Shawnee – a Modern Ghost Town

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The small town of Shawnee is built on the side of a hill, making it look like the front of a postcard. More than 3,000 people used to live there a century ago.

But most of those people left with the decline of the coal mining industry, and now only about 650 people call Shawnee home. Today’s residents face a daily struggle to keep their town alive, and rebuild what has been lost through the decades.

Mayor Renee Brunton’s family followed the mines from Pennsylvania and settled here a long time ago, and Brunton has lived in Shawnee for most of her life.

“It’s so rich in assets,” she says of Shawnee and its historical downtown.

Historical architecture shows the old spirit of Shawnee. (Lauren Ramoser)
Historical architecture shows the old spirit of Shawnee. (Lauren Ramoser)

But on Main Street, all that is left are some old wooden houses and a few abandoned  homes. It makes people on social media believe it is a modern ghost town – a term the locals don’t like, but one that attracts people. There are not many tourists visiting, but  as Brunton says, photographers like to capture Shawnee’s spirit.

But, the effort the local community puts into keeping their town alive could pay off.

In Shawnee’s glory days people immigrated to Shawnee and the surrounding area to  work for the big coal companies. However, workers began to protest these large  companies as they took ownership of most of the town, including the company store  and houses.

Therefore, many mine towns worked as a modern form of slavery, ultimately leading  the workers to set the coal mines on fire as a symbolic action against the mining companies. The mining fire in New Straitsville has been continuously burning since 1884, when workers set the mine on fire during a labor dispute, as the documentary ‘Devil’s Oven’ tells.

With the loss of employment and hardly any industry left, the once so rich town was on a long way down. But the number of Shawnee residents stagnated for almost 20 years, and so a group started to rebuild the town with what the economy still has to offer.

The idea is to build a tourist structure, such as a bed-and-breakfast and other shops to attract more tourists. But Robert Dishon, who takes care of Shawnee’s one-room museum, doesn’t want to lose respect for the town’s history.

“We don’t want to turn this into Disney Land. I don’t want to make it something it never was.”

Abandoned houses attract many photographers. (Lauren Ramoser)
Abandoned houses attract many photographers. (Lauren Ramoser)

He spoke of the efforts by investors who wish to bring tourists into the spirit of the old west. However, while this town didn’t have typical cowboys or saloons, it had coal mines and a vivid culture.

“There was an investor who wanted to create an old west atmosphere. But that’s just not authentic,” Dishon says.

And there are other upcoming chances. Sono Healthcare, a municipal marijuana company is planning to build a new factory in Shawnee, including 25 and more jobs for locals. The final decision isn’t made yet, but hopes are high for Shawnee.

“I believe there is always a way,” Brunton said.

So right now, could just be a new beginning for old Shawnee.