Humans have always excelled at being an unsettled, roving species. It’s only in the last 12,000 years (though historians constantly debate this figure) that we really began to set down permanent roots, eschewing our hunter-gatherer lifestyle and revelling in what was then a very modern invention – agriculture. During those 12,000 years or so, humanity has settled and abandoned on an epic scale, from small villages in Celtic Britain to the ancestors of modern cities across what’s now the Anatolian plains of Turkey. This process continues today, and may question whether, given time, metropolises like New York, London and Hong Kong will suffer a similar fate. The following ghost towns are a glimpse not only of our recent past, but perhaps also our future.
Grytviken, South Georgia Island
An isolated settlement over a 1,000 miles east of South America, Grytviken, or ‘The Pot Cove’ in Swedish, has enjoyed a chequered history since being established as a whaling station in the early 20th century. Workers utilised every single component of the hunted whales to forge a highly profitable trade, until the station closed in December 1966 due to perilously low whale stocks. After briefly changing hands during the Falklands War, the territory of South Georgia remains in British hands, and tourists to the area can visit Ernest Shackleton’s grave while marvelling at the abandoned tankers, whale oil processing plants and the imposing bones of whales long deceased.
Few abandoned settlements underscore our inferiority in the face of mother nature like the South America ghost town of Chaitén. In our modern, industrialised age, natural disasters are still able to destroy whole communities; when the Chaitén Volcano erupted in May 2008, the entire town was evacuated. But this was only the beginning of a controversial and ongoing catastrophe. After the Blanco River flooded the town as a result of the eruption, destroying much of its infrastructure, Chaitén became completely uninhabitable. Despite the efforts of the Chilean government to first rebuild the town 10 km north of its former location, before choosing to repopulate it in its former area, the issue remains unresolved, and the once bustling streets of Chaitén wallow in eerie silence.
Berlin, Nevada, USA
(Image: Snowfalcon, public domain)
Like the gold ore mining town of Bodie (below), Berlin was created as a means of extracting gold, as well as silver, from the potentially lucrative desert plains of the ‘Wild West’. But unlike Bodie, Berlin never experienced a boom period, and burnt itself out totally by 1911, producing only a modest yield worth $850,000 in total, compared to Bodie’s spectacular production of $3,000,000 in 1881 alone. Even so, Berlin is said to have employed approximately 250 workers and their families at its height, and today stands the test of time as a true Nevada ghost town. Its century old cemetery, standing alone in a large plain with its crooked headstones, provides an almost sinister reminder of this deserted town’s very human past.
As humanity has prospered and industrialised, our thirst for the natural materials which make our modern world possible has intensified. Copper mining was the main industry of Sewell for almost a century. Situated on the Andean slopes over 2,000m high, this once thriving town had over 15,000 residents, a cinema, a fire station, hospital and shops. Sewell’s residents prospered, despite the awkward location of the town (built on a steep mountainside, accessible only by steep staircases). Such an eccentrically located settlement proved fatal, however, when a tragic fire in 1945 killed over 300 residents. After nationalisation in 1971, the mining families were gradually relocated. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2006, Sewell continues to attract visitors eager to explore its unorthodox architecture and abandoned infrastructure.
The events of June 10, 1944 cemented Oradour-sur-Glane’s place in infamy. A rogue German SS regiment, led by Adolf Diekmann, shot the entire male population of the village, before burning them whilst many were still alive. The women and children were similarly massacred outside the church. In total, 642 innocents lost their lives on that fateful day. Although the village was rebuilt to the northwest of the site of the bloodbath and remains to this day, Charles De Gaulle had initially confirmed after World War Two that the original village was to remain. A chilling ghost town that stood defiant in the face of Nazi occupation, it serves as an enduring and heartbreaking homily to those who lost their lives.
Chinguetti illustrates perfectly how a once frenetic trading centre (for the Moorish Empire) can regress into a thinly populated ghost town several centuries later, consumed by the desert, a mere spectre of its former glory. In the 13th century Chinguetti was an integral educational site for the Islamic world, schooling its students not only in religion, but in the sciences, mathematics, law and medicine. Considered by some to be the seventh holiest city in the Muslim world, Michael Palin visited Chinguetti in his ground-breaking series Sahara. Although impressed by its beautifully restored mosque, Palin was struck by how ‘the warren of streets around it is like a ghost town’.
Mandu, Madhya Pradesh, India
Throughout history tales abound of fortresses being warred over incessantly by various armies, but the ruined city of Mandu in central India has seen more battles than most. The ghostly fortress is referenced in a Sanskrit inscription dating back to 555 AD. Continual feuding saw the city change hands between Islamic and Hindu dynasties, reaching its zenith between the 15th and 17th centuries. Today, intrigued visitors marvel at the Jahaz Mehal, a two-storied former harem for the Sultan which is perched between two man-made lakes, so as to make the structure magically appear to float. Meanwhile, a variety of abandoned palaces and archaic mosques built in the Pashtun style continue to beguile visitors year after year.
Kayaköy, Fethiye District, Turkey
Kayaköy is another town ravaged by war, but from a much more recent time. The omens were never encouraging, as the region battled against a huge earthquake in 1856 and a terrible fire in 1885. After the Greco-Turkish War of 1919 – 1922, Kayaköy’s almost exclusively Greek Christian population of 2,000 was sent back to Greece, leaving the entire area deserted, its dwellings and two Greek Orthodox churches abandoned. Hope remains, however, with some houses redeveloped for modern occupation, although the area retains its hauntingly abandoned quality to this day.
Throughout history humans have been forced to abandon their settlements due to natural disasters. Such occurrences still happen today, as the evacuation of Plymouth demonstrates. In the summer of 1995, the Soufrière Hills Volcano erupted violently, covering the southern region of Montserrat in ash, and decimating Plymouth, the capital and seat of government. The entire settlement is now abandoned and uncompromisingly barren, while the island has lost over half of its population during the last 15 years. It remains to be seen whether the area can ever recover, or whether it will slide slowly into desolation and obscurity. Soufrière Hills, meanwhile, continues to erupt at intervals, terrorising any locals who remain.
L’Île-aux-Marins, Saint Pierre and Miquelon
One of the smallest ghost towns in our list, ‘The Island of the Sailors’ is a wild outcrop of rock in the Atlantic Ocean, located off the coast of Newfoundland. At just under a mile long, L’Île-aux-Marins has never attracted a population of more than 200 since it was first settled in 1604. Uninhabited since 1965, despite a few hardy souls establishing a camp in the summer months, the island boasts a number of abandoned fisherman’s houses, a church and a school, as well as an impressive ship’s hull which has attracted numerous photographers over the decades. Guided tours are available, which make apparent the harsh, unforgiving lifestyle endured by the brave, primarily French fishermen who once called this island home.