Western ghost towns get all the attention. Tourists flock to the dusty remnants of mining towns left over from the peak of the Gold Rush era, now abandoned but still filled with iconic tumbleweeds and horse troughs, hoping to soak in a little of the Old West. But there was another financial boom in the early 1900's; one that that eventually left just as many abandoned villages in its wake – the Industrial Revolution.
As new methods of manufacturing and automation swept the northeastern United States like wildfire, tiny towns and villages sprung up along rivers and shipping ports, attracted to easy transportation and the unlimited (and free) power the steady flow of a river could provide. Thus the mill town was born, with the quaint image of a riverside factory attached to a giant waterwheel – just as iconic as any horse-drawn carriage – serving as its crown jewel.
The Henry River Mill Village was just one such town.
The mill opened in 1905, and like so many gold-panning towns, the promise of jobs and prosperity followed. And it delivered. Before long, the town grew to incorporate more than 20 buildings, supporting a population that worked almost exclusively at the mill, producing miles upon miles of fine yarn for half a century. But like any boom town, this one was destined to go bust.
As industry marched on, the mill town became less and less useful (as did, one must admit, having an abundance of yarn), and the Henry River Mill shut down in 1973. Even before that, the town had begun to die. People moved away. For work, for family – for a more thriving environment. Almost as a metaphor for its bygone era, the people supported the mill rather than the other way around, and when the people started to leave, the mill finally went under.
The town was finally abandoned in 1987, when its last resident left. All that now remains is a strikingly modern ghost town from the industrial age. More curiously, it's entirely owned by a single man. 83-year-old Wade Shepherd is a nearby resident, and now owns all 20 buildings in Henry River Mill Village proper. He bought them because he could, because why not, and because of safety – before he did, the village was becoming an unseemly place, attractive to vandals and rapscallions up to no good.
A brief breath of life came back to Henry River Mill Village in 2012 by way of fame and fortune — Hollywood big wigs thought the run down village would serve as the perfect setting for the post-apocalyptic dystopia "District 12" featured in the film "The Hunger Games." The town was featured in several scenes, and briefly thereafter was descended upon by tourists and thrill-seekers, running tours, trails and sight-seeing trips hoping to capitalize on the story's monumental popularity.
Mr. Shepherd sees it as his chance to cut bait and pass the town on to different hands for the future. He's put the entire town up for sale, and a cool $1.4 million will secure the town for a potential buyer.
One wonders, though. After the fandemonium calms down, and Henry River Mill Village turns back into a metaphorical pumpkin of a town, what then? This piece of history isn't quite finished, but more than anything it's a living museum demonstrating the boom of an America now past, and it will continue to be that, if nothing else.
Know Before You Go
Take I40 to Henry River Road (first exit in Burke County if you're heading west from Hickory) head south from there it will be right at the river.At last check, the owner has closed off the area due to a rise in Vandalism