Abandoned towns — or ghost towns as they’re most often called — are not as rare as you might think. According to GPS fleet management company Geotab, which has extensively plotted ghost towns in the U.S., there are more than 3,800 of them scattered across the country.
Most are scattered about the American West, where they flourished as mining centers during the 19th century. Typically, the glory days didn’t last very long. When deposits of gold, silver, copper or other minerals played out, residents high-tailed it to seek riches elsewhere.
A few ghost towns have survived the elements, looters and vandals to experience boom times once again as popular tourist attractions. So, for those seeking a glimpse of what life was like during the gold rush days, here’s our list of the top 10 American ghost towns:
A one-time copper mining town, Kennecott is set against the dramatic backdrop of snow-capped mountains in Wrangell- St. Elias National Park and Reserve. Declining reserves and ore prices finally forced closure of the mine and its production facilities in 1938.
The town is now a National Historic Landmark and remains one of Alaska’s most popular tourist attractions. It is administered by the National Park Service, which has worked to preserve historic buildings, including the towering, 14-story Kennecott Concentration Mill and the renovated Kennecott Power Plant.
Bodie is frequently cited as the one of the country’s most complete and best-preserved ghost towns. At its peak in the 1880s, this Wild West gold mining town in desolate Mono County boasted a population of 10,000 people. Mining activities steadily declined before shutting down completely in the 1940s.
More than 100 abandoned buildings remain, including a Methodist Church, several saloons, a general store and a post office — many of them with interior furnishings intact. Protected as a State Historic Park and National Historic District, Bodie attracts more than 200,000 visitors a year.
Located just outside of Barstow — on the way from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on busy Interstate 15 — the remnants of this 1880s Mohave Desert mining camp that once supported nearly 500 silver mines have been restored and reimagined as Calico Ghost Town County Park. As such, it is part of San Bernardino County Regional Parks System that maintains and operates a number of onsite visitor attractions including a mine tour, gold panning and a narrow-gauge train ride.
Named for the pink volcanic rock found nearby, Rhyolite sprang to life near Death Valley with the discovery of gold in the early 1900s. So promising was the prospecting here that a wealthy investor named Charles M. Schwab (yes, that Schwab) sank a lot of money into the mines.
There were saloons and brothels, of course, but also a school, stock exchange, hospital, opera house and even an ice cream parlor. But local mines were soon exhausted and by 1907 most residents had departed. The town made a brief comeback in the 1920s as on “Old West” movie set. Today, visitors can probe the ruins, most notable of which are the Bottle House, built entirely of whiskey bottles by miner Tom Kelly, and visit a museum and outdoor sculpture installation.
Bannack State Park, Montana
Located near Butte, Bannack is one of the country’s most outstanding and authentic ghost towns. A major gold strike in 1862, and the ensuing population explosion, led to Bannack being named the first Territorial Capital of Montana in 1864. Aided by the introduction of electric dredges, mining continued at Bannack into the 1930s, but the town was eventually abandoned in the 1950s.
The town survived almost completely intact thanks to action by the state which made it a state park in 1954. More than 60 structures remain standing and most can be explored — inside as well as out — making for an exceptional visitor experience.
Oatman is a classic example of a ghost town that bounced back to life after mines shut down. It experienced the typical boom after prospectors discovered an extensive gold deposit in 1915. When the mines closed in 1925, Oatman survived by catering to travelers on a new east-west highway—U.S. Route 66 — that threaded through town.
Unfortunately, Interstate 40 replaced Route 66 in the 1960s and the new highway bypassed Oatman. The town wallowed once again on the brink of another bust.
Burgeoning interest in old Route 66, however, began to bring back visitors and today the town thrives again on tourism. Its main claim to fame are the “wild” burros that roam its streets — descendants of pack animals miners once used but turned loose when the mines closed.
Animas Forks, Colorado
This remote mountain town, situated on the fringes of San Juan National Forest near Silverton, was first settled by prospectors in 1873 and quickly developed into a thriving mining camp. Its rugged location, extreme elevation (11,200 ft.) and harsh climate forced residents to migrate to neighboring Silverton to ride out winter.
As mines played out, residents were quick to leave and by the 1920s, Animas Forks had become a ghost town. The town’s 2011 induction into the National Register of Historic Places has led to a concentrated effort to restore and reconstruct a number of its historic buildings.
An abandoned cabin at Miner’s Delight in South Pass City, Wyoming.
South Pass City, Wyoming
Yet another victim of the boom-and-bust cycle so familiar to western mining towns, South Pass City, just southwest of Lander, blossomed after a promising gold strike in 1866 and prospered through the1880s when the gold deposits began playing out. By the early 1900s, fewer than a hundred people remained — the last moving on in 1949.
Thankfully, before the town fell into ruin, the state of Wyoming stepped in to save it. Today, it shines as South Pass City State Historic Site, home to more than 20 restored original structures from the 1860s and 1870s.
Cahawba, located near Orrville, is evidence that ghost towns aren’t exclusive to the Western U.S. Strolling the abandoned streets and eerie ruins of this once prosperous antebellum river town it is hard to conceive that the place was formerly the state capital of Alabama (1819-26). Problems caused by frequent flooding forced a move of the capital to Tuscaloosa.
At the end of the Civil War, Cahawba’s population had dwindled markedly, and by the early 1900s much of the town had been abandoned. Remnants of Cahawba, now protected as Old Cahawba Archaeological Park, can still be seen today, including the Gothic style 1854 St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the slave quarters of Kirkpatrick Mansion.
Batsto Village, New Jersey
This Jersey town — once a bustling ironworks that supplied the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War — has a long and fascinating history. Founded in 1766, it depended on its iron and charcoal production for nearly a hundred years until contracts went to a mine in Pennsylvania.
Industrialist Joseph Wharton (of eventual business school fame) stepped in and bought the entire town in 1876 and briefly experimented with manufacturing and agriculture before moving on and opening his business school in Philadelphia. More than 40 original structures, fully restored, remain today, including Batsto Mansion, a blacksmith shop, sawmill, ice and milk houses, a carriage house and a general store.