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It seems that the gold rushes on every country produced a number of ghost mining towns, when the mines that supported said towns produced no more ore, or it was too expensive to continue mining.

My question is probably obvious, but I'm really surprised that towns in the thousands (or dozens of thousands, even) just disappeared when the miners left. Was mining the only job that generated wealth in those gold rush towns? What about all the other thousands of employed people? Were they only at the service of said miners? Also, I've read that almost no miners became rich, but the people offering them services did. Does this mean that all their wealth was "invested" in the town, but it was then gone somewhere else?

I'd also be interested on reading about the subject if there is any (simple) book about it, specifically about some kind of census related to jobs. Maybe seeing the numbers of saloons versus bakeries will help me understand better :).

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    Worth bearing in mind that mines are typically in locations that are not suited to farming or manufacturing so when the mineral wealth disappears there's no continuing source of disposable income. – Steve Bird Jul 15 at 11:41
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    Can you clarify why the information in Wikipedia is inadequate? Why is it surprising that a town centered around a single industry would vanish once that industry vanished? – Mark C. Wallace Jul 15 at 12:27
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    If people have only been living in a town for a few years and don't have families there or other roots, they're much more likely to move on. You could compare it to other settlements associated with a single industry: fishing and whaling stations, being largely short-term settlements, fell empty once business ceased; while mining towns where people may have worked for generations tend to persist even after the mine closes. Factors like proximity to other work/settlements doubtless play a role too. – Stuart F Jul 15 at 12:58
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You see that a fair amount in resource-based industries that are the primary source of income in a remote (i.e. far from big cities) area. If whatever resource (minerals, oil, trapping, timber) dries up then the area tends to struggle and possibly shrink. I am not sure what can easily be done about it, and many, many smart small town mayors have been elected to find solutions.

Basically, if you stay away from subsistence farming and/or overcrowding as a motivation, you are left with various reasons to have small remote towns.

  • tradition ("this is where my family lived")
  • farming and ranching
  • tourism
  • resources (lumber, mining, hunting, fishing, etc...)
  • cost of living
  • quality of life (shoreline, for example)
  • regional administrative center
  • industry

Now, in the case you are describing, we can discount tradition and family attachment, and most of the motivation initially comes from the resources.

If you also discount farming, perhaps because the terrain or climate isn't suitable, you are left with tourism. In the kinds of get-rich-quick situations that are often associated with towns that spring up to support resource exploitation, the primary wage earners are often men, who will move somewhere else when it dries up. Amenities and infrastructure are limited and more geared to keep to that particular demographic. Since no one lived there before, there isn't much interest by anyone to keep the town going and, nor is it all that clear why there should be.

Farming communities are another thing entirely, but mass agriculture doesn't require that many people either, so there's been a general tendency for people to move to bigger cities in search of better opportunities, especially young people who want to get a better education.

I don't have answers, but I've cycled for days on end in the backwaters of British Columbia and Washington state. Without going as far as becoming ghost towns, a lot of rural places seem to be struggling, just as you are asking about, if they don't have a strong farming underpinning. The lumber is gone, the mines are played out and the fish have been fished out. And not everyone wants to be hosting rich city boys as guests (which doesn't pay in the winter season anyway). You don't see that as much driving, but you do going more slowly.

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I live in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a region filled with the ghost-town remains of a multitude of small towns left after previous industries vanished (both related to gold mining as well as tin (selenium) and uranium mines and lumbering.

Simple economics is what destroys a town when its primary industry leaves. Even in the largest towns, when "all the eggs are in only one basket", it impacts and harms all subsidiary business in that area. Back then business was not as diversified as most communities have tried to make it today, and thus more 'survivable' should some calamity befall the primary industry that started the "rush" town in the first place.

In the case of ore mining, when the lode (or in Black Hills gold mining also known as a "lead" (pronounced "leed")) runs out, and there is no longer anything worth assay value in the rock with which it was amalgamated, no one has something of value to trade for. Without "pay dirt", there is no need for assay offices, stamp mills, wheelwrights or wagon makers, or hardware and "outfit" suppliers. Thus it is for all parasite businesses (food, hotels, saloons, "other entertainments", livery stables or garages, grocers, general stores, and specialty shopkeepers of every kind that were wholly dependent on the employees (and their families) of that primary industry for their business, also end up going out of business.

Wealth in those earlier years was derived from a solitary resource, and not all communities even today are immune to the effects of a prime resource going out of business or leaving the area. Look at what happened to Pittsburg and Cleveland when the steel industry tanked and corporations decided it was better for their bottom lines to abandon American workers and take their operations off-shore to mostly Asian countries.

I grew up in rural and small-town lower Michigan within an hour's drive of Detroit, Saginaw, and Flint, Michigan, towns that eventually became sole-industry giants for many decades. No one ever imagined the "boom" would end. There is a reason Detroit is known as Mo-Town or the Motor City. Ford, GM, and Chrysler (and all their off-shoots and subsidiaries) made their fortunes there, and that part of the state was known as the "arsenal of democracy" in that they built thousands of tanks, jeeps, trucks, rifles, machine guns and bombers for the war effort from World War I through Vietnam. But in the 1990s, after the Clinton administration granted "most-favored-nation trade partner" status to China, it instigated a wave of mass migration of major U.S. corporations of the old auto and steel industries for Asia (Mexico, and others as well) where labor was cheap, and where the companies got HUGE monetary incentives to build factories there. Again, American skilled labor was abandoned for cheap labor in other countries. Massive American corporations started feeding other families in the largest Communist oligarchy on earth, while millions of Americans ended up forced to live off of welfare programs until they could retrain themselves to be marketable in other career fields. And for some, they could never adequately make that transition. Saginaw, Michigan had massive plants that built machine guns and M-1 carbines during W.W. II, General Motors auto bodies, and steering gears for EVERY vehicle manufactured in America, Europe, etc. ALL of them shut down. Flint, Michigan had massive plants that built Buicks, General Motors and Chevy vehicles, and AC Delco products (including spark plugs) for every vehicle. Dearborn, Michigan, long the home of Ford Motors, severely scaled back, in a devastating move to the industry, almost as bad as when they closed their massive River Rouge plant. All those major cities with HUGE populations were decimated as hundreds of thousands of employees got laid-off permanently with weak or no-compromise severance packages, leaving their families nearly destitute. The high-paying factory labor jobs that been their family livelihoods for entire generations, having been the only thing they ever knew, were now gone forever. (No matter what you might think of film maker Michael Moore, his film "Roger & Me" explains it far better than I can.)

Today, even the post-agricultural, post-industrial, service-industry-only economy can only sustain so many. Not everyone wants (or can provide for their family with) a lifetime career making beds in a motel, waiting tables or stocking Walmart shelves, or serving French fries at McD's. Hence, simple economics, the same thing that killed all single-industry towns like gold-rush towns, can also kill entire cities unless those city planners involved work hard to cultivate diverse industries that would help them sustain populations if one or more of their industries collapsed or simply had a "change in corporate direction."

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    This would be better, minus the long rant about Motown and the US car industry. Simply put, American cars are less reliable, have lower resale value and use more gas than Japanese, or more recently, Koreans. Until the 2008 financial crisis the UAW had things so locked up that a major cost was pension that were becoming unsustainable. Since 2008, they have gotten a bit better, including GM nuking a whole let of feeble sub-brands (Oldsmobile, really???). This decline was underway way before China trade took off, China does not export cars anyway. And it has little to do with OP. – Italian Philosopher Jul 15 at 21:27
  • Slightly different situation, but I was born in a town known from mid-late 19th C as "The Home of the British Army". Although not large, it had excellent retail, entertainment and other advantages. Its proximity to army commands structure spawned a plethora of defence-related industries, some Govt-owned, many smaller businesses servicing them. Then the Army left. The town still exists, but the retail is probably 40% or less than before. AFAIK defence-related industries have virtually disappeared, and even pubs close. – TheHonRose Jul 16 at 4:58
  • There is a point missed here, which is that stereotypical ghost towns (e.g. Bodie, California or Berlin, Nevada for ones preserved as parks) tend to be in desert & mountains. Thus when the mines play out, there is no way to grow food. The few towns that survive (e.g. Virginia City & Goldfield, Nevada) do so by being on travel routes, or appealing to tourism.) In much of South Dakota, and certainly in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and so on, there could easily be a remaining core of farmers and those who supply them. – jamesqf Jul 16 at 17:45
  • My response was in the broad context of why towns dry up, not the limited context of Bodie or Berlin. There are Tintons and Rockervilles and Oblivions (local ghost towns here just in the Black Hills) all over the American west. The basic cause is the same. Primary industries leave. Settlers there came to profit parasitically from them. Had they come to farm, they would have chosen a different place. The same can be said for all the military bases I've been on that are now closed. Primary industry leaves (i.e. the "host"), all subsidiary industries (the "parasites") die as well. – 1stGenSpacefan Jul 16 at 23:33
  • Yeah, see the "parasites" repeats makes me think you have a mighty big axe to grind. This is not a political discussion website, so I find it best to frame both answers and questions in a more neutral manner, where you don't offend people needlessly. I don't always get it right and my question or answers can't always be formulated neutrally. But it's an aim. To some extent, comments are a better spot to let go (because they are comments), but then again, there's always someone ready to rap our knuckles for over-commenting ;-) – Italian Philosopher Jul 17 at 1:34

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