There are those who believe in ghosts, and those who adamantly don’t. But when it comes to ghost towns – whether or not they happen to be “haunted” – there is something about abandoned places that is inherently... creepy.
As spectres of the past, ghost towns invite us to imagine a different time, another generation, and all of the hopes, fears, loves and tragedies that were experienced in that place. They are monuments to impermanence and haunting reminders of our own mortality.
Gary B. Speck, author of Ghost Towns: Yesterday and Today and Dust in the Wind: A Guide to American Ghost Towns, estimates that there are between 25,000 and 35,000 ghost towns in the U.S. – ranging from barren sites of towns that are now completely gone, to towns that are still inhabited but have faded dramatically from their heydays.
While Speck catalogues many of them on his website, he says those make up only 1 to 2 percent of the ghost towns in his files. He doesn’t believe in ghosts, he insists, but acknowledges that visits to these “rickety relics of Americana” can have sobering moments.
“History isn’t always pretty,” he says.
Here are five ghost towns that are worth the trek – and might make you think twice about the spirit world.
1. Bodie, California
If it’s that classic Old West ghost town you’re after, look no further than Bodie, Calif. Founded as a gold mining camp in 1859, the town grew to around 2,000 buildings (including 65 boisterous saloons) and had thousands of residents at its peak. But as gold supplies were used up and other “boom” towns were discovered in nearby states, Bodie became all but uninhabited by 1920.
In 1961, Bodie was officially designated a National Historic Landmark and was preserved in a state of arrested deterioration. Today visitors can view the remaining 110 structures, many of which contain the original furniture and fixtures. While the site receives about 200,000 visitors a year, it hasn’t been as commercialised as some other Wild West ghost towns.
Many claim that Bodie is home to a variety of paranormal activities, from ghostly apparitions, to the sounds of children playing, and even the scents of Italian cooking. But the town is most well-known for its curse: people who take artifacts from Bodie are stricken with bad luck until the items are returned.
2. Elkmont, Tennessee
Imagine walking through the woods in a national park and stumbling upon a deserted house, half hidden in undergrowth… then another… and another. This is what happened to Jordan Liles as he was exploring Smoky Mountain National Park near Elkmont, Tenn.
The homes are the remains of a holiday community called the Wonderland Club, which included a hotel, clubhouse, and several houses. Built in 1912, the site was enjoyed by members for only a few short years. In the 1920s-30s, the land it was on became part of the new national park.
But many of the residents fought to keep their homes. Instead of selling their land outright, they negotiated lifetime leases that allowed them to stay. The last leases ended in 2001, and since then the remaining buildings have fallen into decay.
Liles, a photography enthusiast, became fascinated by the Wonderland Club site and its history. In 2013, he created an eerie video tour of the structures, documenting their buckled wooden floors, caved-in roofs, and ripped screen doors – dilapidated details that make this young ghost town undeniably creepy.
3. Kennecott Mines, Alaska
After prospectors discovered copper ore here in 1900, a series of mines were built in this remote corner of southeastern Alaska. The find turned out to be one of the richest copper deposits in the world, and produced many millions of dollars worth of ore until the supplies were depleted by the 1930s.
By then, the owners and investors had gathered a pretty penny (with up to $100 million in profits) – but at the expense of many lives. While mining is always a dangerous undertaking, blasting an extensive rail system through an unforgiving terrain made it more perilous still.
Today, the site is a National Historic Landmark, and can be explored via guided walking tours. The remaining structures – including a stunning fourteen-story mill building – seem to cascade down the side of the mountain, their distinctive barn-red paint standing out against the pines and snowy boulders.
But watch out for ghosts; some have witnessed apparitions of miners, children, and even disappearing tombstones in the area. It’s said that the creepy happenings even scared away construction workers in the 1990s, halting a planned government housing project.
4. Centralia, Pennsylvania
While many mining towns become deserted after the land has been stripped of its underground value, Centralia, Pa. perished for a different – and more disturbing – reason.
Centralia was an active coal mining town from the mid-1800s until the 1960s. In 1962, a mine beneath the landfill caught fire and was not completely put out. Over the next 20 years, the fire ended up spreading into coal veins beneath the town itself.
By the 1980s, smoke and toxic carbon monoxide billowed from the ground, roads buckled, and sinkholes appeared in front yards. What followed was political bickering and bureaucratic gridlock, which failed to find a solution and ultimately lead to the relocation of nearly all of Centralia’s residents. (Watch this documentary for a good overview of the unsettling events.)
Today the town has been stripped of its post code, most structures have been razed, and only seven residents remain. The fire still burns, and is expected to continue burning for at least two more centuries.
Visitors these days will mostly see overgrown sidewalks and a lonely graveyard. While there have been some rumors of ghostly activity, the truly haunting thing about Centralia is how human contention can doom a once-beloved community to an untimely death.
5. North Brother Island, New York
This last ghost town is off limits to visitors, which is a shame since it’s probably the spookiest one. It’s also smack-dab in the middle of one of the most populous places in the country. Situated between the boroughs of Queens and the Bronx in New York City is tiny, 20-acre North Brother Island.
In 1885 the island became home to Riverside Hospital, which treated quarantinable diseases until it closed in the 1930s. Infamous Typhoid Mary was one of its patients, and was a resident of the island for over two decades (forcibly isolated by the city after infecting over 50 people with her contagious disease) until she died there in 1938.
In 1904, in a tragedy that would rock the city, the General Slocum, a passenger ship carrying mostly women and children, caught fire and sank off the island’s coast, killing over 1,000 people.
After World War II and the hospital’s closure, the island first housed war veterans and their families, and then a treatment center for teen drug addicts – many of whom may have been confined against their will.
Completely abandoned since the 1960s, the island is now home to only wildlife and the dangerously deteriorated remaining buildings. (Many captivating photographs are captured in a recent book by Christopher Payne.) While there are no visitors around to witness paranormal activity, one must assume that with a history so rife with suffering, there are bound to be unsettled spirits.
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