Have you ever come across a ghost town while hiking?
In some remote areas, you can find ancient cities subsumed by vegetation. In others, an abandoned town is closer to home.
Why do towns get left behind? Can you live in a ghost town?
Why Are Towns, Cities, and other Places Abandoned?
It is not unusual for a previously thriving tow to empty and be left to the winds and the birds throughout history and in modern times.
What are the reasons for the wholesale abandonment of a town?
#1 Exhausted Resources
A town can spring up to exploit a natural resource like gold, iron, or water.
When the resource is gone, the work dries up, and there is no reason for people to stay in that town.
These properties are likely to be remote from other cities, and there is no market available to buy the homes. The homes are left empty, and nature begins slowly removing them from the landscape.
In the case of a mining town, the departure may take place practically overnight.
When a large employer folds, the town may empty of its young people leaving older people for a while before there is no one living there.
Water is an essential resource.
If the water supply becomes contaminated, life may become impossible in a town. If the area is in economic decline, a water pollution incident may be the last push for people to pack up and go.
Other pollution events may close a town because people vote with their feet when they feel an impact on their health.
Other environmental disasters like coal fires or toxic waste can result in abandoned towns. Toxic towns create clusters of health issues and birth defects.
Centralia, Pennsylvania, is still burning from an underground coal mine fire.
Eight people have the right to live in the town, but after they die, the town will remain abandoned as the underground coal will burn for a couple of hundred years, putting toxic smoke into the air.
A prolonged drought makes it uneconomic to keep a town going because the water sources dry up or rivers divert.
In theory, you can ship in water from further away, but for a small town, the cost may be out of proportion to the benefit.
Loss of water supply means wholesale abandonment of cities and towns. Many archaeological sites show that it is water that is the essential factor in maintaining a city.
Catastrophic flooding, fires, volcanoes, and earthquakes can result in ghost towns standing as a memorial to a lost community.
It can take generations before people rebuild in areas hit by a natural disaster.
Although half of Americans live in areas prone to earth-shaking, the people of California live with the ever-present risk of the San Andreas Fault.
When (not if) the big quake happens, the damage and cost of rebuilding will take a decade or more for recovery.
The US is home to active volcanoes; although most are in Alaska, there are potential eruptions in more populated areas. For example, Mt. St Helen’s explosion in 1980 destroyed over 200 homes.
#5 Shifting Transport
The transport links that bring in materials, trade, and visitors are part of what keeps a town alive.
Transport improvements may result in a previously prosperous town withering as improved railways or road links make it more attractive to go elsewhere.
This process isn’t new; the building of the railways dictated where new towns arose, and older, less connected towns fell.
#6 Migration to Cities
Over the past decades, young people tend to move from rural towns to larger cities in search of work and amenities.
The towns left behind can become ghost towns as the population ages without replacement.
Automation primarily replaces workers in the countryside; without work for a substantial population, a town will close.
#7 Compulsory Relocation
Occasionally a government project will result in a town closure to create a national park or an infrastructure project.
The people didn’t want to leave, but their homes were subject to a compulsory purchase order.
As a result, you get a ghost town.
Can You Live In an Abandoned Town?
Before considering living in an abandoned town, it is essential to evaluate potential health risks.
You cannot live in an abandoned town if the local government closes it as a risk to health due to contaminated water, heavy metals, coal fires, or other unacceptable health risks.
The reasons why the town lost its population are essential.
If the town does not have a reliable water supply, you need to consider the expense of shipping water to the town or rainwater collection systems.
If the previous population drained the aquifers and there have been sufficient years of abandonment, the aquifer may be viable.
You can’t live in a town without water for drinking, cooking, and washing.
Suppose the town closed for economic reasons rather than environmental or industrial hazards. In that case, there is no physical reason why you can’t live in the town.
Can You Live In a Ghost Town for Free?
It is a romantic idea – riding out into the wilderness, finding a ghost town, and staking your claim.
Apart from Antarctica and some parts of the ocean floor – all land belongs to someone.
If your chosen abandoned town is in a remote area, there is every chance you can move in and live for free, but you have no legal claim to the land, and you are trespassing on someone’s property.
You can assert squatter’s rights and turn your illegal occupation of a ghost town into a legal claim depending on your state rules for adverse possession.
Potentially you can live in a ghost town for free, but when the authorities or the legal owner find out, you will face eviction unless you have a counterclaim.
Can You Buy an Abandoned Town?
If you have the funds and you can identify the owner of the ghost town, then you can negotiate to buy it.
The situation may be complicated if there is more than one owner, as theoretically, each house in the town may have a different owner.
If the ghost town is part of a national park, then the park authorities may prefer to keep it as an attraction for park visitors. It livens up a hike in the woods if you know that you can picnic in an old mining town.
Sometimes ghost towns become an attraction as a set of abandoned buildings, and occasionally they become museums.
You can’t buy a town that is closed for health reasons because of an industrial accident or high pollution.
An abandoned town suffering from coastal erosion is unlikely to be available (or desirable) for purchase.
In theory, you can buy an abandoned town, but be sure you know what you are buying in terms of damaged land and lack of resources.
How Do You Buy an Abandoned Town?
Before thinking of buying an abandoned town, research its history. The reasons why people leave a town may mean a new project involving the town is unlikely to succeed.
The first stage in any property transaction is to find the owner. The owner may be a state department, a corporation, an individual, or many owners of houses.
The local land registry is where to start your detective work, but a competent property lawyer will save you time and effort.
If the ghost town is in private ownership, you can negotiate a price the usual way. If a state department owns the town, it might not be available for sale.
You may be able to buy a parcel of land, including the ghost town, or negotiate for the abandoned town as a single purchase.
A state department will want to know your intentions towards the ghost town.
The local government is interested in increasing amenities (tourism, living places) and employment. There are other considerations regarding conservation, health, and preserving history.
In many cases, your ability to buy a ghost tone depends on your financing and your goals.
Unsurprisingly, many abandoned towns are listed for sale online and even on E-bay.
If the town is publically for sale, buying it is relatively straightforward.
How Much Does It Cost to Buy a Ghost Town?
You need serious financing to buy a whole town in most cases.
Some examples include:
- Johnsonville, Connecticut – $1.9 million.
- Cel-Nev-Ari, Nevada – $8 million.
- Tiller, Oregon – $3.8 million – but actual sale undisclosed.
- Hell, Michigan – $900,000
- Swett, South Dakota – $250,000
- Spring Canyon, Utah – $199,000
- Swansea, California – $70,000
(See the bottom-of-page links)
Developers who buy abandoned towns may opt to clear the land and rebuild, but some people like to restore the original buildings.
What Do You Get for Your Money?
When you buy a ghost town, typically, you get the land and the buildings.
Mineral rights (to underground resources) may be a separate purchase as mineral rights do not automatically pass with the land sale.
If you have the funds available or can find a cheap ghost town to buy, don’t scrimp on the legal fees. The best property lawyer will ensure you know what rights and obligations you get with your ghost town.
What Are the Pros and Cons of Buying a Ghost Town?
The advantages of buying a ghost town include:
- You get a mixture of land and buildings with plenty of exciting development options.
- The combination of land and buildings may be less expensive than a greenfield site.
- Depending on your project, you may get grants for restoration.
- You have a development with history.
- You get the satisfaction of helping to rejuvenate a neglected area.
- Some of the buildings may have interesting architecture or salvage potential.
The downsides to buying a ghost town include:
- The risk of contamination from the land and buildings depends on why people left.
- Cost of demolishing and removing the buildings if restoration isn’t viable.
- Potential lack of access to water and infrastructure.
- Hidden hazards like old mining tunnels.
- Wildlife occupying the old buildings may be dangerous.
What Can You Do with a Ghost Town?
What you do with a ghost town depends on the location and your dreams.
You can develop a ghost town as:
- Housing and retail – new life for an old town.
- Creative complex with workshops and living accommodation.
- Tourist attraction with hotels and activities.
- Cheap industrial buildings.
- A new farm.
- Wildlife haven or rescue center.
Developers have transformed ghost towns into eco-friendly villages, holiday complexes, new housing estates, industrial premises, and many more.
In Europe, abandoned towns are offered as individual houses to attract young people and families to revitalize towns deserted in rural and hard to reach.
Across America, interest in living off the grid means those ghost towns are more viable living places because renewable energy and rainfall catchment ensure that previously challenging areas can support modern living.
Is It Safe to Explore Abandoned Towns?
The safest way to explore an abandoned town is remotely using a drone camera. Any abandoned structure has potential risks, and an abandoned town with multiple buildings has multiple risks.
The primary hazards to consider are:
- Falling objects and damaged structures.
- Debris underfoot is a trip or puncture risk.
- Animals living in the ruins.
- Possible illegal activity.
- Pollution from industrial accidents.
- Unstable ground.
Preferably get the owner’s permission before having a look around and ensure that you prepare for any accidents and that someone knows your timetable and location.
Abandoned towns are romantic, tragic, and a potential development opportunity. Sometimes they remain a permanent part of the landscape, hinting at times past.
As times change, it may be time to breathe new life into old towns with modern technology to provide heat and power.
Even if the buildings are irrecoverable, bringing the land back into use reduces the demand for greenfield sites and helps preserve wilderness areas for wildlife.