What is it that is so compelling about the idea of a ghost town? Wind blowing through tall, unkempt grasses around the crumbling remains of buildings. Ancient town signs decaying and hanging haphazardly from old posts. Buildings standing creepily derelict is enough to pique the interest of even the most casual observer. These sorts of scenes fill the imagination with a fuller, busier time in the life of a former town.

There are several reasons a town can pop up, seemingly overnight, then fade away into history. One major contributor to this phenomenon in Oklahoma? Oil booms.

The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture describes in detail the culture around the oil fields of the early twentieth century when “black gold” was putting this new state on the proverbial map. The promise of wealth and employment that surrounded the discovery of oil caused people to arrive in droves – and towns to spring up quickly. 

Oil booms happened across Oklahoma – including in Drumright (above) and Slick (main image). These towns are now abandoned. Photos courtesy the Oklahoma Historical Society

Those towns that seemed to develop overnight on the heels of oil discoveries often had interesting naming conventions. Many were named for oil companies such as Wolco – named for the Wolverine Oil Company – and Carter Nine – named for the Carter Oil Company. And a favorite for anyone studying Oklahoma history, Whiz Bang, was named for a popular joke magazine of the time, Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang.

Empire City is another oil boom town with a unique name, and a unique story. This town near Duncan sprouted up in the late 1910’s, but had all but disappeared just a few decades later. However, in the 1980’s, according to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, the city was expanded and the population blossomed back up to nearly 1,000 in 2010.

Slick seems like an appropriate name for an oil town, but in reality it was named after an oil tycoon, Thomas B. Slick. In 1920, the town of Slick, in Creek County near Bristow, benefited from the oil industry as well as a railroad line to the town. At its largest, Slick had a reported population of more than 5,000. However, by 1930, the population had shrunk to less than 500 and the railroad was abandoned.

Oil boom towns were not unique to Oklahoma, but their proliferation in our state adds color and intrigue to the history. And while most of them have only left behind the occasional cemetery or dilapidated building, the stories remain to inform us of the fascinating past of Oklahoma.

What is a Ghost Town, Really?

According to the Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, referencing John W. Morris’s Ghost Towns of Oklahoma, the definition of a ghost town is one that either no longer exists at all, any remaining structures are no longer used, or the population has declined by at least 80% from its peak. Using this definition, Morris estimates that Oklahoma has more than 2,000 of them.

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