Emerging above the rolling tumbleweed of prairies or hidden below modern cities, hundreds of eerily desolate former towns are scattered across the United States. Many of the USA's ghost towns were once thriving settlements: they grew quickly, but disappeared just as fast in the boom and bust Gold Rush years, while others have a more shadowy past. From the cursed bricks of Bodie to the everlasting fire still burning in Centralia, read on for the spookiest places to visit in America, if you dare...
In its heyday, Bodie was known as one of the most dangerous and lawless towns in the west. Maintained in a state of “arrested decay” (a phrase coined by the State of California), Bodie is now one of the best-preserved ghost towns in America, with buildings furnished as they were left and shopfronts stocked with familiar brands. A true Wild West ghost town, it was once home to 65 saloons where regular brawls and shootouts made it a perilous place to live. It is said that the violent characters of its past protect the town with the “Bodie Curse”, so refrain from stealing anything, even a piece of rubble, or you may find yourself struck down with bad luck.
Bodie ghost town © Stockdonkey/Shutterstock
Previously named Texokla and Texoma, Texola straddles the Oklahoma and Texas borders and switched between both states during its brief life as a popular railroad stop in the early 20th century. This identity crisis did not bode well for its future and the cotton town soon disbanded after its rapid expansion in the 1920s, aided by the arrival of Route 66. Walking through the town today, don’t miss the large painted letters on the side of a building that read, 'There's no place like Texola'; although the empty streets and crumbling buildings are surely not what the proud residents had in mind when painting the sign.
The smoky clouds billowing out of the cracked tarmac of Centralia, a former mining town, belie a phantom presence. If it weren’t for the unstable ground and carbon monoxide fumes, the area would likely be a filmmaker's dream. The unearthly clouds are actually caused by a slow burning gas fire; the town caught alight in 1962 and hasn’t stopped burning since. Although the buildings have been condemned and the entrance to the town is surrounded by warning signs, you can view the eerie wasteland from Pennsylvania Route 61.
North Brother Island, New York
Situated within crowded New York City, North Brother Island is an unlikely abandoned settlement with a sinister history. Originally an isolated hospital for infectious small pox victims, the island is most famous for quarantining Mary Mallon, or ‘Typhoid Mary’ for over twenty years. In the 1950s, the hospital became a treatment centre for drug addicts before its closure just a decade later. Today the area is a bird sanctuary. While it’s off-limits to the public, this doesn’t stop plenty of urban explorers wandering around the haunting hospital buildings.
Seattle Underground, Washington
Seattle Underground is a city beneath a city. In 1889, the Great Seattle Fire destroyed many of the city’s buildings. In its wake, authorities decided to rebuild the city two storeys higher to avoid past flooding problems. At first, many of the underground stores remained open, with people climbing up and down ladders to reach the shops below. However, in 1907, the underground city was condemned, although it continued to be used for dodgy dealings and some unseemly business. Find out about the city’s frontier past by taking a guided tour around the partly-restored passages.
© Zack Frank/Shutterstock
Founded in 1904, Rhyolite grew quickly in the Gold Rush years but disbanded just as fast in the financial crisis of 1907. Stop by the abandoned town on your way from Vegas to Death Valley and find yourself transported back to the Gold Rush era. The best-preserved building in the town is The Bottle House, made from thousands of discarded beer and liquor bottles, a reminder of the fifty saloons the town once boasted. Once resplendent with marble staircases and stained glass windows, the remains of the three storey bank are a pertinent reminder of the short-lived highs the town enjoyed. Located in the midst of desert plains, the Rhyolite wasteland makes an eerie day trip.
Glenrio, New Mexico and Texas
Claiming to be the first and last town to straddle two states at once, Glenrio was once a popular stop for travellers on the Rock Island and Pacific Railroad and later for motorists on the old Route 66. When the new interstate was laid in 1973, it bypassed Glenrio and forced the quiet town to be silenced altogether. Come off Interstate 40 and take Route 66 and imagine yourself as an early twentieth century motorist experiencing the long open road for the first time. Arriving from the west, a crumbling sign greets you with the words ‘Motel, First in Texas’, and driving from the east the town bids its farewell with ‘Motel, Last in Texas’.
Cafe sign along historic Route 66 in Texas © Andrey Bayda/Shutterstock
Not the commercialised holiday town you might imagine, although that may have fared better, Christmas is a derelict mining community (its name derived from the date of the mine’s reopening in 1902). Once a thriving settlement, the town's post office was busiest in December, when people would send cards and presents from across the USA to be redirected with the Christmas postmark. It continued to receive Christmas post for twenty years after its closure, and letters with the Christmas postmark have now become collectors items. You certainly won’t get the festive holiday feeling, but climb the steep, mile-long road to Christmas and you can walk around the few derelict buildings still standing and discarded mining equipment abandoned in the 1930s.
Top image: Bodie ghost town © Stockdonkey/Shutterstock