A Ghost Town Tour Through Central Iowa

The Heart of the Heartland



Gary B. Speck



If you live in Iowa, the “Heartland of America”, you are in the middle of Ghost Town USA!  In September 1994, my wife and I took a cold, drizzly ghost town tour south and southeast of Des Moines, between Winterset and Grinnell.  Through this region we were surprised by the large number of dying, badly faded farm towns that are rapidly approaching ghost town status.  If the sampling of locations in the seven counties we explored are any indication of what's happening in the rest of rural America, thousands of small towns are rapidly becoming extinct.  Since then, we have toured numerous random locations throughout the Heartland and have found this statement to be true.  The entire central part of the country is prime territory for ghost towners to explore!


ACKWORTH (Warren Co.)

This little town is located five miles east of Indianola on State Highway (SH) 92/Couty Route (CR) S23 is the rapidly fading class D community of Ackworth.  Here a cluster of neat homes, a "Friends" church, cemetery and post office remain of a town that has seen its population seesaw a bit from 134 folks in 1900 to 67 in 1940, then increase to 111 in 1970, then decrease to 83 in 2010.  


·        SW¼ Sec 23, T76N, R23W, Fifth Principal Meridian

·        Latitude: 41.36699373 / 41° 22' 01" N

·        Longitude: -93.4727131 / 93° 28' 22" W




On SH 92, five miles east of Ackworth is another small cluster of homes, a repair garage, and an abandoned two-story structure that looks as if it may have been a store at one time.  Size-wise, the community is larger than Ackworth, but population-wise it is slightly smaller, with only 51 people living here in 2010.  Main Street runs parallel of and just one block south of SH 92.  Broadway (220th Ave) is the N-S section line road, bisecting the town.  A post office was in operation May 08, 1855-Jan 31, 1907.  Sandyville made news in April 2007 with a near bankruptcy due to the non-collection of property taxes for a few years.  In 2004 a new city hall and community center were built.  Sandyville was established in 1851, and reached a peak population of 120 in 1900.  It incorporated in 1905 and during the 1930s, it began to fade slightly maintaining a population between 90 and 100 until 1960, when it rose to 115.  It has been on a general decline since.


·        Ctr of section line Sec 21 & 22, T76N, R22W, Fifth Principal Meridian

·        Lat: 41.3708263, Long: -93.3863220

·        Lat: 41° 22' 15" N, Long: 93° 23' 11" W



ATTICA (Marion Co.)

Attica is a little larger than the last two locations, and in the mid-1990s appeared livelier than its 2000 population of 80 would indicate.  Located just southwest of the junction of SH 5/SH 76, 11 miles southeast of Knoxville, the tiny town's claim to fame is one of the few remaining of the 25 or so covered bridges left in the state.  The HAMMOND COVERED BRIDGE is on 170th Place, where it crosses over Cedar Creek, four miles south of town.  It is still in its original position and was refurbished in 2003.  At the time of our visit in 1994, it was driveable, but since its refurbishment, vehicles are diverted to another crossing, and it is only for pedestrian use.  The incorporated town of Attica is a typical, tiny, tree-shaded rural burg that is nothing more than a dot on the map.  It started out as a plat on May 16, 1847.  It was first called Barkersville after one of the founders, James Barker.  The post office was established Aug 29, 1849.  After Mr. Barker had a little “fling” with someone else’s wife, the name of the town was changed to Attica on December 28, 1852.  He then sold the store and post office, which were taken over by B. F. Williams.  There was also a school, hotel and pottery manufacturing business.  In 1914, the town had 125 people, three general stores, the post office and a hotel.


The Attica Post Office closed, and became a rural branch of the Knoxville Post Office on Dec 30, 1965.  It shut down completely Dec 31, 1978.  On May 30, 2008, an EF2 tornado struck Attica, causing extensive damage to buildings, but causing no fatalities.


·        NW¼ Sec 11, T74N, R19W, Fifth Principal Meridian

·        Lat: 41.2297219, Long: -93.0160359

·        Lat: 41° 13' 47" N, Long: 93° 00' 58" W



·        S-Ctr Sec 26, T74N, R19W, Fifth Principal Meridian

·        Lat: 41.177806, Long: -93.014084



Red Rock Reservoir (Marion Co.)

Red Rock Reservoir is a huge man-made lake that swallowed up the sites of at least four old communities along the Des Moines River.  A 1938 road atlas shows towns by the name of FIFIELD, HOWELL, RED ROCK and ROUSSEAU located where the reservoir is now.


Pella (Marion Co.)

With a 2010 population of 10,352, Pella is no ghost!  The only reason it is mentioned is because the restored boyhood home of Wyatt Earp is located in a small park just east of the downtown square.  It is an interesting place to visit if you don't mind spending some bucks a shot for touristy glitz. 


GRAN(D)VILLE (Mahaska Co.)

About ten miles northeast of Pella on SH 102, we turned north on County Road T-38, passing through Taintor (1980 pop-100).  In Taintor the road swings west, and 1.5 miles west makes a sweeping 90º turn to the north again.  Just southwest of this turn and a quarter mile west of Fisher Ave (which heads south from that turn) at a point a half mile south of the turn is the site of Gran(d)ville.  Grandville is shown on 1930s era highway maps, but is not on current maps.  Nothing remains except scattered farms.  There may have been an old road through that area, as GNIS shows some land disturbances along a creek in the aerial photo.  GNIS lists it as GRANVILLE (No “D”).  The Granville Post Office was established Apr 15, 1853, and the name changed to Taintor on Jan 12, 1883.  Whether there was a physical relocation of the office to Taintor is not determined.


·        SW¼ Sec 1, T77N, R17W, Fifth Principal Meridian

·        Lat: 41.4961096, Long: -92.7743601

·        Lat: 41° 29' 46" N, Long: 92° 46' 28" W



GIBSON (Keokuk Co.)

Gibson is a dwindling incorporated city whose population has seesawed a bit in the last half century, maxing out with 80 people in 1970 and dropping to 63 in 1990.  It jumped to 92 in 2000, and in 2010 dipped to 61, the lowest since at least 1960.  In 1994, all that remained were about 30 or so neat homes, an elevator, post office, United Presbyterian Church, and a fairly new bank building sitting at the intersection of Marshall St (110th Ave)/Grinnell (120th) Street.  That intersection is the junction of four section roads (Secs 7, 8, 17, & 18) with the majority of the town on the southwest part. It sits about two miles west of SH 21 in the northwest corner of the county.  The post office was established Oct 15, 1880 as NASSAU, and on Apr 24, 1903, it was renamed GIBSON.  The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad tracks shown on the topo map are gone.  The 2010 census says there were 28 occupied housing units out of the 34 available, which was a big drop from the 41 available in 2000.


·        NW corner Sec 17, T77N, R13W, Fifth Principal Meridian

·        Lat: 41.4811167, Long: -92.3935181

·        Lat: 41° 28' 52" N, Long: 92° 23' 37" W



THORNBURG (Keokuk Co.)

Four miles north of WHAT CHEER on SH 21 is the junction with SH 22.  A mile east a cluster of trees announces the incorporated city of THORNBURG.  After passing the modern "Tri-County School", we entered Thornburg.  This town looks like a ghost town is supposed to look like!  Half the homes in town are abandoned, and "downtown" consisted of five buildings, four of which were unoccupied at the time of our visit in 1994.  On the north side of the street from the east was a single-story brick structure; the tiny, wooden white-painted post office (opened Jan 19, 1880) and the boarded-up, brick McIntire Pump & Water building.  Across the street was the moldering, red clapboard Thornburg Grocery, and just west of that was another combination brick and wood structure.  There were also two churches in town, both of which appeared active.  Like GIBSON, the railroad line and the former station had been removed, isolating the old community.  Other than a slight bump up in population in 1980, Thornburg’s population has steadily decreased from 267 in 1900 to 67 in 2010.  It was originally established in 1879 as a railroad station on the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern Railway.  The post office was established shortly afterward, and the town incorporated September 25, 1883.


·        SW¼ Sec 23, T77N, R13W, Fifth Principal Meridian

·        Lat: 41.4547293, Long: -92.3357394

·        Lat: 41° 27' 17" N, Long: 92° 20' 09" W



WHAT CHEER (Keokuk Co.)

On SH 21, 3.5 miles south of the Thornburg turnoff, we entered a long main street lined with one to three story brick buildings.  What Cheer is an active little city with a population of 646 (2010 Census.).  BUT, that is way down from the 3246 that lived here in 1890.  Other than the addition of 29 folks in 1940, the population has declined through every census since.  Even though What Cheer is technically no ghost, it fits neatly into my classification system and is in the center of what was an active coal mining area.  Despite being a still-active community, about a half of the structures along the main street are unoccupied, or are used for storage, or at least were at the time of our visit in 1994.   One of its two main sites is a three-story brick opera house, which was built in 1893, and is open for tours.  The other is an 1884 two-story brick schoolhouse that houses the historical museum.  The railroad is gone, as is the spirit of the town.  The post office opened Jan 26, 1866 and is still active.


What Cheer was established in 1865 as Petersburg, and on December 01, 1879 it was renamed to What Cheer when the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern Railway arrived to tap the rich coal mines of the area.  As a result, What Cheer turned into a true boomtown and grew to 719 people by 1880 and over 3200 by 1890.  In addition to the mining of coal, several manufacturing businesses that made coal mining tools and equipment also set up shop here.  Through the mining years, the miners went out on strike numerous times and eventually all the mines were unionized.  Several brick manufacturing plants also operated here.


By 1910 most of the mines had faded out, and the population figures reflect that decrease in production, registering “only” 1720 folks in town, about 50% of what was there just 20 years previously.  In 1912, the united Mine Workers, Local 841 only tallied 18 members.  The boom was definitely over.  In 2010, there were 347 housing units, 293 of which were occupied.


·        E½ Sec 9, W½ Sec 10, T76N, R13W, Fifth Principal Meridian

·        Lat: 41.4013970, Long: -92.3546288

·        Lat: 41° 24' 05" N, Long: 92° 21' 17" W



DELTA (Keokuk Co.)

Four miles south of What Cheer, SH 21 intersects with SH 92.  About a mile south of that intersection is the small incorporated city of Delta.  Another covered bridge was located two miles south of the town, but it is well hidden in the trees east of SH 21.  We visited it during our 1990s visit, but it no longer stands as it was burned by an arsonist on Sep 03, 2003.  You may need local directions to find the site, as the signs were not real accurate when we tried visiting back in 1994.  It was built in 1869, and was open only for foot traffic.  It was on 148th Avenue where it crosses the Skunk River, just east of the Kensler Cemetery. 


Delta itself is a sleepy little backwater burg with a 2010 population of 328.  Where they all were (at the time of our visit in 1994) I didn't know, but the frazzled old downtown core didn't reflect much of a town on the move.  The railroad and its station are gone, there were also a grocery store, post office (established Feb 01, 1876), Floden's Diner (closed) and Last Chance Saloon all still identifiable with signs.  There were numerous other buildings that appeared to be closed but were without signage, so I couldn't tell what they were.  Delta peaked in 1910 with a population of 728.


·        SW¼ Sec 2, NW¼ Sec 11, T75N, R13W, Fifth Principal Meridian

·        Lat: 41.3227881, Long: -92.3301841

·        Lat: 41° 19' 22" N, Long: 92° 19' 49" W



·        Ctr Sec 14, T75N, R13W, Fifth Principal Meridian

·        Lat: 41.2988998, Long: -92.3229618

·        Lat: 41° 17' 56" N, Long: 92° 19' 23" W



ROSE HILL (Mahaska Co.)

Back in a rainy 1994 visit, I spotted the sign for Rose Hill, and turned south off SH 22 in search of another adventure.  Rose Hill with a 2010 population of 168 is another badly faded farm town that seems so typical of rural central Iowa.  At the time of our visit in 1994, over half of the commercial buildings were either converted to houses, or were unoccupied.  I saw only a restaurant, feed store and body shop open.  The wooden community center had recently burned and was wrapped in fluorescent red nylon netting to keep people out. The post office opened Sep 24, 1849, and changed name to ORNBAUM on Dec 17, 1875.  It changed back to Rose Hill three months later on Mar 15, 1876.  Unlike many of the other towns in this study, Rose Hill has not had any drastic drops in population.  It peaked in 1930 with 275 people, and has maintained that 200 +/- level until the latest census when the vacancy rate for housing was about 16%, a bit over the state’s rate of 9.1%. 


·        SW¼ Sec 3, NW¼ Sec 10, T75N, R14W, Fifth Principal Meridian

·        Lat: 41.3219533, Long: -92.4621318

·        Lat: 41° 19' 19" N, Long: 92° 27' 44" W



TRACY (Marion Co.)

Midway between Oskaloosa and Knoxville, just east of the county line and 2.3 miles south of SH 92 is the small unincorporated town of Tracy.  Tracy is another typical small rural community.  It was laid out November 11, 1875 with 149 lots.  It was named for its developer, Alexander F. Tracy.  In 1914, it consisted of 275 people, two railroads, a bank, furniture store, three general stores, hardware/farm implement store, post office, four-teacher school, telegraph & express office, telephone exchange, and a Methodist-Episcopal Church. 

Its 1990 population of 300 (450 in 2000) is no match for what remains of the town, unless there has been a radical reversal in fortune.  In 1994, it consisted of scattered commercial buildings and some 50-75 homes, which were mostly occupied.  Its claim to fame however is the huge, brown-brick, two-story 1914 school standing on a grassy knoll.  The town’s post office opened on Jan 31, 1876 and is still open (50256).


·        SE¼ Sec 24, NE¼ Sec 25, T75N, R18W, Fifth Principal Meridian

·        Lat: 41.2763905, Long: -92.8754767

·        Lat: 41° 16' 35" N, Long: 92° 52' 32" W



HARVEY (Marion Co.)

Just a mile or so west of the southern junction to Tracy is a small turnoff to the north, marked Harvey.  During our summer, 1994 visit, the rain had let up so we decided this would make a nice last stop on our tour.  Downtown Harvey with 235 people (2010 Census), is just a shadow of what it once was.  In 1994, it was just a handful of abandoned buildings with an active post office (50119), a bar called the "Trucker's Inn", and an abandoned school.  Harvey has a number of abandoned coal mines in the vicinity, so it appears that its happy days were long ago in the past. It was surveyed and platted December 12, 1876 and named for James Harvey, a local landowner.  The post office originally opened as HARVEYVILLE on Sep 11, 1882, but the “ville” was dropped and it became just plain old HARVEY on Dec 15, 1886.  The town incorporated as a city on November 17, 1903.  In 1914 it had an agriculture implement shop, a bank, brick & tile plant, two churches, two general stores, hotel, four-teacher school, telegraph office and a telephone exchange.  It peaked in 1920 with 422 people, so it is hovering just shy of 50% of that population.


·        NW¼ Sec 10, T75N, R18W, Fifth Principal Meridian

·        Lat: 41.3158330, Long: -92.9240884

·        Lat: 41° 18' 57" N, Long: 92° 55' 27" W



This was our GHOST TOWN OF THE MONTH for April 2002.




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FIRST POSTED:  April 01, 2002

LAST UPDATED: September 27, 2012




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