One of the defining characteristics of humanity is our need for fuel beyond our basic requirements of food, water and sunshine. Our ability to utilise fuel underpins everything from the cars we drive to the food we eat. If the lights went out and our factories became silent the world as we know it would grind to a standstill.
Energy is arguably the world’s biggest industry and often promotes urban growth and prosperity. Whole towns spring up out of nowhere; people put down roots all in support of a golden promise. But accidents happen and mineral wealth will always run dry, and when the industry dies it often leaves a legacy of decay.
These are some of the towns that we forgot.
Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan. 32⁰ 37’ 39”N 129⁰ 44’ 17”E
An ominous shadow floats, as if at anchor, off the coast of Japan. As your boat draws closer the silhouette resolves into high sea-walls protecting a clutter of buildings that seem to huddle together as if afraid.
This is Hashima Island, better known to the locals as Gunkanjima, Japanese for ‘Battleship Island’. The discovery of coal quickly turned this uninhabitable rock into one of Japan’s most lucrative coal mines. In 1890 the now famous Mitsubishi company bought the island and for almost 100 years Hashima’s coal powered a nation.
In 1916 Japan’s first concrete building of any significant size on was built on Hashima to house the miners and their families. Two years later a subsequent nine storey apartment block would become the country’s tallest building.
Even during World War 2 when no other concrete buildings were built across the whole of Japan, the construction of concrete apartment blocks continued on the island unabated. By 1959 the population on the island had peaked at 5,259 giving Hashima the world’s highest ever recorded population density of 83,500 people per km2, akin to asking 835 people to live in an area the size of a cricket field.
In comparison, London’s population density is about 5,100 people per km2 and even Mumbai, one of the world’s most densely populated cities, averages only 29,650 people per km2.
Yet the age of Hashima could not last forever. Petroleum had replaced coal as the country’s choice of fuel; Mitsubishi began redistributing its workforce until finally closing the mine. On April 20th 1974, the last resident stepped onto a boat and left the island to its fate.
Since then she has laid abandoned, the once-proud crown of Japanese industry now victim to the weather and haunted only by the wind.
Svalbard Archipelago, Arctic Circle 78⁰ 41’ 0”N 16⁰ 24’ 0”E
Halfway between Norway and the North-Pole are the islands that make up the Svalbard archipelago. This is a land of fjords and glaciers. Time, like one’s blood, is sluggish here.
Every year Svalbard’s largest town, Longyearbyen, sees 125 consecutive days where the sun never sets. Conversely during the winter months – as the frozen Arctic Seas reach south to engulf the islands – the town becomes trapped in the eerie twilight of a two-week sunset, before being plunged into perpetual night. It will be another 79 days before the people of Svalbard see the sun once again.
North of Longyearbyen, nestled at the throat of the Billefjorden, lies Pyramiden, a Russian coal-mining town. This was once a privileged community of over 1000 inhabitants and the foremost example of Soviet industry and community in the Arctic. The miners and their families enjoyed a lavish sports centre, a movie theatre and a generous library.
Now the world’s northern-most bust of Lenin – patriotically placed in the town’s centre – is the only person who remains. In 1988 the mine was closed and the town abandoned abruptly. Svalbard authorities have said that everything has to remain untouched – from the world’s northern-most grand piano sitting unplayed in the concert hall to the chairs and benches left in the streets.
There are no restrictions on visiting Pyramiden but it is wise to note that tour guides who go there carry rifles at the ready. This is no longer a town, it is as much wilderness as the glaciers and mountains beyond, and this is polar bear country.
Time has forgotten this place. Scientists predict that because of the slow decay rate, evidence of Pyramiden will still be visible 500 years from now. If humanity were to disappear overnight, this Arctic time-capsule might be one of the last visible testaments to our existence.
Columbia County, Pennsylvania. United States of America. 40⁰ 48’ 15”N 76⁰ 20’ 27”W
Coal, once again, underpins the history and upheaval of this once lively little town in Central Pennsylvania. Yet it was neither profitability nor dwindling resources that lead to this town’s almost complete destruction.
Up until 1962 Centralia was a typical country borough prospering on the back of the local coal mine – literally. The initial cause of Centralia’s misfortune is not known for certain but the predominant theory indicates that in May of ’62 a group of workers were charged with cleaning up the local landfill, located in an old open-cut mine. As they had in past years the crew set the dump on fire, except that this time the fire ignited an exposed coal seam.
After extinguishing the surface fire the local firemen congratulated themselves and went home unaware that the fire continued to burn underground, finding a footing in abandoned mine shafts and then spreading.
At first no one noticed…after that they chose to ignore the smouldering coal fire deep beneath their feet. Then sinkholes began to open, the roads warped and cracked, poisonous gases began to seep into homes and tendrils of sulphurous-smoke started to reach up out of the earth as if the mouth of Hell were opening beneath the town.
People began to abandon Centralia. Attempts by the government to extinguish the fire failed and in 1992 Pennsylvania’s governor declared the compulsory purchase of all land held by the remaining citizens and began the demolition of nearly all the houses. The roads that once ran into Centralia were blocked and the little township was deleted from the maps.
Despite government pressure a few people are unapologetic in their resolve to live out their lives in Centralia but this year that number has dwindled to only seven.
Estimates on how long the Centralia fire will continue to burn range from 100 years to 1,000. It will surprise no one that Centralia inspired the set location for the horror movie Silent Hill.
Kiev Oblast, Ukraine 51⁰ 24’ 20”N 30⁰ 03’ 25”E
In the early hours of 26th April 1986 a routine test ran out of control. The power to the core spiked rupturing the containment vessel, which in turn sparked a second explosion that blew the top off Reactor 4. And so, the word ‘Chernobyl’ was stamped on the world’s collective psyche.
That day in the nearby city of Pripyat, children walked to school even as they watched Reactor 4 burning only three kilometres away. On the night of the 26th buses began to roll into the city and at approximately 2pm on the 27th the order to evacuate was given. In only 3 hours 1,100 buses evacuated almost 50.000 people who never returned.
In 1970 Pripyat was founded to house the workers building the power plant that would eventually poison many of them. By 1977, when the first Chernobyl reactor came into operation, Pripyat had grown from nothing into the most modern city in the Soviet Union.
Now, almost 25 years have passed since the thirty kilometre radius around Chernobyl became known as the Zone of Alienation. Wildlife has returned and the forests have flourished even though the fruit that hang from their branches is poisoned with radiation. The forces of Nature have not been so kind to Pripyat and this once industrious city is slowly being dismantled by the creepers and the weather.
For those people wishing to avoid the high levels of radiation, you can play though a virtual Pripyat in the video games S.T.A.L.K.E.R and Call of Duty 4. Of course, if mobile phones and smoking just aren’t enough of a cancer risk for you then tours through Pripyat and up to the very gates of the Chernobyl reactor are available.
I highly recommend checking out each of these talented photographers’ work, they have been generous in allowing reproduction here of their photos
Article originally published in EggMag
Tags: abandoned, Centralia, Chernobyl, coal, derelict, destruction, energy, ghost, Ghost town, Ghost Towns, Hashima, haunted, history, One Small World, post-apocalyptic, post-human, Pripyat, Pyramiden, radioactive, Svalbard
Trackback from your site.