How Gold Towns Turned into Ghost Towns In States Like Colorado

Colorado has many ghost towns from its "Gold Rush" in the 19th Century, but why were they abandoned?
Christopher McFadden

From long-abandoned towns of antiquity to Pripyat near Chernobyl, many settlements are abandoned never to be occupied ever again. The reasons for this vary dramatically, but today there are many ghost towns in the United States alone.

Most, if not all of these, were created during the boom and bust of the "Gold Rush."

Here we explore why towns, and indeed cities, can be abandoned by their population and highlight five interesting examples from the State of Colorado


How do towns become ghost towns?

Towns become ghost towns for a variety of reasons, but in short, in most cases, economic collapse or natural disasters are to blame. 

With regards to the economy, abandonment would usually be the result of the underlying income for the town's inhabitants drying up. With no viable income for the population, they are forced to relocate in search of new opportunities.

Other reasons can include natural resource depletion, bypass by major railroads and roads, political upheaval, or forced relocation prior to a major civil engineering project like building a dam

Natural disasters, or indeed manmade ones, are also a common reason for a once flourishing town to be abandoned. This could include things like floods, droughts, lawlessness, volcanism, war, pollution or, as at Pripyat near Chernobyl, nuclear disaster.

ghost towns priypat
Pripyat near Chernobyl is still largely abandoned today. Source: IAEA Imagebank/Flickr

"The term can sometimes refer to cities, towns, and neighborhoods that are still populated, but significantly less so than in past years; for example, those affected by high levels of unemployment and dereliction," according to Wikipedia

On the island of Montserrat, for example, the town of Plymouth (once a bustling town) became inhabitable in 1995 due to volcanic ash and pyroclastic flows from a local eruption. 

Oftentimes, except in the case of serious disasters, these ghost towns can become tourist attractions. This is especially true if they have a lot of preserved period architecture. 

Why do cities get abandoned?

Cities are not immune to becoming abandoned. Much like ghost towns, cities can be abandoned for a wide variety of reasons but similar to those highlighted above. 

To reiterate, these would include things like the following:

  1. Economic collapse
  2. Natural disaster
  3. Drought and famine
  4. Disease and/or contamination
  5. Natural resource depletion
  6. War/capture and sacking and/or massacres
  7. A manmade disaster like Chernobyl

Cities have been abandoned many times throughout history, with some famous examples including:

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  • Oradour-sur-Glane, France - This town and its entire population were devastated by German Armed Forces at the end of WW2 in the act of retribution for French Resistance activities. 
  • Hashima Island, Japan - Once a thriving mining city, Hashima Island was abandoned after mining operations ceased in the 1970s.
  • Merv, Turkmenistan - This was once thought to have been one of the largest cities in the world in its day. It was captured and sacked by the Mongols in the 13th Century AD.
  • Varosha, Cyprus - One other recent example is the former city of Varosha on the island of Cyprus. This southern portion of the Cypriot city of Famagusta was annexed during the Turkish Invasion in 1974. 
ghost towns cyprus
Varosha in 2006. Source: TomasNY/Wikimedia Commons

Once a bustling tourist hotspot, residents fled the area in advance of Turkish forces and never returned. Today, it is a ghost town and is still occupied in places by the Turkish armed forces. Entry to it is also forbidden to the public. 

What are boomtowns and ghost towns?

We've already covered ghost towns above, but what about boom towns? 

As the name suggests, these are inhabited areas or communities that undergo rapid growth in population. This is often the result of some sudden economic success for the community, such as the discovery of a valuable natural resource like gold, silver, or oil. 

They can either be formed from existing settlements, like a small village or can be founded from scratch after discovering something like rich gold deposits nearby. 

Some of the prime examples are those boomtowns that sprang up around North America during the "Gold Rush." 


But, the term can also be applied to an existing community that undergoes massive growth for other reasons. This could include close proximity to a major metropolitan center, huge local construction project, in response to tourism, flight from major cities due to rising living costs or sudden connection to major trunk roads (so-called commuter villages in the UK). 

Some larger existing cities today once underwent massive growth similar to this around the world. Prime examples are some of the large industrial cities of the United Kingdom. 

Liverpool and Manchester, for example, saw a huge rise in population and economic activity during the Industrial Revolution

How Gold Towns Turned into Ghost Towns In States Like Colorado
Source: Jason C. McDonald/Wikimedia Commons

"The California Gold Rush of the Western United States stimulated numerous boomtowns in that period, as settlements seemed to spring up overnight in the river valleys, mountains, and deserts around what was thought to be valuable gold mining country," according to Wikipedia

Which state has the most ghost towns?

Many states in the United States have a large number of ghost towns. Some of the most ghost town owning states include:

  • Alaska
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Massachusetts
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Ohio

But, according to sites like, cite that Oregon has the most ghost towns compared to other states. 

Here are some of the ghost towns in Colorado

The state of Colorado is another US state with a large number of ghost towns. According to, Colorado has no less than 1,500 registered ghost towns with 600 of these retaining buildings from previous periods of occupation. 

Like many ghost towns of this state, most were founded during the great boom and bust of the "Gold Rush."

Some of the most interesting ones are listed below. 

1. Independence was abandoned after a bad winter

The now ghost town of Independence was founded in the 1880s. At its height, it was home to hundreds of miners and many businesses. 

How Gold Towns Turned into Ghost Towns In States Like Colorado
Source: Daniel Case/Wikimedia Commons

After the conclusion of the town's boom, most of the population moved to Aspen to find work. By 1899, the town was abandoned forever after a particularly harsh winter. 

2. Mayflower Gulch is a stunning ghost town

Mayflower Gulch, now a ghost town, is situated just south of the Copper Mountain, Colorado. The town, like Independence, was founded during the late 19th Century but was soon abandoned.

3. Carson is well-preserved

Carson, located south of Lake City, is one of the best-preserved ghost towns in Colorado. Today it is still littered with the remains of machinery, mining equipment, and buildings. 

ghost town carson
Source: Jane Nearing/Flickr

"Carson was founded in in the late 1880s just below 12,000 feet. Home to gold and silver miners, the site was eventually abandoned due to the long and harsh winters at the high-elevation," notes

4. Alta is worth a visit

Alta is another ghost town in the state of Colorado. Situated just outside Telluride, Alta is one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the state. 

ghost town alta
Source: Lorie Shuall/Flickr

Even today many of its structures are still standing, including some two-story structures. 

5. Ashcroft was once a film set

Situated near Aspen, Ashcroft is another well-preserved ghost town in Colorado. It was founded in the late 1800s but quickly went bust by 1885.

ghost town ashcroft
Source: John Holm/Wikimedia Commons

After exchanging hands a few times in the following years, it was finally abandoned for good in 1974.  

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