Ghost towns hold a strange attraction for travelers. Perhaps it’s being able to see the remnants of a once-popular, once-thriving town that has been left to the elements.
Ghost towns are not just a Wild West phenomenom (although some of the best preserved are found in the arid Southwest). You can find these abandoned towns across the country, from Pennsylvania to Alaska, California to Alabama.
Some were abandoned over time due to economic hardships; others were immediately evacuated, as if it was a sinking ship, leaving buildings full of furniture, stores full of merchandise and church pews lined up. They sit there at the mercy of time and nature—and time is brutal, bringing with it vandalism and fires that can slowly and repeatedly remove the marks of a previous township.
If these abandoned spaces hold a fascination for you, put these towns on your summer roadtrip list.
1) Thurmond, West Virginia
In the southwestern part of West Virginia, Thurmond served as a stop for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad before the diesel locomotive era. By 1910, Thurmond was producing $4.8 million in freight income, more than 20 percent of the railroad company’s revenue. Prohibition in 1914 and the Great Depression in the 1930s, however, hit the town hard. Today, Thurmond still has a few inhabitants—seven at last count—but most of its former grandeur and splendor have fallen into disrepair, making it a nearly vacant ghost town. The former train depot is now a museum, but the main attraction is the New River, a popular rafting destination.
2) Virginia City, Montana
Rich gold lodes were found in the Virginia City area in 1863, beginning the town’s growth and success. A few years after miners struck it rich, the gold ran out, and so did most of the town. There was, however, still enough gold left to support some homes and businesses, but not to refurbish many buildings. So the town near Yellowstone National Park just stayed looking the way it always had. Today, Virginia City is a National Historic Landmark that serves as a reminder of the Victorian-era mining boom.
3) Bodie, California
In the Bodie Hills not far from Lake Tahoe and Reno, Nevada, is this former mining town. It was certainly a boom town, with an estimated 10,000 people by 1880. Newspapers in November 1881 even reported that Bodie had become a resort because there were no killings in a whole week. Already becoming somewhat deserted as 1900 approached, two fires in the early 1930s destroyed most of the town, and the residents who remained abaoned Bodie, leaving what little there is to see today.
4) Bombay Beach, Salton Sea, California
Bombay Beach gained popularity as the Salton Sea—near the south California border with Mexico—became a vacation destination in the 1940s and ‘50s. Developers planned for the whole area on the sea's east shore to be California's version of the French Riviera. Nature, though, had other plans, and the reort idea remained just that—an idea. Increasing salinity in the Salton Sea (which killed many fish and birds) and a series of floods from tropical storms in the 1970s left most of the area deserted. Now, the shoreline of Bombay Beach is entirely flooded, and salt build-up has overrun and destroyed most of the buildings and trailers that were there. The sea is fed by the New, Whitewater and Alamo rivers, in addition to agricultural runoff, drainage systems, and creeks.
5) Orla, Texas
Orla is like most of the hundreds of now-deserted Texas towns: It was built for one reason. Most were mining towns built during the Gold Rush. Orla, which is about 40 miles north of Pecos on U.S. Route 285, was established in 1890 as a section house for the Pecos River Railroad. Though a few people still live and work there (it remains an equipment-shipping point), most of the buildings and homes have been abandoned and are in a state of disrepair, making it a popular destination for photographers and ghost town enthusiasts.
6) Kennecott, Alaska
Like a flash in a pan, Kennecott came and went in just a few years. After producing $200 million in iron ore from 1911 to 1938, the mines ran out, and Kennecott was too remote (the nearest civilization is 60 miles away in Chitina) to survive. The town once had a hospital, school, skating rink and tennis court. The original mill buildings remain, but that’s about it. Though slightly different in spelling, the town of Kennecot is beside the Kennicott Glacier, northeast of Valdez, and is part of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
7) Centralia, Pennsylvania
The story of Centralia is particularly interesting. The town about two hours northwest of Philadelphia pretty much died as the result of an underground coal-mine fire in 1962, which still burns. A group of municipal employees set fire to a pile of trash in a cemetery, and the fire accidentally spread underground into old mines. Initially, no one realized the fire had spread, but soon cracks appeared in the ground from which smoke and carbon monoxide were released. In 1981, the entire town was evacuated; in 1992, all real estate was claimed under eminent domain and condemned by the state; and in 2002, the ZIP code was recalled. A few residents stuck it out, though, and reached an agreement with the state in 2013 that they can live out their lives there, after which their property will be claimed by eminent domain. Smoke still escapes from the fissures in the ground.
8) Rhyolite, Nevada
A real Wild West mining boom town, Rhyolite is about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas, near Death Valley National Park. The town was named for a pinkish volcanic rock found in the area, but gold drove its brief boom. Thousands of people flocked to Rhyolite after prospecting discoveries in the early 1900s, and even Charles M. Schwab invested in its infrastructure. At its peak, about 10,000 people inhabited Rhyolite. The nearby mines, however, were quickly exhausted, and after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the financial panic of 1907, most of the miners and their families left. Rhyolite was used as as a movie set for Old West films in the 1920s, but the town never came back to its glory days and today is slowly crumbling.
9) Cahaba, Alabama
Cahaba (also spelled Cahawba), Alabama, southwest of Selma, was at one time the state’s first permanent capital, but its location on the confluence of the Alabama and Cahaba rivers made it a flood hazard. Cahaba lost its capital status in 1826, but briefly rallied as a distribution point for cotton and the site of a prison for Union soldiers. After the Civil War, it became a popular community for freed slaves. But the floods eventually won, and by the early 20th century, most of the buildings were abandoned. The area is no longer inhabited, but the Alabama Historical Commission maintains Cahaba as a state historic site and as an archaeological site.
10) Cody, Wyoming
Founded in the 1870s by Col. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the same-named town of Cody still has a population of nearly 10,000. There is, however, a portion of Cody—called Old Trail Town—that resembles the Wild West days of Buffalo Bill and company. The historic buildings were collected and moved to the area from elsewhere in Wyoming and Montana. Though the buildings are not original to their current site, they are authentic and the spirit of the past lives on. Cody is just east of Yellowstone National Park and is a popular tourist stop that includes Wild West reenactments in Old Trail Town.
(Photo credits from top: ©bobistraveling/Flickr, Creative Commons; ©magmarcz/Shutterstock; ©stockdonkey/Shutterstock; ©Christopher Bowns/Flickr, Creative Commons; ©questmark/Flickr, Creative Commons; ©steven schremp/Shutterstock; ©Peter & Laila/Flickr, Creative Commons; ©Jeff Hitchcock/Flickr, Creative Commons; ©Cherokee Rose/Flickr, Creative Commons; ©silky/Shutterstock)