Market Mad House

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. Friedrich Nietzsche

Historical Insanity

America’s Lost Cities

The phrase lost cities conjures up images of jungles, remote locations, and Lara Croft or Indiana Jones fighting bad guys for treasure.

However, you can find lost cities everywhere, even in the United States. Strangely, the United States has several fascinating lost cities. Moreover, you can visit some of those lost cities.

Lost cities are everywhere because all civilizations occasionally abandon cities, even ours. Thus, there are no true lost cities, only abandoned cities.

Generally, somebody knows the location of most lost cities. However, the term “lost city” is more romantic and less threatening than abandoned. The term abandoned city scares people because it reminds us of the fragility of our civilization.

Interestingly, America has several fascinating abandoned cities. Those cities include:

Mesa Verde

The Mesa Verde National Park is the closest thing the United States has to the classic notion of a lost city.

Mesa Verde is a series of completely abandoned communities in a remote area. Moreover, there are legends about the area, the region’s modern inhabitants the Ute people regard the Cliff Dwellings as sacred.

Mesa Verde is a 62,485 acre archaeological reserve in South Western Colorado that contains 600 cliff dwellings built by Ancestral Pueblo people between 600 CE and 1300 CE. Mesa Verde is a true lost city because its inhabitants abandoned completely abandoned the region around 1300.

Moreover, settlers and explorers in the area were unaware of Mesa Verde’s existence until the 1870s. However, the Ute people who lived in the area were aware of the cliff dwellings but avoided them for religious reasons.

The dwellings became publicized in the 1880s when Richard Wetherill began ranching cattle in the area. Wetherill found a large ruin called the Cliff Palace and named it. The rancher later led many archaeologists, journalists, and other visitors into the ruins.

Archaeologists think the Ancestral Pueblo people left Mesa Verde during a drought in the 13th Century. Most of the Pueblo moved to Southern Arizona and New Mexico, where their descendants still live.

In 1906, Mesa Verde became the first US National Park dedicated to preserving the works of man. Today’s Mesa Verde National Park protects almost 5,000 archaeological sites.


Cahokia or the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site violates all of our conceptions of what a lost city should be.

First, Cahokia is a lost city from an earlier culture in the United States. Second, Cahokia is in the middle of a major Metropolitan Area, St. Louis, in fact it’s right across the Mississippi from St. Louis, Missouri. Part of the land the Cahokia Mounds Historic Site sits on was once a drive-in movie theater.

The city of Cahokia; built in the 9th and 10th Centuries AD, featured several giant mounds or earthen pyramids and enormous ceremonial plazas. At its height, Cahokia was the largest city in North America with around 30,000 residents author Annalee Newitz speculates.

In her bookFour Lost Cities, Newitz theorizes that Cahokia could have been larger than Paris in the 10th Century. The Cahokia Mounds website claims Cahokia was larger than London in 1250 AD.

Modern scholars and archaeologists know little about Cahokia. They don’t even know what the city’s name was. The name Cahokia comes from a tribe that lived in the area when the first French explorers arrived in the 17th Century. The French assumed the Cahokia built the mounds because they lived in the area.

However, the modern theory is that the Mississippian culture built Cahokia. The Mississippian civilization built mounds and cities throughout the Mississippi Valley and the Eastern United States.

Another mystery is why they abandoned Cahokia around 1350. Causes for the abandonment could include drought, war, and political or economic collapse.

The largest structure at Cahokia is the Monk’s Mound, named after Trappist monks who lived there in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Archaeologists believe Monk’s Mound was a temple and possibly the home of a religious leader.

There were many other mounds around Cahokia. They demolished most of those mounds during the construction of modern St. Louis during the 19th Century.

Today’s Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park is in Collinsville, Illinois. The little we know about Cahokia shows how fragile civilization can be.

Jamestown, Virginia

Ironically, Jamestown one of the most famous places in American history became a lost city.

Jamestown, or James Fort, was the first English settlement in North America built by the Virginia Company of London in 1607. They named Jamestown for King James I of Great Britain. James was also the sponsor of the King James Bible.

Famous events at Jamestown included the first elected legislature in America, Virginia’s General Assembly, and the first slaves in 1619. Famous residents of Jamestown included John Smith and Pocahontas.

By Tony Fischer – Worship at Jamestowne, 1639 (and brief history), CC BY 2.0,

Jamestown served as Virginia’s capitol until 1698, when the state house burned down. They moved the colonial government to Middle Plantation, which became Williamsburg. After the building of a new Capitol and governor’s palace in Williamsburg, they abandoned Jamestown.

By the mid-18th Century, the only thing left at Jamestown was the church which they abandoned in the 1750s. By then the land was on the plantations of the Travis and Ambler families. In 1831, David Bullock could purchase the entire town of Jamestown.

Jamestown’s ruins were a well-known landmark in the 19th Century. By the early 20th Century, the James Fort site was under the James River. In 1893, Jamestown’s owners donated the land to Preservation Virginia.

Although the history of Jamestown is well known, they lost locations in the community for generations. They did not locate the original Capitol, or statehouse, built in 1646 until 1932, and they discovered the site of Fort James in 1996.

Jamestown is now part of the Colonial National Historical Park. Jamestown became a permanent tourist attraction after the Jamestown Festival celebrating 350 years of British settlement in North America in 1957.

Immense crowds attended the Festival to see Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. The Queen and the Prince returned in 2007 to celebrate 400 years of British settlement in North America.

The fate of Jamestown and Cahokia shows we can abandon even famous places fast.

 Rhyolite, Nevada

Forget all the images of ghost towns Western movies have put in your mind. This early 1900s mining settlement is an eerie post-apocalyptic environment complete with the shells of empty concrete and steel buildings.

 At its height in 1907, Rhyolite had electric lights, water mains, telephones, newspapers, a hospital, concrete sidewalks, baseball times, telephones, a monthly magazine, three banks, a school, 19 lodging houses, an opera house, a railroad station, and a stock exchange.

The town was the center of the Bullfrog Mining District, the location of one of America’s last gold rushes. Appropriately, Rhyolite is on the edge of Death Valley and close to the boundaries of Death Valley National Party.

They named the town for rhyolite, a kind of quartz found in the area. The town was near the Montgomery Shoshone Mine, a major gold producer. When the Montgomery Shoshone Mine closed, Rhyolite died.

The most frightening aspect of Rhyolite’s history was the speed of its decline. In 1907, Rhyolite had several thousand residents. In 1922, The Los Angeles Times reported the town had one resident. By 1924, that resident had died, depopulating Rhyolite.

Rhyolite is one of the most photographed ghost towns in the West, and it has been a movie and TV location. In fact, Paramount Pictures restored the Bottle House in 1925.

One reason Rhyolite is so heavily photographed is that you can access it via a paved road. To reach Rhyolite, take US Highway 95 North from Las Vegas to Highway 374 and turn west. You will see signs directing you to Rhyolite.

If you want to see a true post-apocalyptic environment, visit Rhyolite. However, Rhyolite is a post-apocalyptic environment in the middle of a thriving civilization.