Reckling: The forgotten town of Cisco |

Reckling: The forgotten town of Cisco

Margaret Reckling

Listen very carefully, and the spirits of the past can be heard: miners bragging about their claims, cattlemen whooping and urging on their herds and the laborious turn of wooden wagon wheels across the rugged land. There’s the quiet crying of women missing their men, the whiskey-drenched arguments over card games while the out-of-tune piano music streams through saloon doors that now dangle on one hinge and flap in the prairie wind.

Ghost towns are forgotten places, left behind for dreams of something more; sadly. They mirror life. Sprung on hopes and promises, feverish quests busily played out and then emptied by time, they become frail, cadaverous and weatherworn until gone from this earth, without a trace.

If you’ve ever driven west on I-70, across the Colorado-Utah border, then you’ve passed the ghost town of Cisco Landing. Just beyond the state line, south of the I-70 super corridor, it sits crumbling in the desert sun, its wind-weary buildings leaning whichever way the gusts blew strongest the day their frames began to falter.

Perhaps you’ve ventured this longer way to or from Moab and stopped at Cisco to gaze at the ramshackle town-turned-junkyard. This isn’t a route people would choose if in a hurry. Like humanity’s playground, Cisco is littered with abandoned houses, rusting machinery and random appliances all slowly sinking into the earth. There’s an indescribable beauty in the wreckage and the souls of those who “made it a go” in Cisco, still linger.

I’d passed by it on other trips, but this time, even though it was drizzly and cold, I asked my cohort to turn in so I could take some photographs. It’s as if the inhabitants were sucked into outer space while in the midst of their daily activities. An old pickup truck stood with its door open, a child’s bicycle lay in one front yard, and the tiny post office still had a desk with an old government-issued metal fan plugged into the wall.

As we cruised the town on foot, I peered into one window to see a plastic container filled with decapitated and dismembered dolls, all covered with thick gray dust. Doors to houses stood open, and the only sign of life was a ring-necked dove perched in front of the old general store. If we stepped off the road we sank into thick, gray mud.

Cisco’s history has been a colorful one. Its origin as a vital watering stop, for steam engines between Grand Junction and Salt Lake City for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroads, put it on the map. It also became a provisions and shipping center for cattle ranchers and sheepherders who ranged the vast Book Cliffs area to the north. In 1900, over 100,000 head of sheep were sheared and shipped to market from Cisco Landing.

As “the law” moved in and ran the gunslingers and ne’er-do-wells out of Moab (Butch Cassidy, Kid Curry and Cyd Swasey included), they usually ended up in nearby Cisco.

Saloons were plentiful, as were “joy girls”; this was a Wild West town complete with shootouts, bootleggers and range wars.

Oil and gas reserves were discovered there in 1924, and for a brief time Cisco was the largest shallow-well producer in Utah. This development gave the community a needed boost in commerce, but this too would fade.

America’s post World War II passion for the automobile and motor tours made Cisco a popular rest stop for tired and hungry travelers, and businesses popped up to accommodate them. In the 1940s, about 200 people resided there, but soon its popularity waned. Its existence was then resurrected in the 1950s by a brief period of uranium and vanadium exploration.

But the biggest blow to Cisco would be the same doom many small towns across America would face: the construction of interstate corridors that would bypass communities and their businesses. Johnny Cash once stopped in Cisco and was inspired to write a song:

“He wouldn’t say so but Cisco knew

That the interstate was too much to fight

He still opened at sunrise

And the checker game went on

The cars flew past on highest gas

And the neighbors had sold out and gone … ”

— “Cisco Clifton’s Fillin Station”

Even Hollywood’s film industry was drawn to Cisco’s bleak and remote setting on the eastern Utah plains. “Thelma and Louise,” “Vanishing Point” and “Pontiac Moon” all have scenes shot at Cisco Landing. The 1970s hailed Cisco’s last known business owner; he ran a gas station, but ended up in jail after shooting a motorcyclist in the back as he left without paying.

Today Cisco is abandoned, squatters have been evicted and time may have finally run out for this once vibrant railroad town. Curious or lost tourists may venture out of their cars for a look-see, but even the train passes it by.

Margaret Reckling lives in Woody Creek and welcomes your comments at

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