Jun 27, 2016 I Micah Hanks

Ghost Towns: Tales of ‘Hidden’ Towns and Cities That Never Were

With the advent of modern satellite and GPS technologies, navigating the globe with minute precision has become as simple as reaching into a pocket, and asking our smartphones how to get wherever it is we wish to go. This works most of the time, although on occasion I've managed to find little communities throughout the rural southeastern United States that remain "off the map", in the most literal sense.

For instance, as recently as two years ago, the township of Central, South Carolina (located just outside the college town of Clemson) could not be found using an Apple iPhone's built-in mapping software. I learned this the hard way, while trying to find a small street festival there one morning, at which I was scheduled to perform as an acoustic duo with a fellow troubadour acquaintance of mine. Needless to say, after calling for directions, I was indeed able to confirm that some localities are so small that they can exist quietly enough to remain off certain popular mapping software... for now, at least.

I can imagine tourists heading across the English countryside might have felt a similar sense of confusion as they neared Argleton, a township that once appeared on Google Maps off the A59 roadway running near West Landcashire, England. Approaching the location where the town should be, however, travelers would be shocked to find nothing but an empty field.

Further compounding the mystery, information about local businesses and real estate listings were borrowed from the erroneous Google data, which, in turn, led to further information appearing online about a small English town that actually never existed. Once the techno-gaffe was spotted by Mike Nolan of Edge Hill University and his colleague, Roy Bayfield, Google removed the location from its popular mapping app.

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"Argleton", as it appears today.

There have been similar occurrences that involve the apparent transition of certain towns between the aether like this, resulting from the proliferation of bad information across the Internet. one particularly hilarious "conspiracy theory" had been cooked up a number of years ago involving the German town of Bielefeld, in which many claimed that the location had, in fact, never existed.

The Bielefeld Conspiracy was first brought to my attention by my colleague Adam K. Olson, who recalled stumbling across the bizarrre theory in a number of web forums years ago. According to its proponents, a shadowy organization called "THEM" had cleverly concocted the story of Bielefeld's existence, which was, in reality, merely an illusion. Those claiming to have unraveled the mystery noted three simple questions that could logically prove (or seemingly so) that the entire affair was a vast cover-up. The questions read:

  1. Do you know anyone who is from Bielefeld?
  2. Have you ever traveled to Bielefeld?
  3. Do you know anyone else who says they've visited Bielefeld?

Naturally, most people would answer "no" to all three questions, and thus, a modicum of applied faulty-logic would seemingly raise the eyebrows of the conspiracy-minded. Needless to say, Bielefeld is quite real, and has existed since the year 1214, after its founding by Count Hermann IV.

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Bielefeld today, or perhaps a very sophisticated CGI rendering of a non-existent German city founded in the Middle Ages, as it might appear today.

Although the Bielefeld affair is largely considered to have been satirical, it isn't the only city that has been accused of existing only within a deeper conspiracy. Last year, it was reported (allegedly, as we'll get to in a moment) that a researcher called "Skyy Wolford" had been the latest to assert that a number of towns throughout the United States were, in fact, conspiracies much like that of Bielefeld.

According to Wolford, as reported by The Nevada County Scooper:

“There’s this thing I learned on the Internet called the Bielefeld effect,” said a mood-elevated Mr. Wolford in a Scooper telephone interview. “It’s where there’s this illusion that some place actually exists. People talk about it. They even claim to know people there. But it’s all fake. They’re either part of the conspiracy to keep the hoax alive, or they’re delusional.”

A number of towns were allegedly named by Wolford as being American "Bielefelds", which included Bend, Oregon, and McKinleyville, California... and even this author's hometown of Asheville, NC made the list. Could there actually be someone who believed that a number of well known American cities, including my own, were artifacts stemming from an internet conspiracy?

As it turns out, of course, the Scooper is one of many satirical news sites that appear online these days, reporting hilariously contrived stories that often borrow from popular trending news.

With the help of those who, almost invariably, will interpret such stories as fact, the "Bielefeld effect" seems to have persisted over the years, with the help of articles ascribing a degree of "fact" to the original satire that were, in truth, purely of the satirical variety themselves. So reader beware... lest your town may become the next to disappear!

Micah Hanks

Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.

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