Lost Industry: 9 Abandoned Company Towns of North America

The abandoned company town of Anyox, British Columbia (Image: Bob Steventon, Prince George. Abandoned company towns of North America)

Company towns were built by the boss for their employees and their families. Unlike most towns scattered across Canada and the United States, company towns often operated with their own set of rules and regulations. This could mean everything from forbidding alcohol to requiring residents to attend church on Sunday, and the idea of the company town could be a double-edged sword. While such communities provided everything one needed for life in often remote locations, company towns also relied on a single industry. When that industry declined, so did the community. This article explores a series of abandoned company towns across North America, several of which have now been preserved as historic sites.

Gilman, Colorado, USA

Ghost town: Gilman, Colorado

Empty houses in Gilman, Colorado, an abandoned company town

Ruins of the old Gilman tram in Colorado (Images: el-toroShelby Bell)

Now an eerie ghost town, Gilman, Colorado was founded by judge and prospector John Clinton. By 1899, the town had access to a railway and had grown to around 300 people. There was enough going on for Gilman to have its own newspaper, a boarding house, and even a school for the town’s children. It wasn’t long before the area had gained notoriety as one of the richest areas in Colorado, riding the wave of the Silver Boom for a surprisingly long time.

Gilman’s mines continued producing wealth for the community as late as the 1970s, but decades of improper mining techniques took their toll on the countryside. In 1984, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that the company town was so contaminated by copper, lead, zinc, arsenic and cadmium, that the entire area needed to be evacuated.

Declared a Superfund site in 1986, the EPA reported that the area around Gilman mining town had been sufficiently cleaned up by 2000. A few years later, the abandoned company town was given a new lease of life by a real estate developer who bought the land in a bid to transform it into a ski resort.

Anyox, British Columbia, Canada

The haunting ruins of Anyox ghost town in British Columbia, Canada

Derelict railway locomotive at Anyox ghost town, BC

The old Anyox dam

(Images: Bob Steventon, Prince George)

Today, the ruined company town of Anyox is a ghost village, lying by the Observatory Inlet in British Columbia. Built by Granby Consolidated Mining, the town had a population of around 3,000 in its heyday in the early years of the 20th century. Those who lived in the town worked its mines, pulling copper and other precious metals from the ground. There were some comforts – like a golf course and shops – but the mining processes were not kind to the land.

Acid rain caused by the mining operations and the smelter laid waste to the surrounding forests, and in 1923, a devastating fire swept through the company town. Buildings were rebuilt and operations continued until copper prices bottomed out, and Anyox was no longer turning a profit. Some remnants of the mining and smelting operations remain, and although the though the old ghost town is abandoned, there’s talk about rehabilitating and redeveloping the area.

The above photographs by Bob Steventon were taken during a tour of Anyox ghost town operated by the University of Northern British Columbia.

The historic company town of Anyox in 1911. (Image: McRae Brothers. Anyox, BC in 1911)

Batsto Village, New Jersey, USA

Batsto Village

Preserved buildings at the former Batsto Village company town in New Jersey, USA

(Images: Kevin Jarrett)

Batsto Village began with the founding of the Batsto Iron Works in 1766. The entire area was rich in bog ore, which was dug from the beds and banks of the nearby rivers. According to the Batsto Citizens Committee’s history of the town, the tiny iron-working village got its start in household pots and kettles, but truly began to grow when it began making supplies for the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

By the 1780s, the ironworks and village had been bought by William Richards. The Richards family would continue to operate the organisation for almost the next century, paying employees with scrip that could be spent in the company town’s own store. There were communal resources that were available for the use of all, from grist mills and a blacksmith to barns and stables.

When coal was discovered in Pennsylvania, however, the new-found industry established there made life in Batsto Village difficult. Various efforts were made to try to save the town – like the manufacture of glass – but it wasn’t enough. The last private owner was an industrialist who struggled to save the village, but it was ultimately moved from a trust to the state of New Jersey. Now, deserted by permanent residents since 1989, the abandoned company town of Batsto maintained as a New Jersey Historic site.

Fort Shepherd (and Fort Sheppard), British Columbia, Canada

Site of the abandoned company town of Fort Shepherd, BC (Image: Google Earth. One of various abandoned company towns in BC)

Fort Shepherd was an incredibly short-lived company town, fort and trading post built by the Hudson’s Bay Trading Company on the west bank of the Columbia River. It opened for business in 1859 and closed the next year. The company reopened the outpost in 1864, and this time, it remained viable for just six short years. Two years after Fort Shepherd closed for a second time most of it was destroyed by a fire, and the final piece – a chimney – fell sometime after 1909. Waymarking.com reports that now, only a simple cairn stands in remembrance of this abandoned company town in remote British Columbia.

The now vanished fort was named for John Shepherd, and the nearby Nelson and Fort Sheppard Railway came from a misspelled version of the governor’s name. The town of Fort Sheppard was the end point of the railway, built in 1893 and eventually absorbed into the nearby town of Waneta. The settlement was defined by the looming presence of the Fort Sheppard Hotel, a known bootlegging joint that thrived in the 1920s. After it was abandoned, a sign appeared out front.

It read: “Hotel Atoll. No girls atoll. No beer atoll. Not a dam thing atoll. The Hotel Atoll.” (It’s thought the saying originated with World War Two Marines once stations on the Marshall Islands’ Kwajalein Atoll.)

Bankston Ghost Town, Mississippi, USA

Bankston, Mississippi: this old cemetery is all that remains of the abandoned company town (Image: Natalie Maynor)

All that’s left of the textile empire built in Bankston, Mississippi is the cemetery. The abandoned company town had been named after a man known as Mr. Banks from Columbus, Georgia. Banks was one of the major financial backers of textile mogul Colonel James Madison Wesson, who built Bankston in 1850 to serve as one of the major processing centres for a product he called “grog”. (His fondness for the word led to the use of it to describe rum diluted with water – a practice he reportedly began.)

Bankston was Wesson’s plantation town, and even though he ruled with a strict hand (there was no alcohol allowed and all 178 residents were required to attend weekly church meetings), those that visited recorded how impressed with the company town they were. Everyone was taught to read and write and learned economic basics, and the town flourished from a rough shanty to one that had well-kept homes, several churches, and manicured lawns and flower beds.

At its height, the now abandoned company town was running around 1,000 cotton spindles, 500 wool spindles, a grist mill, a flour mill, and around 20 looms. That made it a target, though, and on December 30, 1864 Union troops burned Bankston – and its industry – to the ground. Today, its ruins barely even constitute a ghost town.

Ocean Falls, British Columbia, Canada

The largely abandoned company town of Ocean Falls

Ocean Falls, British Columbia

Abandoned lobby of Martin Hotel in Ocean Falls, BC

The Canadian ghost town of Ocean Falls, British Columbia

The dilapidated Ocean Falls Fire Department building (Images: Ron Caves)

The area of Ocean Falls, British Columbia has been occupied by humans for around 9,000 years. Its first inhabitants were the Heiltsuk, who lived off the land in an isolated harmony with nature. Until Europeans arrived, that is, and in 1906 the outside world began to recognise what a treasure trove of untapped natural resources the area was.

Atlas Obscura reports that the first to move in was the Bella Coola Pulp and Paper Company, who built not only the paper mill but the surrounding town for their workers and families. Over the next four decades, the company town expanded dramatically – until reaching a peak population of about 1,500. By that time, Ocean Falls was owned by Crown Zellerbach. When profits started to falter, the company pulled out of the town in 1973 and most of the residents went with them.

Today, Ocean Falls isn’t entirely abandoned, even though most of the industry that it was originally built on now lies silent. There are about 70 people there now, who are returning to a lifestyle of relative isolation once enjoyed by those living there centuries ago. That’s helped by the difficulty getting there – without a boat seaplane, it’s nearly impossible to reach. Once summer rolls around, the seasonal population climbs to around 100.

Kitsault, British Columbia, Canada

Kitsault ghost town in British Columbia

Abandoned company town of Kitsault, BC (Images: 16×9 Global News via YouTube. Kitsault ghost town in BC)

The eerily modern company town of Kitsault was built with everything that a growing community would need, but it was only called home by Phelps Dodge workers for around 18 months. Built to support a nearby molybdenum mine, Kitsault was laid out on the basis that it would eventually need to grow. There were apartment buildings as well as houses, and a series of permanent foundations for mobile homes that could be moved in quickly as needed. The company town’s planners were told to create something that had all the comforts of the big city, and they did. There was a hospital and schools, pubs, libraries and pools, a movie theatre, a state-of-the-art sewage system and water treatment plants. There was even a recreation centre that included jacuzzis and a sauna.

Set on a fjord against some of the most beautiful views in the region, Kitsault’s boom began in 1978. But by 1982, the recession had hit and drove molybdenum prices through the floor. Phelps Dodge shuttered the town, and those who had just moved in were forced to move right back out again. The gates to the community were closed, and Kitsault was forgotten. Until 2005, that is, when the abandoned company town was bought by a man with the ultimate goal of making Kitsault into a resort amid the stunning British Columbia wilderness. Other proposals have also been made to revitalise the famous Canadian ghost town. Explore Kitsault further here.

Nanisvik, Nunavut, Canada

Abandoned company town site of Nanisvik, Nunavut, Canada

Quirky sign post at Nanisvik (Images: Google Earth; Kelapstick)

The company town of Nanisvik was established in 1975 in a desolate area of Canada’s most northernmost territories. Ore had only been discovered in the region in 1910 during a geological study of the Arctic Bay, and the area was slow to be developed. The original owners – J.F. Tibbitt and F. McInnes – staked their claims after travelling some 1,865 miles by bobsled out to the remote area. Then, once they had their claims, they realised they didn’t have the means to develop them. It was only decades later that drilling operations were established to the point where the surrounding company town needed to be founded for the workers.

The mine officially opened in 1976, functioning on a schedule dictated by the weather and running year-round. But with the closure of the mine and shipping facilities in 2002, the Nanisvik’s fate has been a harsh one. Any hope that the small company town might live on in another form was dashed when its operations were found to have heavily contaminated the entire area with lead and zinc, leading to the ultimate demolition of many of Nanisvik’s homes.

The site of the abandoned company town is now the location of a naval facility, but the civilian population was reported as 0 in the 2011 census.

Val-Jalbert Ghost Town, Quebec, Canada

Preserved structures in the abandoned company town of Val-Jalbert

Val-Jalbert Ghost Town in Quebec, Canada

(Images: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose)

Established in 1901, Val-Jalbert ghost town originally provided for the employees of Damase Jalbert’s pulp mill. Jalbert died only a couple years after the village was founded, but shareholders kept the mill going and the area thrived after a 1910 upgrade to local services. For the next decade, the now-abandoned company town was at the forefront of urban planning and convenience, but all good things come to an end sooner or later.

For Val-Jalbert, that end came between May of 1924 and December of 1925. Most of the employees were laid off, and in spite of a brief recovery period, the pulp mill closed in 1927. As the only industry in Val-Jalbert, the company town was completely deserted over the next several years.

(Images: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose)

After standing vacant for almost four decades, Val-Jalbert got a reprieve from the inevitable decay that destroys so many ghost towns and abandoned settlements. It’s now been restored as a historical village, where visitors can explore the old general store, post office, convent-school and butcher’s shop, which remain as they were when Val-Jalbert was a thriving community.

The historic mill now features (pdf) models and an interactive show, while the village’s restaurant gives visitors a taste of what residents would once have dined on – products that we now call “artisan”. Thanks to dozens of surviving buildings in close to their original state, the abandoned company town of Val-Jalbert has been described as “the best-preserved ghost town in Canada.”

Related: Abandoned Alaska: 12 Ghost Towns & Ruins of the Last Frontier

 
 
 

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