Venice is threatened by floods, Detroit by a faltering economy, but if you want to see cities that have already been abandoned to the wild, then check out this list of the world’s best ghost towns, haunting spectres from history teaching us that nothing lasts forever.
Though now a half-buried ruin, Kolsmanskop, located out in the severe desert landscape of Namibia, was, for a couple of decades in the early 20th century, a boom town. It grew out of nothing overnight after railway worker Zacharias Lewala discovered a huge diamond near the town in 1908. Almost immediately prospectors and fortune hunters rushed to the area in search of wealth, and on the eve of the First World War, over 1000 people lived in this prosperous settlement. Yet disaster struck shortly after 1918, when the price of diamonds collapsed. The inhabitants moved out, and the town died a quick, and sudden death. With no one to look after the colonial German buildings left behind, the sands of the Sperrgebiet Desert moved in, overwhelming the town like a slow motion tidal wave. To this day, many structures in this abandoned town are partially submerged beneath sand-dunes, the desert reaching into, and taking over, buildings that were once the homes of working men and women. Kolmanskop makes for a stunning sight out in the middle of nowhere, a reminder of the ineluctable power of both nature and time.
From one ghost town consumed by the desert, to one that has been over-ran by the Amazon Rainforest. Fordlandia, deep in the jungle and almost 18 hours from the nearest town, was founded by American car magnate Henry Ford in 1927. Intended as a centre for the cultivation, harvest and processing of rubber, used in the tyres of Ford’s cars, the project faced huge problems from the very beginning. Rubber plantations were attacked by pests, indigenous workers revolted after being fed unusual American delicacies such as hamburgers, and a ban on vices such as alcohol and tobacco was circumvented by smuggling contraband into the town. Ford persisted with attempts to make a success out of Fordlania, but eventually his Grandson sold the site for a loss of $20 million dollars in 1945. The ruined and rusting factories, agricultural machinery and decrepit worker’s cottages still stand amongst the Kapok trees, orchids and rubber plants that have slowly taken over the site. A testament to the vaulting, yet foolish, ambition of a pioneering industrialist.
Nowhere evokes desertion and abandonment more than the ghost towns of the American Wild West, where one immediately thinks about the hum of rattlesnakes, the sight of tumbleweeds sweeping through a dusty street, or the picture of a lone horse drinking from a trough. And one of the most atmospheric of all ghost towns is Tombstone, Arizona. Much like Kolmanskop, this city was an incredibly rich mining town, producing up to $85 million of unearthed silver between 1877 and 1890. Yet Tombstone rose to worldwide fame because of a dispute between lawman Wyatt Earp and a rogue band of outlaw cowboys, a rivalry that culminated in the legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. After a series of fires and floods destroyed the silver mining industry, the city slowly declined and today the town functions primarily as a tourist resort. Visitors come to watch reenactments of the Gunfight, drink in the gentlemen’s saloon, and buy Wild West souvenirs.
Not all ghost towns have been abandoned due to economic reasons. Many great cities in the past have succumbed to the ravages of war, and Oradour-sur-Glane in the Limousin region of France is one such example. On the 10th of June 1944, the Nazi soldiers who occupied France at that time sealed off the town, not letting anyone in or out. In alleged retaliation for the kidnapping of a German solider, SS troops looted the town, destroyed all the buildings and massacred 642 of the town’s inhabitants, including women and children. So shocked was France at this brutality that, after the war, General de Gaulle declared that the village would never be reconstructed, and that its remains would stand as a stark monument to the evils of the Nazi Regime.
This was not the only town to be suddenly abandoned during the upheaval and strife of the first half of the twentieth century. The small hillside town of Kayakoy in South-Western Turkey was once a thriving city of around 2000 people, almost all of whom were Greek Orthodox Christians, complete with shops and restaurants, churches and schools. Yet after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919 to 1922 a population exchange between the two nations was signed, and all Greeks in Turkey were forcibly removed. Overnight the city was left behind, buildings left to decay and fall into disuse. Now a protected UNESCO site, tourists come to take pictures and wander around the eeire, Pompeii-like city.
Man-made ecological disasters are yet another reason why human settlements may vanish in the blink of an eye. The mining town of Centralia, Pennsylvania experienced its own abrupt extinction in 1981 after a long burning underground fire started heating up the ground soil, releasing lethal carbon monoxide, and opening up sink holes in the ground. One 12 year old resident came within seconds of being swallowed by the earth on the 14th of February that year, an incident that prompted the U.S. Government to relocate the town’s population of 1000 to other townships in the state. Today the buildings of the city, a brick-clad town hall, suburban houses, a gas station, are all abandoned and in a state of severe disrepair. If you were to visit today, you would be struck at how the highways and roads of the town have been damaged, some cracked and sinking, by the underground fire that slowly burns the coal mine below the town. At some points noxious steam even rises from openings in the ground. Researchers claim that the most intense points of the fire are even hotter than conditions on planet Mercury, and that, if left untreated, the fire would burn for at least another 100 years.
Yet the scale of abandonment and devastation at Centralia is to be considered trifling in comparison to the greatest man-made disaster in history. The Soviet-era town of Pripyat on the border between Ukraine and Belarus has been abandoned since 1986, when the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered a catastrophic meltdown. Pripyat was a rapidly growing city, built in the 1970s to serve the needs of the power station, and had a population of almost 50,000 until, at 2.p.m on 27th 1986, the town was completely evacuated to protect residents against deadly nuclear radiation. Families were given just minutes to get their belongings in order before buses took them to nearby, safer cities. The remnants of their lives can still be seen today, abandoned cars and bicycles litter the streets, children’s toys have been left in playgrounds, and a large fairground Ferris wheel stands stationery in the centre of town, slowly rusting. Radiation levels in the town continue to be far too high for safe human habitation, and visits to the site are strictly controlled by authorities. Studies show that radiation levels will continue to render Pripyat uninhabitable for at least another 720,000 years.
In our always changing world who knows where the next great abandoned city will be. As the British poet Macauley once wrote, in the future, a traveller from a far away land may sit upon a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral.
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