Several towns and cities have been abandoned, some as fast as overnight due to a myriad of factors including war, erosion, nuclear disaster, industry collapse and sometimes even ‘bad design’. Could these places be a blank canvas for the rest of us to play with? Here are a few of the most fascinating abandoned towns and cities that we can all visit, and the reasons behind their derelict.
A fortress, surrounded by sea, for your imagination to run wild—known as the ‘villain’s base in the Bond film Skyfall’—might just scoot its way up your bucket list of places to visit as it has mine. Though Hashima Island, located in Japan, has been abandoned for 45 years or so, it was once the most densely populated place on Earth—housing over 5,000 people on just 16 acres of land, mining coal. From the mid 19th to early 20th centuries, Japan went through a period of drastic industrialisation, mostly to supply fuel for the country’s fleet of ships. One of these mines was based on Hashima Island—also known as ‘Battleship Island’—and first opened in 1890, but by 1974, its coal reserves were depleted and everyone left to find work elsewhere, leaving a concrete wasteland in their wake.
You can actually visit the island via a multitude of ferry tour options out of Nagasaki Port, but due to the lack of maintenance that, unsurprisingly, abandoned buildings experience, you can’t stray from the instructed pathways. Also, your physical condition will come into consideration for safety reasons.
A particularly interesting ghost town, despite its abandonment, it is the only city that is still the capital of its political territory. Located in the inner arc of the West Indies, southwest of Antigua, this tiny British Overseas Territory called Montserrat changed forever in the 1990s, when the Soufrière Hills (complex stratovolcano) cataclysmically awoke after centuries of dormancy and swamped almost two-thirds of the island in its ashes. Hundreds of successive outbursts continued to devastate the little island with the entire population living in the majority of the island’s lower region having to be removed from their homes. This is what led to the abandonment of the capital, Plymouth.
Scientists at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory keep track of the volcano to this day which, might I add, is often included on tours of the ‘Exclusion Zone’, if you ever felt so inclined to snoop around a danger zone. Otherwise, stick to the North of the island which is still as lush as it ever was.
This ghost town holds a mine fire that still burns to this day, 50 years later. Centralia is understandably one of the state’s least popular tourist attractions, however, it does draw in a curious few. In the early 1960s, Centralia was much like many other coal mining towns in Pennsylvania. Missing the vampire lore you’re probably used to hearing, fires were lit in the town’s landfill, which spread beneath the valley and through the coal tunnels thousands of feet below the surface. However, the full extent of the danger remained unknown. That was until experts who owned the mine met to discuss how to extinguish the fire. Before they reached their decision to snuff out the flames, sensors detected lethal levels of carbon monoxide, which resulted in all the Centralia area mines being shut down immediately. Phew.
There currently isn’t anything to stop visitors from driving into the mining town, though hardly a house is left standing, leaving just an empty street grid in their wake. Eerie, to know you’re walking on fire.
Picture this: It’s 1968 as a quaint Sicilian town, Poggioreale, is suddenly wrought by catastrophe as it is hit by an earthquake causing its complete desertion. Buildings remained standing, but most crumbled and scared the townspeople off. It has since become one of Italy’s largest ghost towns, completely frozen in time. Instead of rebuilding the houses that were ruined by the earthquake, the Italian government tried something new by hiring architects to design and build new cities from scratch, one being just four kilometres from Poggioreale. Visit on foot to experience the unsettling beauty of a past living in a tug of war with the future.
If there ever were a pin-up example of a ghost town, other than the infamous Chernobyl, this would be it. Bodie is a former gold mining town in California, near the Nevada border. Abandoned in the early 1940s because gold (the livelihood of the residents) ran out, it is now recognised as a National Historic Landmark. Taking a trip to Bodie is quite literally like stepping onto a spooky film set. Machines used to separate rocks and dirt from the gold still sit solidly in their positions, home furnishings and dining sets were left as they were, as if waiting for their owners to return home. Worth a visit, I’d say.
Located on a hillside, Kayaköy was built in a Grecian design to accommodate the vast majority of the population living there, who were, you guessed it, Greek. However, during the unfortunate events of the Greco-Turkish War in 1922, the town all but disappeared, leaving behind its infamous stone structures and the ever-present essence of what was once a bustling city. There are many tours that operate from neighbouring town Fethiye, but be sure to delve into the rich history of the ghost town yourself anyway.
The town of Kolmanskop lies in southern Namibia and was first put on the map for its discovery of diamonds. When a Namibian railway worker was shovelling the tracks of encroaching sand dunes, glittering stones were spotted and identified as the valuable assets we now know as diamonds. The worker did not get paid or rewarded for his find. By 1912, the town was in full spring and produced 11.7 per cent of the world’s diamond production.
During its heyday, residents became rich overnight, but the intensity of mining depleted the area by the 1930s. What determined the town’s downfall though was the discovery of the richest diamond fields ever known just South of Kolmanskop. And so, all homes and possessions were abandoned for the next best thing. The Namib Desert crept into the houses reclaiming its place, and left behind one of the most surreal abandoned landscapes in the world.
The exclusive tourist town Villa Epecuén, just 540 kilometres South West of Buenos Aires, disappeared without a trace in the mid-1980s, drowned by flooding from Lake Epecuén. The waters of which were often likened to that of the Dead Sea and were proclaimed to be “miraculous,” which is why it proved so popular. The town actually remained a hidden gem until 2009, when it unbelievably resurfaced as the tides ebbed out.
The derelict town is now accessible again after 25 years and can be reached via a rough salty track, lined with fossilised looking trees. There is no sign of commercial activity and it seems the town might stay the way it is for the foreseeable future. Although, it’s surprisingly easy to get to with the reliable transport services in place.
Last, but by no means least, this next one is up there with the creepiest of the lot. North Brother Island in New York is around 20 acres in perimeter, lies between the notorious prison Rikers Island and the Bronx and is home to no being—well, none without feathers, that is. Up until 1964, the island was dedicated to diseased, highly contagious, quarantined patients in its Riverside Hospital, including the infamous “Typhoid Mary” Mallon—whose asymptomatic typhoid infection caused many of the people she worked for to die of the disease. She was forced into isolation on the island for a total of 26 years until the time of her death.
Now, it is illegal to visit the island unless you have official permission from the city of New York and a legitimate reason to go, due to the hazardous and weak ruins on site. North Brother Island also holds a unique status as a bird sanctuary—the island is strictly for birds only between 21 March and 21 September, due to the shorebird breeding season.