About the project

If the last man in Horton, Mont., hadn't been struck by a train in 1999, Horton may not have vanished forever from the Montana state highway map.

One hundred fifty miles away, the Johnke and Pugrud families lived along the rimrocks above Flatwillow when their town was slated for removal from the map. They didn't want to suffer Horton's fate, so they fought and won.

In 2000, the Montana Department of Transportation proposed removing 18 towns from the state highway map. The department used the Geographic Names Information System, the list of post offices and census data. The main criteria for inclusion on the map became a population of at least one year-round resident.

The goal of the new digitally produced map was to update and improve the state highway map. MDT wanted an accurate map that wouldn't lead tourists and other travelers astray in Big Sky Country. Horton appears on Mapquest.com, but the town no longer exists.

MDT's initial reports identified 18 towns to be removed from the map. Word got out and residents of towns like Flatwillow spoke up.

“Hey, we're still here,” Flatwillow native Jim Johnke responded.

After public outcry about town erasure, MDT contacted county commissioners in order to get on-the-ground research.

“What we found out is that people are very passionate about what is on the map,” said Bill Cloud, Chief of the Data and Statistics Bureau at MDT.

When the official state highway map was created in 2001 ultimately nine communities remained, nine disappeared.

Their stories explore the issue of depopulation in the Great Plains, but they are not ghost tales. These are stories of towns clinging to existence like tumbleweed to a barbed wire fence. They're not just farming towns, they're railroad towns, mining towns, and mountain towns. Some have all but blown away in the western wind, while others balance at the vanishing point of the 21st century.

The destiny of each town provides a lens into the changing rural West and the fragility of place. As the MDT found out, when you propose to erase a town, it's about so much more than just words on a map.