It’s always fun in a post-apocalyptic story when the survivors return to ghost towns to rummage for supplies, right? Exploring the ruins of a once-thriving place always makes for a great scene. But sometimes, as the saying goes, the truth is stranger than fiction. Take away the zombies and the nuclear fallout and you still have plenty of creepy, real-life stories made all-the-more creepy because they actually happened.
There are plenty of real cities that were abandoned by their residents available for you to explore… as long as you don’t mind some mild radiation exposure, possible lead poisoning, sinkholes, crumbling ruins, and sandstorms. The list below features towns that were abandoned due to disasters both natural and man-made, but unlike some cities that were abandoned on purpose (to make way for a dam, for example), all of these places were turned into ghost towns against the will of the people that lived there. Happy exploring!
Kolmanskop, Namibia: Swallowed by Sand
The town of Kolmanskop, Namibia, was born because someone found a diamond in the sand, died because it became too hard to find diamonds in the sand, and is now almost entirely buried by that same sand.
In 1908, a railway worker found some bling in the area and showed it to his German boss. Soon after, a ton of Germans descended on the area to settle and exploit it (not necessarily in that order). In the next few decades, Kolmanskop had a hospital (complete with a newfangled x-ray machine), a ballroom, a school, a casino (naturally), a theater, and even the first streetcar in Africa.
In the 1920s, the town was home to about 1200 people: 340 Europeans and 800 African workers. By 1956, the place was abandoned, thanks in part to less extreme diamond-mining conditions discovered to the south. Visitors today mainly come to take pictures of all the buildings being swallowed by sand (which are pretty cool).
Centralia, Pennsylvania: Constantly on Fire
Fans of post-apocalyptic entertainment such as The Walking Dead and Fallout would probably enjoy a jaunt through the smoldering ruins of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Why smoldering? Well, a coal mine fire has been roaring under the town like a Hellmouth since 1962, “burning at depths of up to 300 feet, baking surface layers, venting poisonous gases and opening holes large enough to swallow people or cars.”
A low point in the whole saga – and when the nation really began to take notice – was when 12-year-old Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole in his own backyard in 1981. His cousin pulled him out of the hole, saving his life (the steam coming from the hole was later found to have lethal levels of carbon monoxide). Four years earlier, his father jinxed poor Todd by telling a reporter, “I guess some kid will have to get killed by the gas or by falling in one of these steamy holes before anyone will call it an emergency.”
The 2010 census list 10 residents in Centralia, down from more than 1,000 in 1981. In 2013, officials decided to let the remaining residents live out the rest of their lives there, like they’re Silent Hillcosplayers or something. Experts say the fire can’t stop/won’t stop for at least another 200 years.
Times Beach, Missouri: Accidentally Poisoned by City Officials
In 1972, the town of Times Beach, Missouri (pop. 2,000) paid Russell Bliss $2,400 to spray 160,000 gallons of waste oil on the town’s dirt roads to keep the dust down. Little did they know that Bliss was using waste oil contaminated with dioxin, a toxic chemical by-product of the manufacture of hexachlorophene, an antibacterial agent that was formerly used for soap and toothpaste. Bliss didn’t know it, either: he was just doing his job as a contractor for a chemical company. (Bliss wouldn’t have cared either way, as the above clip shows. The dude dipped his finger in dioxin and ate it at a hearing about the incident.)
In 1982, after the release of a leaked EPA document revealing the chemical company’s shady dealings, the CDC tested the town and found it essentially unlivable. The state and federal government eventually bought out the town for $36.7 million, paying the owners of 800 residential properties and 30 businesses to leave. The area was quarantined for a long time: the EPA didn’t totally clean it up until 1997, at the cost of $200 million. Today, it’s home to Route 66 State Park.
Wittenoom, Australia: Asbestos Poisoning
The town of Wittenoom in western Australia was founded in the 1930s just to house the workforce responsible for mining crocidolite, an extremely carcinogenic and extremely Australian-sounding type of asbestos. The mines were shut down in 1966 after one of the miners was diagnosed with mesothelioma, the first case in Australia. This effectively killed the town, but the state government didn’t adopt an official “phase down” policy until 1978 (meaning it started to purchase homes and business and pay residents to relocate).
Despite the now-obvious dangers of asbestos exposure – one 2012 study, for example, showed that “adults who had lived in Wittenoom as children when the mine was active were between 20% and 83% more likely to die from cancer than the rest of the population” – there were still a couple of people living in the area in December of 2015, according to the Guardian.
Hashima, Japan: Abandoned After All the Coal Was Mined
The abandoned island city of Hashima, Japan, is nicknamed Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island, because it looks like a hulking battleship from the air. The 18-acre island is now home to the fragile, dangerous ruins of a some of the earliest concrete high-rises in the world, built in 1916 for workers at a coal mining facility owned by Mitsubishi and their families.
In 1959, Hashima was packed: 5,259 people called it home, making it one of the most densely populated places on earth at the time, according to CNN. With gas quickly becoming the primary fuel source in Japan and the coal reserves running out, Mitsubishi closed the mines in 1974, quickly turning the island into a ghost town. Tourists looking to tour the ruins today need “permission from the Nagasaki City Council and a compelling reason for going inside.”
Pyramiden, Norway: An Economic Crash and a Plane Crash
With a peak of roughly 1,000 residents in the 1980s, the coal-mining community of Pyramiden, Norway, was once known as “an exhibition of the best of the Soviet Union.” Despite being part of the remote Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway, the settlement has been owned by the Soviet Union/Russia since 1927, and by the state-owned Soviet Union/Russian mining company Arktikugol Trust since 1931. In its heyday, the community was almost entirely self-sufficient, raising its own food and supplying its own power. It also had plenty of amenities for its residents in its dozens of new buildings, including a top-notch heated swimming pool, library, gym, cafeteria, pub, and theater.
Two crashes effectively put an end to Pyramiden. The first was the crash of the Russian economy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, leading to low salaries and poor standards of living. The second was an actual plane crash: in 1996, Arktikugol chartered a plane from Moscow to nearby Longyearbyen full of Pyramiden workers and their families that crashed outside of Longyearbyen, killing all 141 passengers.
In 1998, the Russians decided to shut Pyramiden down. The roughly 300 workers still living there left everything behind, leaving all their supplies and mining equipment sitting untouched for more than a decade. In 2007, Arktikugol began renovating some of the old buildings to help accommodate tourists to the site. You can stay in one of the Tulpan Hotel’s newly refurbished rooms for about $144 as of 2016.
Picher, Oklahoma: Poisoned by Lead and Destroyed by a Tornado
What could make a town’s population drop from 1640 to 20 in just one decade? Toxic waste exposure? An F4 tornado? Yep. Picher, Oklahoma, suffered from both. The Picher lead-zinc mines were some of the most productive of the early 20th century, cranking out more than $20 billion worth of ore between 1917 and 1947. When operations ceased in 1967, contaminated water from the 14,000 abandoned mines began to seep, and “millions of tons” (!) of chat (lead-contaminated dust, essentially) began to pile up. In 1980, the government declared the town a Superfund site, which isn’t as fun as it sounds: “Superfund” refers to the loads of money necessary to clean up a hazardous waste site.
In 1996, a study revealed that more than a quarter of the town’s kids (34%) had lead poisoning. In 2006, the government declared that most of the town’s building weren’t fit for habitation, a side effect of all the mining. In 2008, a F4 tornado added injury to injury and destroyed 150 homes. A year later, Oklahoma officially dis-incorporated the city. The last resident standing, a pharmacist named Gary Linderman, died in 2015.
Plymouth, Montserrat: Smothered by Volcanic Ash
The ghost town of Plymouth on the Caribbean island and British Overseas Territory of Montserrat is the only ghost town in the world that is still, technically, the capital of a political territory. The Soufrière Hills volcano smothered the city in nearly five feet of ash back in 1997, after firing a few warning shots in 1995. Nineteen people were killed and the entire town was displaced, with many forced to live in a “state of involuntary exile in Britain, the US and elsewhere in the Caribbean.” The aftermath has been compared to “the horrific damage left by the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima at the end of World War II” and has earned Plymouth the title “Pompeii in the Caribbean.”
With the capital destroyed, the island’s population plummeted from 12,000 to 5,000.
Oradour-sur-Glane, France: Razed by Nazis, Left as a Memorial
Oradour-sur-Glane, France, didn’t have to be abandoned after the Nazis almost entirely razed it in 1944, killing 642 of its residents. But French president Charles de Gaulle decided to leave the city in ruins as a testament to the Nazi atrocities, and it still serves the same function today, complete with a memorial museum, the Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour. Survivors were relocated to a new village of the same name northwest of the ruins after the war.
The massacre is considered by historians to be an act of retribution against the people of Oradour-su-Glane for their alleged assistance to the French Resistance and the American forces and it’s particularlybrutal: it’s the only known instance of the Nazis literally crucifying a baby.
Pripyat, Ukraine: Chernobyl
No list of abandoned towns would be complete without Pripyat, Ukraine, the town of almost 50,000 that had to be evacuated following the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. You’ve likely seen a lot of the haunting pictures and maybe read some of the horror stories, and if you’re a gamer, you probably explored Pripyat playing games such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Pripyat wasn’t evacuated until 36 hours after the disaster, and when the mad rush finally happened – 50,000 people shuttled off in 1,200 buses in under four hours – it was under false pretenses. The residents were told they would only be gone for two or three days, but in reality, no human could live there safely again for at least another 24,000 years. A new city, Slavutych, was built 30 miles to the northeast to replace Pripyat, but not before being covered in two meters of uncontaminated soil.