My Night in a Ghost Town Bus
A ghost town.
An old chili cook-off bus converted to lodging.
An historic cemetery.
A beer drinking goat who serves as town mayor.
A sunken submarine.
And it all takes place in an old southwest Texas town near the Mexican border.
This story begins at a real fort, at least what used to be a real fort, Fort Leaton, just a few miles southeast of Presidio, Texas, less than a mile north of the Mexican border as the crow flies. The fort serves as the official entrance to Big Bend State Park. You pass through the state park on your way to Big Bend National Park, 20 miles further east of the state park.
It was close to noon. I’d just paid my state park entrance fee to ranger on duty in the fort and returned to my car when it occurred to me I might want to find a place to sleep that night.
It’s pretty common for me to get in the car in the morning and not know where I’ll be landing that night. It’s not at all unusual for me to be booking a hotel room, from the highway, an hour before I arrive in the next town over.
Cell service in that part of Texas is what you might call “spotty” and is pretty much non-existent inside the state park. I planned to do some exploring and hiking and didn’t know when the next time I would have cell service.
I’d previously looked at a map and knew there wasn’t much for towns down that way. It seemed wise to book a room before I went any further or I might be sleeping in my car that night. As I opened my iPad from the park entrance and began my search the internet service was slow and even faded in and out from time to time.
I spent a considerable time scrolling and searching, coming up with nothing, before landing upon the little town of Terlingua, better known as the Terlingua Ghost Town, population 110, though I wonder how accurate that count is.
Terlingua, and Lajitas, are the only two towns that even exist between the state and national park. There are a number of hotels and some unique resort properties in the area but all were either booked up, or out of what I consider my price range.
That’s when I stumbled upon The Bus. On the El Dorado Hotel website you’ll find the normal mix of rooms and suites but at the top of the list is an option called simply, The Bus. There’s no photo and the description says little more than it was the Chili Cook-Off Bus.
The price was $139. I was in.
Come to find out, in addition to being a ghost town, among Terlingua’s other claims to fame is that it is the site of the first-ever Chili Cook-off. The old Greyhound-style bus was used to transport visitors and partiers during the event. Long-since retired the hotel had converted it into sleeping quarters.
I won’t pretend it was the fanciest accommodation in the world, it definitely could have used some updating, but it was fun. I mean, come on, it’s a bus! Couches at the front, directly behind the driver’s seat can be converted into beds if needed.
Two strings of tiny purple lights in the ceiling guide you to the back, with a small kitchen area to the right and seating on the left, followed by the bathroom with small shower and, finally, a bedroom and queen-sized bed in the back. All-in-all it was a great place to spend a night.
By the way, the first chili cook-off was held in 1967 and remains an annual event. In fact, if you’re not doing anything next weekend you can still make it. This year’s dates are Nov. 3 – 6.
Back in the 1880s, cinnabar, the mineral from which mercury is extracted, was discovered in Terlingua. By the turn of the century there were seven different mining companies working the area with as many as 3,000 people living there at its peak.
Due to a combination of numerous factors, financial problems, safety in the mines and they had just been mined out, they were pretty much closed up in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Those living there packed up their belongings, left their homes behind, and went looking for work elsewhere.
Today, though they have mostly fallen into rubble, many of those stone and adobe homes are still there. The homes are so small. I have to believe the people living in them would look at the current “tiny home” movement and marvel at how big today’s tiny homes are in comparison.
With no fencing or restrictions, other than avoiding some nearby private property, tourists are free to roam among the structures making it easy to picture what life might have been like there just 80 years ago.
One old mine shaft, a roughly 10-foot wide opening at the top of a hill and descending directly into the ground, has been securely covered with a steel grate you can stand on and peer down into.
Though it might be easy to imagine life above ground, it’s extremely difficult to imagine what it was like to be lowered into that hole every day and spend a life working in darkness underground. It certainly would not be for the claustrophobic.
Of course, some who lived there also died there and are buried in the Terlingua Cemetery, just yards away from the now crumbled homes.
Still in use today, the cemetery is an incredible walk back into time. It’s difficult to describe the emotions one has as you walk around the many graves located there.
(Due to some unfortunate camera issues I’ve lost all my photos from the site but you can see photos others have taken on flickr.)
Now listed on the National Register for Historic Sites, the cemetery was created in 1902. Due to the hard surface on which it is located, many of those buried there are above ground, covered by rocks.
The wooden crosses marking the graves of some of those first buried there more than 100 years ago have lost the fight with time, crumbled and fallen. Local citizens have gathered them together and reverently placed them in a somewhat organized fashion upon the graves.
Graves are marked with all sorts of beads, coins, flowers and family items. A metal rooster stands guard beside the grave of John David “Boss Bird” Tinsley, a Buddha is at the foot of another. Some have lawn chairs opened and waiting for anyone who comes to visit.
Each November 2, people gather there to celebrate the Day of the Dead and offer their respect to the departed.
Beer Drinking Mayor Goat
As the story goes, about 30 years ago, some guy from Houston was drifting through Terlingua when he decided he would run for mayor. A local businessman, upset that an out-of-towner felt he could just walk in and become mayor, decided to run his goat in the election. That would be his beer drinking goat named Clay Henry.
Clay Henry is no longer with us. Rumor has it he was killed by a romantic rival while still in his 20s. But, if you were ever to challenge Clay to a beer drinking contest back in the day, you would lose. Stories say he was known to drink a couple dozen and still have room for a six-pack before the day was done.
Clay lost that first race for mayor however, never one to give up a fight, he ran again the following year and won a resounding victory. I’m not sure how things evolved, but his descendants still hold that title, but in Lajitas, 15 miles down the road, not Terlingua. I’m guessing Terlingua might not even have a mayor anymore.
As for Clay Henry the first, he’s still there. That’s right, you can still see him on display at the Starlight Restaurant in the heart of Terlingua.
Note: A cute ABC13 news video about Clay Henry is available here.
Starlight Restaurant Speaking of the Starlight, it’s located in the former Starlight Theatre, the stage is still there in the back. I did have dinner there and would recommend it.
One tip: I drove up and originally started to drive away because a lot of people were standing around outside. I assumed they were waiting for a table. As I was pulling out of the parking lot though, I glanced up and noticed several empty tables outside so I parked, went inside, and discovered there was plenty of room.
The Starlight is part of a larger structure including a good-sized general store, with some historical memorabilia and a whole host of touristy kinds of items for sale, and a hotel. Turns out the front porch stretching in front of it is a common gathering place for both visitors and locals to just hang out and watch the sunset each evening.
Finally, at the very edge of Terlingua, along the highway, is a property entitled the “Passing Wind”. I’m not sure what kind of passing wind we’re talking about here, I’m guessing the owner has a sense of humor.
Located across the street and just down the hill from my sleeping quarters while there, it was just a short walk over from The Bus to take photos.
Surrounded by a split-rail wooden fence, the property features a full-size dolphin statue painted in the stars and stripes, a sailing ship with tattered sails and a submerged submarine.
Full disclosure, the submarine isn’t really there. What is there is a full-size replica of the conning tower, the top of the submarine.
No one seems to be especially clear on the story behind it all. There’s nothing more to it than what you see, there’s no one charging admission and there's no more to see than what you can view from the road. It’s just another great American roadside attraction.
I do know the conning tower is a tribute to the USS Thresher, a nuclear-powered attack submarine. The submarine sank during deep-diving tests in April, 1963, killing all 129 crew and personnel aboard.
And, I have a great opportunity for the right person. If you’re interested in purchasing yourself a submarine conning tower and a sailing ship, you might give West Texas Realty in Alpine, Texas, a call.
Their sign is on the gate and it appears the property is for sale.
**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address, alansheaven.com, or a link back to this page.