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There's a city that sits on a river, the intersections of several well-traveled roads, and a large rail line (back when that was worth something; the city is kind of a blend of the early 1900's). It's thriving, as you'd expect.

I need to turn it into a near-ghost town, but without using disease, war, supply shortages, or anything that would make it extremely obvious why everyone left; it's important to the story that all characters involved have their own theory and no rumor is more likely than any other.

Ideally, the population would dwindle away to next-to-nothing in a seemingly natural manner, with even the local authorities preferring to commute to the area.

Once things get underway, I'm sure there would be reinforcing factors ("this place ain't what it used to be, I'm gettin' out" / "we're cutting back on how many trains we send past" / "gee, where'd all my friends go"), but I need something to get the migration started.

EDIT: I should have thought of this beforehand, but I've tied my SE account to the username I normally use on the Internet, which this will almost certainly be published under. I don't feel like I can risk selecting an answer here, but moreso, you guys all came up with some excellent stuff, with none of them superior to each other. Worldbuilding might not be a perfect fit for the Q&A "one accepted answer" format, after all. I voted up everything I thought fit the restrictions of the question as a small show of thanks. Cheers!

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    $\begingroup$ You could look into the concept of rust belt for ideas but I doubt you could it would be a good match for the era. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rust_Belt $\endgroup$ – Vincent Mar 15 '15 at 21:15
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    $\begingroup$ Would the flow of the river changing (being diverted or stopping entirely) count? That happens in real life all the time. $\endgroup$ – fluffy Mar 15 '15 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ Prolonged strike by the longshoremen & railway unions. And if you think this is unrealistic, consider that it's only a somewhat exaggerated duplicate of what happened to US railroads and a number of ports starting in the 1950s. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 15 '15 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ There's a Stephen Fry novel called Making History, where a town's water supply becomes contaminated with a powerful fertility sterilisation drug. Perhaps a watered down version of that, depending on how quickly you want everyone to have disappear. Its a bit outlandish, but it means there is no (immediately) obvious cause. $\endgroup$ – Landric Mar 16 '15 at 13:20
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    $\begingroup$ Check out history of Detroit - pretty much a ghost town now with a few isolated enclaves hanging on. The automobile industry moved on after the Michigan unions priced themselves out of the employment market. $\endgroup$ – Pieter Geerkens Mar 16 '15 at 22:21

25 Answers 25

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Trade Route Shift

This city exists because it's on several trade routes - river, roads and rail. So the most obvious way is that a better trade route shows up that doesn't go through the town.

For example, maybe a neighboring kingdom/country creates a long canal over several years, or built a new rail line through a difficult mountain pass. These new routes allow goods to pass through much quicker, cutting your city out of the loop. This shifts trade away from your town, and will have a cascading effect - less trade = people leaving, which means less supporting services. Less supporting services = less trade comes back...

Alternatively, a new form of transportation - flight - has become viable. Goods are being transported by Dirigible, drawing almost all trade away from your city.

The only downside to the above is if your characters understand trade and are familiar with the area at all, it should be obvious why the city is a ghost town, which might remove your "mystery" requirement.

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  • $\begingroup$ thats more realistic $\endgroup$ – Jorge Aldo Mar 15 '15 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ Conversely, local hazards making the surrounding area somewhat dangerous for caravans on a persistent enough basis might cause a shift in trade routes to circumvent problem areas. $\endgroup$ – Isaac Kotlicky Mar 16 '15 at 0:38
  • $\begingroup$ another reason is the closure of a mine or the change of technology $\endgroup$ – Jorge Aldo Mar 16 '15 at 21:35
  • $\begingroup$ A new technology that deems the city redundant as a transit station gets my vote too. A similar scenario from my own neighbourhood - shanty communities sprang up near railway level crossings, and signal posts. Flourishing shanties - albeit I dislike the use of the oxymoron - with rows of small mom-and-pop stores, dingy cafes, vehicle repair works .. where the vehicles that halted at the level crossing could fruitfully utilize the halt. But ever since the level crossing was replaced by an overpass ... $\endgroup$ – Everyone Mar 17 '15 at 5:16
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    $\begingroup$ For an up to date example of this, see Disney's Cars. ;) $\endgroup$ – paqogomez Mar 18 '15 at 18:44
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One thing that, in real life, caused the death of many ports was containerization.

The way ports used to work was that goods (perhaps in bags, boxes, or pallets) would arrive and be placed into warehouses, then individually packed, loaded, and tied down into ships, then the ship would sail to its destination and the same process would be performed in reverse. An item might be packed and unpacked several times during its journey from manufacturer to retailer.

The rise of standardized cargo containers changed all that. Now goods were packed into cargo containers by their manufacturer, then conveyed by some combination of trucks, railways, and ships to their retailer without ever being unpacked along the way. Containerized goods moved faster, suffered less damage and theft, and didn't require as much labor (and thus wages) to move from one vehicle to another, so soon almost any shipment that would be carried by several vehicles during its journey was shipped via container.

Suddenly all of the infrastructure of a traditional port was useless. You needed container cranes, not longshoremen, to move goods; you needed container yards, not warehouses, to store them. Traffic at many of the world's busiest ports dwindled to nothing, while smaller ports that could build the new infrastructure grew. London, for instance, used to have the world's busiest port; now the warehouses of the Docklands district are being redeveloped, while ships are docking at more modern containerized ports elsewhere in Britain.

In our world, this transition came in the 1960s, and so the containers we're familiar with are over forty feet long, made of four tons of steel, and carry 25 tons of cargo; they're lifted by enormous hydraulic cranes and tracked by a sophisticated computer system using internationally unique container serial numbers. But the basic insight—that you could improve the efficiency of cargo transportation by putting cargo in standardized containers—doesn't require high technology; it just requires international cooperation. There's no particular reason something similar couldn't have happened fifty or a hundred years earlier.

Containerization is only one example of how a port could become undesirable, of course. Maybe cargo is now being carried by larger ships that your city's port can't accommodate. Maybe the water levels are falling due to drought and the port is becoming shallower. Maybe a ship wrecked on some existing navigational hazard in the harbor and effectively made it much larger, so it's harder to safely maneuver than it used to be.

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Why does someone leave a town? Well, simple: Because he expects a better life elsewhere. Have another harbour outcompete the one in your city. Have some extraordinarily successful colony where people could go (a harbour city is the ideal place to start the journey). Have a new empire grow on land, and more of the trade go there and less over the sea. Have all of those in parallel so you cannot point to a single reason.

The city starts to decline and the first people leave. The people leaving accelerates the decline, and thus more people leave. The town gets poorer and poorer. Finally a natural disaster (probably a flood) comes. The disaster is not strong enough that it would have harmed a thriving city too much, but since the city was already on the declining path, the remaining citizens decide to move elsewhere, since the little they still had is now also mostly destroyed, or at least damaged enough that rebuilding in a dying city doesn't seem worthwhile. Since the flood wasn't really that large, anyone not knowing that the city was already in decline would not consider it a reason to leave it; after all, the city probably has survived much larger floods and continued to thrive back when it still thrived.

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  • $\begingroup$ Similar to a lot of mining towns in the american Midwest that basically emptied out once the mine dried up. $\endgroup$ – Isaac Kotlicky Mar 15 '15 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ land based trade is always more expensive than sea based trade (and historically, the difference was even bigger). I would not expect land trade to make sea trade unprofitable. A more likely idea would be another sea port is a more useful spot to begin to trade with those new found routes. $\endgroup$ – SJuan76 Mar 15 '15 at 22:21
  • $\begingroup$ @SJuan76: If you read my answer carefully, you'll find that another harbour outcompeting the one in question was the first point. The other, additional point was a new empire growing on land. If the empire has no access to the sea, sea transport to it is not cheaper or more expensive, but simply impossible. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Mar 15 '15 at 22:24
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To make it non-obvious to temporary visitors, what about something that happens only during certain weather patterns?

My thoughts started with infrasound, which some say has been linked to a feeling of dread, and has been suggested was the cause of (some) "haunted" sites, but an annoying sound could cause the desired effect.

Accoustics is a strange and complex thing. A booming sound can be caused by two echoing walls, if a sound source happens to generate a sound at exactly the right frequency (right for the distance between the walls). Sound travels at 340m/sec, so if you have two cliffs 340m/sec apart, and a sound source at 1 hz, perhaps crashin waves, since it is a sea port? then the sound will be amplified and reinforced.

One website I saw said "You can see that a light wind of 12.9 meters per second will produce mostly waves with a frequency of about 0.1 waves per second", so if the one set of cliffs is right by the harbour, and the other is 1.7km away (pretty exactly), then you should get an echo for every wave. This could be accentuated if there is a gap in the harbour so that most of the time there aren't many waves coming in, but in one particular wind direction, they funnel directly on to the base of the cliff.

The problem has to originate fairly quickly, and be impossible to solve. If it builds up slowly, then it will be noticed and solved before it gets too bad; if it is easy to solve, then it will be solved. The problem could be made more effective if it occurs during a (preferably local!) economic depression - less money to solve the problem. Perhaps there was a landslide revealing a cliff at a quarry, which was at the end of it's life. At the same time there was a bad storm, onshore, causing the echo, and sinking many ships.

Of course, if you want any guess to be as likely as the next, and you're not going to reveal, maybe you don't have to figure out why - after all, my guess is as likely as the next.

ADDITIONAL: "resonance" is the word I was trying to remember.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm thinking of taking multiple causes, but this one sounds excellent as the straw that breaks the camel's back $\endgroup$ – Tigt Mar 16 '15 at 0:59
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If the political power in the city is concentrated to a single person or a small group, they might destroy it by stubbornly sticking to a few bad choices. Then when eventually a new leader rises to power, he may not even remember the "good old days", let alone be able to bring them back.

For example: business was thriving in this city and there was large demand for space in the city. The leaders in the area raise property and business taxes as much as they can. Perhaps also create rules that make the area less attractive for people to live long term, such as "no appartments larger than 15 m^2".

Eventually just a tiny fluctuation in market prices will make business in the city unprofitable. A few people lose jobs and move out, housing bubble crashes and prices will start to fall even faster. The leaders do not recognize this or do not want to admit their mistakes, instead keeping the high tax rates and watch their city become a ghost town.

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    $\begingroup$ The city council of Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia managed to completely kill the bustling business district on the south side. First they obstructed parking and pedestrian access to shops for two years while they repaved all the footpaths with bricks. Then they blocked vehicle access with a pedestrian mall which also took years. By the time they took down all the construction no-go signs all the businesses had relocated to shopping centres on the north side. No business would move in: customers were on the north side using shopping centre carparks instead of copping parking fines. $\endgroup$ – Peter Wone Mar 17 '15 at 0:31
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Changes elsewhere:

  • Connected cities or nations no longer trade through the port
  • Demands changed
  • A new trade route
  • Defeat by a competing trade city
  • New technology requiring different raw materials found elsewhere
  • War defeat, new rules prohibit trade with the city
  • War defeat, vastly diminished trade
  • Cities up- or downstream demand huge tariffs on goods transported through the port
  • Another city builds a dam, dramatically changing the course of a river (This was a huge cause of wars in the Middle Ages when people did not communicate with villages more than a couple miles away).
  • A river partially changes course in a natural way.

Local changes:

  • Lasting effects of supply shortage: the local forest is all cut down, killing the port, but grows back, while the local economy doesn't rebound.
  • One local sector crash cascades into others. Woodworkers leave, stone-workers find a less attractive marketplace that brings in fewer traders.
  • Incompetent descendents of earlier port administrators don't know how to run a port.
  • The city owner loses the city rights in a gambling debt, and the new (mafia) leader running the city creates a downward crime spiral.
  • The tycoon decides to migrate his empire elsewhere and cuts off investment in the port.
  • The locals believe the location is cursed after a large plague outbreak.
  • The church curses the location for now unknown reasons.
  • The local guilds fail to properly educate successors, causing technological decline.
  • The local guilds get locked up in a economic battle to accomplish the biggest "nothing". (I forgot the source of this, but I remember this story: In a city, local families competed with each-other, storing all goods in large towers. The family with the largest tower was obviously the most wealthy, so owning a large tower was a huge selling point. All families spend resources on building the largest tower to a point where the tower foundations filled up the entire tower, leaving no actual room to store goods. Eventually this waste of resources destroys the economy.)
  • The river dries up to a point where large trade ships no longer fit.
  • The river overflows, drowning or destroying large portions of the port. Today it's hard to see if the river overflowed before or after the city had become empty, or if the flooded buildings had completely washed away.
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I would focus on the port as international trade tends to bring money and consequently other communications. There are a few real-world examples of abandoned ports you could look at:

The English town of Rye was one of the great ports of Britain and a hub of trade through most of the medieval period, but in later years changing land use around the river affected it's flow and the harbour eventually silted up. This combined with trade ships getting larger and deeper-draft meant that the trade no longer passed through the town and now it is a small market town.

The Cypriot town ofSalamis was a major port of the classical period, however, like many locations around the Mediterranean, geological instability destroyed the town and although it was rebuilt, raids on a smaller reconstructed town that was not sufficiently defensible resulted in it being abandoned.

These actually give you four reasons that ports have been abandoned historically but they also show that there are often multiple factors resulting in the abandonment. For a borderline industrial city you might have better dredging available and the chances of raids would clearly reduce but geological instability is a pretty good cause- if an earthquake, volcanic or weather event damaged the city significantly and caused the harbour to become impassable or impractical, that would be a plausible reason for the trade to dry up and the city to move elsewhere. Especially if the city is hard to access in the first place- mountain roads are hard to repair after landslides, damaged coastal railroads can be expensive and difficult to fix and if the economic reasons no longer exist then it's possible that people simply wouldn't bother.

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One word. Taxes!

An unreasonable governor/mayor/king/official raises taxes to exorbitant rates. Maybe just on some goods. This leads to economic collapse, a micro-famine and as more and more businesses close, eventually there is almost no one left. Especially if they are descendants of the hangers-on they might actually know what happened to trigger the exodus, or may not realize that the raise is taxes put the economy into a death spiral.

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  • $\begingroup$ Heh. First read of your answer, I thought it said Texas. After I realized that you were talking some sense, I re-read it, and realized that you had instead started with a good premise (taxes). +1 for isolating one of the biggest factors in lots of behaviors. $\endgroup$ – killermist Mar 16 '15 at 21:20
  • $\begingroup$ Look at Detroit. $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Jan 10 '16 at 23:38
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Because they were done building (the pyramids) something.

Ruins of Bustling Port Unearthed at Egypt's Giza Pyramids, by Owen Jarus -livescience.com

Several discoveries at the city and Khentkawes town suggest Giza was a thriving port, said archaeologist Mark Lehner, the director of Ancient Egypt Research Associates. For instance, Lehner's team discovered a basin beside the Khentkawes town just 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) from the nearest Nile River channel.

I imagine the canal required upkeep to remain navigable but as the jobs teetered out, you could begin to stand on docks that were never again to harbor another ship. The water is still there (at least it was for a time), there's just no reason for you to be. Admittedly though, my assumption is that its desertion most likely stems from its proximity to Cairo. I'd further suspect that the town basically Detroit-ed itself when the job market crashed.

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There was a minor earthquake a while ago.
As a result, some underground bubble of methane started polluting the river some miles upstream of the port city. The resulting smell and deteriorating water quality at some days under specific weather conditions drove the people off.
After some time, the bubble was either depleted or a particularly heavy rain storm closed it.
While the original nuisance is no longer present, the fact that the well-to-do citicens moved out first (because they could afford it the easiest) damaged the economy, leading to the broken-glass-effect.
Nowadays, with the source of the stinking river gone, noone can really tell any more why and how the downfall started, but given the current state of the city, it simply does not attract any investors.
It might be, though, that what with all the free space and all, it might attract a community of artists. That, though, remains to be seen.

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  • $\begingroup$ Have you ever been to Rotarua in New Zealand? They wouldn't leave, they'd turn it into a tourist attraction. People actually do pay to see boiling mud puddles that smell like a giant fart. $\endgroup$ – Peter Wone Mar 17 '15 at 0:23
  • $\begingroup$ But you would need the bubbling mud puddles for that. And the rest of the setup should be interesting enough to attract enough tourists. After all, living on tourism alone is a very weak economical setup. $\endgroup$ – Burki Mar 17 '15 at 7:56
  • $\begingroup$ Subsea quake shocking crystallised clathrate to release vast amounts of methane offshore resulting in a big stink and lots of dead fish for months, eventually dissipating? $\endgroup$ – Peter Wone Mar 17 '15 at 8:37
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There could be a curse (and/or ghosts) that includes misfortune for people who talk about the curse... that could lead to people generating fake reasons to mention.

There could be some industry that puts something in the air that people eventually get intolerant or allergic to, but only after months or years living there. Sort of the opposite of how a wood pulp mill makes the town obviously stink to newcomers but residents get used to it and don't notice it. Similar to the curse, the ones who stayed might not experience it, and the ones leaving wouldn't want to tell outsiders about it, particularly if they wanted to sell the places they were leaving to the newcomers.

There could be nasty gangsters or gypsies or something else nasty which only shows up periodically (this is a Wild West cliché).

There could be absurd taxes or regulations or corrupt officials. People might keep getting arrested by Homeland Security without evidence and disappearing.

There could be a subtle mysterious disease that's not an obvious plague, that people who live there long enough realize is a risk, enough to cause people to want to leave rather than risk it. Perhaps it "only" causes birth defects, or infertility, or something. Or there could just have been several bad epidemics in the past for which there's no real current evidence or problem, but it was enough that most people have bad memories or fear it will happen there again.

There could be a hypnotic preacher or hypnotist or fortune-teller or other charismatic who is convincing people to leave somehow.

There could be some other city or industry or rail baron who is dooming the city's trade.

There could be a gold rush that people are leaving for and trying to keep secret.

Will o' wisps could be leading people away into the woods, never to return.

There could have been an extremely convincing fortune-teller of one sort or another, who made some very striking demonstration of his abilities, and then foretold that there would be some horrible event coming to town that people would want to leave for (and again, not mention to strangers so they could sell out and/or not mess up the people staying behind). The fortune-teller might even have told them that it would only be more certain the more it was mentioned.

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One option would be that life in the city simply becomes somewhat unpleasant for subtle but noticeable reasons. Something in the environment makes people feel tired, nervous, or causes slight headaches and even though they can't put their finger on it, people just don't like the idea of living in this place anymore.

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  • $\begingroup$ What could cause people to not want to live in the port anymore? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Mar 15 '15 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ I've considered this, but I'm at a loss for specifics $\endgroup$ – Tigt Mar 15 '15 at 23:31
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    $\begingroup$ Radon gas; Mystery of Sleepy Hollow -Daily Mail $\endgroup$ – Mazura Mar 16 '15 at 5:23
  • $\begingroup$ As a counter-example think of 18th-20th Century London - the city was often overwhelmed with health-affecting smog or terrible sewage-related odours and yet everybody kept living there. If your city is sufficiently significant to it's residents they will put up with an astonishing amount. $\endgroup$ – glenatron Mar 18 '15 at 17:42
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A series of taxes and/or pogroms forces out a class of people who are critical to the commercial infrastructure. For example: merchants, bankers, pilots, ship-blessers, weathermen, ironmongers, carpenters, and/or sewer maintenance workers. Conceivably, even slave-traders or pimps or prostitutes!

These taxes and/or pogroms can be very subtle:

  • The late Roman government tried to encourage a fixed number of people to take up each trade in each generation, by requiring sons to take up their fathers' trades. This prevented the people who were best suited to each trade (who happened to either live elsewhere, or have fathers who were in other trades) from following their vocations.
  • Price controls and minimum wages are often meant to reward people for doing certain work, or buying certain things. But by restricting supply, they can make it difficult to find work, or find those things. Young people who are starting their careers are especially hobbled by minimum wages.
  • A failure to defend the countryside from bandits -- or maintain irrigation infrastructure -- can discourage truck-farming.

Consequences:

  • If the "untouchable" sewer maintenance workers are forced out, a series of strange diseases (or maybe just nasty smells) causes people to move out faster than they move in.
  • If a critical service (like pilots, ship-blessers, or weathermen) are no longer available, ships stop calling on the port.
  • If the merchants can set up shop elsewhere, they may deliberately work to introduce technologies that make the city obsolete.
  • Without truck-farmers, the city's population is distracted by the need to garden, instead of manufacture or trade.
  • With proper irrigation and food-storage infrastructure, most climate-change scenarios can be dealt with. Without it, a change in rain patterns is likely to be devastating.

Real-life examples:

  • The 1986 tax reform (in the United States) imposed a 10 percent excise tax on American-made yachts. After not very long, very few yachts were made in America. This transformed a number of small New England port cities.
  • Especially since 1948, many Arab countries have forced out their Jewish merchant classes. These same Arab countries have not made nearly as much economic progress as similarly situated countries that welcomed merchants.
  • Especially since 1960, many African countries have forced out their Indian merchant classes. These same African countries have tended to get poorer.
  • In the wake of the 1960s riots in Detroit, enough white working-class and managerial-class workers moved out of Detroit to allow the election of a mayor who encouraged the white flight to continue. By 1982, the city was notorious for its almost completely unresponsive police force.
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The only thing that is seen to keep humans out of an area is "radiation".

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Part of a large mine collapses trapping ten miners behind a wall of dirt. Everyone that is capable goes into the mine to help dig them out. The politicians and city managers all show up to show how much they care. This is a large mine and they are trapped far inside of it so the people helping form a human chain to carry buckets of dirt out of the mine. The instability that caused the initial collapse now causes the whole thing to come down whipping out everyone in charge as well as those best suited for the heavy lifting of dock work. Talk of a curse quickly spreads. Minor incidents are blamed on the curse. Many families have lost the person that brought in the income. The curse scares others away and there is no one managing the city. Those that are left just want to leave. Anyone young and capable of working the docks is looked at with anger because it is known that they are only alive because they weren't willing to help rescue the miners.

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Fear of disease

Maybe a rumor starts that a ship is infected with The Plague. It's not, but several key merchants panic, and flee the city. Several other families follow suit, and while the original rumor is quickly forgotten, more and more folks start hearing different reasons why some many shops are closing and some many families are emigrating. Practically it becomes more difficult to live in the city as support of the infrastructure starts to collapse and practically everyone else starts fleeing.

Years later, all that is left are looters and squatters and the occasional traveler passing through.

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Someone else has already mentioned the mafia, but that was more tangential. So - a mafia slowly establishes itself, given you've mentioned it was 1900s and a growing port it only makes sense that immigration entices undesirables. However as far as I know there's no examples of that actually leading to people moving away since rational choice theory dictates that there has to be an element of balance for an organised crime syndicate to flourish. If there's nobody left to extort, there can be no racket. If there is no prohibition there can be no black market capitalising on it. But from New York's history of a similar time in history we know that these factors combine to create conditions for a mafia to establish. This would also appeal to the sense of hushed discussions and no out-right theories of why it was happening as well as people prefering to commute in to work. Which ultimately explains the geographical socio-economic structure of cities as they grow over time, with inner city slum proliferation followed - the best part of a century later - by a decanting of said tenants to the peripheries of a city as the rich slowly move back in to the centre. Whist it may not be a blanketing reason for people deserting the port, it would probably lead to a variety of off-shoot reasons that could be the ultimate trigger(s) for a hemorrhaging of the populace.

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There is a natural phenomenon called "the hum" which is an odd barely perceptible noise of unknown origin. This could unconsciously drive people to be uncomfortable around the area. According to wikipedia, it's been known to drive at least one person to suicide.

Wikipedia

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site mix3d. This answer is a good start but if you can edit it and add how the application of this phenomenon would work in the situation mentioned in the OP that would make it much better. I would suggest including how this may be applied to a larger area (a whole city) and what it could potentially take to recreate this in secret as a plot by some nefarious person as an example. $\endgroup$ – James Mar 18 '15 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ I found it difficult to offer anything specific since the OP said that "any" theory could still be valid. This was a plot device that could be designed for any number of actual plot points, nefarious or benign. The Hum has a pretty wide range in real-life phenomena, so that checks out. It fits all the main requested criteria and lets the Author fill in the rest. $\endgroup$ – mix3d Mar 19 '15 at 13:50
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A gold rush?

The discovery of California (which everyone knows is Esperanto for Hot Sex)?

They all found religion and went on a pilgrimage?

Their religious leaders started introducing strange and unwelcome practices?

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The end is near

A local authority manages to convince the majority of the town that the end of the world is near. This could be a religious leader or, perhaps, an astronomer who misinterpreted celestial activity. The town people all go to a mountaintop (a la The Simpsons) to wait it out. For some reason (planned or accidental), they don't make it back. Most of the evidence that this ever happened is up on a mountain, especially if the townspeople packed light.

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    $\begingroup$ Even with a mass exodus based on "everyone thinks [x]", there will still be some free thinkers that don't do it. Even better for them, depending on morality, the few people that didn't leave may end up quasi-rich from looting the rest of the town/city/port/whatever. Even then, if ships are wanting to dock, there's some probability the un-morons may call in other un-morons to help run the port. $\endgroup$ – killermist Mar 16 '15 at 21:10
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    $\begingroup$ @killermist That's a good point, but I think the looters might skip town, just in case someone shows up. Also, the OP said the population could be "next-to-nothing." $\endgroup$ – aebabis Mar 16 '15 at 21:22
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Horrible, cliché answer:

War of the Worlds (late 80's TV show). Alien invasion that hijacks all the bodies.

The concept of the show was very cheesy. But, I'll try to extrapolate a workable concept. One of several scenarios that occur (repeatedly) in the show, a group of human/alien blends (that look like humans, but are alien controlled) show up, and start taking over the town/port. This also pre-requires that a supply of alien parasites (they don't act like symbiotes) are available to the invasion force, or that they can reproduce. The super-minimal government-supported group that knows about the invasion shows up and stops the invasion (at that location) leading to lots of puddles of goo, which is what the alien/human blends turn into when killed.

It's cheesy, cliché, and horrible, but I've been watching it recently, and it fits the initial parameters.

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  • $\begingroup$ Can you go beyond a mention of the show and explain how the premise could be extended to this specific scenario? $\endgroup$ – HDE 226868 Mar 16 '15 at 22:12
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 Done. Granted, this could be any town (and in the show, it occasionally was). $\endgroup$ – killermist Mar 16 '15 at 22:47
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If it's a fantasy setting, there could be a Doppleganger infestation. If you can't trust anyone, it might be easier to move away rather then risk your husband/children not being who they claim they are. There wouldn't likely be any signs of what happened and who knows, maybe the few remaining squatters are all Dopplegangers waiting to take over traveler's lives, or whatever mysterious purpose they actually have.

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I haven't seen the horror angle discussed much, so I'll go that route. There are two possibilities that immediately leap to mind:

  • Cannibalistic creatures - perhaps the populace has gradually been killed off by creatures which drag the bodies down into the sewers or some other structure under the town that isn't immediately obvious. This could even help build the tension, as your visitors would find shredded clothing or small amounts of blood here and there, yet no bodies. It would still be easy to explain a small amount of people who have stayed despite the danger (or who may not even realize the creatures real, with other people having left because of the rumors).
  • Mutagenic virus - I realize you said no disease, but perhaps the accidental release of a mutagenic virus or something similar has slowly been turning the citizens themselves into creatures who despise the light. This way, the populace would slowly disappear into the underground/shadowy areas, with some leaving to escape the danger and others stubbornly sticking around (perhaps even immune and thinking everyone else just slowly moved away).
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The first thing that came to my mind was along the lines of the mass-disappearances throughout history (ex: the true stories of the Roanoke colony, and the mass-disappearance of an entire Chinese army battalion. 5,000 men marched into the hills and were never seen again).

The author Dean Koontz wove a supernatural/horror tale into a novel titled "Phantoms" which was also made into a movie. It explained mass-disappearances on what was called "The Ancient Enemy", a massive, underground, blob-like amorphous entity (think the volume of a good sized lake) which only rarely rises to Earth's surface in a populated area. It was hinted that this creature (and others like it) could also have been responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. They are hydrocarbon-based and incredibly long-lived (millions of years), and possess the attribute of integrating the memories of the victims it absorbs. That gives it the intelligence of millions of years of victims' fears and capabilities to be exceedingly cunning.

A creature like that could ooze up under an entire town/city and attack all the living inhabitants, man or beast, at once. There would be no time to cry out, no time to send out a warning, no time to leave a note. It could erupt from any drain hole, crack, fissure, sewer, pipe etc and fill a room in seconds.

A creature like this could wipe out your entire seaside port town in minutes and withdraw back into the earth (or ocean) and leave no trace of its ever being there. Or, it could only take a certain number of people (and animals) at a time -- quietly -- resulting in others thinking that they simply 'stole away during the night'.

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I was thinking about this, and I thought it might be cool to have people mysteriously turning into plants. Trees, hedges, vines, miss, patches of grass, etc. It would look like people were just abandoning the city and stopped taking care of it.

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