10 Boom Towns that Went Bust


If boom towns can't sustain their success, they may find that people pack up and leave.
If boom towns can't sustain their success, they may find that people pack up and leave.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Throughout history, cities spring into existence, the essence of a people's livelihood. Most cities and towns develop over a period of many years as a society advances, but that's not always the case.

Sometimes the population of a town skyrockets overnight, typically accompanying some economic boom. These "boom towns" often spring up at the site of a precious commodity, be it gold, silver or diamonds. Boom towns are also founded around sources of energy, like oil and coal.

In this article we'll explore 10 boom towns -- listed in no particular order -- that had a glorious beginning, only to fall victim to a hastening decline, or bust.

Though the boom town phenomenon is a global one, we'll begin by looking at those that have captured the imagination of folks hoping to strike it rich during the westward expansion of the United States in the 1800s.

10
Dahlonega, Ga.

This quiet north Georgia town was the site of the first major gold rush in the United States. Though gold had been discovered around 1799 in North Carolina, it wasn't until 1829 when miners began flocking to modern day Lumpkin County, Ga., then known as the Cherokee Nation.

Gold fever had spread. Thousands arrived in north Georgia looking to stake a claim. The county seat, Licklog, was renamed Dahlonega in 1833, after the Cherokee word tahlonega, or "golden."

Eventually enough gold was mined that the federal government put a branch of the United States Mint in Dahlonega in 1835, with the first gold coins produced in 1838. During this time, the removal of the Cherokee began in what later became known as the Trail of Tears.

However, not long after the mint's production and the Cherokee removal, the easiest-to-mine gold had all but run dry. There was still gold embedded in hard rock, but the difficulty in extraction caused miners to look elsewhere. When word of the California Gold Rush reached Dahlonega in 1849, prospectors fled for wealth in the West. Bust had arrived.

A recent resurgence has brought renewed interest to the town, however. North Georgia College & State University is there, one of the nation's six senior military colleges. And in addition to gold history tourism, a burgeoning wine industry has blossomed. With an ideal climate, Dahlonega is home to a handful of wineries.

So where did miners go when looking for new deposits of gold? Next, we'll take a look at one West Coast town that embodied the California Gold Rush.

9
Bodie, California
Bodie, Calif., took off after gold was discovered nearby in the 1870s. But as gold mining declined, so did the town.
Bodie, Calif., took off after gold was discovered nearby in the 1870s. But as gold mining declined, so did the town.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Of all the Western gold rush towns of the mid- to late 1800s, Bodie, Calif. stood out from the rest, though its start was like many others.

Discovered in 1859 in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by W.S. Body and other prospectors, gold and silver in the hills drew enough people to form a town named after Body (respelled to avoid mispronunciation).

It wasn't until 1875, though, when the real boom began. A collapsed mine revealed a particularly rich vein of gold, and word spread quickly. Between 1877 and 1881, the town's population exploded to somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 [source: Piatt].

The massive influx brought in more than 60 saloons and dance halls, stamp mills to extract ore, general stores and other businesses. And with all that, the town gained a reputation for being wild and lawless.

The Wild West boom didn't last long for Bodie. Mining dropped off in the late 1800s, and subsequent fires destroyed much of the town.

Today, what's left standing of the ghost town is Bodie State Historic Park, placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1961. A handful of buildings stand in "arrested decay," preserved for today's tourists to catch a glimpse of what once was.

The next town might have boomed on silver deposits, but it became better known for lead bullets and the people who fired those shots.

8
Tombstone, Ariz.
Tombstone, Ariz., was founded as a mining town but went down in history as the site of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Tombstone, Ariz., was founded as a mining town but went down in history as the site of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Comstock/Comstock/Thinkstock

Gold wasn't the only shiny rock to bring hopeful miners west. Tombstone, Ariz., was founded on the discovery of silver.

Ed Schieffelin, a young prospector, came to the area in 1877 looking to strike it rich. As the story goes, Schieffelin was told the only rock he'd find in the desert was his own tombstone. He proved his detractors wrong.

Schieffelin discovered silver at his mining claim, "Tombstone," and sparked a rush drawing thousands. A town of the same name was founded in 1879, along with the discovery of some gold as well.

Like Bodie, Calif., Tombstone's wealth drew both the adventurous and unscrupulous. The Clanton gang was among the latter, and tensions between Ike Clanton and the Earp family led to a shootout on Oct. 26, 1881. The iconic gunfight at the O.K. Corral put Tombstone on the map in ways silver couldn't -- a good thing, because in the early 1900s, underground water flooded the silver mines and rendered them mostly useless.

Though some mining continued for manganese and lead in the early 20th century, the town was mostly forgotten after World War II.

In recent years, however, an interest in recapturing the Wild West has brought an increase in visitors to Tombstone, which continues to thrive on tourism.

But as prospectors know, all that glitters is not gold -- or silver. In fact, the next boom town to go bust was built on "black gold."

7
Desdemona, Texas
Though it once produced millions of barrels of oil, Desdemona, Texas, was soon tapped out, and the town eventually shut down.
Though it once produced millions of barrels of oil, Desdemona, Texas, was soon tapped out, and the town eventually shut down.
Comstock/Thinkstock

In 1857, a small group of settlers built a fort for protection from Indians in the wild frontier of Eastland County, Texas. Within 20 years, a small town cropped up, named Desdemona for the daughter of the justice of the peace. At the time, the town made a living mostly on peanut farming. In 1904, the town had a population of 304.

That changed in 1918, when Tom Dees, director of the Hog Creek Oil Co., hit the jackpot. Tents on the newly discovered oil fields sprang up overnight, home to nearly 16,000 speculators and workers [source: Wiggins]. Within a year, stockholders in the Hog Creek Oil Co. were able to sell $100 shares for $10,250 each.

As in many boom towns, fast money brought fast times. In 1920, rampant lawlessness drew the attention and discipline of the Texas Rangers, a paramilitary group of soldiers.

The Rangers didn't stay long. Between 1919 and 1921, oil production dropped from 7.4 million barrels to 2.5 million, indicating a sharp drop in underground reserves. Desdemona's bust had arrived.

The town suffered a sharper bust than other oil boom towns of the area, like Ranger, Texas. In 1936, the city government dissolved itself. In 1969, the town's only school closed its doors.

To this point, we've looked at boom towns that went bust during America's westward expansion. But the trend isn't limited to the United States. Next we'll discover an African city swallowed by the sands of time.

6
Kolmanskop, Namibia
The discovery of diamonds in the sand in Namibia led to the rapid growth of Kolmanskop. But the miners eventually left in search of better finds, and the town went bust.
The discovery of diamonds in the sand in Namibia led to the rapid growth of Kolmanskop. But the miners eventually left in search of better finds, and the town went bust.
Jeffrey Hamilton/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

If diamonds are a girl's best friend, it's only because they were a prospector's first.

In 1908, a railway worker kicked up a diamond in the rough sands of northern Namibia. Overnight, a diamond rush was on in the West African country, colonized by Germany in 1884.

German miners built Kolmanskop as a refuge in the desert, bringing architectural styles from their homeland. A theater, hospital, school, bar, stores and other buildings made life a little easier in the harsh desert climate.

Most of the diamond harvesting came from placer mining. The deposits were allegedly so great that prospectors could go out into the desert on hands and knees to find diamonds sparkling in the moonlight. By 1914, more than 5 million carats had been discovered [source: McQuillan].

The town survived through both World Wars I and II. However, in the mid-1940s, mining operations moved farther south to Oranjemund, where larger diamond deposits were found along the Orange River. By 1950, Kolmanskop was virtually empty.

Many buildings still stand today, decayed over the years by desert winds and sand. The ghost town has become a tourist attraction, where visitors can snap photos of homes partially filled with sand. Kolmanskop even served as the site of a 2000 film, "The King is Alive," about a group of stranded tourists who reproduce Shakespeare's "King Lear" among the town's ruins.

Unlike diamonds, one mined mineral came at a great cost to our next boom town to go bust, this time in the land down under.

5
Wittenoom, Western Australia
Asbestos is a very useful mineral, and Wittenoom, Western Australia, had it in abundance. In fact, residents used asbestos scraps in their gardens.
Asbestos is a very useful mineral, and Wittenoom, Western Australia, had it in abundance. In fact, residents used asbestos scraps in their gardens.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

In 1937, miner Lang Hancock found a valuable mineral near the town of Wittenoom, Western Australia. It was something used in building materials, valued for its amazing properties -- flame-retardant, super strong and durable. The unfortunate side effect from mining it, not discovered until years later, was death.

Demand for blue asbestos increased with the onset of World War II, when production of battleships, tanks, planes and helmets called for the tough, fibrous mineral. Both Australians and immigrants moved to Wittenoom to mine blue asbestos, with about 7,000 having worked the mines over a 23-year period. At one point, the town reached a population of about 20,000 [source: SafetyLine Institute].

Warnings of the dangers from asbestos fell on deaf ears. In 1948, a government medical officer warned of the dangers of inhaling asbestos fibers. Despite that and other reports, mining continued in Wittenoom until 1966.

To make matters worse, blue asbestos tailings -- discarded scraps of rock -- were used as a cheaper substitute for sand and gravel in roads, a local airport and other municipal projects. Residents even put the tailings in their yards and gardens.

The Australian government eventually began phasing out the town, discouraging residents from living there. By 1991, the death toll of those who had contracted asbestosis or mesothelioma, a cancer of the lungs and chest with no known cure, reached 500 [source: SafetyLine Institute]. In 2006, power to the town was cut, and in 2007, Wittenoom was removed from maps by the government. Despite this, a handful of residents remain.

In the next deflated boom town, a Japanese city rises from the sea like a battleship on mission.

4
Hashima Island, Japan
Although the last residents of Hashima Island left in 1974, visitors can still tour the former boom town.
Although the last residents of Hashima Island left in 1974, visitors can still tour the former boom town.
Sankei/Getty Images

The next boom town isn't really a town at all, but an island. Though too small to be considered a city, Hashima Island off western Japan was at one point in history the most densely populated place on the planet [source: Burke-Gaffney].

In 1850, the historically closed-off country opened itself to increased trade with the world. At this time, the expansion of steam technology gave rise to the popularity of coal as fuel. The Fukahori family drilled the first successful coal shaft on Hashima in 1885. Three years later, the Mitsubishi Corporation purchased the mine.

By 1907, additional land had been reclaimed and high sea walls built. The result was an island that looked more like a ship. A local newspaper reporter gave it the nickname gunkanjima, the Japanese word for battleship.

In the early 1900s, Hashima produced 150,000 tons of coal annually. By 1941, it peaked at 410,000 tons [source: Burke-Gaffney].

The island boasted its own microcosm: Schools, a gym, a movie theater, bars, restaurants, temples and more were crammed onto Hashima's 15 acres. In 1959, the island was home to 5,259 people [source: Burke-Gaffney].

But as we've seen so far, boom towns eventually bust. Coal was king in Japan until the late 1960s, when petroleum took its place as a source of energy. Coal mines across the country were shuttered, and on April 20, 1974, the last residents departed Hashima. Today, dilapidated concrete high-rises are all that's left.

In contrast to the planned exit of Hashima, no one expected what would happen in our next boom town to go bust.

3
Pripyat, Ukraine
An abandoned amusement park in Pripyat, Ukraine, where residents were forced out by the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
An abandoned amusement park in Pripyat, Ukraine, where residents were forced out by the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Known as "The City of the Future," Pripyat was a planned city constructed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s in northern Ukraine. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union built a number of "atom cities" like Pripyat on the hopes of maintaining a new source of energy for progress: nuclear power.

The city was home to 49,000 residents, all connected in some way to a nearby power plant boasting four nuclear reactors. This planned boom town had all the amenities for work and play, even its own amusement park.

On April 26, 1986, a meltdown occurred in Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, now considered the worst nuclear accident in history. Residents of Pripyat were evacuated a few days later. They were told to pack enough for a three-day leave. No one returned.

Despite the meltdown, operations continued at Chernobyl's three other reactors until 2000. As the radiation levels were deemed too high, Pripyat was left abandoned, and a replacement city, Slavutych, was built some 28 miles (45.1 kilometers) away. To this day, buildings stand empty, visited only by scientists and a handful of tourists annually.

On the next page, we'll see how an unquenchable fire affected another boom town that went bust.

2
Centralia, Penn.
Toxic gases and unsteady ground from an underground coal fire forced most residents of Centralia, Penn., from their homes.
Toxic gases and unsteady ground from an underground coal fire forced most residents of Centralia, Penn., from their homes.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Miners in Pennsylvania have long excavated anthracite coal for its appeal as long-burning coal. Towns filled with workers and their families popped up near mines, and Centralia was no exception.

In 1962, a common municipal trash burn outside town led to something out of the ordinary: fire struck a coal vein, igniting an underground blaze that has been burning ever since. By the 1970s, the fire had spread under the town, with plumes of toxic gas spewing from cracks in the earth.

While some residents reported illness from carbon monoxide poisoning, the town remained relatively unchanged until 1981, when a 12-year-old boy fell into a sinkhole. Nearly killed by the heat and toxic fumes, he became the poster child for Centralia's continuing problem. In 1983, Congress authorized $42 million for the relocation of the town's residents [source: Rubinkam].

Though the government condemned Centralia's buildings and razed about 500, some die-hard residents remain. Until recently, one of those die-hards was 39-year-old John Lokitis Jr., the subject of a 2007 documentary on Centralia. In 2010, Lokitis' childhood home was leveled by the government. Fewer than a dozen residents remain.

Not all boom towns meet their end from natural disaster. Our final boom town collapsed under the weight of a worldwide recession.

1
Dublin, Ireland
Dublin is hardly a ghost town, but the worldwide economic downturn in the 2000s slowed down the amazing growth the city experienced in the 1990s.
Dublin is hardly a ghost town, but the worldwide economic downturn in the 2000s slowed down the amazing growth the city experienced in the 1990s.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

In the mid-1990s, Ireland went from one of the poorer countries in Europe to the continent's shining example of how to attract new business.

Ireland, dubbed "The Celtic Tiger," and its capital, Dublin, boomed during a period of massive growth. Property values skyrocketed in the city, and gross domestic product was outgrowing that of the United States and the European Union, thanks to government initiatives like generous tax breaks [source: Dorgan]. Skilled laborers from across Europe moved to Dublin for work.

In 2007, the average Irish income was about $43,000, about three times the amount it was in 1984 [source: Lynch].

But the Celtic Tiger couldn't outrun a worldwide recession. Dublin's boom, tied to property values inflated nearly 500 percent over a decade, collapsed with the fall of Ireland's banks. What was once a model city sank back into troubled times, with experts still debating what will be the final outcome for the once-mighty Celtic Tiger.

To learn more about these boom towns and other related topics, take a look at the links on the next page.

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