The Abandoned Settlements Inside National Parks

Once vibrant places, these relics now linger inside America’s great natural treasures

The Wonderland Club Hotel in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Jordan Liles)
smithsonian.com

In the summer of 2009, urban explorer Jordan Liles was walking the back roads of Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park when he found an intriguing remnant of the past. About a mile off a main road and up an overgrown staircase lay the ruins of the abandoned Wonderland Club Hotel and a few accompanying cabins. Built in 1912, the hotel originally served as a vacation spot for wealthy Tennessee families, and over the next eight decades it provided a refuge away from busy city life. In the 1990s, the Wonderland Club Hotel closed and fell into ruin, gradually fading into the forest surrounding it. Twenty years later, Liles rediscovered the place for himself. “I first saw the large white annex building through trees from the road to Elkmont,” Liles told Smithsonian.com. “I parked nearby and walked up the old stone steps. I felt like I was entering a very special place.”

Unless you are a park employee or part of a farming program, taking up residence in a national park is no longer allowed. But there was a time when people lived, worked, and made their lives inside of what would later become America's national parks. From ghost mining towns to an abandoned military base, from the Virgin Islands to California, there are plenty of opportunities to turn National Park Week into a chance to discover a place where the past was once present. Here are six other abandoned settlements that are part of the National Park system:

Kennecott Mining Town: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska

Alaska is home to eight national parks and none are bigger than Wrangell-St. Elias, the largest national park in the country. Deep in the heart of its 13 million acres lies the abandoned Kennecott Mining Town, the best-preserved example of early 20th century copper mines in the world. Originally founded in 1900, the mines processed about $200 million worth of copper ore before shuttering in 1938 due to declining profits and increasing transportation costs. The town sat crumbling in the Alaskan wild until the National Parks Service acquired it and the surrounding land in 1998. Today, efforts are being made to stabilize the structures, including the mill, two school buildings, a recreation hall, and a dairy barn, to make sure these artifacts of a bygone era remain standing for years to come. In fact, the Kennecott Visitor Center is located in the mill town's general store

HM69 Nike Missile Base: Everglades National Park, Florida

For over 40 years, the Cold War consumed the United States and the Soviet Union, and there is a relic of that war right in the middle of the swamps of Everglades National Park. The HM69 Nike Missile Base was built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in 1964 in a hidden part of the park two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It's no coincidence the anti-aircraft missile base sits a mere 160 miles off the coast of Cuba. At the time, it was considered one of the most technologically advanced missile sites in America. In 1979, the government quietly closed the base, leaving its 22 buildings (including barracks and mess halls) and 18 surface-to-air Nike missiles (minus the nuclear warheads) to be swallowed by the Florida swamps. The place sat abandoned for nearly 25 years, until former missile operators who had worked and lived there spearheaded efforts to get it recognized as a National Historic Site (the designation came in 2004). Since 2009, the National Parks Service has been giving ranger-led tours of the base

Keys Ranch: Joshua Tree National Park, California

Keys Ranch, in today's Joshua Tree National Park, was once the home of one of area’s most infamous characters, a homesteader named Bill Keys and his family. Arriving in the desert around 1910 (Joshua Tree wouldn't be designated a national park until 1994), Keys was the subject of several legends—he was born in Russia, spent time in the notorious San Quentin prison, and was recruited to be part of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders—but what isn't disputed is what he left behind. A ranch house, school, store and workshop are all still standing at Keys Ranch. Though access is limited, park rangers do lead hikes there three times a week.

The Cinnamon Bay Sugar Plantation: Virgin Islands National Park

The Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St. John still holds reminders of the area's charged history. In the 17th century, the Danish government established a slave trading post on the nearby island of St. Thomas, and sugar cane plantations proliferated in the region. The islands became a national park in 1956 and, today, remains of the past can still be seen. Ruins of 18th-century structures that helped process sugar cane, including a stone boiling room chimney and factory walls, are accessible via a trail off North Shore Road and, a little ways away, there are decaying stones and staircases that were once part of the Cinnamon Bay Estate, the living quarters for the plantation. 

Thurmond: New River Gorge National River, West Virginia

Established in 1900, Thurmond, West Virginia, once served as a center of commerce due to its location on the mighty Chesapeake & Ohio railroad and proximity to nearby coal mines. For over 30 years it thrived as a railroad town, catering to nearly 100,000 people a year. Restaurants, banks, dry good stores and hotels came to town (the most famous hotel being the Dunglen, known for the legend that it hosted the world’s longest poker game). But when the railroads began to struggle during the Great Depression, so did Thurmond, and the town's fortunes declined. Today, much of the town is part of the New River Gorge and the National Park Service. Some of the buildings are open for exploring, including the Thurmond Depot, which is now the visitors' center

Rush Ghost Town: Buffalo National River, Arkansas

Early Native American legends about lost silver brought prospectors to the banks of the Buffalo River in Arkansas in the 1880s. While no meaningful amount of silver was ever found, zinc ore—a valuable mineral in its own right—was more than abundant. Rush experienced a boom beginning in the 1890s and reach its height during World War I of nearly 5,000 residents. By the 1920s, mining slowed down in the region, and by the 1950s, many of the processing mills were dismantled. A few years later, nearly all of the inhabitants of this once-thriving northern Arkansas mining town had left, turning Rush into an official ghost town.  

Today, the exteriors of Rush's buildings, including houses, a blacksmith shop, and a general store (which remained opened until the 1950s) can be explored safely, but the National Parks Service forbids entering the mines due to safety concerns. Besides the threat of a collapsing mine, the Parks Service is also protecting a significant bat population that has made several of the mines its home—turning this man-made creation into a mammal habitat. 

About Matt Blitz

Matt Blitz is a history and travel writer. His work has been featured on CNN, Atlas Obscura, Curbed, Nickelodeon, and Today I Found Out. He also runs the Obscura Society DC and is a big fan of diners.

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