Friday, May 5, 2017

Ghost town, Rhyolite, Nevada (photos)

In a once remote sector of southwest Nevada, on the border of California's Death Valley, stands a sentinel, the concrete ruins of a town that was built to outdo Chicago. This Lily of the West, once Nevada's largest city, took the moniker, Rhyolite, after a vein of rare rose-colored granite discovered at the site.

Rhyolite, at the northern end of the Amargosa Desert, was founded in 1904, in the Bullfrog Hills of Nye County, Nevada. Prospectors Eddie Cross and Frank "Shorty" Harris's discovery of gold attracted the attention of eastern industrialists and became a magnet for swindlers and unscrupulous promoters.

Said "Shorty":
The best strike I ever made was in 1904 when I discovered the Rhyolite and Bullfrog district... Ed Cross was there waiting for his partner, Frank Howard, to bring some supplies from the inside. For some reason Howard had been delayed, and Cross was low on grub....
When I reached the burros, they were right on the spot where the Bullfrog mine was afterwards located. Two hundred feet away was a ledge of rock with some copper stains on it. I walked over and broke off a piece with my pick—and gosh, I couldn’t believe my own eyes. The chunks of gold were so big that I could see them at arm’s length—regular jewelry stone! ... Right then, it seemed to me that the whole mountain was gold.
I let out a yell: “...Ed we’ve got the world by the tail, or else we’re coppered!” Half a Century Chasing Rainbows, Frank "Shorty" Harris, as told to Phillip Johnston
It all began as a small camp called Bullfrog. Then another tent camp, Rhyolite, sprung up a mile north. Rhyolite camp hosted saloons, eateries, and boarding houses—all in lean-tos and tents. The first post office (a 10-x-12' tent) opened for business on May 19, 1905. Rhyolite was on the map, so to speak. The first real building constructed in Rhyolite was the two-story Southern Hotel. (Rhyolite-Nevada Ghost Town)

According to "Shorty":
The rock was green, almost like turquoise, spotted with big chunks of yellow metal, and looked a lot like the back of a frog. This gave us an idea for naming our claim, so we called it the Bullfrog. Half a Century Chasing RainbowsFrank "Shorty" Harris, as told to Phillip Johnston
Thousands flooded the Bullfrog Mining District to stake a claim and strike it rich. No less than eighty-five mining companies, with over 2000 claims, were active in the hills within a 30-mile radius of the town. The Montgomery Shoshone Mine hosted a rich strike of ore that promised to make everyone rich as Croesus. Said "Shorty":
It’s a might strange thing how fast the news of a strike travels. You can go into a town after you’ve made one, meet a friend on the street, and take him into your hotel room and lock the door. Then, after he has taken a nip from your bottle, you can whisper the news very softly in his ear. Before you can get out on the street, you’ll see men running around like excited ants that have had a handful of sugar poured on their nest....
I’ve seen some gold rushes in my time that were hummers, but nothing like that stampede....  It looked like the whole population of Goldfield was trying to move at once. Half a Century Chasing RainbowsFrank "Shorty" Harris, as told to Phillip Johnston
In its heyday, Rhyolite, hosted a fluctuating population of 3500+, some say the population swelled to 10,000 during the gold rush. Rhyolite reached its zenith in 1907 and 1908—with a population of squatters and citizens estimated to be between 8,000 and 12,000. Within seven years it was a ghost town.

Frank "Shorty" Harris & Eddie Cross were the first to strike gold in the Bullfrog District and named their mine "Bullfrog" due to the green color of the ore. The town symbol was a penguin. It represented the enigma of gold mining. "As much chance of finding gold in the desert as finding a penguin." Rhyolite Historic Gold Mine Town Site, BLM brochure
Bullfrog Miner, Nevada Historical Society photo

Thanks to investor Charles Schwab, Rhyolite had electric lights, three water companies, three public swimming pools, telephones, cement sidewalks,  three newspapers, a miner's union hospital, a school, an opera house, an ice cream parlour, and a stock exchange.
In 1906 Countess Morajeski opened the Alaska Glacier Ice Cream Parlor to the delight of the local citizenry. Rhyolite Ghost Town - Death Valley National Park
Rhyolite was so wealthy it was served by three stage lines, including the first auto stage, the Tonopah and Goldfield Auto Company; and three railroad lines, the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, the Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad, and the Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad. As many as a hundred train cars waited at the depots with incoming freight, and reloaded with gold-laden ore.

Sweet water was a rare commodity in the Armagosa Desert (the salt-laden Armagosa River was bitter) and fresh water was hauled in and sold at  $2 to $5 a barrel. But by June of 1905, Rhyolite had an efficient water system replete with water mains. It was a build it and they will come mentality (which later worked for Las Vegas).
A network of 400 electric streetlight poles were installed to light Rhyolite twenty-four hours a day. Rhyolite-Nevada Ghost Town
During its heyday, Rhyolite also supported 50 saloons, 35 gambling tables, numerous brothels and cribs, two score boarding houses, 16 restaurants and eateries, 6 barbers, a public bath house, four newspaper plants, and a weekly newspaper, the Rhyolite Herald.
There were hotels, stores, a school for 250 children, an ice plant, two electric plants, foundries and machine shops and even a miner’s union hospital. Rhyolite Ghost Town - Death Valley National Park

HD & LD Porter Brothers' Rhyolite Emporium, built in 1906, sold everything needed in the mining town. The Porter brothers had three stores in California, they hauled goods from Ballarat, across Death Valley. The store slogan was "We handle all things but whiskey." Note that it's the Irish spelling of whiskey. Gives you a demographic hint as to the ethnic background of the clientele.

 Overbury Bank, Nevada Historical Society photo 

Across from the Rhyolite Emporium was the Overbury Bank, erected in 1907, at a cost of $45,000, it had electric lights and indoor plumbing, a luxury at the time.

Rhyolite's two-story, brick eight-room school was the second school built. The first school was erected in 1906 without taking an accurate headcount of how many children actually lived in the town (90). By May of 1907, the kiddie ranks swelled to 250.

So a second school with an auditorium upstairs, was constructed in 1909, on a grand scale to accommodate the children. It was short-lived and never filled to capacity as people fled the town in droves after the 1907 financial panic in the east, following the 1906 quake in San Francisco.

The 1904-1907 Nevada Gold Rush was centered around three short-lived boom-towns: Goldfield, Tonopah, and Rhyolite..Rhyolite's prosperity ended permanently when the mines played out in 1909. By 1910, overnight the population had shrunk to 600 souls. By 1916 the light and power were shut off for good and the town went dark.

Stock exchange, Nevada Historical Society photo
According to "Shorty," 
Stock speculation—that’s what killed Rhyolite! The promoters got impatient. They figured that money could be made faster by getting gold from the pockets of suckers than by digging it out of the hills. And so, when the operators of the Montgomery-Shoshone had a little trouble; when they ran into water and struck a sulphite ore which is refactory, and has to be cut and roasted to be turned into money—the bottom dropped out of the stock market and the town busted wide open, She died quick, too. Half a Century Chasing RainbowsFrank "Shorty" Harris, as told to Phillip Johnston

    John Cook & Co. Bank on Golden St. Nevada Historical Society photo

The John S. Cook & Co. Bank, erected in 1908, on Golden Street was an ostentatious elaborate affair with imported Italian marble stairs, imported stained-glass windows, luxurious amenities including lighting and steam heating, and cost $90,000 to buildThe bank was 3 stories tall, plus a basement for the the post office. The bank housed brokerage offices, a stock exchange, and the Board of Trade.

Ryolite in 1909, Desert Magazine (Feb 1959) 

When the gold mine panned out in 1911, so did the town. The post office closed in 1919. By 1920, Rhyolite was officially a ghost town, with a population of 14. The last resident died in 1924. Most of the buildings and fixtures were hauled off to Beatty four miles down the road, so if you want to see most of the buildings, stop by Beatty first.

The Miners' Union Hall is now the Beatty Old Town Hall, many two-room cabins were moved to Beatty and cobbled together as multi-room homes. Other buildings were used to build the Beatty school.

The California mission-style Las Vegas & Tonopah Depot, erected in June, 1909, was once the most elaborate train station in Nevada (LV & Tonopah, Bullfrog Goldfield, and Tonopah & Tidewater rail lines). The depot was Nevada's most important railroad hub.

The depot was also a roadhouse, a museum, and casino. It still stands, but is fenced off, the victim of repeated vandalism. In 1937, the train depot was converted into the Rhyolite Ghost Casino, which later became a small museum and curio shop that closed in the 1970s.

 Las Vegas & Tonopah Depot. Nevada Historical Society photo

According to Desert Magazine writer Nell Murbarger:
As I came into view of the town, I was pleased to see that the big gray depot still watched over the ruins with the complacency of a Buddha. Farther along Golden Street loomed the shell of the John S. Cooke bank building —a three-story-and-basement structure built at a cost of $90,000. Beyond the bank rose the broken walls of a $50,000 school house and a $100,000 hotel—one of 10 hotels in the city in 1907!... 
[Rhyolite was] no claptrap mining camp, built of castoffs and canvas; but a flourishing city, for a time the largest in southern Nevada.... Mrs. Heisler inherited the depot from her brother, N. C. Westmoreland, who had bought it for a song and then converted it into a roadhouse and casino which he operated for many years.— Desert Magazine (Feb 1959)

The caboose is in sad shape. This caboose is from the LA &SF Union Pacific RR. The caboose (sans undercarriage) was later used as a gas station.

The Bottle House, built by an enterprising miner, and saloonkeeper, Tom T. Kelly, is in much better shape. In February of 1906, Kelly built his abode from 30- to 51,000 empty beer and liquor bottles—the only free building material available in treeless Rhyolite.

By right, the unusual abode should be called the Budweiser Bottle House as most of the bottles were from the Adolphus Busch brewery. Kelly built the Bottle House in order to raffle it off. The winning family lived in it for many years before it became a curio shop.

Was it a case of Build it and they will come? It must've worked as there is a child's bed in one of the rooms. (But that may be a leftover movie prop.) At any rate, the Bottle House is a Southwestern landmark.

Tom Kelly's Bottle House. Nevada Historical Society photo
It took Kelly six months to build in the winter of 1905-06, and was abandoned with the rest of the town when the gold ran out in 1912. It lived on as a desert landmark and was featured on vintage vellum postcards.
Preservationists rebuilt the Bottle House during the summer of 2005. It stands behind a locked fence, along with a miniature bottle village that was also Kelly's work.  Last Supper and Giant Pink Woman —Roadside America

Bessie and Jimmie Moffatt enlarged the adobe Bottle House, improved it with paint, wallpaper and curtains. Jimmie planted cottonwoods, yuccas, and joshua trees, but had to haul water from Beatty to keep them alive.

In 1956, Tommy and Mary Thompson, retired honky-tonk vaudvillians, bought a 20-year lease from the Beatty Improvement Association, moved into the Bottle House and stocked it with curios to sell to Death Valley bound tourists.

The town of Rhyolite was featured in 15 films: several silent Westerns including Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924) based on a novel by Zane Grey, starring Jack Holt (a lost film—by 1971, the 35mm nitrate film decomposed into jelly); and Rough Riders' Round-up (1939) starring Roy Rogers. At the end of the Spanish American War, Roy and his Rough Riders become US Border Patrolmen on the Mexican border.

Wanderer of the Wasteland —Wiki
Rough Riders Round-up —Wiki

During filming, the motion picture company, Famous Players-Lasky (Zukor and Lasky) better known as Paramount Pictures, restored the Tom Kelly Bottle House for the 1925 silent film The Air Mail, featuring Douglas Fairbanks. The Bottle House was later restored again in 2005.

 The Air Mail was filmed in Rhyolite in 1925 —Wiki

One ramshackle structure was scenic enough to be featured in the dystopian sci-fi film, The Island (2005) with Scarlett JohanssonEwan McGregor; other recent films include the drama, Bone Dry (2007); A Line in the Sand (2009); and the forthcoming Cannibal Corpse Killers. (Trailer). Don't hold your breath.

The Island —Wiki
Bone Dry —Wiki

Sadly, the Rhyolite Mercantile burned down in 2014—victim of a lightning strike. You can still see glimpses of it in some of the movies filmed in Rhyolite. If you have the time, there are still a few shacks and relics hidden in the outback, but beware of rattlesnakes.

Rhyolite Mercantile store burned down in 2014.—Wiki

In Feb. 1959, Desert Magazine ran a feature story on Rhyolite. I've pulled some quotes from it. Unfortunately one of the pages is missing in the scanned issue. I had to wing it, but I think the history will hold. You can read most of it online, or download it as a PDF. Desert Magazine Archives

Desert Magazine (Feb 1959)
In Feb. 1959, Desert Magazine ran a feature on Rhyolite.

We didn't get to the brothel or the jail a few streets over in the gully, nor did we get to the cemetery down the road as we were on a tight schedule to get to Bishop and daylight was burning. Perhaps another time.

The Goldwell Open Air Museum is just south of Rhyolite. Quirky plaster and fiberglass ghosts manifest as a tableau from the Last Supper greet unsuspecting tourists. Fodder for another story. (Last Supper and Giant Pink Woman Roadside America).

Perhaps the tableau was inspired by murder and betrayal in Rhyolite. The year 1908 began with the grisly murder of a young woman, Mona Bell, cut down in her prime. She was only 20.
 A lonely grave on the edge of town far from the regular cemetery is said to be that of Mona Bell's. Today the grave is a tourist attraction and there are rumors of visitations by a mysterious group of dancers who annually celebrate Mona's life and death. What happened to Rhyolite? Who was Mona Bell? And why is there a strange grave that attracts an unusual cult performing strange rituals? (Weird Tales 5: The Strange Case of Rhyolite Nevada (2011))

Road to the cemetery

My notes and sources:

Rhyolite Ghost Town - Death Valley National Park (NPS)

Rhyolite Historic Gold Mine Town Site, BLM brochure. For more information, visit the BLM's Tonopah Field Office at 1553 South Main Street, Tonopah, NV, or visit the BLM online, or call (775) 482-7800.

Rhyolite Ghost Town (Atlas Obscura)

Rhyolite-Nevada Ghost Town (ghost towns)

Weird Tales 5: The Strange Case of Rhyolite Nevada (2011)  (IMDb)

Desert Magazine (Feb 1959) The Desert Magazine Archives are provided at no cost courtesy of Dezert Magazine

Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad Wiki

Amargosa Desert Wiki

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