It’s always fun in a post-apocalyptic story when the survivors return to ghost towns to rummage for supplies, right? Exploring the ruins of a once-thriving place always makes for a great scene. But sometimes, as the saying goes, the truth is stranger than fiction. Take away the zombies and the nuclear fallout and you still have plenty of creepy, real-life stories made all-the-more creepy because they actually happened.
There are plenty of real cities that were abandoned by their residents available for you to explore… as long as you don’t mind some mild radiation exposure, possible lead poisoning, sinkholes, crumbling ruins, and sandstorms. The list below features towns that were abandoned due to disasters both natural and man-made, but unlike some cities that were abandoned on purpose (to make way for a dam, for example), all of these places were turned into ghost towns against the will of the people that lived there. Happy exploring!
Kolmanskop, Namibia: Swallowed by Sand
In 1908, a railway worker found some bling in the area and showed it to his German boss. Soon after, a ton of Germans descended on the area to settle and exploit it (not necessarily in that order). In the next few decades, Kolmanskop had a hospital (complete with a newfangled x-ray machine), a ballroom, a school, a casino (naturally), a theater, and even the first streetcar in Africa.
In the 1920s, the town was home to about 1200 people: 340 Europeans and 800 African workers. By 1956, the place was abandoned, thanks in part to less extreme diamond-mining conditions discovered to the south. Visitors today mainly come to take pictures of all the buildings being swallowed by sand (which are pretty cool).
Centralia, Pennsylvania: Constantly on Fire
A low point in the whole saga – and when the nation really began to take notice – was when 12-year-old Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole in his own backyard in 1981. His cousin pulled him out of the hole, saving his life (the steam coming from the hole was later found to have lethal levels of carbon monoxide). Four years earlier, his father jinxed poor Todd by telling a reporter, “I guess some kid will have to get killed by the gas or by falling in one of these steamy holes before anyone will call it an emergency.”
The 2010 census list 10 residents in Centralia, down from more than 1,000 in 1981. In 2013, officials decided to let the remaining residents live out the rest of their lives there, like they’re Silent Hillcosplayers or something. Experts say the fire can’t stop/won’t stop for at least another 200 years.
Times Beach, Missouri: Accidentally Poisoned by City Officials
In 1982, after the release of a leaked EPA document revealing the chemical company’s shady dealings, the CDC tested the town and found it essentially unlivable. The state and federal government eventually bought out the town for $36.7 million, paying the owners of 800 residential properties and 30 businesses to leave. The area was quarantined for a long time: the EPA didn’t totally clean it up until 1997, at the cost of $200 million. Today, it’s home to Route 66 State Park.
Wittenoom, Australia: Asbestos Poisoning
Despite the now-obvious dangers of asbestos exposure – one 2012 study, for example, showed that “adults who had lived in Wittenoom as children when the mine was active were between 20% and 83% more likely to die from cancer than the rest of the population” – there were still a couple of people living in the area in December of 2015, according to the Guardian.
Hashima, Japan: Abandoned After All the Coal Was Mined
In 1959, Hashima was packed: 5,259 people called it home, making it one of the most densely populated places on earth at the time, according to CNN. With gas quickly becoming the primary fuel source in Japan and the coal reserves running out, Mitsubishi closed the mines in 1974, quickly turning the island into a ghost town. Tourists looking to tour the ruins today need “permission from the Nagasaki City Council and a compelling reason for going inside.”
Pyramiden, Norway: An Economic Crash and a Plane Crash
Two crashes effectively put an end to Pyramiden. The first was the crash of the Russian economy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, leading to low salaries and poor standards of living. The second was an actual plane crash: in 1996, Arktikugol chartered a plane from Moscow to nearby Longyearbyen full of Pyramiden workers and their families that crashed outside of Longyearbyen, killing all 141 passengers.
In 1998, the Russians decided to shut Pyramiden down. The roughly 300 workers still living there left everything behind, leaving all their supplies and mining equipment sitting untouched for more than a decade. In 2007, Arktikugol began renovating some of the old buildings to help accommodate tourists to the site. You can stay in one of the Tulpan Hotel’s newly refurbished rooms for about $144 as of 2016.
Picher, Oklahoma: Poisoned by Lead and Destroyed by a Tornado
In 1996, a study revealed that more than a quarter of the town’s kids (34%) had lead poisoning. In 2006, the government declared that most of the town’s building weren’t fit for habitation, a side effect of all the mining. In 2008, a F4 tornado added injury to injury and destroyed 150 homes. A year later, Oklahoma officially dis-incorporated the city. The last resident standing, a pharmacist named Gary Linderman, died in 2015.
Plymouth, Montserrat: Smothered by Volcanic Ash
With the capital destroyed, the island’s population plummeted from 12,000 to 5,000.
Oradour-sur-Glane, France: Razed by Nazis, Left as a Memorial
The massacre is considered by historians to be an act of retribution against the people of Oradour-su-Glane for their alleged assistance to the French Resistance and the American forces and it’s particularlybrutal: it’s the only known instance of the Nazis literally crucifying a baby.
Pripyat, Ukraine: Chernobyl
Pripyat wasn’t evacuated until 36 hours after the disaster, and when the mad rush finally happened – 50,000 people shuttled off in 1,200 buses in under four hours – it was under false pretenses. The residents were told they would only be gone for two or three days, but in reality, no human could live there safely again for at least another 24,000 years. A new city, Slavutych, was built 30 miles to the northeast to replace Pripyat, but not before being covered in two meters of uncontaminated soil.