Clues to America’s past can be found in its ghost towns, once bustling communities that have been abandoned.
The deserted communities show us how the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars shaped the history of the United States, according to Geotab, a telematics company (think global positioning and vehicle tracking), which developed an interactive map showcasing more than 3,000 abandoned towns across America.
Ghost towns are often associated with the Wild West and Texas does have the most ghost towns with 511 abandoned communities. California follows with 346, and Kansas with 308.
Most of the Texas towns were established during the frontier era, from the early to mid-1800s. Mining towns sprang up around rich mineral deposits while the Mexican government’s favorable terms — a promised 4,000 acres per family for a small fee — attracted settlers.
“In the end, some Texas towns were destroyed by natural disasters and droughts, while others failed once the railroad and highway system reshaped transportation routes,” Geotab’s Kelly Hall told us via email.
Towns founded around particular mineral resources were abandoned when demand dried up.
“Once the need declined or resources were scarce, it caused the population or entire town to vanish,” said Hall. “Others were economically overpowered by neighboring towns, the Great Depression or frontier settlements that simply died down.”
Sixty structures still survive in Bannack, Montana, which was founded in 1862. The town flourished when thousands descended on the area with hopes of making their fortune in gold. By 1860, the gold was harder to reach and, despite a brief resurgence in the 1890s, the town was abandoned by the 1940s.
Natural disasters could also wipe out a town. That’s what happened to Fort Jefferson in Monroe County, Florida.
Built starting in 1846, the fort once helped defend the state against pirates, became a prison during the Civil War, was once used as a quarantine station, and then a refueling station for the U.S. Navy. But Fort Jefferson was abandoned in 1906 after it was damaged by a hurricane.
“With limited access to technology and without today’s emergency management advancements, a hurricane, a tornado or an earthquake could mean the total devastation of an entire community,” Hall said.
But some of these ghost towns, such as Fort Jefferson, have gotten a second life as tourist attractions. The residents are long gone, but the buildings, and the unique history of each town, remain.