Historic Ghost Towns Frozen in Time


A ghost town is basically a completely abandoned town or city often left preserved exactly in the moment in time it was abandoned. A town often becomes a ghost town because the economic activity that supported it has failed, or due to natural or human-caused disasters such as floods, government actions, uncontrolled lawlessness, war, or nuclear disasters.
Some ghost towns have now become very popular tourist attractions and this is especially true of those that preserve period-specific architecture and artifacts.

Oradour-sur-Glane: Near Limoges, France

You can easily believe in ghosts in Oradour-sur-Glane. This crumbling 'martyr' village was left as a haunting memorial of the June 1944 Nazi massacre of 642 men, women and children. In a seemingly unprovoked attack, men were taken to barns and burned alive; the SS took women and children to the church, then gassed and shot them, before setting the church on fire. The charred shell of the building remains, along with burnt-out old Citroens and the ruins of the barns; in the cemetery, rows of graves poignantly read 'Died 10 June 1944'. A new village was built after the war on a nearby site and the original has been maintained as a memorial.
Oradour-sur-Glane was not the only collective punishment reprisal action committed by the Waffen SS: other well-documented examples include the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne.


Bodie, California

Tumbleweed rolls among the rotting carts and weather-beaten wooden cabins in Bodie, America's best preserved gold rush town. High in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, Bodie was home to 10,000 people and 65 saloons during its late 1870s boom. By 1920, Bodie's population was recorded by the US Federal Census at a total of 120 people. Despite the decline, Bodie had permanent residents through most of the 20th century, even after a fire ravaged much of the downtown business district in 1932. A post office operated at Bodie from 1877 to 1942.

Avoiding a gun-slinging, yeehaw, wild west Disney-makeover, Bodie has been maintained in a state of 'arrested decay': gritty Chinatown and the rough bars might be long-gone but a small part of the once notorious town has survived harsh winters to give a glimpse of bygone days. Interiors are as they were when the old-timers finally left: in Boone General Stores, original Edison light bulbs, castor oil, coffee and household goods line the shelves, and time stands still among the peeling wallpaper and dusty mirrors of the once-grand saloons.

Kolmanskop, Namibia

Sand pushed by screeching wind from the dunes of the Namib Desert has gone some way towards reclaiming the southern diamond mining town of Kolmanskop. Hundreds of German families and local workers lived here during the early 1900s diamond boom, when Kolmanskop had its own lemonade plant, skittle alley, theater and hospital, which boasted the first x-ray machine in the southern hemisphere. After World War One, diamond sales dropped and by the 1950s the town was abandoned; now the grand mansions are being devoured by the desert. Visitors need a permit from Lüderitz Safari & Tours to enter the restricted mining area.
Humberstone, Chile.

Slowly rusting in the arid Atacama Desert of northern Chile are the skeletons of the Unesco-protected Humberstone and Santa Laura saltpeter works. Saltpeter (nitrate) was used in explosives before World War One, and in the early 1900s Humberstone was home to a booming workforce of Chilean, Peruvian and Bolivian men. Workers were paid in coupons that could only be used on site and - although the works have been abandoned for more than 50 years - original beer and coke bottles are still stacked in the bodega, splintered desks line old classrooms and the town swimming pool, constructed from a ship's hull, gently flakes in the desert sun.

Pripyat, Ukraine

Anyone wondering what a city of 50,000 residents would look like after a nuclear disaster should head inside Chernobyl's 'dead zone' to Pripyat, in the Ukraine, only a few kilometres from the remains of Chernobyl power plant's reactor number four. Residents were evacuated the day after the disaster on 26 April 1986, being told they would be gone only a few days. Greenery now shrouds the city, which was built in the 1970s to house workers and their families, but among the trees are government buildings stuffed with tattered propaganda leaflets, dusty kindergartens littered with toys and gas-masks, stained glass windows glinting in the cafe quarter and a Ferris wheel with rusting yellow buckets suspended mid-flight in the fairground that was due to open on 1 May 1986.

A natural concern is whether it is safe to visit Pripyat and the surroundings. The Zone of Alienation is considered relatively safe to visit, and several Ukrainian companies offer guided tours around the area. The radiation levels have dropped considerably, compared to the fatal levels of April 1986, due to the decay of the short-lived isotopes released during the accident. In most places within the city, the level of radiation does not exceed an equivalent dose of 1 µSv (one microsievert) per hour.
The city and the Zone of Alienation are now bordered with guards and police, but obtaining the necessary documents to enter the zone is not considered particularly difficult. In 2005, a New York-based entrepreneur David C. Haines founded a company to provide guided tours of the city. A guide accompanies visitors to ensure nothing is vandalized or taken from the zone. The doors of most of the buildings are held open to reduce the risk to visitors, and almost all of them can be visited when accompanied by a guide. The city of Chernobyl, a few kilometers south from Pripyat, has some accommodation including a hotel, many apartment buildings, and a local lodge, which are maintained as a permanent residence for watch-standing crew and tourists.

Craco, Italy

Dead cities ('citta morta') pepper Italy's countryside, robbed of their inhabitants in most cases by natural disasters. Medieval Craco, perched 400 meters above the Cavone Valley in southern Italy, was a Norman stronghold that had been settled for centuries, but a series of earthquakes and landslides forced residents out of the pretty hilltop town in the 1960s. The boxy villas, crumbling palazzos and castle ruins have made it a favorite location for shooting movies: it featured in the Quantum of Solace Bond film and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, in particular Craco is the town that can be seen in the scene of the hanging of Judas.