10 of the World’s Most Famous Ghost Towns
10. Craco, Italy
During the Medieval period, the Catholic Church owned a great deal of the arable land in Europe, and the populations that worked that land. Craco is one such town that looked to the Archbishop Arnaldo, who held the office of Bishop of Trincarico. Founded in the late Classical, 1060 A.D. upon a previously developed settlement by the Greeks, it evolved into a model town with Italian sensibilities and nationality. Today, its remnants cling to steep cliffs, vacant windows and crumbling walls overlooking the lowlands to the Gulf of Taranto 40 km in the distance. Because many who held the charter for the town following the centuries of church dominion were less concerned with the stability of the townspeople’s dwellings, the architecture reflects a certain patchwork instability.
Populations steadily dwindled to 1,800 individuals who were permanently relocated by the Italian government in 1963. The region, once famed for its agricultural bounty, is also a hotbed for geologic instability and volcanic activity. Coupled with the piecemeal architectural repairs, this made living in the ancient city hazardous. Because of its dramatic situation in the landscape, and its weathered, Mediterranean architecture, the town has been used for many popular films, including those set in the Levant—King David (1985) and Passion of the Christ (2004.) Today, Craco is open for guided tours and utilized by archaeologists and historians as a resource for understanding the past. In spite of relocation, the local populations return to hold many annual religious celebrations, such as the Madonna della Stella, St. Vincenzo Martire Fair, and festivals honoring San Nicola and the Madonna of Monserrato.
9. Fordlandia, Brazil
Fordlandia, Brazil: Henry Ford’s wasteland
Brazil seems to draw all sorts of strange cults, “pioneer” groups, and eccentric, reclusive business moguls. Fordlandia is exactly what it sounds like—a manufacturing settlement established by Henry Ford in 1929 as a response to the British monopoly on rubber. Unfortunately, what started out as seemingly savvy business strategy soon took a sharp left turn into B-Movie Horror Land. At the time, the only source of rubber was the sap of theHevea brasiliensis, which is commonly called the rubber tree, and is indigenous to Brazil. Colonial interests imported it to Southeast Asia, allowing the British and Dutch monopoly.
But Ford had a dream—a Disneyland vision complete with ice cream stands and public squares, where people would live, work the largest rubber plantation in the world to supply him with cheap rubber, and show off his Model T automobile. Unfortunately, the reality involved populations living a forced alien culture akin to slavery, failed agriculture, and forcibly suppressed revolts. Ford didn’t count on human nature or really nature at all. Having forgone employing botanists when planning his plantation, he closely packed the razed Amazonian soil with saplings, all of which promptly died or were consumed by voracious fungi.
When the town’s population, many indigenous, had had enough of unsuitable American food, American-style housing poorly suited to the climate, and a way of life that was almost entirely centered on enculturation, they revolted. Windows were broken, property was damaged, and the Brazilian military was called to the scene. Today, while Fordlandia and Beltlandia are used as stops on Amazon tours, the squatters who comprise the population watch the buildings crumble back into the forest.
8. Hashima Island, Japan
Popularly known as Gunkanjima (Battleship Island) due to its stark profile, high seawall, and overall shape, this chilling place was occupied from 1890 to the 1960s as a coal mining operation. In 1959, it was the most densely populated place on Earth with 5,259 people living and working on an island less than a square kilometer in size. While today it is owned and maintained as a tourist resource by Nagasaki, Mitsubishi privately operated it for nearly a century. Only after oil supplanted coal as a major energy resource was the island abandoned.
At its earliest, the island was home to a mining village, but it soon became more densely populated as the company imported workers to live there. Over time, it became a sort of experiment in space optimization and urban architecture, which allowed a far larger population to subsist in the confined space. Schools, shops, cunningly constructed apartment buildings, and even a prison are located here. While tours are now available, they are heavily restricted due to the fragile state of many of the buildings. Even though there are those who have fond memories of growing up and living in this microcosm, there are rumors that some of the imported labor force was not there by choice.
Due to the relatively long lifespan of Hashima, also known as Ghost Island by some, the likelihood of forced labor is entirely probable, though likely not in recent history. If you’d like to get a better look at the island, you’ll have to submit an appeal to the Japanese government, in Japanese, along with a specifically documented and outlined project prospectus.
7. Dallol, Ethiopia
Dallol is an abandoned mining camp in the heart of the Afar Triangle, a region encompassing parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea. Within it is the Danakil Depression, the lowest and hottest place on the planet Earth, which boasts enormous amounts of volcanic activity, geological unrest, and deadly, but beautiful mineral-rich hot springs. It is here we find Dallol, which was inhabited by itinerant populations over a long span of time. Due to its geological richesse, salt, potash, and other minerals were mined in this place, known to local peoples as The Gateway to Hell.
While the surface deposits of useful salts made the site attractive in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and caused a rail line to be built to the mine site, shifting political, technological, and commercial considerations sealed the fate of Dallol. In the early 20th century, the British removed the railway entirely and any reason for the area to be inhabited by non-indigenous populations ceased. The salt block buildings remain largely intact today, considering that the region receives less than 55 millimeters of rain per year and often exceeds 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Those who wish to visit the incredible acid pools, coloring the desert region with lurid and unreal hues, must travel by camel.
The journey can be as much as an entire day from the nearest population center, and the Ethiopian government requires visitors to hire armed guards. The Afar people who live in the region are decidedly unwelcoming and aggressive, but are only one among many hazards. Fire Wind, as the desert windstorms are called, is superheated and laden with air born sand. When taken along with the decaying hulks of automobiles and randomly scattered household implements, the preternatural aura of the place is both intense and justified.
6. Agdam, Azerbaijan
One of many like it around the world, this city is a casualty of war. In 1993, the civil war between Azerbaijan and Armenia caused it to be abandoned. Unlike several of the other entries on this list, there’s little to comment upon in a historical sense prior to that. It was a small city founded about three hundred years ago; people went about the daily business of life, worshiping, shopping, working, cooking and eating meals. Then, during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, the city was relentlessly shelled and the 40,000 people who called it home were forced to flee.
They left behind much of what could not be carried with them, and today only cattle and a few military personnel can be seen in the vacant, war-scarred streets. The mosque has been protected from the depredations of livestock only by a stout metal gate. The manufacture of wine, butter, and some small machinery were its only industries of significance, but when the Karabakh, a cultural group who sought independence from the Soviet Union and Azerbaijan were at last backed by Armenia in their struggle, the city was caught between warring factions. The feared Azerbaijani counter strike never came, but when the Karabakh took the town, they demolished the empty settlement completely.
Now the once-modest buildings rear against the sky like broken teeth, and the streets run like torn veins through the hollow husk of the city. Agdam is a painful reminder of the cost of war, to which many of us are rarely exposed in the Western world, but which is all too common elsewhere.
5. Centralia, Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania is coal country, and the cultural traditions of the people who inhabit it are marked by the livelihood of extracting it. Towns are often gathered about a mine, with work and other important aspects of life deeply shaped by the business of mining the coal. Centralia is one such town, founded officially in the early 19th century, though there were settlements founded nearly a century before. Centralia was a thriving mining town for many years, until one day everything changed.
Coal runs in veins beneath the surface. Mines follow these deposits, tapping the resources until they’re exhausted, at which point a new vein must be sourced. The anthracite and bituminous coal mines of the area provided a substantial livelihood to the residents of the area until one day in 1962. Although no one is quite certain how it began, a fire was started in a mine beneath the town. Because of the nature of coal deposits, the fire spread, continuously fed by the coal seam. For years, the fire burned, but the residents of Centralia assumed that it was controlled, and were not concerned.
That all changed in 1981, when the raging subterranean conflagration caused a sinkhole to open and literally swallow a child. While his cousin managed to pull him free, state officials measured the steam billowing from the new sinkhole and discovered a lethal level of carbon monoxide. The Federal government provided moneys for relocation of the towns 1000 plus residents. While most families elected to accept the buyout offers and moved to nearby townships, a few families remained. Today, only a handful of people still live in the area, and the fire still burns. Upon their deaths the rights to their properties will revert to the government through eminent domain.
4. Kolmanskuppe, Namibia
Deep in the Namib Desert, the town—Coleman’s Hill in Afrikaans—stands against the hard blue sky and gray buff sands. The area was once a German colony, known rather unoriginally as German South-West Africa, and Kolmanskuppe was built because diamonds were discovered nearby. It’s said that the precious stones were simply sitting on the surface, “waiting to be discovered.” That’s likely because in the Namib, stones are of little value. Water, quite sensibly, holds more allure in that desiccated region.
However, the efficient Germans were quite excited about it. And since the colonial model was predicated upon importing the life-way of the invading culture, they simply moved in and set up shop. When it was a thriving colonial mining town, it boasted amenities like a ballroom, a movie theater, an ice factory, and even the first x ray station in the Southern Hemisphere. The Germans provided schools, shops, and entertainment centers for their citizens, though they restricted access to those of non-European descent.
Then, WWI happened and Germany lost possession of its colonial territories. Komanskuppe passed to other hands in the Great Game. However, as the diamonds were exhausted, the fortunes of the town ebbed, and in 1954 it was abandoned. Visitors today need a permit to tour the town, and Namibia arranges tours with authorized businesses. The buildings, while remarkably preserved, are being reclaimed by the desert. Drifting sand stands several feet high within many of the remaining structures and the lonely husk of a settlement offers somewhat chilling experiences to visitors who are patient. Whispers, footsteps, and other activities have been reported.
3. Pompeii, Italy
While most archaeological remains require gargantuan amounts of imagination to see the shape of human occupation, Pompeii provides visitors with some visually chilling reminders of the town that was buried on a fateful day in 79 A.D. By that time it was already many centuries old, and an established center of license, art, wine, as well as a retreat for the wealthy. No one seemed perturbed on that day when the mountain began smoking—it had often done so. But the Roman experience with volcanic activity was with the relatively quiescent type.
When the volcano erupted, it did so violently, sending out pyroclastic flows—or superheated, toxic gasses that travel at extraordinary speeds—and a deadening fall of ash. Many inhabitants of Pompeii did not escape that day. The ash that entombed the cities of Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum also served to protect the exquisite murals, paved streets, and fine masonry of the town. Human-shaped casts of ash mud render the last, terrifying hours of the inhabitants who could not flee from the ash-choked harbor, painstakingly preserved by the archaeologists who study the town and carefully excavate its wonders.
While Pompeii, with its wealth of household implements and trade items so well preserved, is a treasure trovefor historians and archaeologists, walking through its sunny, broad streets brings a chill to many. The remarkable preservation offers the sensation of life suddenly arrested. Visitors sense the utter tragedy of those unable to flee, and the vivid, relaxed affluence of the settlement is still quite evident, even after nearly 1700 years encased in volcanic debris. It offers valuable historical and scientific data, but also stands as a cautionary tale to modern society.
2. Oradour-sur-Glane, France
During the Second World War, Nazi Germany occupied a large portion of France. Primarily interested in looting the wealth of the nation and taking full advantage of the many pleasures enjoyed by the French people, the Nazis were harsh overlords, who elicited cooperation by brute force and terror. They committed many war crimes, took many innocent lives, and perpetrated innumerable atrocities throughout Occupied Territory. However, one of the many heartbreaking monuments to the lives they stole stands in France today, and it is a powerful reminder of the horrors war inflicts upon the innocent. Oradour-sur-Glane was a small farming village of only 350 people within the town.
On June 10, 1944, the 2nd Panzer Division of the Waffen-SS massacred every villager and many inhabitants of the surrounding countryside—taking a total of 642 lives. This was in response to the Allied invasion of Normandy four days prior, and a part of the cleansing ordered by the high command in occupied France. The Nazi military had always dealt harshly with partisan resistance, but on this day, surrounded the village of Oradour, the population of which had nearly doubled due to refugees. They rounded up the occupants and separated them—men imprisoned in a large barn and women and children in the church. Then they burned them alive, shooting those who sought to escape.
Today, the entire town is preserved as a memorial to the innocent lives taken. Guided tours are frequent, and well-researched. The quaint, peaceful streets of the provincial French village stand in aching contrast to the atrocity committed here.
1. Pripyat, Ukraine
Those of a certain age well remember the Chernobyl disaster in April of 1986. Several thousand died in the subsequent months, due to the fatal levels of radiation released during the explosion. One town, Pripyat, was home to 47,000, and was abandoned completely immediately following the disaster. Pripyat is a city frozen in time—11:55 a.m. April 26, 1986. Toys and personal belongings litter the streets and abandoned apartment buildings precisely where they were dropped. Propaganda and graffiti adorn the walls of the buildings surrounding the central square, and an enormous Ferris wheel stands starkly above the skyline in anticipation of a May Day festival that would never occur.
Nearly three decades later, documented wildlife populations are flourishing, and show no ill-effects of their return to the area. The radiation has dissipated, though not completely, to safe levels. Tours to this eerily preserved place have become popular. The city offers a deeply unnerving tableau of life abruptly interrupted. Pripyat was only 16 years old when the number 4 reactor exploded. It had been built specifically to provide convenient housing for plant staff and their families, and thus was the closest human settlement to the explosion. Clocks are synchronously stopped at the precise moment the electricity was cut, now-tattered clothing still hangs on wash lines, and nature has begun to reclaim the stark concrete silhouette of the Soviet settlement.
These ghost towns, and many like them, are popular destinations for tours. They hold up a mirror to our way of life, because many of the most famous are well-preserved. They were abandoned, evacuated, or buried. They are the sites of massacres, human arrogance or greed, the terror of war. They are a testament of our impermanence, and that is a very sobering understanding. But even so, they are valuable resources, because they remind us of our own humanity, with perhaps a few judicious chills along with the lesson.
Whether they are in the Wild West, which were excluded from the list due to their numbers and popularity, or the farthest reaches of inhospitable lands, they hold the eerie echo of long-stilled voices, flashes of motion where none could logically be, and the shadow of life. We hope you’ll make time to visit some of the locations listed above or the many unique and oddly creepy spots of other ghost towns located in every country the world over.