There are abandoned towns all over the world. Some, like Pripyat and Chernobyl — the cities that were abandoned after the famed nuclear plant disaster in 1986 — are eerie reminders of a once bustling energy town that literally died overnight. But, few towns were abandoned as quickly as those surrounding the nuclear reactor. Most dwindle away slowly until residents are forced to relocate for economic reasons.
During the 19th century, towns across the United States sprung up overnight with the discovery of gold and silver ore. Almost as quickly, these same towns were deserted and became the ghost towns that romanticize the culture of a bygone era. However, not all ghost towns across America were abandoned when the gold rush faded. Some suffered when production decreased dramatically in single economy towns, while others met similar fates when major highways bypassed once-thriving economic centers.
Here’s an introduction to the most fascinating ghost towns of America.
Thurmond, West Virginia
According to the 2010 census, this once-booming coal mining town still had a population of five residents. Located within the New River Gorge, Thurmond occupies a narrow strip of land along the same train tracks that were also its only access to the outside world until 1921. Today, the town remains surprisingly the same as when it was largely abandoned in the 1950s. Thurmond is on the National Register of Historic Places and the restored train depot now serves as a visitor center for tourists.
The first state capital of Alabama from 1820 to 1825, Cahawba (also spelled Cahaba) was located at the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba Rivers. The capital was moved after a major flood in 1825. The town recovered and reestablished itself as an agricultural hub until after the Civil War where it also served as a prison for Union soldiers. The state legislature moved the county seat to nearby Selma and the town never recovered. The site is now a state historic landmark and tourists can explore the ruins of the former capital city along with its empty streets and cemeteries.
Virginia City, Montana
Nearly a year after its discovery in nearby Bannack, gold was also discovered along Alder Creek and a boomtown was born. By 1865, Virginia City was the new territorial capital. As with most boomtowns of the era, Virginia City was no exception. By 1875, the territorial capital was relocated to Helena, and Virginia City was largely abandoned. Virginia City was named a National Historic Landmark in 1961 and today it, along with neighboring Nevada City, is the top state-owned tourist attraction in Montana and is considered to be one of the best examples of Old West mining towns where hundreds of historic buildings still remain. Additionally, the town was home to famed frontierswoman, Calamity Jane.
Located in the remote Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Kennecott is one of the best-preserved examples of its kind in the world. Established in 1903, the copper mine and its town were home to miners and their families until 1938 when the copper ore was depleted and the town abandoned. Between 1911 and 1938, the mine processed more than $200 million in copper ore. The mine and its town are now a National Historic Landmark and the site has become one of Alaska’s most visited tourist destinations. A guide is required to explore the iconic red mill building that stands 14 stories tall and overlooks the Kennicott glacier.
Founded in 1862 when gold was discovered at Grasshopper Creek, Bannack became the first Territorial Capital of Montana in 1864. When gold was discovered in neighboring Virginia City, the stagecoach route between the two towns became the scene of many robberies and murders. The gang that plagued the route was discovered to be the town’s own sheriff who was later arrested and hanged. The town continued exploring its mining opportunities until the 1930s and the well-preserved town was declared a state park in 1954. Today, more than 60 structures remain and many can still be explored.
In 1859, a mining camp was established along what is today California’s U.S. Route 395. By the 1870s, substantial gold deposits were discovered nearby and the town boomed for several decades. By the early 20th century, however, the town was in serious decline. The last railcars rolled out in 1918, after which the line was abandoned. Today, Bodie remains the best-preserved ghost town in the entire country. The 110 still-standing structures are managed as part of the California State Park system. Exploring the old post office, original homes (many with dishes and everyday wares still scattered about), and intact stamp mill is like walking through a century-old snapshot frozen in time.
St. Elmo, Colorado
Like most of the ghost towns on this list, St. Elmo’s rise and fall were sharp. By the late 19th century, more than 2,000 residents lived in the Colorado mining town. In the following decade, the quality of silver and gold ore dropped dramatically, taking much of the economy with it. A decade later, newly discovered ore deposits rekindled the town’s prospects, but the town was abandoned entirely by 1936. Today, many of its original buildings are largely intact, and it even boasts a few full-time residents.
Castle Dome, Arizona
Situated in southwestern Arizona near the city of Yuma, Castle Dome was settled as a mining town in 1863. Over the decades, the quality of the town’s ore supply declined rapidly when it was discovered to be more lead than silver. That economic turn became a favorable one, however, during both World Wars when the town supplied much of the bullet lead to the U.S. government. In the 1990s, the entire town was privately purchased and reopened as Castle Dome City, Ghost Town and Museum. The new owners kept many of the original structures and added replicas well. Many are loaded with original artifacts from the mining days and staged Wild West shootouts and knife fights add a bit of retro cheesiness to the visitor experience.
Centralia was yet another victim of the U.S. decline in mining, but not in the same way as the others on this list. A massive underground coal fire ignited beneath the town in 1962 and it’s been burning ever since. The town’s population plummeted from more than 1,000 in 1980 to less than 10 in 2013. Not surprisingly, the town was subsequently condemned. However, some (clearly insane) residents still call the town home. Due to the dangerous air toxicity and high potential for sinkholes, most of it is strictly off limits. However, that hasn’t stopped the hundreds of “ruin porn”-seeking visitors who visit its decaying streets each year.
Article originally published by Clay Abney on June 15, 2017. Last updated by Mike Richard to include even more fascinating ghost towns.
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