7 Modern-Day Ghost Towns

Silent and spooky

Photo: Jorge Franganillo [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

The phrase “ghost town” conjures up an image of a dusty old mining outpost somewhere in the American West, a long-forsaken settlement with tumbleweeds and dirt streets and saloon doors that bang wildly in the wind. A phantom piano player is also frequently involved.

Despite the hoary clichés, this type of ghost town — usually one of hundreds of raucous boomtowns that sprouted up across the West in the late 1880s and were quickly deserted — is in great supply, some even remarkably preserved as museums.

And then there’s an entirely different ghost town, the modern ghost town. More sad in nature than their Wild West counterparts, these are places that have been marooned, some over time and some literally overnight for various reasons: toxic contamination and political conflict to name just a few. Shown here is Varosha in Northern Cyprus, featured later in this gallery.

We’ve rounded up seven notable modern ghost towns from across the globe that, while eerie, also serve as a collective testament to the missteps mankind has made — missteps that we hopefully won’t repeat.

Gilman, Colo.

pam Morris /Flickr.

Colorado isn’t short on eerie, long-abandoned mining outposts, forsaken farming communities and barren boomtowns that still stand as a testament to the state’s rowdy, gold-crazed salad days of the 19th century.

While a majority of Colorado’s defunct mining settlements went belly-up long ago, the Eagle County mining outpost of Gilman wasn’t forsaken until 1984 ... by order of the Environmental Protection Agency.

For years a hotbed of mining activity, this once-prosperous town perched on a cliff high above the Eagle River was abandoned due to significant hazardous waste contamination. The Eagle Mine and a 235-acre swath of land around it — Gilman sits atop the mine — was deemed a Superfund site and placed on the EPA’s National Priorities List in 1986 due to “high levels of arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead and zinc in the soil and in surface and groundwater.”

Picher, Okla.

peggydavis66/Flickr.

It would seem that the once-bustling lead and zinc mining powerhouse of Picher just can't catch a break. Following decades of unchecked excavation and hazardous waste dumping, Picher’s problems started in the late 1960s when, following the closure of the mines, unremediated contaminants began to turn the water in the creek red, giant sinkholes began to open up in the earth, and cancer rates among residents began to skyrocket.

Even though Picher was declared part of the Tar Creek Superfund site in 1983, many folks didn't leave until 2006 when an Army Corps of Engineers study showed that much of the town was at risk of collapsing. Still, hundreds of stubborn — and sickened — Picher-ites stayed behind.

Then in May 2008, a massive tornado struck. The following year, the school district was dissolved, post office shuttered and remaining residents provided with federal relocation funds. On Sept. 1, 2009, Picher was effectively closed forever. Well, almost.

Varosha, Northern Cyprus

Dickelbers/Wikimedia Commons.

Glitz! Glamour! Civil war! Abandonment! That sums up Varosha, a once-ritzy beachfront resort district popular with Elizabeth Taylor and international jet-setters in the Cypriot city of Famagusta. Following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, it was deserted by 15,000 residents, enclosed with barbed wire and left to rot.

Filled with “decaying vintage cars and crumbling villas,” the still heavily patrolled quarter of Varosha — or “Ghost City” as it’s commonly called — served as a case study in Alan Weisman’s best-selling, what-would-happen-if-humans-went-away-pondering 2007 tome, “The World Without Us.”

Famagusta resident Okan Dagli describes in a 2012 New York Times article his experiences visiting the forbidden quarter while serving in the Turkish Army: “Everything was looted and crumbling. It was as if time had stopped. It was both very sad and very disturbing.” Dagli adds: “I want Varosha to be a live city — not a ghost city. We have no chance if we remain divided for ever.”

Centralia, Pa.

Kelly Michals/Flickr.

Located in covered bridge-heavy Columbia County in northeastern Pennsylvania, the borough of Centralia is without a doubt North America’s most notorious modern near ghost town. That’s right, near ghost town.

Despite government buyouts, ZIP code revocations and eminent domain squabbles, some tenacious old-timers still live in this town that continues to burn from the inside out due to an underground coal mine fire ignited over 50 years ago.

Yes, Centralia is that town, best known for its empty streets, toxic smoke and “Silent Hill” associations; abandoned en masse in the 1980s due to concerns about lethal gases (not to mention the incident when a 12-year-old boy was swallowed up by a steaming sinkhole in his grandmother’s backyard); a town where the ground is so hot you can light a match on contact and the fire is expected to burn for another 250 years or so.

Doel, Belgium

Gerard Stolk (vers l'Été )/Flickr.

Given the dominating presence of a nearby nuclear facility and its massive twin cooling towers, you’d think the historic Flemish polder village of Doel was bestowed with ghost-town status by way of radiation leakage or something of that sort.

That's not the case at all as Doel has long been the target of a drawn-out and controversial demolition plan in which villagers have been forced to sell their homes and abandon ship. The reason? The seemingly never-ending enlargement of the Port of Antwerp, already one of Europe’s largest seaports.

Doel is also known for at one point serving as one gigantic canvas for street artists who have populated the town with aliens, robots and giant rats, according to the BBC.

Wittenoom, Australia

Michael Theis/Flickr.

A note to brave travelers wishing to walk along the lonely streets of Wittenoom, Australia’s most notorious ghost town and the site of the country’s largest industrial disaster that has claimed the lives of over 2,000 miners, visitors and former residents: Good luck finding it.

Situated in the vast landscape of the Pilbara region in Western Australia, Wittenoom has been virtually erased from the map with travel access cut off, government services and electricity severed and any indication that the once-prosperous asbestos mining town ever existed erased from roadway signage. And for those who do manage to find it, the Australian government recommends steering clear: “Travelling to Wittenoom presents a public health risk from exposure to asbestos fibres which may result in contracting a fatal disease, such as mesothelioma, asbestosis or lung cancer.”

While the mine was shut down in 1966 after 23 years of business, it wasn’t until 1978 that action to phase-down the town and relocate any remaining residents commenced. As of 2006, only a handful of residents remain.

Pripyat, Ukraine

Matt Shalvatis/Flickr.

To round out our list, here is an abandoned city, complete with the world’s creepiest amusement park and a backstory that needs little explanation.

Left frozen in time less than 20 years after it was founded, the former Soviet nuclear city of Pripyat saw its nearly 50,000 residents hastily leave and never return following the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, the Chernobyl disaster.

Although uninhabited since April 1986, the ruins of this once-bustling planned city within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone aren’t entirely lonely as Pripyat, in addition to serving as fodder for insensitive horror films, has emerged as a popular pseudo-vacation destination for extreme tourists.

Lingering threats of radiation exposure are a minor concern compared to the physical hazards involved with traversing a crumbling city where the “spirit of Soviet darkness reigns.” This is why booking a tour through an established, safety-minded company is compulsory and the only real way to gain access to Pripyat and other “attractions” within “The Zone.” Although stepping inside of abandoned buildings is prohibited and most tour companies abide by the rules, visitors are still advised to wear closed-toe shoes and long pants. And no touching!