Ghost Towns: America’s Fascination with a Bygone Era

ghost town

There are abandoned towns all over the world. Some like Pripyat and Chernobyl, the cities that were abandoned after the nuclear plant disaster in 1986, are eerie reminders of a once bustling energy town that literally died overnight. Few towns were abandoned as quickly as those surrounding the nuclear reactor, though. Most dwindle away slowly, until residents are forced to relocate for economic reasons.

During the 19th century, towns across the United States seemingly sprung up over night with the discovery of gold. And almost as quickly, these same towns were deserted and became the ghost towns that romanticize the culture of a bygone era. Not all ghost towns across America were abandoned when the gold rush faded. Some towns suffered when production decreased dramatically in single economy towns, while others met similar fates when major highways bypassed once thriving economic centers.

Thurmond, West Virginia

thurmond, west virginia, ghost town
Image courtesy Flickr user bobistraveling

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 was 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.

Cahawba, Alabama

ghost towns of america kirkpatrick slave quarters home in old cahaba

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 after that move. 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

ghost towns of america virginiacitymontanaghosttown
Image courtesy Flickr user David

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, when 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 also home to famed frontierswoman, Calamity Jane.

Kennecott, Alaska

ghost towns of america 47218645  wood fades on kennecott near mccarthy alaska

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.

Bannack, Montana

ghost towns of america bannackmontanaghosttown

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 the 1954. Today, over sixty structures remain standing and many can still be explored.

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