Golden Valley wasn't shut down, you start there, in the tutorial, in a fenced in area with no means of getting out (is the tutorial still on GV by the way? Last time i made a new character, it was). Plenty of players have characters left outside the tutorial where you can roam freely around the map (myself included)
As someone who started and played on GV for a while, the concept was and still is good, but the execution was terrible.
You had 3x decay, deeds weren't allowed and skills were capped at 20 even if you were premium, there were no priests, and the strongest animal was a cave bug.
The server itself is also the smallest server in Wurm, and became extremely overcrowded, free space was difficult to find (terraforming was limited to 60 slopes at 20 digging) and items such as ropes, pelts, compasses, and more being considered luxury items, and wild animals were pretty much non existent, so living there was not very good, plus since everyone was capped at 20, you had lower quality items, and things took a lot longer to make. Many people were turned off by all this.
However i'm not sure if it was worse, compared to today where you appear on one of the current massive servers with nobody around you, then running off into the wilderness only to get mauled by a bear and getting lost, and probably not meeting anybody due to the lack of players and the size of the servers. You really do get extremely overwhelmed.
Also i think the signs around New Dawn that were the "tutorial" had a really good charm to them and made the world feel more alive and really made you feel like you were part of a huge community.
Sure, when Independence was the only server and got opened for everybody, you had a massive influx of new players and veterans alike returning and settling near the Howl, so you had a lot more players there, so it was a lot easier and more appealing for someone new. Now you have a dozen or so servers to choose between from so the small playerbase are much more spread out. Choose the wrong server, and you might not even meet anybody in local for days.
When i started on GV, there were players everywhere, i remember looking across the hill from the spawn and seeing houses and campfires burning in the distance, hearing all the players working, seeing PAs that had the exclusitivity to live in one of the deeds on the server where they helped new players as much as they could with food, items etc... You don't get this nowadays.