The ghost towns that were created by the oil rush

Over the last 150 years, oil booms and busts have given rise – and laid waste – to hundreds of towns across the world.

In many places on our planet, striking oil has meant the eruption of new settlements in previously uninhabited places. Where there has been oil, there have usually been people.

But they haven’t always hung around. The world is littered with ghost towns that were once home to newly minted oil barons and workers who dreamt of turning goo into gold.

This is not just history. With the price of crude oil less than half what it was three years ago, many more towns – particularly some American ones – are now being abandoned as the profits evaporate.

“People move in and move out,” comments historian William Caraher at the University of North Dakota, “and there are scars left behind of various types.”

These pictures reveal just a few of the places built – and later deserted – thanks to oil.

Pithole City, Pennsylvania

Perhaps the most iconic example of an abandoned oil boom town is Pithole City in Pennsylvania. In 1865, drillers flooded into previously uninhabited Pithole. The town had a peak population of 20,000 but by 1870 that had fallen to just 237. In those early days, fewer technologies required petroleum and demand soon ran dry. (Credit: Alamy)

Mentryville, California

California is home to many troubled drilling towns. Mentryville is now completely abandoned, but you might have seen it used as a setting for episodes of the X-files, the A-Team and Murder, She Wrote. It’s been reported that when many Mentryville residents left in the 1930s, several dismantled their houses and took the materials with them. They were, it’s said, too poor to buy or build anew elsewhere. Today residents in the nearby town of Bakersfield are experiencing their own oil bust plight. As BBC News reported recently, local businesses are struggling thanks to unemployment – caused by the recent dip in crude prices. (Credit: Wikimedia / CC by-SA 3.0)

Orla, Texas

Some oil boom “towns” were often the sites of camps with temporary housing for workers, as was the case in Orla, Texas. Sandy Countryman, a former resident who lived there as a child, has posted memories of the camp online. She mentions the Baptist church where her mother used to play piano. “A recent visit found the roof leaking, the double entry doors standing ajar, old scripture material scattered about, and a fox living in the back,” she writes. (Credit: Alamy)

Burbank, Oklahoma

Oklahoma is another state that hosts a raft of now forgotten ghost towns, such as Burbank. In the ’20s it was home to 3,000 people, but by 1930 that figure had fallen to just 372. Many other towns in the state, like Three Sands and the appropriately named Whizbang, also suffered population crashes as the price of oil fell or production became automated. (Credit: mtnee_man/flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

Williston, North Dakota

Just four years ago, news stories gushed about the new oil boom that had flooded towns like Williston, North Dakota, with fresh wealth. The growth was so rapid that new housing had to be built for workers attracted by the promise of the Bakken – an ancient rock formation where much drilling for oil and gas had begun to take place. However, the current low price of oil has caused much of this industry to disappear, and people have left with it. “Some [short-term housing] is occupied by squatters but in most cases it’s empty,” explains Caraher, who studies workforce housing in the area. “If the price of oil doesn’t go up, the owners don’t necessarily have a plan”. (Credit: Getty Images)

Polphail, Scotland

Some oil bust ghost towns were never home to anyone in the first place. That’s the case with Polphail in Scotland. The town was constructed during the 1970s as accommodation for around 500 staff at a nearby oil platform works. However, the works never opened and Polphail was left to become a ruin. (Credit: Gary Eason Photography)

Al Jazirah Al Hamra, United Arab Emirates

The lure of oil can even draw people away from towns whose populations were previously quite steady, such as this district of Al Jazirah Al Hamra in the United Arab Emirates, once a fishing port, is a good example. When residents left in the late 1960s to work in the oil industry, the town was more or less abandoned. “Maybe the future of the world is ghost towns,” says Caraher, reflecting on the long list of places made and ruined by the drilling of oil and the mining of precious resources. It seems safe to say that people will always follow opportunity – and not, necessarily, the other way around. (Credit: Kemal Kestelli / Flickr / CC by-SA 2.0)

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