8 Modern Ghost Towns

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The term “ghost town” probably brings to mind dusty, decaying structures — the remnants of bygone glory years as railroad boomtowns or mining camps. But ghost towns are hardly limited to those old-time settlements, as evidenced by the following communities. Though in some cases these towns are casualties of industrial busts or Mother Nature’s fury, more often than not they fell victim to human folly, from political corruption and lack of corporate responsibility to violence perpetrated against neighbors. Most are still inhabited, but are a mere shadow of their former selves. Here are eight modern ghost towns in the United States.

8. Gilman, Colorado

Gilman, Colorado, has been abandoned since 1984.

Credit: Matthew Trump

Located in the northwestern part of the state, Gilman’s abundance of natural resources meant it was only a matter of time before it became a mining mecca. Mining took on various incarnations; according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, gold and silver mining prospered here from the 1870s until the mid-1880s and, by 1905, lead and zinc became the metals of choice. An underground mill operated here until 1979, but environmental concerns about heavy metals — including arsenic in the surface and ground water — eventually forced the Environmental Protection Agency in 1984 to evacuate the town that once boasted hundreds of people, a bowling alley and grocery store. The former village was placed in a 235-acre Superfund site, with efforts to clean up the area starting four years later.


7. Asbury Park, New Jersey

Asbury Park, New Jersey, has fallen far since its heyday as a resort for New York City residents.

Residents and chamber of commerce officials may strongly disagree with Asbury Park’s status as a ghost town, but the town merits a spot on this list for several reasons. And many others agree. Helen Chantel-Pike, author of a book on the seaside community’s glory days, likened it to “Beirut on the Jersey Shore,” and the fictional Paragon Hotel in David Morrell’s 2005 thriller, Creepers, is based on several abandoned, local hotels. The beachfront fashioned into a tourist mecca in the 1870s by developer James A. Bradley has certainly seen much better days. By the 1930s, Asbury Park boasted enough hotels to accommodate thousands of beach-goers, one of the country’s first electric trolley systems, a casino, pavilion, shopping area, and it welcomed top performers of the day such as Abbott and Costello. The town so tied to entertainment suffered with the rise of strip malls and changing vacation habits — more people flying to far-off destinations as opposed to opting for stay-cations.

By the 1970s, the town, which once inspired Bruce Springsteen, was badly in need of urban renewal. Previous redevelopment has been stymied by corruption and funding pressures. However, the city’s official boardwalk site notes ambitious redevelopment plans have resulted in repurposed landmarks and a “spruced-up” Ocean Avenue — although the recession has slowed the speed of revitalization efforts.


6. Eagle Mountain, California

Eagle Mountain, California, is regarded as one of the best-preserved ghost towns.

Credit: Ken McCown

Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser represents the brains behind this former company town located in the heart of the Colorado Desert. Thanks to its iron-mining operations, the town got its start in 1948, but began to dwindle in population by the 1970s, as concerns over air quality and other environmental issues loomed. At Eagle Mountain’s height, it had more than 4,000 residents and 400 single-family homes. In the early 1980s, the mill and mine were phased out; shortly after, the high school closed and, by the end of the decade, the city’s former mall was converted into a correctional facility. In 1989, plans were launched to convert the abandoned mine into the country’s largest solid-waste dump, to effectively become the trash dump for metro Los Angeles. Opponents defeated that effort. Because of the town’s relative youth and relatively recent abandonment, it’s regarded as one of the best-preserved ghost towns, boasting more vacant buildings than the famous Bodie ghost town, located just east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.


5. Pyote, Texas

The Air Force Base at Pyote, Texas, once had more than 6,000 servicemen.

Credit: Bigbird78

This West Texas town refuses to completely die. Since its beginnings in the 1880s, Pyote has undergone many incarnations and, as such, its population has yo-yoed dramatically through the decades. In 1925, the humble settlement with a ranch, post office, store, school and 100 residents blossomed with the discovery of oil, growing to 3,500 by 1928. But the community shrank again to around 1,000 residents in the early 1930s when the railroad was re-routed, bypassing Pyote and effectively cutting it off from oilfield shipping. The town evolved yet again in the 1940s with the establishment of a military facility, a bomber training station. More than 6,000 people were assigned to the base at its peak during World War II.

After the base was deactivated in 1963, Pyote got another economic boost with the opening of a youth detention center later in the decade. Still, by the 1970s, the town’s population had dipped to fewer than 200. The story doesn’t end there; the Odessa American reported the detention facility closed in 2010, on the heels of sexual abuse allegations, once again throwing the town’s future into jeopardy.


4. Valmeyer, Illinois

The original town site of Valmeyer, Illiinois, was abandoned in 1993, as residents relocated to a nearby bluff.

Credit: Dpalme

People make moves, but entire towns? Not so often. The “original” town of Valmeyer, established in the mid-1800s by the Meyers family who lived in the valley (get it?) barely exists, albeit for around 15 homes in the early 2000s, according to a Hamline University report. A new town site was required after the old one suffered one horrible flood after another. After three substantial floods in the 1940s, a levee was built in 1950, but it was no match for the great Mississippi flood of 1993. That summer, waters as deep as 16 feet flowed through the middle of town. According to the village’s website, Valmeyer’s residents took drastic measures, and by fall of the same year, it was decided to move the community of 900 people to a 400-foot bluff adjacent to the existing settlement. In an interesting twist, the community built its new structures in a sustainable way, utilizing energy-efficient technologies.


3. Picher, Oklahoma

This town in the upper northeast corner of Oklahoma just couldn’t catch a break. At one time Picher boasted 25,000 residents and was considered the capital of lead and zinc production, according to a 2007 NPR report. Kids went sledding and climbing on chat piles, and keg parties were held on the mining waste littering the community. Everything changed in the early 1980s, when ground contamination was discovered and the EPA ranked the Tar Creek Superfund site, which includes Picher, to be more hazardous than the infamous Love Canal site. Turns out the chat piles were laced with lead, and blood tests revealed high lead levels in a quarter of the city’s children; it’s no coincidence that three-quarters of elementary schoolchildren were reading at below grade-level. Remediation started in the 1990s, and families with young children were given the chance to accept buyouts. Then, in another sad turn, collapsed mine shafts were discovered — some 200 feet deep and 400 feet wide. A new round of government buyouts ensued. The remaining residents were pummeled again in 2008 — this time by Mother Nature. A tornado devastated 20 city blocks, according to the Tulsa World, and left seven people dead and 150 injured. In 2010, the town’s population was 20, falling by more than 1,500 since 2000.


2. Cairo, Illinois

Cairo, Illinois, has a history beset by racial violence.

Credit: Photolitherland

This community at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers was once salvation for runaway slaves as a stop along the Underground Railroad. Following the Civil War, many freed slaves from the South settled here. But racial lines were clearly drawn, with segregation prominent in all spheres of life. One of the bloodiest days in Cairo’s history arrived on Nov. 11, 1909 when a black man, Will “Froggy” James, who was accused of raping and murdering a white shop girl, was lynched by a mob. The mob later burned and mutilated James’ body, even taking pieces of bloodied rope and body parts as souvenirs, according to a New York Times archived story documenting the event. With children hoisted on their parents’ shoulders, James’ head was placed on a stake and left there for hours. The National Guard was called out to restore order — one of several times soldiers would be needed to quiet mobs in Cairo. Racial unrest continued unabated throughout the 20th century. In the 1960s and ’70s, African Americans boycotted local businesses, shops were bombed, and there were frequent protest marches. In 1967, after a black soldier died suspiciously while in police custody, a riot ensued.

Cairo has been dubbed the town that suffered “death by racism,” and, indeed, what was once a city of more than 15,000 people in the early 1900s is now a shadow of its former self, with fewer than 3,000 people, decaying infrastructure and a lack of many basic services. A former head of the local NAACP chapter told Time Magazine in 2010 he uses three words to describe Cairo today: “Poor, black and ugly.”


1. Centralia, Pennsylvania

The event that led to the demise of this coal-mining town — which once boasted more than 1,000 residents — rages on today. In 1962 a coal fire started underground in Centralia, and it’s still burning. Residents generally ignored the fire for years, but by the late 1970s, many began reporting symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. When a giant, 150-foot-deep sinkhole suddenly appeared in 1981, the town made national headlines. A few years later, the federal government allocated funds to buy out local residents, and the exodus began.

Today, the town that was once home to nearly 550 families is almost entirely abandoned. In a May 2010 article, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review noted only nine residents remained. Most of the remaining Centralians were 80-somethings who had lived in a burning town for more than half their lives. Ironically, Centralia is better known today than in its heyday. The town’s plight has been featured in numerous documentaries, and scores of thrill seekers visit the area, heedless of the danger of sinkholes and poisonous fumes.


Written by

Michelle Leach's love of writing has taken her to Sydney, Australia, London, U.K. and other exotic locations like Grand Island, Neb., and Clio, Mich. She has developed pieces for TV and radio stations, PR departments, newspapers and magazines. A graduate of Northwestern University and Lake Forest College (also in Illinois) she enjoys running marathons and likes to say when not writing, she’s running — but she tries not to mix the two activities.