Culture

Washington’s ‘living ghost town’ is full of history and a few lingering residents

By Courtney Flatt (Northwest News Network)
Oct. 29, 2023 1 p.m.

Wes Engstrom lives in Liberty, Washington, a gold mining town designated by U.S. Congress as a historic site

Wes Engstrom, 91, first came to Liberty, Wash., in 1971 in search of gold. He's standing in front of the town's oldest working mining equipment called an arrastra.

Wes Engstrom, 91, first came to Liberty, Wash., in 1971 in search of gold. He's standing in front of the town's oldest working mining equipment called an arrastra.

Courtney Flatt / Northwest News Network

If you’re a little creeped out by ghost towns, imagine living in one. But one town in Washington isn’t quite as vacant or spooky as you might think.

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Living in Liberty, Washington — located about 80 miles east of Seattle — hasn’t always been easy for the small town’s few residents. But it’s been worth the fight.

“I kind of look at this place as paradise, you see?” said Wes Engstrom.

At 91 — he will turn 92 in December — Wes is the town’s oldest living resident.

A wooden sign near the entrance of town.

A wooden sign near the entrance of town.

Courtney Flatt / Northwest News Network

The tiny mining town is hidden just off Blewett Pass on U.S. Highway 97. Today, each building looks like it’s come right out of the 1890s: log exteriors, wooden windows and fences. The main (and only) road stretches through town, which is about a third of a mile long.

In recent years, Engstrom’s little mining town has grown by 33%.

“I used to say that we have a population of nine people and five dogs. But the population has gone up now after my son moved in and a few others, so it’s probably 12 people now. We’re booming,” Engstrom said.

And, he said, during this spooky season, there are a few more longtime wanderers not officially counted in the population.

“We have a few ghosts down there in the old house. Well, Mamie Caldwell lived in this house and built this house down below. And, yeah, she sometimes shows up in the closet down there. And there’s a few up in the mountain there,” he said.

Engstrom first came here in 1971. “I was looking for gold, of course,” he said.

He’s seen the town through fights with mining companies and the federal government.

“They said we were squatting on federal land because they could not find a piece of paper that set this aside as a mining townsite,” Engstrom said.

Congress eventually designated the town a historic district.

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Even though he’s now documented much of the town’s history, Engstrom said he wasn’t always a fan of the subject.

Digitized versions of old pictures hang in Wes Engstrom's office.

Digitized versions of old pictures hang in Wes Engstrom's office.

Courtney Flatt / Northwest News Network

“I wasn’t interested at all, until I got stuck with all these papers and things that needed to be reorganized. And I started looking up a few things and I just got hooked,” he said, laughing.

People have been hooked for centuries — where the region’s unique minerals and gems have drawn people to what’s now the Swauk Mining District. It has deposits of a rare form of gold, known as crystalline wire gold, which looks like a mass of tangled wires.

“Liberty nuggets were formed when masses of wire crystalline gold were eroded from rocks and tumbled into solid-looking nuggets by the Columbia River fifteen million years ago,” Engstrom said.

Rock hounds also come here to search for Ellensburg Blue Agates, the third rarest gemstone in the world.

Wes Engstrom flips through the town's guest book with signatures from people near and far. "We get a lot of people from Europe," Engstrom said. "You see, it's really odd how many people find this darn place, and we don't advertise at all."

Wes Engstrom flips through the town's guest book with signatures from people near and far. "We get a lot of people from Europe," Engstrom said. "You see, it's really odd how many people find this darn place, and we don't advertise at all."

Courtney Flatt / Northwest News Network

In his yard, Engstrom turned on a piece of old mining equipment called an arrastra. Water spouted out the side. The large, circular structure whirred to life.

“You’d throw the gold ore in there, and that rock would crush your gold ore, and the gold would fall to the bottom,” he said.

It’s the only working historic mining equipment in town. “Other than that big shovel that’s sitting down there,” he said.

Engstrom finished building the arrastra in 1974. It’s a replica of one from the 1930s Virden mining camp.

Soon, across the road, the town will hang its own Liberty Bell — the apostrophe will help differentiate it from a certain other bell in Philadelphia.

“The Liberty townsite stands for liberty, which is another way of saying freedom,” Engstrom said.

He said he wants to remind people that this town, its relics and its history, are out here in little old Liberty.

“It is a living ghost town,” he said. “You have to come in and sort of experience the spirit of the place. Because that’s what it’s all about.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the passed use to find Liberty, Washington. It’s off Blewett Pass on U.S. Highway 97. Northwest News Network apologizes for the error.

A sign posted near the town's information area.

A sign posted near the town's information area.

Courtney Flatt / Northwest News Network

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