Abandoned ruins are usually associated with ancient cities like Pompeii or Machu Picchu, but many 19th and 20th century settlements were also left to rot after natural disasters, wars or economic depressions forced their residents to flee. These ghost towns stand as eerie monuments to bygone eras, and some have even found a second life as tourist attractions and movie sets. From the infamous nuclear disaster zone near Chernobyl to Henry Ford’s doomed jungle paradise, learn the stories behind six of the world’s most famous vacant towns and villages.
1. Pripyat, Ukraine
An abandoned school in Pripyat, Ukraine
At 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986, a catastrophic meltdown took place inside reactor number four at the Soviet nuclear power plant at Chernobyl. The explosion that followed sent flames and radioactive material soaring into the skies over Pripyat, a nearby city built to house the plant’s scientists and workers. It took 36 hours before the town’s 49,000 residents were evacuated, and many later suffered severe health effects as a result of their brief exposure to the fallout.
Soviet authorities later sealed off an 18-mile exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl, leaving Pripyat an abandoned ghost town. The city has since languished for nearly three decades as a chilling reminder of the disaster. Its buildings have decayed and been partially reclaimed by the elements, and wild animals roam through what were once bustling apartments, sports complexes and an amusement park. In the town post office, hundreds of letters from 1986 still sit waiting to be mailed. While radiation levels in Pripyat have dropped enough in recent years to allow urban explorers and former residents to make brief visits, scientists estimate that it could take several centuries before the town is once again safe for habitation.
2. Oradour-sur-Glane, France
On the afternoon of June 10, 1944, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane was the scene of one of the worst massacres of French civilians during World War II. In what is believed to have been an act of revenge for the town’s supposed support of the French Resistance, a Nazi Waffen SS detachment rounded up and murdered 642 of its residents and burned most of their houses to the ground. The men were taken to barns and machine-gunned, and the women and children were locked in a church and killed with explosives and incendiary grenades. Only a handful of people managed to survive by playing dead and later fleeing to the forest.
A new Oradour-sur-Glane was built nearby after the war ended, but French President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the burned-out ruins of the old town be left untouched as a monument to the victims. The facades of dozens of brick buildings and charred storefronts still remain, as well as graveyards of rusted cars and bicycles, scattered sewing machines and unused tram tracks. The site is also home to a museum, which holds a collection of relics and mementos recovered from the rubble.
3. Hashima Island, Japan
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Today, Hashima Island is a vacant labyrinth of crumbling concrete, sea walls and deserted buildings, yet it was once among the most densely populated places on the planet. The small island off the coast of Nagasaki was first settled in 1887 as a coalmining colony. It was later purchased by Mitsubishi, which built some of the world’s first multistory, reinforced concrete buildings to house its bursting population. Hashima remained a hive of activity for the next several decades, especially during World War II, when the Japanese forced thousands of Korean laborers and Chinese POWs to toil in its mines. By the 1950s, the 16-acre rock was packed to the gills with more than 5,200 residents. Most workers found the cramped conditions unlivable, and the city was promptly abandoned after the mine closed in 1974.
Forty years of neglect have left Hashima a dilapidated ruin of collapsed staircases and condemned apartments. Many of its high-rises are still filled with old televisions and other relics from the mid-20th century, and its once-teeming swimming pools, barbershop and school classrooms now sit in shambles. The island was officially opened to tourists in 2009, and it has since served as the inspiration for the villain’s hideout in the 2012 James Bond film “Skyfall.”
4. Varosha, Cyprus
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In the early 1970s, the immaculate beaches of Varosha, Cyprus served as one of the most popular millionaires’ playgrounds in the Mediterranean. The suburb boasted a thriving tourism economy, and celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot were known to take in the sand and sun at its high-class beachfront hotels. All that
changed in August 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus and occupied its northern third in response to a Greek nationalist-led coup. Varosha’s 15,000 residents fled the city in terror, leaving their valuables and livelihoods behind. Most assumed they would return once the fighting stopped, but ongoing political strife has seen Varosha waste away behind a heavily-guarded barrier ever since.
The few intrepid explorers who have ventured into the no man’s land describe the resort as a crumbling ghost town. Trees have grown through the floors of restaurants and homes, and most of the former residents’ belongings have been looted or destroyed. What is left stands as a spooky time capsule of the 1970s, including bellbottoms in shop windows and 40-year-old vehicles still parked at car dealerships. In recent years, Greek and Turkish Cypriots have held talks regarding reopening the former jet-setters’ haven, but experts estimate that it would take upwards of $12 billion to make its decrepit buildings livable again.
5. Bodie, California
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Bodie, California was officially founded in 1876, after miners stumbled upon rich deposits of gold and silver in its hillsides. Gold-crazed prospectors flocked to the settlement at a rate of more than two-dozen per day in the late-1870s, and its population eventually soared to some 10,000 people. Thanks to larger-than-life accounts of whiskey-fueled shootouts, the outpost soon earned a reputation as a “sea of sin” filled with rough men, prostitutes and opium dens.
Like most boomtowns, Bodie eventually went bust. By the 1880s, it had outgrown its meager infrastructure, and a succession of harsh and deadly winters convinced many of its prospectors to move to more profitable locales. The population dwindled until the 1940s, when the last residents finally shipped out. Since then, Bodie has become known as one of the nation’s most well preserved ghost towns. Its 200 ramshackle buildings are kept in state of “arrested decay” by park rangers, and tourists flock to the site to explore its 1880s Methodist church, saloons and post office as well as the ruins of a burned-out bank vault.
6. Fordlandia, Brazil
In 1927, Henry Ford began work on “Fordlandia,” a massive rubber plantation in the jungles along Brazil’s Tapajós River. The automotive magnate needed the town as a steady source of rubber for his car tires and hoses, but he also saw the venture as a chance to bring small town American values to the Amazon. Having already left his mark on cities like Dearborn, Michigan, he designed a company town complete with swimming pools, a golf course, suburban-style bungalows and weekly square dancing sessions. Unfortunately for Ford, his experiment was doomed almost from the start. Fordlandia’s rubber trees fell victim to leaf fungus, and its employees chafed under the town’s strict regulations, which included a ban on alcohol. Clashes between Brazilian laborers and American managers soon became a common occurrence. During one riot over cafeteria rules, Fordlandia’s employees destroyed most of their mess hall with machetes and pushed the town’s trucks into the river.
Henry Ford eventually sank $20 million into his would-be workers’ paradise, but the town failed to produce any latex for his automobiles. Having never visited the city himself, he finally sold it to the Brazilian government in 1945 for pennies on the dollar. The wilderness has reclaimed large portions of Fordlandia’s campus in the years since, but many of its buildings are still standing, and the town has become a minor tourist destination for backpackers and curiosity seekers.
Did You Know?
In 1962, a massive fire broke out in an underground coalmine near the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. When authorities were unable to extinguish the blaze, nearly all of the town’s 1,100 residents abandoned their homes. The town remains virtually uninhabited to this day, and experts estimate the subterranean coal fire may rage for another 250 years.