In the USA, ghost towns are primarily associated with the Old West. The idea is mostly that a town sprung up next to a mine or as part of some other form of speculation, and then eventually the business opportunity dried up and forced everyone to move away.
Around the world, the reality is very different. Communities have been abandoned for reasons that have nothing to do with economic busts, sometimes so quickly that personal belongings are left strewn about the house. Let’s trot the globe to those abandoned places that are often as fascinating as they are tragic.
Bodie was named in honor of W.S. Bodey, a miner who found gold in 1859, and thus began a minor gold rush years after California’s most famous gold rush had died down. The town was founded in 1861, its namesake having frozen to death the prior winter. Bodie became the site of its own rush in 1875, when a mine collapse revealed a rich vein of gold. While Bodie is hardly as famous as San Francisco or Los Angeles today, for a time it looked like it might go on to be a major metropolis since, in 1880, it was the third largest city in California with 10,000 people. It was so cash rich that there were 200 restaurants and 65 saloons. It was also a rough crowd, and there were rumors the town endured six shootings a week.
By the 1890s, the gold supply and population had already begun to dwindle. Adding to its troubles, a fire broke out in 1892 and burned down much of the town. By 1917, Bodie was so dead that its rail lines were raided for scrap. Then in 1932 another major fire burned much of the town down. Officially the town’s mine was killed off in 1942 when all mining not essential for WWII was banned.
Still, in 1962, since the town was cleared out so completely, it was designated a preserved historical site, which ironically turned it into a tourist boom town again with as many as 1,000 visitors a day in summer. The winter, though, is a very different story. They get so severe in Bodie that in 1999 it was the coldest recorded spot in America 71 times, the largest number of anywhere that year. Even the hardiest snowmobilers will hesitate to put up with that.
In the wake of the Allied Normandy landings on June 6, 1944, the Wehrmacht massively stepped up its operations to put down French partisan activity. Ordaur-sur-Glane was one target in the sights of the 2nd Panzer Division, whose leader was freshly arrived from the Eastern Front, where standard procedure in the wake of a partisan attack was to kill thousands of civilians in reprisal whether or not they had anything to do with the attack. On June 10, 1944, the SS arrived in the town, where the population was 650 — roughly half of them newly arrived refugees. The soldiers gathered the population in the town square, then placed the women and children into the town church and set fire to it, including throwing in grenades. All but eight of the other residents were gunned down, with the rest of the village being looted before being put to the torch. Unusually for World War II atrocities, there was a subsequent public outrage that the Wehrmacht attempted to address with a farce of an investigation and a show trial, which inevitably concluded that the atrocity had been justified.
In 1946, the mostly destroyed town was set to be preserved as a historical site by the French government. Ordaur-sur-Glane became so prominent an event that references were made to the massacre during the Nuremberg trials. Even as late as 2013, the German government was considering reopening the cases against the SS officers involved.
More than 1,400 years is a good run for any community. Craco, a village carved out of rock in the Southern Italian region of Basilicata, was founded in the 6th Century AD. It endured such crises as raids and the Black Death. What ultimately did it in was a series of earthquakes and landquakes through the 1950s and 1960s that left the village utterly unstable. The government wasn’t willing to risk the roughly 1,800 citizens being crushed or plummeting to their deaths and moved them out, a difficult process which left many of them essentially refugees in tent cities for years.
Given that the village is still there more than half a century later, that may have seemed premature, though who knows how much more wear and tear those citizens going about their business would have added to the terrain over the years. The feeling is further reinforced by the fact the village hosts biannual festivals. Not to mention that it was judged sufficiently safe that movie productions such as The Passion of the Christ partially took place there. Who knows how many of the displaced residents want to move back now.
7. Hashima Island
Considering that it is situated off the coast of the infamous city of Nagasaki, it’s not surprising that Hashima Island is overshadowed. In the 1850s, the island was revealed to be a rich coal mine, and it attracted miners willing to go 2,000 feet under the earth. It was such a business hotspot that it attracted 5,000 people, which might not sound like many but considering that it’s a sixteen acre island that made it for a time the most densely populated location on Earth. It should be noted that many of the miners were prisoners of war from Korea and the UK. It wasn’t until 1974 that the coal mine went dry, and in short order everyone left the island town to crumble.
Not to say that people stopped caring about it. Japan also tried to get the island declared a UNESCO Heritage site in 2006. Considering its history of slavery, it was a surprise to many that the application was approved in 2015. Today the site accepts tourists from Nagasaki, even though much of it is considered too structurally unsound for visitors.
Speaking of ghost towns being unsafe, this Western Australia mining town about 500 miles from Perth was founded in 1950. At its height there were roughly 20,000 residents. It lasted until 1966, when it turned out that the asbestos mine that the company town sprung up to support was filling the air with so many toxins that an estimated 300 miners died from mesothelioma. The government shut down the mine and the population rapidly dropped off. Despite the evacuations, it wasn’t until 2007 that the town was struck from government maps.
Despite the risks, as of March 2019 three people insisted on living in the town built for 20,000. What’s more, they would invite tourists to come see one of the most contaminated places in the Southern Hemisphere. Some tourists are even willing to go down into the deadly mine shafts. The government had to resort to expensive voluntary property buybacks to clear a few of them out, with costs for unsafe homes rising as high as $325,000, not to mention $50,000 for moving costs. If the threat of death by cancer isn’t enough to clear them out, money probably won’t do much better.
In 1926, Ford Motor Co. began work on a community deep in the Amazon Basin to grow and harvest its own rubber trees to ensure that the company’s rubber supply wasn’t vulnerable to trade embargoes. The town housed 5,000 people, of whom 3,000 were laborers. Within eight years, it would be abandoned by Ford.
Problems included, but were not limited to, the fact that the imported rubber trees were extremely vulnerable to all sorts of caterpillars, snails, and other pests of the Amazon to the point where the workers needed to try and pick them off by hand. Other animals caused more grievous harm, such as when a large river fish bit off the arm of the manager’s maid or when a jaguar carried off a baby. The homes the company constructed were prefabs built for the American Midwest and were much too hot and stuffy for the Amazon. Over the first three years, 28 Ford employees were buried in the town cemetery.
Meanwhile the local workers, being migratory people, were not eager to be tied down to the same grueling work for prolonged periods. Consequently most would work to receive high wages for a short period and leave, aside from the unhealthy and physically disabled that needed Fordlandia’s generous medical care. Fordlandia never came anywhere near its rubber production quota, and in 1945 Ford sold the land back to the government, having lost $7.8 million overall, though some sources put it as high as $20 million (the equivalent of over $200 million today). The Ford Company people were seemingly so eager to leave that they left behind many personal belongings, such as clothing. Who could blame them?
When diamonds are so pervasive in a town that all someone has to do is sift through some nearby sand, it’s understandable to think that the supply will continue forever. In 1912, the mines in the Namibian city of Kolmanskop produced roughly 12% of the world’s diamond supply, which is especially impressive for a community where the population never went above 1,000. What had once been the kind of town that was founded because its namesake, John Coleman, abandoned his ox-cart there was changed forever when a Zecharia Lewala discovered the precious gems while doing railway work in 1908. The boom times ended unusually fast, and by 1930 the town’s mines had been picked clean, and by 1956 the last holdout had left the rapidly depleted town
The fact the town ruins are located in sand dunes are turning out to be a little bit of a mixed blessing. On one hand, they’ve threatened the bury the town for a long time. On the other, the lack of vegetation and moisture has left the buildings so well-preserved that the paint on some of the walls is still brightly colored. It’s well-situated to be a long-lasting, if well hidden, time capsule.
In December 1943 the 225 residents of this village near the Dorset Coast were ordered out because the Royal Armoured Corps Gunnery School wanted to expand its firing range, and this village was in the way. Even after the Great War ended the UK military claimed that they still needed the land for their firing range, and despite considerable protests the villagers were never allowed to move back. Despite the proximity to the firing range, the most significant form of structural damage the village suffered was a manor house being torn down so that the parts could be recycled.
The village was noted as being unusually well preserved and producing a number of rare plants such as dark green fritillary due to lack of human activity, aside from tourists during military down times. Not that it is anywhere near perfectly preserved. In 2019 the Ministry of Defense closed tourist access to seven of the buildings since they had been judged unsafe. Hopefully the daredevil tourists who went to the Wittenoom asbestos mines don’t consider that a sort of challenge.
For years, Dhanushkodi had the distinction of being near the only land border between India and Sri Lanka, specifically the southeastern section of Pamban Island. It also was near a location that possessed a bridge significant to Hindu history. It was a highly successful fishing community of several thousand. This success came to an abrupt end in 1964 when the community was hit by a cyclone, a night that left as many as 1,800 people dead. The village was left to the elements, and some of what used to be the village is now submerged as the sand eroded.
Because of the village’s religious significance, many people wanted to visit the devastated town. Pilgrims that wish to perform a ritual of walking out into the ocean water and saying prayers have come in groups numbering as many as 1,200. As far as permanent residents are concerned, only a few fishing families cut off from modern amenities want to risk being in the path of another cyclone.
It’s the most famous community that was evacuated in the wake of the April 26, 1986 Chernobyl Disaster. On the day after the core of the nuclear plant exploded, nearly 50,000 people were cleared out, a bit under half the people that used to live in the thousand square miles that comprise the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the area the government determined was still unsafe to live in. Due to the abruptness of the evacuation, the city became a particularly eerie place where numerous possessions, even half-finished meals, were merely left in an uncanny state as if their owners had simply winked out of existence. Since the radiation left the city so unsafe to visit, only the most daring could take photos of its creepy vistas.
At least, that’s how it used to be. In recent years, Pripyat has become relatively lively with visitors, many of whom are quite obnoxious about it. The city has many instances of obscene graffiti that have been added in recent years, along with such curious rituals as people putting lockets around metal poles. Despite its harrowing content, the 2019 HBO/Sky coproduction Chernobyl actually increased visitors to the city.
Even before curious people flocked to Pripyat, there was a small group that refused to stay away after the evacuation. The Exclusion Zone is estimated to be home to roughly 200 villagers. Few young people who leave the Exclusion Zone for education are willing to ever return, a situation likely all too relatable for many of our readers who live in rural communities.
Dustin Koski is also one of the authors of A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong, a story about a village in danger of becoming a ghost town because everyone turned into monsters.