‘Ghost town’ might evoke the image of an old Wild West town with tumble-weed and hardened cowboys passing through – or maybe an abandoned (haunted?) broken down fairground. But in fact, ghost towns are defined as abandoned cities, towns, and villages that were once inhabited, but no longer. Whether it’s a ghost town from the old west, or an abandoned city from the 20th century, these broken-down civilisations are an enigma for people all around the world. These long-forgotten structures have been left to ruin, and continue to decay with each passing day.
Ghost towns have turned into the subject of photographic art, tourist destinations, and even curiosities for potential ghost-hunters. Ghost towns came about through a variety of different ways, but they almost always stem from a tragic tale; be it economic downfall, war, or natural disasters. These ghost towns act as cemeteries for the society that they once housed, and buildings are the gravestones. With the rise of ghost hunting interest in contemporary media, ghost towns have become a hot topic when it comes to places to visit. Thrill seekers, ghost hunters, tourists, historians, and enthusiasts visit these places in hopes of perceiving a snapshot of a forgotten past. These abandoned locations have much to tell us about our past, present, and even – in an apocalyptic, doomed sort of way – our future.
We’ve trawled the history books to bring you the stories of the biggest ghost towns around the world, the towns that housed thousands of people and are now effectively abandoned. The towns included on this list were once inhabited – some by several thousand people – and were a microcosm of the society in which they were formed. There are numerous ghost towns around the world that were intended to – and some did, for a time – house thousands of people, but with tragedies like the real estate market downfall, these locations were never inhabited to full capacity and eventually, becoming unsustainable, shut down. The ghost towns included on this list once thrived as a community, and now are just ruins left in fragments doomed to rot away into the ground. From the smaller towns to populations so big they’d once have been considered small cities, read on to learn the history of ten of the world’s biggest ghost towns.
10. Craco, Italy – Original Population: 1,800
Dating back to 1060, and located at what would be the instep of the famous country shaped like a boot, Craco was once a thriving medieval town. This Italian city had a strong relationship with the Church – it was owned by the Archbishop Arnaldo, Bishop of Tricarico – which meant that the Church had a marked influence over the population. In the late 1800’s, Craco boomed to a population of over 2,000 people. However, agricultural problems brought on desperate times for the city, and over a thousand of its residents relocated to North America between 1892 and 1922. Then came an onslaught of earthquakes, war, and landslides, causing the departure of even more of the town’s residents. In 1963, the 1,800 residents left in Craco were relocated (due to the continuing landslides and quakes) to another valley called Craco Peschiera. Craco to this day remains spookily abandoned and in a state of ruin and decay.
9. Kayakoy, Turkey – Original Population: 2,000
After a population swap, over 350 homes sit abandoned in the Turkish village of Kayakoy. Nestled against the mountains and right next to the beach, it’s hard to believe that this place remains a ghost town. The town was built in the 1700s and it is said that it once housed as many as 2,000 people in its early years. But after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the fallout from World War I, Greece and Turkey were plunged into the Greco-Turkish War between 1919-1922, which lead to bloody land grabbing. Greeks fled the violence and found a safe haven in Turkey. Later, in an effort to forge peace, the governments came to an agreement of a mutual ‘compulsory population exchange’ in 1923. Kayakoy was abandoned and its residents headed back Greece. Due to harsh winters, rains, and winds, the village has aged remarkably since the abandonment and could now be mistaken for an ancient village.
8. Centralia, Pennsylvania – Original Population: 2,751
Centralia, PA is a coal-mining town that grew rapidly after the mines were opened in 1856. The town thrived with schools, theatres, homes, and more. However, in 1962 workers set some garbage on fire (a common practice at the time) without realizing that there was a vein of anthracite coal that, being extremely flammable, ignited. Efforts to put out the fire were in vain and the fire continued to burn below the surface of the town even after the external fire was extinguished. The underground of Centralia began to burn and, incredibly, the fire rages to this day. After efforts to contain the flames, the government could no longer afford to maintain the town and the state of Pennsylvania condemned Centralia. Even though erased from the map and zip code revoked, there are still curiously about 10 people remaining in the once thriving town of Centralia.
7. Fordlândia, Brazil – Original Population: 5,000
Known as Henry Ford’s forgotten “jungle city”, Fordlândia was founded in 1928 as a potential industrial city for the purposes of growing rubber – so that they wouldn’t have to depend on British rubber. Ford dreamed that the town would become a Disney-like vision with Americanized town centres, ice cream shops, and Model T Fords wherever you went. The Brazilian workers were even forced to wear ID badges and eat American food. However, the plan became a failure because the land was infertile, and the workers revolted in 1930 (and were quickly squashed by the Brazilian Army).
6. Gunkanjima, Japan – Original Population: 5,259
A relic of a bygone era, Hashima Island was given its nickname Gunkanjima, which means “battleship island”. It’s located in the Nagasaki Prefecture of Japan and is one of 505 uninhabited Japanese islands. The island was bought in 1890 by Mitsubishi, for the purpose of extracting the coal from the island’s underground. In 1916, Japan’s first concrete building was built on the island, to protect against the location’s vulnerability to hurricanes. Secure apartment buildings for the workers were built and the island became one of Japan’s most densely populated cities in Japan. However, as petroleum replaced coal, coal mines were shutting down all over the world. In 1970, Mitsubishi announced the closing of their mine. Residents abandoned the island, and to this day it remains empty, and travel to the area is prohibited.
5. Chaitén, Chile – Original Population: 7,182
This town was founded in 1933, and became a ghost town in 2008 after a volcano that was dormant for 9,000 years unexpectedly erupted, causing the town to flood for days. Luckily, Chaitén was evacuated, but the damage to the environment was so significant that the landscape was altered; the river rerouted through the town. Despite its best efforts, the Chilean government decided to abandon Chaitén. In 2009, the government announced plans to relocate the town about 10 km north from the original location. Rebuilding of Chaitén started in 2011, and is currently ongoing. But the original town still stands, abandoned, as a testament to Mother Nature’s intractable influence on our best laid plans.
4. Kadykchan, Russia – Original Population: 12,000
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Kadykchan was one of the numerous cities that fell victim to ruin. In order to gain access to the simplest of needs like schooling, medical care, running water, etc. residents had to abandon the city. They were moved by the state to alternate towns and communities and were also provided with new housing. The residents had to leave in such a hurry that you can – almost tragically – still find toys, furniture, clothing, and personal belongings that now sit forgotten in this desolate Russian ghost town.
3. Tawergha, Libya – Original Population: 24,223
The National Transitional Council of Libya emptied this city using militia in 2011. The site of some of the bloodiest battles of the recent Libyan civil war, the city still remains a part of the administrative jurisdiction of the city of Misrata. Unfortunately, Misrata is inhabited by militia so residents of Tawergha (about 10,000 of whom are civilians) are still unable to return to their homes. In this unusual case, Tawergha is a man-made, forced ghost town and a victim of war and politics, with the potential to become inhabited again one day.
2. Pripyat, Ukraine – Original Population: 49,400
This abandoned city was founded in 1970, and was the ninth nuclear city in the Soviet Union. Which nuclear plant was next to Pripyat? The infamous, and tragic, Chernobyl. After existing for only 16 years, the city was evacuated in April of 1986 in the days following the Chernobyl disaster. The well-developed city, named after the Pripyat River, had an amusement park as well and a train station serving almost 50,000 residents. Pripyat has become the subject of some haunting photography, and offers guided tours around the city for those willing to risk the potential safety hazards.
1. Ağdam, Azerbaijan – Original Population: 150,000
This ghost town in Azerbaijan was once called home by 150,000 people. During the Nagorno Karabakh War the city was lost, even though it never actually saw any combat. The Armenians subjected the city to vandalism, and to this day, the buildings are empty and have been gutted. What happened to the 150,000 residents? They found home in other parts of Azerbaijan, as well as Iran. All that is left of Ağdam is a single mosque, covered in graffiti.
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