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RHYOLITE YESTERDAY & TODAY

 

Nevada's Ghost City

 

By

 

Gary Speck

 

Rhyolite AND Gary (the author of this piece/website owner)

Were featured on Life after people Episode #4

Tuesday, May 12, 2009 on the History Channel!!!

 

 

No visit to Death Valley can be completed without a visit to Rhyolite, one of the West's premier ghost cities. On May 19, 1900, rich silver ore was discovered in the heart of the Nevada desert, and a fevered mining boom ripped across the hills and valleys of the scrub-covered scenery like the shock wave from a nuclear explosion. TONOPAH (1900), GOLDFIELD (1903) and Rhyolite (1905) exploded from the desert scrub, becoming teeming, modern cities with 10-20,000 people, multistory concrete and dressed rock buildings, electric power, water and sewer systems and telephones. These gleaming, state-of-the-art cities were built for permanence.

 

Permanence appears to have turned fleeting! Today, of the three, only Tonopah still breathes comfortably. It is the Nye County Seat, and maintains a population of about 2000 folks. Goldfield still hangs in there as the county seat of Esmeralda County, but the twin scourges of fire and flood have decimated the former city, leaving only 600 or so folks. Rhyolite on the other hand is a true ghost town. I should say, a ghost city. A couple people still live here, keeping an eye on the ruins of the old mining town; a magnificent ruin of when gold was king, and the sounds of commerce echoed along Golden Street.

 

To set the mood for my first ghostly visit to this wonderful old ghost in early December 1997, Nature and el Nino presented us with a heavy fog and drizzle: a fog that socked in the entire Death Valley region. Fog is not common in the region, so that visit started off in a mysterious mode and enhanced the ghostly feel of this visit. Because of the fog and limited visibility, we almost missed the turnoff for Rhyolite. The turnoff is signed and in normal atmospheric conditions is easy to find.

 

Rhyolite sits about four miles west of Beatty, and about 1.5 miles north of State Highway 374. On the north side of the turnoff is the massive Bullfrog Gold Mine, and to the south, across the highway, the remains of huge settling ponds and tailing piles that were heap-leached before the mine closed in 1999. A short distance up the road on the west is the Bullfrog-Rhyolite cemetery, which we didnt visit in 1997 due to lack of visibility and not being able to find it! I did not visit it in 2009. About 3/4 mile up the road is a side road heading west past the ruins of Bullfrog, only 1/4 mile west and now home to what in 2009, appears to be a large, recently constructed building that I was told houses an artist colony.

 

Continuing up the hill, the road curves gently to the right and in 1997 was home to a cluster of mobile homes and cabins fronted with huge metal sculptures greeting the visitor. In 2009, those mobile homes were gone and the cabins vacated, although a couple of the sculptures remained as a welcome to town. Looking north up the road toward the town itself is an eerie sensation either in the fog or sunshine. The dark brooding hulks of ruined buildings sit in a bowl at the base of mine-scarred hillsides. In 1997, the view was ethereal as the heavy fog lifted just enough to bring the building ruins into focus. Before I could stop and get a picture, the wet grey mist returned, again shrouding this Death Valley ghost town in mystery. Were we about to explore a misty, moldering medieval castle on an English moor? Or the fog-shrouded ruins of some 21st century, post-apocalyptic city?

 

During my last visit in late February 2009, I was part of an exciting experience. I was a participant in the filming of a television series called Life After People, airing on the History Channel. I was one of two people featured that shared the history of Rhyolite and the structural decay taking place in the buildings as time went on without human intervention for repairs and maintenance. Im usually on the backside of a camera, sharing my experiences with the readers of my Ghost Town USA magazine column and this website. It was truly a rewarding experience to be on the pointy end of the camera sharing my zeal for ghost towns with a television audience. Once I find out when the episode will air Ill share that here.

 

RHYOLITE YESTERDAY

 

Rhyolite exploded onto the scene in August 1904 when well-known Death Valley area prospector Shorty Harris and his partner Eddie Cross found a greenish rock outcropping studded with gold. They named their claim the Bullfrog, and within a few months booming camps were kicking up dust at Bullfrog, Rhyolite, Beatty, Gold Bar, Gold Center, Amargosa City and South Bullfrog.

 

As the discovery camp, Bullfrog had the advantage, and became the focus of the rush that ensued. Soon however, the nearby site of Rhyolite, sprawled along a sloping alluvial plain between Bonanza and Ladd mountains, attracted more boomers, and by the spring of 1905 the streets of Rhyolite were lined with canvas-sided tents and wooden shanties, along with 1500 people.

 

Progress was rapid, and through 1906 tents and shanties had been replaced by solid wood-frame structures and beautiful but expensive cut rock and concrete buildings, some as tall as three stories. The rhyolite and granite rock was cut, dressed and transported from local quarries.

 

In 1907 the town was at its zenith. Estimates of population range from 3500 to 10,000 people, and most folks seem to think the upper limit was in the 7-8000 range. No matter. The booming city also claimed two railroads (the Las Vegas & Tonopah, and the Tonopah & Tidewater), two daily newspapers, a magazine (only one issue), two churches, auto stages, a stock exchange, doctors, dentists, real estate offices, law offices, banks, eight grocery stores, 50 saloons, restaurants, 19 hotels and boarding houses, a flourishing red-light district, opera house, a baseball team and a 14 x 40 public swimming pool gave the community something few mining camps had. There were many other businesses, all befitting a growing city. (Time and additional research will probably modify some of those numbers.)

 

In 1906, the San Francisco earthquake hurt the town financially. Coupled with the panic of 1907, Rhyolite was dealt a death blow, but it really didnt know it. Even though the money dried up, Rhyolite continued on its merry way, booming while it was busting. By 1908 Rhyolite was finally in distress and in 1910, the door slammed shut. The city that would "last a lifetime" died with its boots on. On April 30, the electric streetlights were turned off. The water companies were notified they would receive no money from the county, and businesses began to close. By the time the federal census takers found the town, only 675 people remained. That was further reduced to only 14 in the 1920 census.

 

As Rhyolite faded, people dispersed and the remaining buildings were abandoned.

 

RHYOLITE TODAY

 

Over time, vandals and the weather have taken their toll, and the gutted structures began to crumble. Today the site is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, and watched over by a citizen's group called "The Friends of Rhyolite." They are raising money to stabilize the buildings, and hopefully prevent further deterioration. Unfortunately for us as treasure hunters, metal detecting and collecting of any artifacts inside the town limits is prohibited. There are BLM caretakers on site, and they insist that visitors remain outside the perimeter of the buildings. Some are fenced others are not. Please do abide by their wishes. If you are in the area metal detecting at any other ghost towns, a trip here is a must, just to see the place. It is passenger car accessible.

 

Some of the major buildings in town include:

 

The two-story school had three classrooms on the lower level, and an auditorium and a fourth classroom on the second. It was completed in December 1908, and built for a total cost of $20,000. Bonds for the building were issued, and in 1978 were finally paid off. Today the roofless and windowless walls remain, and a concrete slab inside used to be claimed to help stabilize the structure, but in reality was poured by a film company and has compromised the structural stability of the school building.

 

The Overbury Building was a three-story cut rock and concrete block building that cost about $60,000, when it was built in 1906 by John T. Overbury. It housed a bank and general offices and was completed in June 1907. On June 2, the 1st National Bank of Rhyolite held their grand opening on the first floor.

 

Across Golden Street from the Overbury Building was the H.D. & L.D. Porter Store. The Porter brothers were successful merchants in the Southern California mining town of Randsburg, and when Rhyolite hit the news, they headed across the desert to open a branch in the new mining city. Operating their first store in a tent in April 1905, they quickly graduated to a wood frame building in June, and in August of 1906 construction began on a 30 x 80 cut stone store building that cost $10,000. It opened with a dance on November 12. Only three and a half years later, on May 14, 1910, the store closed. H.D. Porter remained behind as the town's postmaster until the post office closed in 1918.

 

The picturesque, roofless John S. Cook Bank building was one of four banks and the city's skyscraper with a bank on the lower floor, and two floors of professional offices above. Construction began in March 1907, and it was completed by the end of the year, at a cost estimated to be between $60-90,000. The post office relocated into the basement, and the doors were opened. They didn't remain open for long, closing in the spring of 1910, forcing the post office to relocate. On December 31, 1910, the building's fixtures were sold at auction.

 

Adjoining the Cook building on the right was the two-story Gorill Building, which among its tenants included the Newton Grill. Today this building is a pile of rocks and rubble.

 

The Las Vegas & Tonopah Railroad erected a beautiful railroad depot that is still standing. After the railroad pulled out it was used as a restaurant and casino, and later as a residence. At the time of our visit in December 1997 it was unoccupied, but was fenced off by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to prevent vandalism.

Other notable buildings in the town were the four-celled concrete jail built in 1907, and the famous bottle house. The later was built by resident Tom Kelly in 1906 with 20-30,000 beer, whiskey and wine bottles and was lived in until 1989. It is the only remaining one of three such structures. Like the railroad station, it has been fenced off by BLM, and is eventually slated for restoration.

Standing on the crumbling sidewalk in front of the John S. Cook Bank Building in the earmuff quiet of the cold, wet December fog, it took very little imagination to hear the sounds of life passing by on the streets of Rhyolite, Nevada's ghost city. A visit to this former city is a fantastic trip into the past, but remaining after dark becomes ethereal. After the sun goes down and the daytime tourists leave, the quiet streets of Rhyolite truly echo with the quiet footsteps of its ghosts.

 

This was our GHOST TOWN OF THE MONTH for November 1998, and this article underwent a major modification and was re-featured as the Ghost Town of the Month for April 2009.

This is one of the towns featured in my newest book, GHOST TOWNS: Yesterday & TodayTM.

 

Location:

        Latitude: 36.9038338 / 36 54 14 N

        Longitude: -116.8292274 / 116 49 45 W

        SE Sec 9, NE Sec 16, T12S, R46E, Mount Diablo Meridian & Base Line

 

 

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FIRST POSTED: December 01, 1998

LAST UPDATED: January 11, 2014

 

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