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Dec 01, 2021
Streets emptied of any signs of life. Idle signboards, swinging alone in the wind. Derelict buildings — looming, watching, harboring memories of a time when life thrived around them. Ruin-gazing may not be your thing, but you have to admit, there’s something about abandoned towns that piques your interest.
“Ghost towns,” as they are dubbed, live among us as unseen spectacles of decay hidden from our everyday bustle. There are over 3,800 in the U.S. alone, many of them formerly prosperous hubs that once dominated the American West. Globally, some have fallen victim to natural disasters, others to war. Join us in today’s Daily Dose as we travel through 12 of the most fascinating and chilling ghost towns around the world.
-Based on Reporting by Sohini Das Gupta
The American Spirit
1 - Iosepa, Utah
Located in Utah’s Skull Valley region, Iosepa was an unlikely outpost for a community of Hawaiians. Swaddled in dust and desolation, all that remains of it today is a cemetery containing the remains of those who died while the colony was active in the late 19th century and early 20th century and a pavilion and restrooms once meant to encourage quirky pit stops for motorists traveling through Salt Lake City. Iosepa’s story began when a group of Latter-day Saints converts traveled from Hawaii to Salt Lake City to live among fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church. But faced with discrimination from the church’s white population, the Pacific Islanders formed their own settlement in 1889. Hard work and faith trumped the harsh terrain as the community made the area its home for almost 30 years — only to be asked to head back to Hawaii to assist with the building of a Latter-day Saints temple on Oahu.
2 - Bodie, California
“You can check out any time you like/ But you can never leave” could very well be Bodie’s theme song, for the ghosts of the California Gold Rush never left this Wild West boomtown, established after one William S. Bodey unearthed gold in nearby hills in 1859. The town’s cinematic ruggedness was dominated by saloons — it boasted 65 at one point. Mix alcohol with gold and guns, and you have a recipe for bedlam, with an estimated six shootings per week, a rate that placed Bodie among the Gold Rush’s most dangerous towns. Today it serves as a state historic park, but stroll about Bodie’s lanes where churches and schoolhouses once jostled barber shops, opium dens and brothels, and you can almost hear the townspeople say, “Have we a man for breakfast?” That’s local slang for, “Did anyone get killed last night?”
3 - Humberstone, Chile
Atacama conjures up a vision of volcanoes, geysers and moon-like craters. But the world’s driest desert also cradles the Chilean ghost towns of Santa Laura and Humberstone. The latter was named after James Humberstone, a British chemical engineer who relocated to South America hot on the trail of nitrate-rich desert mines. Nicknamed “white gold,” potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, transformed entire economies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, producing fertilizer that upended agricultural productivity in Europe and the Americas. Naturally, company towns with workers from Chile, Bolivia and Peru sprung up around these mines. World War I politics spelled Humberstone’s death knell, but today you can walk through the town’s jumble of Art Deco structures including converted museums, a swimming pool, a cinema and a bandstand, as you cop a taste of old Americana at the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
1 - Craco, Italy
I missed out on visiting Italy for a work trip by a whisker in 2020 and despite sites in the north of the country attracting the bulk of the attention, topping my unfulfilled list was Craco, an 8th-century ghost town in the southern province of Matera. Having survived barbarians and bubonic plague in medieval times, the resilient hilltop village finally caved to landslides beginning in the 1960s, prompting some residents to move to the lower valley of Craco Peschiera. Visitors can take a guided tour that lumbers through calanchi (vegetation-less mounds) all the way up to a castle on the cliff. There’s a lovely panoramic view and lovelier churches, one with a statue of the Virgin Mary that was discovered by a shepherd in a body of water. Religious festivals held from May to October serve to reanimate Craco’s spirit each year.
2 - Ghost Villages of Abkhazia, Georgia
Picture a scattering of 1960s-built khrushchyovkas, five-storied apartmentblocks that are now occupied by single families. There’s something extra-stern about empty Soviet outposts, especially in a part of the world as beautiful as Georgia. Time slows down in certain parts of the country, where a wealth of natural, cultural and political secrets are guarded by the Caucasian mountains and the Black Sea. The ghost villages ofAbkhazia, a Moscow-recognized breakaway region in the northwest, are no strangers to arrested development. Unlike others in today’s Daily Dose, the villages of Dzhantukha, Akarmara, Kharchilava or Polyana are not entirely uninhabited. But they have seen departure and decay. Somehow the image of 30-50 people clinging onto one village evokes more specters than total solitude.
3 - Oradour-sur-Glane, France
Few stories are as bloody as that of the French “martyr village” of Oradour-sur-Glane, marked by one of World War II’s many atrocities. Located in the wondrously scenic Limousin countryside, it saw 642 of its inhabitants massacared by Nazi Waffen-SS troops on June 10, 1944. The victims, most of them women and children, were rounded up at a local church which was grenaded and set on fire. The men were shot at then burned alive in a barn. Post-war, life resumed in a new village of the same name nearby and the ruins of the original settlement were retained as a memorial to the dead. Years after the slaughter, silence imbues Oradour-sur-Glane like deep sorrow.
Anti-clockwise in Asia and Africa
1 - Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Glamor and isolation don’t often go together, but Ashgabat is an exception. The capital city of Turkmenistan has utterly shed its past. The city, built as a power flex by President Saparmurat Niyazov to kick off “the golden era of Turkmenistan” in 1991, is neither abandoned nor old. In fact, it holds the record for the highest density of white marble buildings worldwide — shimmering, symmetrical structures that are planted along wide, empty roads. Why empty? Because so few people live there. Home to the world’s largest indoor ferris wheel and an airport shaped like a giant bird, its museum-like grandeur lacks spectators partly due to Turkmenistan’s political and cultural isolation.
2 - Kolmanskop, Namibia
Diamonds are forever. Diamond-yielding towns, not so much. At least that’s the story of Kolmanskop, a Namibian desert town that was among the richest in the world in the early 20th century, now buried under the literal sands of time. Even one hundred years ago its glory days saw workers sift through sand with jars . . . that’s how easy it was to find diamonds back then! An abundance of funds meant its hospital had the first X-ray unit in the Southern Hemisphere. But excessive exploitation led to the depletion of resources in the 1930s, and miners moved south to previously untapped diamond deposits. If you’re visiting with permits, keep the camera handy. Looking at houses submerged in amber waves of sand and gold-streaked railway tracks, you wouldn’t know Kolmanskop ever lost its sheen.
3 - Tianducheng, China
If Japan boasts Hashima Island, China has Tianducheng. The former is old and framed by the sea, the latter a new metropolis, and they wouldn’t share much if not for their lack of human beings. Not just any metropolis, Tianducheng is a replica of Paris, mimicking the cobbled streets, iconic Parisian facades, Renaissance fountains and to seal the deal, a 300-foot-tall Eiffel tower. In 2007, construction began a two-hour drive west of Shanghai in an attempt to support a population of 10,000 inhabitants. But a remote location and a lack of infrastructure meant that residents never showed up. Unlike many ghost towns, there’s hope for “Sky City.” With China’s population still spilling over, it may still have a shot at welcoming admirers beyond honeymooners on a budget.
Ruined and Resurrected
1 - Varosha, Turkey
After 47 years, there’s a buzz in the salty air of Varosha. Geopolitics and tourism are often more closely related than one might think and for the Turkish-occupied suburb of Famagusta city in Northern Cyprus, the combination could be critical. In the early 1970s Varosha was a glamorous beach town that attracted the rich and the famous. War, however, turned it from desirable to dusty as a failed right-wing coup left the door open for Turkey to invade in 1974, splitting the country in half. Then in 2020, the North Cypress government reopened a part of the beachfront. The move, while it releases Varosha from behind barbed wires, has been met with international criticism.
2 - Hamlets of Uttarakhand, India
Reports of former residents trickling back into a handful of Himalayan ghost towns in the Indian state of Uttarakhand point at a phenomenon called “reverse migration.” Life in the mountains isn’t easy and migration to urban plains had emptied out villages such as Saina, Baluni, Dalmotha and Naini Khairi. Pre-pandemic, Uttarakhand had about 1,700 ghost villages. But cornered by lockdowns and the loss of livelihoods in bigger cities last year, manual laborers and hospitality workers turned back to agricultural lands untended for years. The pattern continued through the country’s second wave of COVID-19 earlier this year, when over 53,000 migrants returned to various thinly populated villages in the state, many still lacking infrastructure and employment.
3 - Cossack, Australia
Miles from India lies Cossack in Western Australia, which is also poised for a revival. Back in the day, the birthplace of the Aussie pearling industry was a flourishing port town, but it was dissolved in 1910 when another port opened to its north. By 1950, Cossack was vacated entirely and its only current occupant is a caretaker. A police barracks, customs house, courthouse, post offices and a lone cafe run by the caretaker’s partner keep alive the spirit of the town. However, life returns during the annual Cossack Art Awards, where artworks from across the Pilbara region, including Indigenous ones, are exhibited to great success.
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