Some ghost towns are protected by parks departments. But Bodie, California, protects itself—with a curse.
For years, visitors to this ghost town have learned that bad luck will befall anyone who makes off with an artifact—a curse that is lifted only when the piece of contraband is returned. Sure enough, park ranger Mark Langner says that a couple times a month, he gets something in the mail—"an old nail or a piece of glass, with an anonymous letter apologizing—they know they've done something wrong." Curse or no curse, he says, "karma is karma."
And yet, people still can't resist slipping off with a piece of history. It's understandable. Abandoned towns exist all over the world, but there's something uniquely American, even romantic, about ghost towns. Perhaps it's because so many sprang up in the 19th-century Old West, when a rush to find gold and other minerals created an old-style economic bubble. When the money or luck ran out, so did the residents, often leaving behind empty houses, saloons and brothels.
Of course, gold (or lack thereof) isn't the only reason towns have failed. "There are as many reasons for towns dying as there are towns," says Gary Speck, a ghost town expert and author of books including Ghost Towns: Yesterday and Today. "Some towns were bypassed when highways were built or, in one-economy towns, when production decreased, like in logging camps. If the need for the town was gone, the town went bye-bye—unless it could adapt."
He adds that while plenty of failed towns just got paved over by modern suburbs, finding the physical remains of little cities long gone makes for fascinating travel.
When we looked for the most interesting ghost towns around the United States, we found various states of preservation and decay. In Virginia City, Montana, remaining buildings have been rehabbed to create festive tourist towns. Bodie, meanwhile, is kept in a state of "arrested decay"—basically, the same condition it was in when it became a historic landmark in 1962. "We'll do repairs as needed—replace a roof or fix a window—using the right materials from the time," says Langner. "If you do too much, it looks fake, but if you do too little, it become a pile of sticks."
Some ghost towns have found unique second lives. Terlingua, Texas, got its start as a thriving mercury-mining town during the early 1900s, but today, it's the lightly populated home of a famed chili cook-off.
Such an event might seem all the more poignant in a place where prosperity never took hold—and may be one reason people romanticize these long-gone towns.
Or perhaps they just like looking at old stuff. Bodie still has some stocked stores, and visitors remark on seeing products their parents or grandparents used to have. "People yearn for simpler times," says Langner. "And sometimes they're just blown away that they're somewhere that doesn't get cell service."
After producing $200 million worth of copper ore between 1911 and 1938, this mill town was tapped out and too remote to survive. You'll find it at the end of a 60-mile dirt road in the middle of Wrangell–St. Elias National Park, the biggest national park in the U.S.—and even bigger than Switzerland. During its heyday, the company town had its own hospital and school as well as a skating rink and a tennis court. The original mill buildings are still here, but you’ll get the best access if you go with a guide from the NPS or a tour operator.
Closest Civilization: Chitina, about 60 miles away.
St. Elmo, Colorado
The few folks left near St. Elmo, a onetime mining village and railroad stop, joke that the original residents left on the last train out—and never came back. After developing in the 1870s with hotels, dance halls, a school and a telegraph office, the town faded by the 1930s, after the railroad closed. (One longtime resident named Annabelle, however, hung around until the late 1950s and has become the town’s patron saint.) You can still shop in the seasonal, antiques-filled General Store, rent four-wheelers, and stay in a rustic cabin in town.
Closest Civilization: Buena Vista, 20 miles away.
Swan Island, Maine
Ironically, the original version of this island's name—Sowangan, given by the Native Americans who lived here—translates to "bald eagle" (since, at that time, a lot of bald eagles lived there, too). Settlers came in and developed a village in the early 1700s, and Benedict Arnold passed through in 1775 on his way to attack Quebec. Otherwise, it was a pretty sleepy place—good for fishing and ice-cutting—that only got sleepier over the next century or so, until the state of Maine started acquiring the land in the 1940s. You can get to Swan Island only by boat, but once here you can camp and hike or visit old homesteads, stone walls, and a cemetery.
Closest Civilization: Richmond, Maine, a ferry ride across the Kennebec River.
This place on the plains may have died from its own identity crisis. The farming town was born in about 1901, sitting near both Route 66 and the 100th Meridian. But surveyors kept not being able to decide if the town belonged in the Texas panhandle or Oklahoma. (It also had, at times, the names of Texokla and Texoma.) Such indecision, perhaps, combined with the Dust Bowl and the arrival of the more distant I-40, spelled the end of Texola. Census figures indicate that 36 people still live here, but most of what you can see is an old cemetery and an abandoned bar, Watering Hole #2.
Closest Civilization: Erick, Oklahoma, seven miles away.
South Pass City, Wyoming
The infrastructure of the former gold mine still exists in South Pass City, which launched in the 1860s but could no longer produce by the time of the Depression. The state of Wyoming bought the land in the 1960s, and now you can tour cabins, restaurants, dance halls and a jail. The Miner’s Delight B&B, in nearby Atlantic City, even does an occasional "night-shift" tour of the old gold mine, complete with scotch tastings.
Closest Civilization: Lander, Wyoming, 32 miles away.
Now on Bureau of Land Management land, this little gold rush town turned up more red gemstones than gold, but both treasures dwindled over time, and a fire in 1912 leveled much of the town. Visitors can still see 30 historic buildings—including cabins, a saloon, and part of an old hotel—and camp within a half mile of the ghost town. Lost treasures aside, the area is rich with hiking and mountain biking trails, as well as chances to catch rainbow trout.
Closest Civilization: Missoula, Montana, about 35 miles away.
North Brother Island, New York
New York City is the last place you'd expect to find a ghost town, but this 20-acre island on the East River was developed precisely because of its isolation. In 1885, Riverside Hospital was built here as a quarantine facility for smallpox patients and then for others with infectious diseases—including the infamous Typhoid Mary (the unfortunate woman who spread typhoid fever without having any symptoms herself). The hospital eventually shifted into a housing center for veterans and a rehab facility for heroin addicts. By the 1960s it had deteriorated into abandoned buildings set in a tangle of trees. Don’t make plans to visit here soon, though: For safety and environmental reasons, the local Department of Parks and Recreation is restricting access until at least 2016.
Closest Civilization: The Bronx, a short boat ride away.
Animas Forks, Colorado
This little silver and gold mining town at 11,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains once boasted of being the biggest city in the world … at that altitude. Today, the former town of 500 is maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, and you can still see several old cabin-style buildings, including the small jail. This is off-roading country, so your best bet is to rent a four-wheeler and soak up the mountain scenery—wildflowers in the summer, aspens in the fall—along the Alpine Loop National Back Country Byway.
Closest Civilization: Silverton, 12 miles away, or Durango, 60 miles away.