You Asked, We Answered: What Happened To The People In That N.H. Ghost Town?

Jul 21, 2017

Credit NHPR/Sara Plourde

The woods of New Hampshire are scattered with signs of civilization: crumbling foundations, railroad spikes, scraps of unidentifiable metal.

Find enough of these in one place, and you're probably looking at a ghost town - a place people once called home, and have long-since abandoned. 

A population of zero is the defining feature of these places. Which is why Samar Kalaf was curious about a certain blip on the U.S. census. He posed this question as part of our ongoing project, Only in New Hampshire:

"Apparently the 2000 census had three people living in Livermore, but none in 2010. What happened to them?"

Samer is referring to Livermore, NH --- a former logging town in the middle of the White Mountains that's been abandoned for over sixty years. So this wasn't any ordinary population shift. Before I could determine what happened to the Livermore Three, I had to figure out how they got there to begin with.

Step one in tracking down the folks who ghosted a ghost town: find Livermore on a map.

Map: Scroll out to see where Livermore is relative to other New Hampshire towns

The former town, officially an "unincorporated place," or "unorganized territory," makes up a huge chunk of the White Mountain National Forest. But when I couldn't find any addresses in Livermore - not on maps or search engines or in old phone books - I gave Ken Gallagher a call. He works at the State Data Center with the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning. 

The theory I posed? The whole resident of Livermore thing was a hoax.

Ken shut that one down.

"That's not really how it works. The census has a list of addresses that they send forms to," he said.

So you can't play a practical joke on the U.S. Census. And according to Ken, if the census says someone lives in Livermore, then there's got to be a place for someone to live in Livermore. But how could someone have an actual address in a ghost town in a National Forest?

The ruins of Livermore, ft. a ghost town detective
Credit NHPR/Sara Plourde

Ken speculates that as much as ten percent of the National Forest is publicly-owned. These parcels of land are called "in-holdings." And their existence means it's possible there's a private pocket of land where Livermore used to be.

It was time to talk to an historian.

Enter Dr. Peter Crane, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Livermore back in the early 90s, when there were still people living who had once lived in the town.

"It was quite an adventure," Peter says, "not just to explore the area and explore it in documents, but also to explore it with folks who had firsthand experience in the town."

Livermore might be a collection of crumbling ruins now, but it had a good fifty year run. The town sprang up in the 1870s when two brothers launched a logging operation in the White Mountains. They built a town, a mill, and a railroad.

Workers moved in, and brought their families. The Saunders Brothers who founded the place built a company store and a school.

Loggers on Main Street in Livermore, the Saunders Mansion in the background.
Credit Courtesy Rick Russack/White Mountain History

And for a while, that town thrived, turning timber into lumber, lumber into cash. People were married, babies were born. By 1900, the population hit around 200.

But then... things started to go downhill.

The Saunders brothers died, and left the whole operation to a less-than-qualified attorney.

Population in 1920: 98.

Then a fire destroyed the mill, and their one train on the Sawyer River Railroad fell into the river. And then there was a huge flood in 1927. That took out the railroad itself.

Population in 1930: 23.

The Saunders Mansion
Credit Courtesy Rick Russack/White Mountain History

And then, of course, there are the trees... the whole reason the town was built to begin with. In just a few decades, the loggers of Livermore cut most of the good stuff.

Population in 1940: four souls.

By 1950, the town was empty. A year later, it was disincorporated.

Population in 1950... zero. In 1960, 1970 and 1980? zero. 1990... zero.

In 2000? Three.

There is one relevant piece of information I picked up as I was scouring the internet for intel on Livermore. If you research deed holders in the former town, the name "Shackford," comes up. Betty and Bob Shackford.

And for a while, that trail was cold. Because Bob passed away in 1992, and Betty died just this spring. Part of the reason Bob had land in Livermore was his connection to the North Country. He got the parcel at a discount; the lawyer in charge of the estate wouldn't sell it to any outsiders. And Bob stuck with that theme. Though the Forest Service had interest in the land, he never sold.

So, after weeks searching for a phone number, I managed to get in touch with the Shackfords, who still own that land today. I met three generations of them at Bob and Betty's home in Conway, and spoke with Matt Shackford, the couple's grandson.

"We have people all the time come up in the summer and they're always curious of how we acquired Livermore,"Matt explained, "and I love telling the story."

Mark and Gary, two of Bob and Betty's three sons, shared memories of going up to "camp." They call it "Sawyer's River," and it's still very much alive to them.

Because just before you arrive at the ruins of Livermore, tucked behind some tress, there's a little red cabin. Bob Shackford built it from the remains of a Livermore mansion that once stood on the land. And the Shackfords go as often as they can.

Which brings us back to Matt, the man with the key to the Livermore Three.

The Shackford Camp at Livermore.
Credit NHPR/Sara Plourde

"That was me," Matt laughed, " I walked up to the gentleman," by gentleman, he means the census taker who wandered up to the cabin, "he was asking if we lived there. I said, 'I'd like to.' Kind of as a joke, I threw it out that we lived there, at least in the summer. And he said, 'alright.' So. Hopeful thinking, I think. I was wishing we could live up there."

So, that's the story. A census taker ran into Matt and his parents up at the old camp, and wishful thinking turned into official census data.

None of the Shackfords are actually residents of Livermore. But their inheritance means a lot to them. And all of them agree, you can feel the spirit of the old logging town just being there.

With the mystery solved, I gave Samer a call to let him know I'd tracked down his disappearing citizens. He considered it an interesting journey to a clerical error, if a little less spooky than it could've been.

"I thought for a second there when you were talking about parcels of land that there was going to be some origin for a Stephen King novel or something. But the actual answer was incredibly interesting, too."

There's a chance Livermore could make its way back onto the census, albeit in a slightly more legitimate way. Matt Shackford is toying with the idea of building some more houses on their land and bringing Livermore back to life as a real, live town. But for now, it remains a ghost.