Desolate, ruined, hollow: ghost towns are the remnants of urban catastrophe. Whether it’s a shift in local industry or a particularly nasty disaster that sparks a mass exodus, it means the death knell for a town. Eerie and tragic, yet brimming with history, the following ghost towns are monuments to hardship, good intentions with bad repercussions, and human folly.
1. Hashima Island 端島 (Gunkanjima 軍艦島), Japan
Image: Ishida Naoki/Flickr
It’s virtually impossible to find an abandoned city with a history as sordid as that of Hashima Island, known commonly as “Gunkanjima,” or Battleship Island. Today, it’s a desolate, crumbling rock in the middle of the East China Sea, battered by hurricanes so severe it’s impossible to land on the island most days of the year. But just 50 years ago the tiny Japanese island was home to 5,259 inhabitants, making it the most densely populated city in human history.
Purchased in 1890 by the Mitsubishi Corporation for its large coal deposits, Hashima quickly became home to miners and their families. When room in single-story homes on the island started to run out, the first reinforced concrete apartment blocks were constructed to house all the workers. The apartment buildings quickly became overcrowded too, and conditions deteriorated rapidly in the concrete behemoths.
If life wasn’t already bleak for Gunkanjima’s miners, keep in mind that their days were spent descending long tunnels that lead them into coal mines below the ocean. During World War II, with Japanese men fighting in the Pacific theater, the Japanese government “recruited” (enslaved) Korean and Chinese men to work the mines. Many of these men died from horrendous working conditions and a starvation diet.
When the use of petroleum replaced the need for the production of large amounts of coal in the 1960s, the mines were no longer profitable and were finally closed in 1974. All the inhabitants on the island were shipped back to mainland China, leaving behind a concrete sea wall and rows upon rows of apartment block housing.
Along with the concrete remains, the island’s previous human inhabitants also left another unexpected legacy: plants. Hashima island is made up of coal slag and bare rock and lacked any vegetation or soil of any kind before humans moved there. During the early ’60s, miners fought for fertilizers and plants to be brought from the mainland, and they created their own gardens on the previously barren island.
Today a very small part of the island is open to visitors, consisting of a single paved walkway, located far from the dangerously crumbling buildings. Ferry tours are also offered to see the island from afar.
2. Deception Island, Antarctica
Image: Lyubomir Ivanov
Part of a larger group of Antarctic islands called the South Shetland Islands, Deception Island was originally a refuge from icebergs for 19th-century seal hunters. The island then became home to a Norwegian-Chilean whaling factory-ship in 1906. Acting as a safe harbor, more whaling factory ships began docking on Deception Island (where they would process the whales brought in from sea and put the carcasses to use around the island). 13 ships were stationed there in 1914.
Image: Lyubomir Ivanov
During the Great Depression the demand for whale products dropped, and the floating whaling village was disbanded. In subsequent years multiple scientific stations attempted to set up shop on the island, just to be driven out by a particularly nasty and noxious gas-spewing volcano. Today, two very small research settlements are inhabited during the summer, but the rest of the island has been abandoned (save the occasional tourist expedition).
Image: Lyubomir Ivanov
3. Centralia, Pennsylvania
“The Hottest Town in America,” “A Foretaste of Hell,” “Slow Burn“… these are all names applied to Centralia, PA, and aptly at that! Although the names are dramatic, they barely do the catastrophe in Centralia justice.
A small town about an hour outside Philadelphia, Centralia hosts a large and active coal mine that runs for miles underneath the area. It is believed that in 1962 the town’s volunteer fire department burned trash in the city landfill and then accidentally dumped the embers into an open trash pit that was not properly constructed, with some of those embers ending up in the mine itself. Within days a raging fire began to burn in the coal mines below the city, and almost 50 years later, it has yet to be extinguished.
So what does this mean for the people living in Centralia? For a few years, the raging underground inferno was pretty much ignored. There were some attempts to put it out, but they were underfunded and unsuccessful. Although some residents reported health problems from carbon monoxide poisoning, no efforts were made to relocate the population.
However, all that changed in 1979, when the recorded underground temperature at a local gas station was so hot, the gasoline had to be immediately drained from its tanks so it wouldn’t explode. Then, in 1981, a 12-year-old fell into a massive sink hole that spontaneously formed in his backyard, only to be miraculously saved by his cousin who was able to pull him out.
Maybe it was the combination of fiery sink holes, free-flowing poisonous fumes, lack of a gas station, and the prospect that the still-growing coal fire had enough fuel to burn for another 250 years, but by 1984 the town of Centralia had had enough. Faced with an estimated cost of $660 million to put out the fire, the state of Pennsylvania decided to condemn the town and instead pay around $42 million in relocation funds. Today, only seven people reportedly still haunt this suburban, smoldering ghost town.
4. Kolmanskop, Namibia
Diamonds were discovered near Kolmanskop, Namibia in 1908, and for the next 20 years business boomed in this previously (and currently) desolate landscape. Along with homes and hotels, a school, casino, and hospital were built to accommodate the massive influx of people looking to strike it rich.
Although Kolmanskop was a diamond hot-spot for a while, it didn’t last long: even more profitable diamond mines were eventually found, and after World War I interest migrated elsewhere. With no other way to make money in the arid sand dunes, residents of Kolmanskop slowly moved away, until the town became completely abandoned and the desert sand reclaimed the buildings.
Want to experience the eerie isolation for yourself? Tours to Kolmanskop are offered daily.
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