Five Famous Ghost Towns in America and Why They Were Abandoned
Ghost Town 1 – Centralia, Pennsylvania
Centralia is the ghost town that’s still on fire in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, United States. In 1950, Centralia Council purchased the rights to all the anthracite coal beneath Centralia. In May 1962, Pennsylvania set into motion an event that still haunts Centralia to this day.
It was the day before Memorial Day, the residents of Centralia were preparing for their annual festivities. The city council had met earlier that month to discuss how they should clean up a 300-foot wide x 75-foot long area located in a deserted strip-mine pit near the Odd Fellows Cemetery just outside the borough boundaries. The Centralia Borough Council hired five members of the town’s volunteer fire department to burn the town landfill.
The only problem is that Centralia had been a major coal mining city in the past, and the landfill was positioned directly on top of the old coal mine. The mine underneath Centralia began burning with the landfill and has spread beneath the town ever since that fateful day in 1962. Although there was visible thermal proof of the fire, citizens of Centralia were divided over the enigma of whether or not the fire posed a direct threat to the borough. And when there were no visible fires, residents protested against the perpetual stench of smoldering garbage and coal.
Its population had diminished from more than 1,000 occupants in 1980 to 63 by 1990. In 1992, Pennsylvania governor Bob Casey declared eminent domain on all property in the area, condemning all the churches, businesses, and homes in Centralia. In May 2009, the lingering occupants began another legal attempt to repeal the 1992 eminent domain case. In 2010, only five homes remained as officials strive to evacuate the last surviving inhabitants and demolish the last few homes left in Centralia. Many current and prior residents consider the state’s eminent domain claim to be a plot to expand the mineral rights to the anthracite coal below the area.
In recent years, borough residents and previous residents decided to dig up a time capsule that had been buried in 1966. The capsule was not planned to be opened until 2016, but they were forced to do this early as someone had tried to find and steal the capsule in May 2014. Objects found in the footlocker-sized capsule, which had been flooded with about a foot of water, included a miner’s helmet, a miner’s lamp, some coal, a Bible, local mementos, and a set of bloomers signed by the men of Centralia in 1966.
Ghost Town 2 – Bannack, Montana
Bannack State Park is in the Bitterroot Range, in the southwestern countryside of Montana. Located about 26 miles southwest of Dillon, or about 24 miles from interstate highway I-15. This fascinating old ghost town has about 20 points of interest restored and preserved, which are located on the main street. Places like the combination Mason/schoolhouse building have some of the furniture that was used when people still resided there. A structure that is still used for community events is the old Methodist Church, built in 1877, which was never left to ruin. The Meade Hotel was the hub of the town’s social liveliness, as well as a place to stay for visiting travelers passing through. The hotel hosted all of Bannack’s social events and gatherings. Inside you’ll see the remnants of fine flooring, beautiful wallpaper, and proof of how brilliant this hotel was in its prime.
Bannack was founded in 1862 when gold was found in Grasshopper Creek by John White and fellow comrades of the Colorado Pikes Peakers. By the Spring of 1863, a Post Office was established and Bannack was named the County Seat of Beaverhead County. There were nearly 3,000 residents at this time. The area was developing so fast due to the gold rush, that Territorial officials could barely establish a governing authority. Though in 1863, Bannack did have a residing Chief of Justice Sidney Edgerton, but no federal marshals to help maintain law and order.
By 1881, the gold rush ended and activity slowed down in Bannack and the County Seat was moved to Dillon. Finally, the town was closed for good in 1940 when the last gold mine was closed. However, as early as 1947, A group from Western Montana began to restore the important buildings along the main street. People in both Dillon and in the Bannack area fought hard to buy the town, and with the help of the courts, the mining company was ordered to put the town up for auction in 1954.
Ghost Town 3 – Bodie, California
Bodie is a must-see ghost town along the Sierra East Side. Bodie exhibits the harsh living of the old west and offers a fantastic opportunity to walk back into history with the houses, shops, school, chapel, and the gold mine, all still there in the gold-rush town, just as they have been left when this mining town was abandoned. Located 10 miles off the main highway and another 3 miles along a dirt road may sound like a bit of a drive, but traveling to the end of Mono County road is a breathtaking sight, especially if you are driving via the Tioga Pass.
Bodies’ population plunged from its peak of 10,000 people in the late 1800’s, mostly due to the gold rush, to a few hundred only 5 years later, and was considered a ghost town after 1930. You cant help but to visualize the once busy town filled with residents as many left everything behind because they couldn’t afford to take it with them.
Ghost Town 4 – Picher, Oklahoma
Picher is a ghost town and former city in Ottawa County, Oklahoma, United States. This town was a major national capital of lead and zinc mining at the core of the Tri-State Mining District. More than a century of permitted subsurface mining perilously damaged most of Picher’s town structures and left enormous piles of toxic metal-contaminated mine dust (known as chat) heaping throughout the city.
The city authority officially discontinued Picher’s incorporated status on September 1, 2009. When it closed in March, the Gorilla’s Cage was the last restaurant left in Picher, Oklahoma. In early 2010 the demolition of businesses and homes started. By the time Wired published an article on Picher in 2010, most of the township had been condemned, burned, or robbed. With the buyout concluded in 2011, only one business and six homes were left standing.
The federal government sold the massively toxic waste area, known as the Tar Creek Superfund site, back to the Quapaw Indian tribe, who had been forcibly relocated to northeast Oklahoma in 1818. Overwhelmed by smallpox and threatened by settlers, the Quapaw tribe conceded 30 million acres around the mouth of the Arkansas River to the US government in 1818, and in return, the tribe ultimately received 51,000 acres of reservation land in Northeast Oklahoma.
When miners discovered lead in Picher in 1914, the town became the core of Oklahoma’s lead market just in time for the growing demand for ammo during World War I. Picher became an incorporated township in 1920, with a population of 9,726. During the mining boom years, over fourteen thousand men served in its mines, and another four thousand worked in an estimated fifteen hundred mining service companies.
Picher was the most productive mining field in the Tri-State Lead and Zinc District (Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri) and produced more than $20 billion in ore from 1917 to 1947. More than 50 percent of the lead and zinc metal used during World War I was mined from the Picher Field. By the time mining ceased in the late 1960s, there were 30 piles of “chat” totaling 178 million tons.
In the following years, Picher found it difficult to attract new industry, as much of the land belonged to restricted Quapaw heirs and because the town had multiple mines below the surface. A study showed hundreds of homes in town were at risk of collapsing into the abandoned mine workings. When zinc and lead mining operations were finally ceased in 1967, pumping water out of the mines also stopped. This eventually caused the mines to flood with water, collecting more than 76,800 acre-feet of contaminated mine water underground. Every time Picher would flood, orange runoff ran down and through Tar Creek, polluting nearby towns and staining creek beds.
Tar Creek metals have been proven to cause lasting illnesses, such as a Parkinson’s-like effect in adults and diabetes in pregnant women. The entire school was established on a toxic chat dump. They used one of the chat hills into a shooting range; on another, they rode ATVs. The rest was piled into chat mountains around town, reaching up to 300 feet high.
Over the next 15 years, locals overlooked a series of concerns that indicated the severity of Picher’s toxicity levels. The district school testing scores were the worst in the state. People seemed to be getting sick more often than normal. Residents learned ways to avoid the water but the chat piles were still untouched even in 1980 when the EPA declared Picher a federal Superfund— a program to aid the communities of Picher and Cardin, Oklahoma. Federal authorities surveyed the area to identify hazardous sites. Later, as disease spiked and high school test scores plunged, Picher was reported to be even more toxic than New York’s infamous Love Canal.
The EPA allocated funds to cap mine shafts and provide clean water to the Picher community. The advent of the electric air compressor allowed miners to use more-powerful drills and water pumps, empowering them to tunnel deep into the ground and tap into a fresh water. Picher provided the city’s first deepwater well, thereby providing the start of a municipal water system.
In the mid-1990s, the EPA ordered the first actions to offset chat pollution. Workers scraped off the top 6 to 10 inches of dirt from people’s lawns, a project that cost $140 million. After they removed the dirt, they sold chat to paving companies as a hardening agent in asphalt. But residents were already suffering the side effects of metal poisoning. Over a decade after the Superfund was organized, it was determined that 63 percent of children were suffering from lead poisoning.
A 2004 EPA Technical Assistance Grant financed studies that confirmed disease rates in Picher were 20 to 30 percent above average.”Don’t Put Lead In Your Head” was the message delivered to elementary school students on Picher’s main street in 2007. Over time, the metals will cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease, hypertension, and strokes.
A 2008 EPA Record of Decision projected the duration of the cleanup to take 30 years, though factors like funding and access to affected areas may vary. To make matters worse, a 2008 tornado ripped through the town killing six people, destroying buildings and leveling over 100 residences. By that time, over $301 million in federal funds had been spent on teardown and cleanup, and another $178 million forecasted for digging new wells and building new water treatment facilities. No one believes Picher will rebuild following the EF-4 tornado which was seen by many residents as the final blow to their hometown. The EPA implemented a buyout for residents to sell their homes and relocate. Almost everyone took them up on the proposal. Meanwhile, later in 2009, Congress approved a $3.5 million buyout for Treece, Kansas, just beyond the state line from Picher.
As of 2014, only 10 people still resided in the town formerly known as Picher. On June 9, 2015, Picher’s last resident, a 60-year-old pharmacist named Gary Linderman, died of a “sudden illness.” The town’s population is now zero. In 2017, the EPA awarded the Quapaw $4.9 million in cleanup aid. An estimated 30 million cubic yards of chat still pollutes the ghost town of Picher today.
Ghost Town 5 – South Pass City, Wyoming
South Pass City is one of the most well-known, authentic ghost towns in the American West. Located in a small valley along the banks of Willow Creek on the southeastern end of the Wind River Mountains, the original settlement spanned an area about 9 miles south of present-day South Pass City, at what is presently known as Burnt Ranch.
The Sweetwater Mines claimed that in 1869 a Georgian working for the American Fur Company had first found gold near South Pass in 1842, but that Indians killed him before he was ever able to cash in.
South Pass City began in the summer of 1867 when gold was discovered again, this time by a group of Mormon prospectors. Mormon mountain man Lewis Robison rode into Great Salt Lake City with news of gold at South Pass, which lead to a viral gold rush there. It was the first of three mining camps in what was called the Sweetwater Mining District that was established. The area developed rapidly in part due to a stage and telegraph station on the Oregon Trail established in the 1850s.
By 1868, The Carissa Mine was the mainstay of South Pass City. Half a mile from the Carissa Mine, prospectors began building the famous South Pass City. The town swelled to over 250 buildings, 1,000 people, and hundreds of gold claims were boasted in just a couple short years.
During its peak years, South Pass City left its impression on American History, when a local saloon owner named William Bright, served in Wyoming’s First Territorial Legislature and introduced the first women’s suffrage bill. Only three months later resident, a woman named Esther Hobart Morris became the first woman to be elected to a public office in the country. In February 1870, she was elected as Justice of the Peace.
Over the next decade, the population of South Pass City declined, By the mid-1870s South Pass City’s population fell to about 100 people. Although rumors of gold in the South Pass area had echoed for decades, nothing solid had been discovered. South Pass City would see more economic booms, as the mines would reopen briefly before being closed once again. Even as recently as 2006, Fremont Gold, an American subsidiary of a Canadian firm, won consent to dig 200 test pits searching for gold deposits near Dickie Springs, ten miles south of South Pass City and a few miles southeast of where the old emigrant road meets the summit of South Pass.