake the sense that some catastrophe had happened here. There were still clothes in the closet, five or six striped shirts suspended specterlike from the hangers. And even more unnerving, a pair of unfinished letters on the kitchen counter, stiff and yellowed with water damage. Dear Louie, one of them began, the handwriting slanted and urgent:
We have been trying to contact you for some time now but no one seems to have your number. Do you have a phone we can call you on? Louie please phone us, person-to-person collect.
There were others, too, in different handwriting. One of them mentioned a family emergency, damaged spines, “a nerve in my head that’s out of whack.” I turned the page to read on, but there was nothing: no signature, no next page. The writing stopped midsentence.
I suddenly felt a little ill, a strange churning in my stomach. What happened in this house? Everything we own has a reason to it, a memory. At what point are letters not worth finishing—and nothing worth saving? I thought of Chernobyl, with its ravaged schoolrooms and abandoned Ferris wheel, and I realized I was gripping the pages very tightly, scanning them as if the few words scrawled there might offer some clue. I looked around, saw the sofa-bed still unfolded, a scarf crumpled on the floor. Everything open. I felt very clearly that I didn’t belong here, that I had trespassed into some private, unfinished grief. I put the letters carefully back on the counter. Then I stepped back outside, pulled the door shut behind me, and tried not to imagine what I was leaving behind.
In 1997, Tom and Kathleen Gutenberg bought the entire suburb of Bradian for a little under $100,000. Seventeen years later, they sold it—seemingly untouched—for nearly ten times that amount to the Chinese investment company Zhong Ya. The move had ruffled more than a few feathers in Bralorne, according to the Vancouver Sun, and with Debbie’s stories of mushroom farms and other get-rich-quick schemes fresh in my mind, I was a little wary when I pulled up to the Gutenbergs’ home in East Vancouver. Their seventeen years of ownership were the missing link between the failed exploits of the seventies and eighties and Zhong Ya’s thwarted corporate makeover—and the answer to how Bradian had become a million-dollar town.
To my surprise, Kathleen came to the door in an apron; Tom sat in the living room wearing a homemade fleece with the word Bradian emblazoned on the breast (“We made them one year for Christmas,” he explained). Professionally, they worked as flight attendants for Air Canada. But at home, they were history aficionados. A harpsichord sat in the corner; the washroom had a clawfoot tub. The two talked for almost three hours straight about Bradian, a place they had taken under their wing. Their enthusiasm made me regret ever being suspicious.
“It deserves to be kept,” Tom said. When he and Kathleen first moved to British Columbia, he remembered, they spent the weekends driving out to ghost towns around the province. Most were so dilapidated “you wouldn’t know the layout of the roads.” Then they had stumbled across Bradian: an honest-to-God town with houses still standing. They had never intended to buy it. But, by coincidence, they happened to meet a woman who had recently inherited the suburb from her mother—one of the original citizens of Bradian. It turned out that not everyone had fled after the mine shut down. She and one other resident refused to leave their homes, and the two of them lived out the rest of their days in the abandoned town, watching the developers come and fail and leave. I remembered the neglected house I had found, the Financial Times from 1993, and realized it must have belonged to one of them. The thought made me immensely sad, what it would be like to inhabit a place alive only with the ghosts of your neighbors.
When the two final residents died in the early nineties, Bradian collapsed into a period of anarchy. The houses were increasingly under attack by the neighbors down in Bralorne: whole staircases ripped out, houses razed to their foundations. When the mine closed in ’71, Bradian had been a neighborhood of eighty homes. By the mid-1990s, when the Gutenbergs discovered it, only thirty-two remained. Tom and Kathleen were terrified that the suburb might meet the same fate as the other ghost towns they had seen: “People were just using it as a kind of Home Depot,” Kathleen said. So when they learned that ownership of all of Bradian had somehow passed into one woman’s hands, they offered to buy.
There is no one else in this story quite like the Gutenbergs. The pair had no wild schemes, no dreams of manipulating the town for untold riches. Instead, for the next seventeen years, they simply set about restoring it. On their weeks off, they drove up the Hurley and reroofed and repainted, boarded up the windows and the doors to discourage trespassers and damp. It was a long, slow process, whole days up on a ladder with hammers and nails. But beautiful: the mountains rising around, the sound of the hammer echoing through the hills.
“I’m just really a fan of old,” Tom said when I asked what had inspired them to take on such a project. “And preserving old. A lot of people get on committees to preserve heritage, but what do they really get around to doing? With Bradian, I was able to use my own hands and skills to do something with those buildings. I would like to see them…” He paused. “It would be a stretch to say become what they were, but just to keep this stuff alive, you know?”
As the years went by, Tom and Kathleen discovered that the town, even now, wasn’t as deserted as they may have thought. Curious tourists drove up the Hurley to have their picture taken. The military showed up one year to run training exercises for Bosnia. The Bralorne locals, suspicious at first, gradually warmed to the young Gutenberg family. And above all, there were the former residents: a flood of people who had spent their childhood in the now-forgotten town.
“They had reunions,” Tom said. “A hundred people would show up, and they’d put up signs where their houses used to be.” Generally, people were grateful for the work the Gutenbergs had done. But some were angry, mistakenly accusing the two of tearing down their homes. Others tried to peel the boards off windows, or brought shovels to dig up old flowerbeds. One family scattered their mother’s ashes on the old roads behind the town. Hearing these stories, I felt a wave of sympathy for these people, mourning a place they had loved, a place which now barely existed. I remembered then that Debbie Demare had said that people would occasionally come back to Bralorne to visit. “They have such fond memories of the place,” she’d said.
For the first time in thirty years, Bradian was in an upswing. And perhaps it might have stayed that way had the Gutenbergs kept the town. But the truth was, Kathleen said, “to take it to the next level of restoration was beyond us. There’s only so much one person can do.” I sensed some regret in their voices when I brought up the sale to Zhong Ya. The company had appeared to have the same respect for preservation, had promised to keep the houses intact. But now their plan had fallen apart, and the cycle had started all over again.
“It’s always during these periods of no ownership that the worst things happen,” Tom said. He sat with his arm twisted behind his head, fingers interlocked anxiously: the future of Bradian was now totally out of his hands. “I worry. I did put in a lot of effort, and there was a sense of optimism that people would be moving back in.” He sighed. “And I don’t see that anymore.”
I am not a superstitious person. And yet in the weeks after visiting Bradian, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something profoundly spooky about the town, the way that time and geography seemed to conspire to wreck any plan to foist a new identity upon it. The Whiting Brothers foiled by a sudden recession; Zhong Ya stopped in its tracks by a sudden change in the law. Even the mine had gone out of business not because it ran dry, but because the price of gold—fixed for decades at $35 an ounce—wasn’t sustainable. The company pumped $145 million into maintaining the mine, but yielded only $32 million in return. They gave up after forty years. The following month, Richard Nixon deregulated the price of gold.
When I first heard about Bradian, the $1.2 million ghost town, I’d assumed it was an outlier. That was the reason I wanted to see the place for myself: there had to be something remarkable about it, right? And yet, in the weeks following my visit, I discovered that Bradian was just one of many ghost towns for sale across North America. Swett, South Dakota, was on the market for $250,000. So was the former mining town of Seneca, California. Elsewhere in British Columbia, plans had been announced to reinvent the long-abandoned town of Kitsault as a natural gas export center. The current owner purchased the town in 2005 for seven million dollars.
In this light, Bradian is not so unique after all. It’s simply part of a trend, caught in the age-old ambition to colonize every inch of the earth. Traditionally, these towns have been the equivalent of warning signs, a dire message from the past to the present: Move along. Now, with development spreading like never before, we have no patience for these archaic examples. The more resistant a place is to conquest, the greater the satisfaction of filling it in.
But no place is a blank canvas. Each acre is the accumulation of layers of history, much of it silent, invisible. What appears to be abandoned is a repository of memory, a record of what came before. If a ghost town belongs to anyone, it belongs to those who once lived there, the residents who built it and shaped it, and had their lives shaped by its failure in return.
Debbie Demare is adamant that to call Bradian a ghost town is to misrepresent it. And the Gutenbergs hope that one day, people might move back in. But I see a grief there that is worth preserving, one that is inevitable when we forget that not everywhere is ours for the taking. A reminder that some places are better left alone: the half-smoked cigarette on the wood stove, trees pushing up through the floorboards. Nature slowly sneaking back in.
Or, as Tom Gutenberg said to me: “I always thought one of the greatest things about Bradian is that you can’t go any further. That’s where the phone ends; that’s where the power ends. That’s where everything basically ends.”
WILL PRESTON’s writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared in numerous publications, including Smithsonian Folkways, Maisonneuve, The Masters Review, and PRISM International. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is an MFA candidate at The University of British Columbia. Visit him at willprestonwriter.wordpress.com.