Abandoned Structures of the American Southwest
Four years ago, when I began to explore the American Southwest in earnest, abandoned structures were not on my list of priorities. Yet over time, journey by journey, I found myself drawn to forgotten and dilapidated homesteads. Each one is a surprise encounter, found on country back-roads most travelers avoid.
The structures have secret stories written in the language of desiccated wood, broken glass, rusted chicken wire, and tattered curtains. They bear witness to our wanderlust. They stand testament to our ancestors’ dreams, struggles, and dogged determination.
Architecture of the Westward Expansion
Significant numbers of settlers ventured West starting in the mid-1800s. Whether they came for adventure, religious freedom, open land, to seek their fortunes or to escape the law, the first order of business was shelter.
As remote locations lacked access to mills, and most settlers did not have the means to carry lumber with them, cabins were built of local materials. Where trees were plentiful (see images from Carson National Forest and Hannagan Meadow, below), simple, one-room cabins were built. Using axes and saws, settlers felled trees, cut logs to even lengths, stripped the bark, and cut notches at the ends so, when stacked, each log would fit snugly into the next at the corners. They daubed cracks between logs with mud or clay to keep out drafts. In locations where trees were less plentiful, settlers made do with whatever they could find, often stripping their wagons for serviceable planks, using local stones, building into hillsides, or adopting Native American adobe brick construction.
The gallery below contains a collection of settler cabins and outbuildings I’ve encountered on my road trips through the Southwest. It’s impossible to look upon these structures and not imagine the lives they sheltered, and what it must have been like to live in these isolated places.
Merlan, Thomas. Historic Homesteads and Ranches in New Mexico: A Historic Context. (2008) Historic Preservation Division, Office of Cultural Affairs: Santa Fe, New
“Pioneer Museum Exhibits.” Pioneer Living History Museum, pioneeraz.org/gallery/.
Wilson, Mary. Log Cabin Studies. United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Inter-mountain Region, 1984.