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!
Hashima, Japan: Abandoned After All the Coal Was Mined
The abandoned island city of Hashima, Japan, is nicknamed Gunkanjima, or Battleship Island, because it looks like a hulking battleship from the air. The 18-acre island is now home to the fragile, dangerous ruins of a some of the earliest concrete high-rises in the world, built in 1916 for workers at a coal mining facility owned by Mitsubishi and their families.
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
With a peak of roughly 1,000 residents in the 1980s, the coal-mining community of Pyramiden, Norway, was once known as “an exhibition of the best of the Soviet Union.” Despite being part of the remote Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway, the settlement has been owned by the Soviet Union/Russia since 1927, and by the state-owned Soviet Union/Russian mining company Arktikugol Trust since 1931. In its heyday, the community was almost entirely self-sufficient, raising its own food and supplying its own power. It also had plenty of amenities for its residents in its dozens of new buildings, including a top-notch heated swimming pool, library, gym, cafeteria, pub, and theater.
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
What could make a town’s population drop from 1640 to 20 in just one decade? Toxic waste exposure? An F4 tornado? Yep. Picher, Oklahoma, suffered from both. The Picher lead-zinc mines were some of the most productive of the early 20th century, cranking out more than $20 billion worth of ore between 1917 and 1947. When operations ceased in 1967, contaminated water from the 14,000 abandoned mines began to seep, and “millions of tons” (!) of chat (lead-contaminated dust, essentially) began to pile up. In 1980, the government declared the town a Superfund site, which isn’t as fun as it sounds: “Superfund” refers to the loads of money necessary to clean up a hazardous waste site.
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
The ghost town of Plymouth on the Caribbean island and British Overseas Territory of Montserrat is the only ghost town in the world that is still, technically, the capital of a political territory. The Soufrière Hills volcano smothered the city in nearly five feet of ash back in 1997, after firing a few warning shots in 1995. Nineteen people were killed and the entire town was displaced, with many forced to live in a “state of involuntary exile in Britain, the US and elsewhere in the Caribbean.” The aftermath has been compared to “the horrific damage left by the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima at the end of World War II” and has earned Plymouth the title “Pompeii in the Caribbean.”
With the capital destroyed, the island’s population plummeted from 12,000 to 5,000.