When planning our route from Las Vegas to Death Valley, I was excited to find the National Park Service provides a map with several routes online. We could travel quickly and easily or we could take a more scenic route to explore the desert. Mona and I decided to add a little extra time on the road to follow the ghost town route.
About six miles outside of Beatty is the ghost town in Rhyolite, Nevada. Rhyolite, named for the indigenous volcanic rock, was a settlement that boomed followed the discovery of nearby gold deposits only to be abandoned as soon as those deposits were exhausted and mines went bust. The ruins remain for tourists to explore.
What fascinates me about Rhyolite is the incredible growth and rapid decline that occurred within only a couple of decades. In 1904, Shorty Harris and Ed Cross discovered gold in southeastern Nevada. As word of the find spread, thousands of hopeful prospectors descended upon the hills ready to stake their claims and potential fortunes. A gold rush was on.
By 1908, Rhyolite’s estimated population was between 5,000 and 8,000 people. The town had all the luxurious amenities of the era, including plumbing and electricity. There were three railroads serving the town. More than a mining encampment, Rhyolite was a thriving community with lodging houses, barbers, bakeries, and a school. Mona was amused there were 18 grocery stores (having grown up in a town that didn’t have even one). I was amused there were 50 saloons, though the number wasn’t unusually for the era. In 1880, Leavenworth Kansas had an estimated 150 saloons for 16,500 residents.
But Rhyolite busted just as quickly as it boomed. Gold production dramatically dropped and the population went into decline. By 1920, only 14 people remained in Rhyolite. The last resident passed away in 1924.
As we arrived in Rhyolite from Beatty, we escaped most of the storm. The dark clouds had cleared but there was still a strong, cold wind blowing over the desert. We parked by the old train depot and bundled up as best we could to explore the remains of the town.
Stonewalls with empty doorways and windows stand where businesses once thrived. Placards along the paved road show pictures of the buildings as they once were, a stark contrast to the rudimentary shapes of what remains. It was amazing to me that, in only 100 years, a town could be so thoroughly wiped from the landscape.
While most of the buildings are ruins, the exception is the Bottle House. Miner Tom Kelly built the house out of 50,000 glass beer and liquor bottles in 1907. With the aforementioned 50 saloons in town, materials weren’t hard to come by. Kelly never actually lived in the house. Instead, he raffled it off at $5.00 a ticket. A local family won the house and occupied it until the town went bust.
The Bottle House was not abandoned for long as Hollywood turned Rhyolite into a film set. Paramount Pictures refurbished the Bottle House and used the surrounding buildings as the setting for the 1925 silent film, The Air Mail. Over the years, Rhyolite has continued to serve as a film set for movies, including Michael Bay’s The Island in 2005. When not serving as a film set, the Bottle House was occupied by a series of caretakers. The last inhabitants finally left in 1969, though the miniature houses built by the family can still be seen on the surrounding lawn.
Rhyolite is an eerily beautiful place and I was profoundly affected by its story. I think it is at least partially because I live in a rural area where many small towns are disappearing. As the industries that once sustained them dwindle, people leave in search of better opportunities. Traveling for work, I see town squares with empty storefronts and houses abandoned by their owners. And I wonder, what will be there in 100 years? Will there be a house or just three walls and a roof, without a placard to tell us what used to be there?