Guest author: Lela Lake is a writer who has traveled to most remote parts of the U.S. She now writes her adventures for Hostelbookers. Additional content added by Quirky Travel Guy.
During my road trips through the Deep South I’ve discovered that many ghost towns have intriguing stories that show how the rise – and fall – of these once thriving communities were often the result of the follies of man and the relentless forces of nature. Nevertheless, these ill-fated towns with their now silent structures still speak volumes about the seedier side of life and serve as a silent warning to future generations.
Auraria, Georgia – GPS: 34.47263, -84.023781
Literally translated, Auraria means “the City of Gold” in Latin, and undoubtedly this implication lured prospectors to this remote Georgia wilderness through the centuries, but the promised “mother lode” camouflaged by the Cherokee before they were marched off on the Trail of Tears remains elusive to this day. Although there was abundant gold both above and below ground to make the trip worth the effort for Spanish, English and American miners, the fabled vein was never found and eventually the town was abandoned.
The Cherokee considered this mountain their sacred ground and fought fiercely against De Soto when he arrived with his gold hungry troops in 1540. Though they managed to occupy the mountain for a decade, the Spanish were eventually rousted by the English, who set up their own mining operations but were also run off by the Cherokee warriors. The next wave of prospectors arrived in 1829; Americans who originally called themselves the 29ers but eventually became the ‘49ers when they abandoned this cold and unyielding mountain to follow tales of riches in sunny California.
Buffalo City, North Carolina – GPS: 35.890461, -75.961731
Founded as a timber town, Buffalo City actually made a name for itself during prohibition as the “Moonshine Capitol of the World.” During its heyday, the woods around Buffalo City were safe from loggers because almost every family in town used the forests as cover to operate illegal, yet profitable, stills and made Buffalo City signature moonshine that ended up on the shelves of speakeasies all around the nation.
Obviously, the end of prohibition crippled the underground economy and the residents had to reluctantly return to logging as their primary income and the forests were quickly played out. Diseases like smallpox and typhoid struck the dwindling population in the 1950s and the town was abandoned. All that remains now are a few rusted signs, overgrown rails and dilapidated buildings, but for 80 years after the Civil War this town was a haven for hard-working Russian immigrants and recently freed slaves.
Rodney, Mississippi – GPS: 31.862761, -91.184196
Although the few inhabitants still living in Rodney don’t consider it a ghost town just yet, the sad truth is that its glory days are obviously a thing of the past. Once home to over 4,000 citizens and seriously considered for the capital of the Mississippi Territory, this riverside city played a prominent role in the Civil War when a ragtag Confederate Calvary troop managed to capture Yankee officers from an ironclad gunboat patrolling the Mississippi.
Today, you can stand in front of the boarded up First Presbyterian Church and see the evidence of this debacle– a cannonball hole right through the center window. This was fired by the skeleton crew of the U.S.S. Rattler in their failed an attempt to rescue 24 Yankee officers and enlisted men who had, against orders, snuck into Sunday services to get a close-up look at the Southern Belles they had noticed heading for the church. As the service began, a Rebel officer entered, apologized for the interruption and announced that his Calvary had surrounded the building and all Union troops in attendance were now prisoners of war. The captured captain sent word to his ship to cease firing on the town since the citizens of Rodney were in no way responsible for the situation. Despite this fleeting moment of glory, the town was as ill-fated as the Rebel cause and eventually abandoned as the mighty Mississippi changed its course and destroyed everything but a handful of structures still standing among the weeds.
Oklahoma isn’t normally considered part of the Deep South, but there’s no way we can write about great ghost towns without mentioning Picher OK. This was a thriving little community as of 2006, and suddenly within a decade it had become a toxic ghost town. What happened? The government started offering residents buyouts to leave. That’s because of all the “chat” – a toxic mixture of stone, lead and iron that was created by decades of mining expeditions. There was also danger from giant sinkholes forming above the old mines. Most residents accepted the buyouts and moved on. A few went kicking and screaming. But now Picher is pretty much deserted.
Same is true of Rhyolite, a former mining community just east of Death Valley National Park. It was established in 1905 and had been abandoned by 1920. A small handful of structures remain – a couple wooden storefronts, and some concrete building frames. The jail and train station are still here too. It’s not far from Las Vegas, so it’s an easy road trip.
On your next road trip through the heart of the South, set your GPS to guide you to one of these fascinating ghost towns to discover for yourself the fascinating lessons of the past.