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The 10 Most Hauntingly Beautiful Ghost Towns on the Planet

'In a few days, the population fell from 50,000 to zero...'

Photo: topyaps.com

There’s something fascinating about visiting abandoned settlements isn’t there? It might be slightly voyeuristic, but imagining how the inhabitants lived – and what made them leave – is strangely compelling.

Not only that, places like this are just stunning to look at…

1) Kolmanskop, Namibia

Photo: xarj.net

Kolmanskop, or Kolmannskuppe in German, was apparently named after a wagon driver named Johnny Coleman, who was forced to abandon his cart near the spot during a sandstorm.

But it was another man, Zacharias Lewala, who made the town what it became when he discovered a diamond nearby in 1908.

As miners flocked to the town, Namibia’s colonial rulers in Germany embarked on an ambitious construction scheme, creating a model German-style village in the desert complete with its own power station, theatre, school and even a bowling alley.

Vogue staged a photoshoot here recently with supermodel Agyness Deyn.”

Unfortunately the diamonds began to dry up in the 1920s and the town was finally abandoned in 1954. In the years since, the drifting sands of the Namib desert have moved in, filling buildings and slowly covering all traces of human occupation.

The remaining buildings are so striking Vogue staged a photoshoot here recently with supermodel Agyness Deyn.

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: SqueakyMarmot / Wikipedia
Photo: David Kame / Wikipedia
Photo: Damien du Toit
Photo: Vogue

 

2) St Elmo, Colorado, USA

Photo: Darekk2 / Wikipedia

Abandoned mining settlements litter the Colorado countryside, a legacy of the time when the state was one of the biggest gold producers in the US.

Of these many old west-style villages, few are as well-preserved or evocative as St. Elmo. Established in 1880, the town was apparently named after a novel that one of its founding fathers happened to be reading at the time.

“The town was named after a novel one of its founding fathers was reading at the time.”

At its peak in the 1890s, the settlement boasted a telegraph office, general store, town hall, now fewer than five hotels, and even its own newspaper office.

There were around 150 mine claims in the area, the most successful of which was the nearby Mary Murphy mine, which provided around $60,000,000 worth of gold before it dried up.

Unfortunately as the gold disappeared, so did the people. The railroad in and out closed in 1922 and when the postmaster passed away in 1952 not even mail made it in and out of the town any more.

Photo: John Hirt
Photo: St Elmo Colorado
The ruins of the Mary Murphy Mine. Photo: Wikipedia

 

3) Kurchatov, Kazakhstan

A statue of nuclear scientist Igor Kurchatov still stands in the town centre. Photo: Wikipedia

Named after Igor Kurchatov, the physicist who built the Soviet Union’s first atom bombs, this town miles away from anywhere in the Kazakh steppe was the centre of the USSR’s nuclear weapons program.

It borders on an area known as the Polygon, an area of 18,000 square kilometres that was like the Nevada Desert and Bikini Atoll all rolled into one – between 1949 and 1989, the Soviets detonated 456 bombs here.

Out in the steppe they built mock up villages and even a model of a Moscow metro station to test the effects that a nuclear attack would have on their cities.

Photo: imgkid.com

Officially the town of Kurchatov didn’t exist – the top secret nature of its major industry meant it wasn’t marked on any maps, and was known only as Semipalatinsk 16, a reference to its postcode.

But in its heyday its population swelled to 20,000 as scientists, soldiers and other military personnel were posted here.

“Between 1949 and 1989, the Soviets detonated 456 nuclear bombs here.”

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the independent Kazakh government decided they no longer wanted nuclear weapons on their territory, the test centre closed and the town was largely abandoned.

A census in 1999 showed there were fewer than 10,000 inhabitants and when Mpora visited in 2003, there were fewer than that.

There are people still living here, and a few scientists remain, studying the long term effects of radiation damage and manning what is now a museum of the town’s former atomic glories.

But much of the town is now derelict – a relic that serves as a chilling reminder of the days when nuclear war was only a button push away.

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Nadev Kander / Flowers Gallery London
Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Carlwillis.wordpress.com
Photo: carlwillis.wordpress.com

 

4) Epecuen, Argentina

Photo: Wikipedia

Built in the 1920s as a getaway for tourists from nearby Buenos Aires, Epecuen developed into a bustling spa resort thanks to the therapeutic properties of the salty waters of nearby Lago Epecuen.

At its peak the town had 1,500 permanent residents and could accommodate up to 5,000 tourists at a time and had 280 permanent businesses including shops, hotels and all the amenities needed to support them including a slaughterhouse.

Unfortunately it was the same waters that made the town that destroyed it. In 1985 a seiche, or standing wave, broke a nearby dam and then washed away the dyke protecting the town.

“The waters eventually receded leaving a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape of abandoned cars and ruined buildings”

Water flooded in, submerging everything and forcing inhabitants out. At its peak the waters reached 10 metres deep.

The waters eventually receded leaving a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape of abandoned cars and ruined buildings. It was seeing pictures that persuaded Danny MacAskill to film his incredible mountain biking short here – simply called Epecuen. 

While there he met the town’s solitary resident, Pablo Novak, an 85-year-old old man who returned once the waters subsided because as he sees it, even if it’s a ruin, the town is his home.

Danny MacAskill meets Pablo Novak. Photo: Red Bull
Photo: Tripadvisor.com
Danny MacAskill rides across a street in Epecuen. Photo: Red Bull
Photo: iStock

 

5) Fordlandia, Brazil

Photo: Wikipedia

In 1928 the American tycoon Henry Ford, fed up with having to pay over the odds for tyre rubber from British-ruled Malaysia, secured a concession from the Brazilian government to establish his own plantation in the amazon rainforest.

He constructed a model American town to house his workers including a modern hospital, a library, a golf course, a hotel, and rows of white clapboard houses. Modestly, he named it after himself.

“Henry Ford’s banning of alcohol, tobacco and women from the settlement created resentment among the locals”

Unfortunately the ambitious project was doomed to failure almost from the outset.

Ford’s American engineers had little knowledge of rubber farming and his puritanical rules – banning alcohol, tobacco and women from the settlement – created resentment among his local employees.

Even the diet they were fed – all-American staples like hamburgers – was apparently not to the Brazilians tastes, and they rioted in 1930, forcing the managers to flee into the jungle until the police helped them regain control.

Ford lost interest in the project and when his grandson sold the land, the town was abandoned. Its oddly out-of-place ruins are a reminder of the industrialist’s arrogance, and the folly of trying to impose a culture in a place where it’s not wanted.

A faded Ford logo is visible on a building. Photo: Dan Dubowitz
Fordlandia as it was when first built. Photo: Damn Interesting
One of Fordlandia’s model American houses today. Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

 

6) Hashima Island, Japan

Photo: Jordy Meow / Wikipedia

Known as Battleship Island because of its distinctive shape, Hashima was the site of a series of undersea coal mines that operated throughout much of the 20th century.

In 1890 the Mitsubishi corporation bought the land and began constructing not only mines, but also houses and apartment blocks for the miners.

“The island featured in Skyfall as the Bond villain’s evil lair…”

These included the first large-scale concrete building in Japan, a ground-breaking 9 storey apartment block.

By the 1950s, the bustling industrial hub had a population of more than 5,000. But as petrol replaced coal as the fuel behind Japan’s industry in the 1960s, demand for Hashima’s produce fell and when the mines closed in 1974 the island was abandoned.

Its empty mines and derelict apartment blocks overlooking the sea make for a pretty dramatic landscape. So it’s perhaps no wonder the island featured as the lair of the evil villain played by Javier Bardem in the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall. 

Photo: Jordy Meow / Wikipedia
Hashima Island in the 1930s. Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Jordy Meow / Wikipedia

 

7) Famagusta, Cyprus

Photo: Ballantyre108 / Wikipedia

Inhabited since antiquity, Famagusta, on the eastern shores of Cyprus, was a flourishing port town until 1974.

Not only was the town an important commercial hub, bringing in more than eighty per cent of the island’s cargo traffic, but it was hugely important as a centre of tourism too. Around 50 per cent of the hotels on the whole island were inside the city limits.

All that changed when war broke out between the Greek leaders of the 1974 coup and the Turkish army who invaded the island on the pretext of keeping the peace.

“The breakfast tables are still set, the laundry still hanging and the lamps still burning”

Turkish forces first bombed and then seized the town, fencing off the area of Varosha, the town’s main tourist district and forcing the residents out.

While Turkish Cypriots have returned the city north of Varosha to some sort of normality, the fenced off area has been left derelict since 1974 with the general public banned from entering.

Shops, hotels, houses and department stores have all been left exactly as they were the morning the locals fled.

As Swedish journalist Jan-Olof Bengtsson wrote in 1977 “the breakfast tables are still set, the laundry still hanging and the lamps still burning. Varosha is a ghost town.”

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Bantam Bee / Wikipedia
Photo: Julien / Wikipedia

 

8) Prypiat, Ukraine

Photo: topyaps.com

When the Chernobyl nuclear reactor caught fire in 1986, the nearby Ukrainian city of Pripyat had nearly 50,000 inhabitants – many of them employees of the plant or their relatives.

A few days after the accident, its population was zero. Everyone was evacuated, leaving an entire city with more than 20 schools, a hospital, cinemas, a swimming pool and an amusement park completely empty.

“A few days after the Chernobyl disaster, its population was zero.”

In recent years as the levels of radiation have reached manageable levels, visitors have started coming back to Pripyat to explore the desolation left behind by the disaster. Several Ukrainian groups now offer tours of the area.

The city, which was purpose-built to house the plant workers, had only existed since 1970. Now, as this incredible drone footage shows, it’s slowly disappearing, being subsumed back into nature.

The abandoned swimming pool in Pripyat. Photo: Tim Suess
Haunting graffiti in Pripyat with the ruins of the power plant in the background. Photo: artbattlefield
Photo: Screenshot

 

9) Bodie, California, USA

Photo: Wikipedia

Like St Elmo in Colorado, Bodie owes its existence to the discovery of gold in the area… and its demise to the exhaustion of the precious resource.

It was founded as a mining camp in 1859 after prospectors – including one William S Bodey – discovered gold nearby.

Bodey died in a blizzard before he could ever see the town they named after him, but by the end of the century it had grown massively, boasting two churches and at one stage, 65 saloons on its high street.

“Bodey died in a blizzard before he could ever see the town they named after him”

Eventually more profitable mines drew locals away to other areas, and by the early 20th century the town was in decline. By 1920 the population was just 120, and the last few inhabitants drifted away in the following years.

Before that though the town was being touted as a tourist attraction as the boom in car sales in California enabled tourists to come and explore.

Photo: Wikipedia
An abandoned pool hall in a Bodie saloon. Photo: Wikipedia
One of Bodie’s two churches. Photo: Wikipedia
Bodie as it was, circa 1890. Photo: Wikipedia

 

10) Leith, South Georgia

Photo: Wikipedia

The small whaling station of Leith on the island of South Georgia was only ever home to a handful of people at its peak. But as the largest of seven whaling stations on the South Atlantic island, it was, for a time, the centre of the world’s whaling industry.

The station was only operational between 1909 and 1965, but Leith’s main claim to fame happened way after its only industry had died.

“The Argentinian landing at Leith marked the start of the Falklands War.”

In 1982 a group of 50 Argentines posing as scrap metal merchants landed in the bay and occupied what was left of the town, opening the way for the landing of Argentine marines that marked the start of the Falklands War.

In April that year the Brits damaged and captured an Argentinian submarine in Leith harbour, but there were no battles fought here – the Argentinian garrison, recognising the odds were stacked against them, surrendered without firing a shot.

In the years since, the rusting buildings of the whaling station have returned to their peaceful state, attracting only the occasional sight-seer and ghost town enthusiast.

Photo: Sam Crimmin Photography
Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Sam Crimmin Photography
British marines on the damaged hull of the Argentine submarine Santa Fe. Photo: BBC

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