A ghost town is a town or city that has been abandoned, usually because the economic activity that supported it has failed, or due to natural or human-caused disasters such as flood or war. The term is sometimes used in a depreciative sense to include areas where the current population is significantly less than it once was. It may be a partial ghost town such as Tonopah, Nevada, or a neighborhood where people no longer live (like Love Canal). A tourist ghost town has significant economic activity from tourism, such as Oatman, Arizona, or numerous sites in Egypt, but cannot sustain itself except by tourism.
A true ghost town is totally abandoned by regular inhabitants, such as Bodie, California, but tourists may visit it. A ghost town may be a site where little or nothing remains above the soil surface (e.g., Babylon оr Smeerenburg). Often a ghost town will still have significant art and architecture, e.g. Vijayanagara in India or Changan in China. Most large countries and regions contain locations that can be considered ghost towns.
Some ghost towns are tourist attractions, among them Kolmanskop and Elizabeth Bay, outside Lüderitz, Namibia. This is especially true of those that preserve interesting architecture. Visiting, writing about, and photographing ghost towns is a minor industry. Some ghost towns may be overgrown, difficult to access, and dangerous or illegal to visit.
Factors leading to abandonment of towns include depleted natural resources (as was the case of Smeerenburg and Grytviken), or natural resources such as water no longer being available; railways and motorways bypassing or no longer accessing the town (as was the case in many of the ghost towns along Ontario's historic Opeongo Line); economic activity shifting elsewhere; human intervention such as highway re-routing (as was the case with many towns located along U.S. Route 66, after motorists bypassed the towns on the faster moving I-44 and I-40); river re-routing (the Aral Sea being one example of this), and nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl. Significant fatality rates from epidemics have also produced ghost towns; for example, some places in eastern Arkansas were abandoned after near-total mortality (over 7,000 Arkansans died during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and 1919). The Middle East has many ghost towns, created when the shifting of politics or fall of empires caused capital cities to be socially or economically non-viable, e.g., Ctesiphon.
Natural disasters can also create ghost towns. After being flooded more than 30 times since their town was founded in 1845, residents of Pattonsburg, Missouri had enough after two floods in 1993. With government help, the whole town was rebuilt three miles (5 km) away. Residents moved to New Pattonsburg, leaving the old Pattonsburg behind as a ghost town.
Due to improvements in scientific testing and warning procedures, ghost towns may also occasionally come into being due to an anticipated natural disaster — for example, the Canadian town of Lemieux, Ontario, Canada was abandoned in 1991 after soil testing revealed that the community was built on an unstable clay bed. Two years after the last building in Lemieux was demolished, a landslide swept part of the former townsite into the South Nation River.
Land contamination can also create a ghost town. This is what happened to Times Beach, a suburb of St. Louis whose residents were exposed to a high level of dioxins,. Centralia, Pennsylvania was abandoned by many people due to a dangerous underground coal fire. Since some residents chose to stay despite the dangers, it cannot be classified as a true ghost town.
Ghost towns may also be created when land is expropriated by a government and residents are required to relocate. An example was when NASA acquired land to build a rocket propulsion testing center. Construction of the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi required acquisition of a large buffer zone (approximately 34 square miles) because of the loud noise and potential dangers associated with testing huge rockets. Communities were abandoned and roads became overgrown by forest.
Construction of dams has produced ghost towns left underwater. Examples include the settlement of Loyston, Tennessee, inundated by the creation of Norris Lake. The town was reorganized and reconstructed on nearby higher ground. Other examples are The Lost Villages of Ontario, and the hamlets of Nether Hambleton and Middle Hambleton in Rutland, England, which were flooded to create Rutland Water, Europe's largest man-made reservoir, Mologa in Russia that was flooded by the creation of Rybinsk reservoir. Many ancient villages had to be abandoned during construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China, leading to displacement of many rural people.
Alexandria, the second largest city of Egypt, was a flourishing city in the Ancient era, but declined during the Middle Ages. With only 150 residents in the early 19th century, it qualified as a ghost town. During the Modern period, it has grown to a city of 3.5 to 5 million inhabitants. In Algeria, many cities became hamlets after the end of Late Antiquity. They were revived with shifts in population during and after French colonization of Algeria. Oran, today the nation's second largest city with 1 million people, before colonization was a village of a few thousand people.
The 1990s saw many rural towns become ghost towns when train services ceased and local products previously manufactured on a small scale were replaced by massive amounts of cheap imported goods. Some ghost towns near cities offer tourist attractions, especially during weekends.
British Columbia has more ghost towns than any other jurisdiction on the North American continent, with one estimate at the number of abandoned and semi-abandoned towns and localities upwards of 1500. Some ghost towns have revived their economies and populations due to historical and eco-tourism, such as Barkerville, once the largest town north of Kamloops, which is now a year-round Provincial Museum.
Port Famine (Spanish: Puerto Hambre) is arguably Chile's oldest ghost town. It was founded in the Strait of Magellan in 1584 by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa. Starvation and the cold climate killed all of the inhabitants. The English navigator, Sir Thomas Cavendish landed at the site in 1587. He found only ruins of the settlement, and renamed the place Port Famine.
Other lesser known ghost towns are located in the southern part of the Chilean Coast Range. They were once lumbermills where Fitzroya were cut down to make roof shingles, a typical element of Chilota architecture.
Real de Catorce was once a flourishing silver mining town in northern Mexico. Its dramatic landscapes and buildings have been used by Hollywood for movies such as The Mexican (2001) with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. Recent efforts to adapt the town to tourism have created a mixture of ghost town and heritage tourist site adapted to visitors in search of interesting history in the country.
There are many ghost towns, or semi-ghost towns (some of them unincorporated communities) in the American Great Plains, whose rural areas have lost a third of their population since 1920. Thousands of communities in the northern plains states like North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana became railroad ghost towns when a rail-line failed to materialize. Hundreds more were abandoned when the US Highway System replaced the railroads as America's favorite mode of travel. Ghost towns are common in mining or old mill town areas: Washington, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Montana, Minnesota, and California in the western United States and West Virginia in the eastern USA. They can be observed as far south as Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia and Florida. When the resources that had created an employment boom in these towns played out, eventually the businesses ceased to exist, and the people moved on to more productive areas. Sometimes a ghost town consists of many old abandoned buildings (like in Bodie, California), other times there are simply structures or foundations of former buildings (e.g., Graysonia, Arkansas). Even some of the earliest settlements in the US are or have been ghost towns, such as Jamestown, Virginia, the Zwaanendael Colony in Delaware and the famous Lost Colony in North Carolina.
Old mining camps that have lost most of their population at some stage of their history, such as St. Elmo, Colorado; Central City, Colorado; Aspen, Colorado; Virginia City, Montana; Marysville, Montana; Tombstone, Arizona; Deadwood, South Dakota; Park City, Utah; Crested Butte, Colorado; or Cripple Creek, Colorado, are sometimes included in the category, although they are active towns and cities today.
A recent attempt to declare an "Official Ghost Town" in California collapsed when the adherents of the town of Calico, in Southern California, and those of Bodie, in Northern California, could not come to an agreement as to which of their favorites was more deserving.
The ghost town of Medicine Mound in Hardeman County in West Texas is preserved through a museum operated there by Myna Potts. Medicine Mound consists of two buildings. The museum is in the former Hicks-Cobb General Store.
See Bill O'Neal, Ghost Towns of the American West (1995).
The oldest ghost town in Antarctica is located in Deception Island, where in 1906 a Norwegian-Chilean whaling company started using Whalers Bay as a base for a factory ship, the Gobernador Bories. Other whaling operations followed suit, and by 1914 there were 13 factory ships based there.
Antarctica also has many more-recently abandoned scientific and military bases, especially in the Antarctic Peninsula.
Sometimes, wars and genocide end a town's life, and it is never resettled. This happened to the Swedish town Sjöstad, in Närke, in 1260, when the town's 700 merchants had crossed the ice of Lake Vättern and been cut down by the Danes. The Danes then proceeded to the town, ravaging and burning it. The town was never resettled. A farm named Skyrstad, ruins and a silver treasure which yielded 4000 coins are all that testify to its existence (see abandoned village). It also happened to the French village Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944. Natural disasters also play a role. For example, the erupting volcano of Vesuvius famously terminated Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy in AD 79.
In the United Kingdom, the once thriving farming village of Knaptoft in Leicestershire was depopulated due to the enclosure of the surrounding land for sheep pasture. The ruins of the former church still exist as a graveyard, with graves even occupying ground inside the ruins of the church. The villages of Imber on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire and Tyneham near Dorset's historic Jurassic Coast, as well as several villages within the Stanford Battle Area in Norfolk, were evacuated by the British Army, and the abandoned buildings are now used for training exercises. The creation of reservoirs has led to the drowning of villages. These include Mardale Green in the English Lake District and two villages - Ashopton and Derwent - drowned by the Ladybower Reservoir in Derbyshire. Also in Wales the village of Capel Celyn was drowned to form Llyn Celyn, to provide water for Liverpool, and Llyn Clywedog drowned farmsteads and agricultural land to reduce flooding of the River Severn.
Industrialisation is another factor. For example, the village of Etzweiler in northwestern Germany was abandoned in the 1990s to make way for a coal (lignite) mine While Etzweiler disappeared in 2006, neighbouring Pesch and Holz have become near-deserted ghost towns by now (January 2008) and all that is left of Otzenrath are the remains of the village's church, where archeologists excavate remains of sacred buildings from medieval and potentially Roman times. Furthermore, parts of the motorway A44 have been removed and as the lignitemine continues to move west, parts of the A61 will follow before 2020 (with the A44 being rebuilt behind the mine).
Also in Belgium, several villages had to disappear to facilitate the expansion of the port of Antwerp, such as the former villages of Oosterweel, Oordam, Wilmarsdonk, Lillo and Oorderen. Soon, the village of Doel will follow suit.
Pyramiden (Danish, Swedish and Norwegian, meaning "the pyramid", Russian: Пирамида) was a Russian settlement and coal mining community on the archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. It was founded by Sweden in 1910, and sold to the Soviet Union in 1927. The settlement, with a one time population of 1,000 inhabitants, was abandoned in the late-1990s by its owner, the state-owned Soviet company Trust Artikugol, and is now a ghost town. There are no restrictions on visiting Pyramiden. However, visitors may not enter any buildings without permission, even if the doors are open. Most buildings are now locked. Pyramiden is accessible by boat or snowmobile. Guided tours are available (in Russian, Norwegian, and English).
The city of Prypiat and dozens of smaller settlements in northern Ukraine and southern Belarus were abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and turned into a closed alienation zone. The area has been largely untouched since then, and as such it functions as a large time capsule of the late Soviet era. There is an online photojournal of this area.
Several communities became ghost towns in Ireland in the latter half of the nineteenth century, particularly in the west of the country, due to a combination of the potato famine and economic decline brought on by the famine. These now consist primarily of knee high ruins of cottages. Notable ghost towns are on Achill Island and in the Burren area of county Clare. A more recent ghost town was created in the 1950s on Great Blasket island, where island life became unfeasible and the island was depopulated. The Island is only accessible to tourists in the summer months.
While Athens, Greece, experienced severe decline after the end of the Byzantine Empire, it may never have been a ghost town, although it certainly came close, dwindling to some 3,000 or 4,000 people by the 19th century. It has since gone back to being a major city. Rome experienced similar declines, but it too hasn't been completely abandoned (one of its lowest estimated populations was 17,000 in 1347, down from more than a million in Imperial times ).
Prypiat is one of the biggest ghost towns today because at its peak, it had a population of over 50,000 residents; all have abandoned the town after the Chernobyl disaster. Prypiat was built to be the home for the workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Unlike its neighboring town Chernobyl, Prypiat remains a ghost town and is completely empty.Prypiat, the majority of abandoned towns and settlements are located in northern Russia (Komi, Taymyr, Chukotka). They were deserted due to deindustrialisation and the economic crisis of the early 1990s. Other notable ghost towns are attributed to the post-Soviet conflicts. An example is Agdam, Azerbaijan. Semi-deserted towns are situated in Abkhazia, notably Tquarchal, Ochamchira, Gagra, the biggest being Sukhumi.
In European Russia, many villages have been depopulated since the 1940s.