Ghost Towns of the Old West: Rhyolite… The Desert Series

Old grave at the ghost town of Rhyolite outside of Death Valley.

What better way to introduce a ghost town than to show where the ghosts live? This is one of the better kept grave sites in the Rhyolite cemetery. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

 

What’s a desert without a ghost town or two?

Boom and bust are the go-to words when it comes to creating ghost towns in the desert. Gold, or some other valuable mineral is found. Miners, developers, speculators and others burning with get-rich-quick-itis rush in where angels fear to tread (wisely so). Eventually the vein runs out. Unless the town has other ways of providing a livelihood, people leave. The ghosts are left behind. That’s the story of Rhyolite.

Boom! At the beginning of January in 1905, Rhyolite was a non-town of two people. They struck it rich. Two weeks later the population had grown to 1200 people. By 1907 somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 people called the place home. Apparently no one was interested in doing an accurate census count. But the small city had banks, a school, its own railroad, a hospital, an opera house, some 50 saloons and a generous smattering of ladies of the evening with hearts of gold, or at least pockets filled with gold coins. There was electricity, running water, and telephones.

Charles Schwab, the steel magnate, (as opposed to Charles Schwab of brokerage house fame) was the money behind the development of Rhyolite. Thomas Edison, who was responsible for inventing the electric lights that lit up the town, once called Schwab a master hustler. It fit, but Schwab’s hustling in Rhyolite failed to pan out (to use an old gold mining term).

Bust! In 1907, a British mining engineer discovered that the ‘fabulously high-grade ore’ mine Schwab had bought was actually filled with low-grade ore. By 1910 the banks were closed. The last train left town in 1916. A motor tour organized by the LA Times in 1922 found only one person remaining in the town, a 94-year-old man who died two years later. Rhyolite began its career as a ghost town.

For enquiring minds that want to know, Rhyolite is located approximately 120 miles north of Las Vegas and sits on the eastern edge of Death Valley, just outside the small Nevada town of Beatty. It is named after an igneous rock common throughout the area.

An old truck in the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada.

Ghost truck in Rhyolite. Its engine had long since departed.

Interior of old truck in Rhyolite, Nevada.

I was torn over which interior photograph I would use, but opted for the steering wheel and dashboard. It, and the faded surrounding mountains struck me as ghostly. The odometer had stopped at 45,438 miles. Or make that 45,438.5. It was rolling over to 45,439 when its roving days ended.

Cook Bank in the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada.

Once the pride of Rhyolite, the Cook Bank’s floors were marble and its windows were stain glass.

Cook Bank in Rhyolite Nevada.

Almost everything of value was ripped out of the Cook Bank and Rhyolite in general. Many of the buildings in nearby Beatty, owe their existence to this pilferage. It led me to wonder why the fine bricks on top of the Cook Bank were still there. Were they a little difficult to reach, a little perilous to remove? (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

School in the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada.

I asked Peggy, a retired elementary school principal, to pose for me in front of Rhyolite’s school. Her hair, which totally has a mind of its own, had been teased by the desert wind.

Rattlesnake warning sign in Rhyolite, Nevada.

We laughed. If the reasonable approach doesn’t work, try another. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Rhyolite Nevada view.

They say it is better to be on the inside looking out than the outside looking in. I don’t think it matters in Rhyolite. But I did like the composition that pulls you out toward the mountains.

HD and LD Porter sign in Rhyolite, Nevada.

A rather classy sign that is lucky it didn’t end up in an antique shop somewhere.

The old railway station at Rhyolite, Nevada.

Speaking of classy, Rhyolite’s railway station was, and still is an attractive building. Over the years it morphed into a hotel, casino, souvenir shop, all connected to Rhyolite’s ghost town status. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Old rail found near the ghost town of Rhyolite.

Most of the rails leading up to the station were pulled out and used during World War I, but I did find this old one in a junk pile behind the station.

Caboose in Rhyolite.

One of the more intriguing buildings in Rhyolite, from my perspective, is this old caboose that was once used on the Las Vegas to Salt Lake line. It was reborn as a service station in Rhyolite to serve the visitors that came to visit the ghost town and probably the casino.

An inside view of the caboose located at Rhyolite, Nevada.

Looking inside the caboose.

Tom Kelly's hose made of glass bottles in Rhyolite, Nevada.

This house made of 30,00 glass bottles (mainly alcohol related– not surprising considering a couple of thousand thirsty miners), may be Rhyolite’s most famous building. 76-year-old Tom Kelly built it in 1905-06 and then auctioned it off at $5.00 a ticket.

Bottles used to make the Bottle House in the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada.

A close up of the bottles. The marks on the bottom indicate the company that made the bottles. AB stands for American Bottling Company, for example. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Hostetter Bitters Bottle used in the Bottle House at Rhyolite, Nevada.

A few bottles are more prominently displayed, such as this Dr. J. Hostetter Bitters bottle. While it was sold to cure what ailed your tummy, it contained up to 47 % alcohol. Earlier, Hostetter had sold the bitters to Union soldiers during the Civil War to fight off diseases they might catch while chasing Confederates through southern swamps.

A final ghostly reminder from the Rhyolite graveyard.

A final ghostly reminder from the Rhyolite graveyard.

NEXT BLOG: Traveling a couple of hundred yards west of Rhyolite, we visit the Goldwell Open Air Museum

 

28 comments on “Ghost Towns of the Old West: Rhyolite… The Desert Series

    • Thanks. I am quite fond of ghost towns… from the far west to Pompeii. 🙂 and yes, the backstory always helps. I find the more I know about an area, the more I enjoy it. –Curt

      • Good morning from Tokyo, and thank you very much for your response. As my opportunities for international travel are currently limited, it’s great to discover new places and have a glimpse into another world through your lens & stories. Much appreciated 😀

    • Thanks… as Gallivance noted, the dry climate does wonders. If the people of Beatty hadn’t carried off most of the buildings to recycle 🙂 there would be a lot more. Wait until you get to Bodie. (One blog away.) –Curt

  1. Nice post Curt. I’m a sucker for ghost towns, but back here in the east where rain and vegetation are more plentiful, they don’t last as long as they do out west. I particularly like the bottle house, and am surprised that someone hasn’t carted off parts of the train station. BTW, I found an interesting Burning Man link for you:
    http://io9.com/burning-man-will-be-even-trippier-with-this-newtonian-o-1598585657
    Be sure to click on the link about BM being visible from space. ~James

    • The dry climate does help. Just think of all the tombs in Egypt. 🙂 Checked out the BM site. Peg and I will take time to marvel at the universe. These are the types of things that happen there, James. Each year they let us know when the satellite photo will be taken so we can all go out and have our picture taken. –Curt

  2. Can’t help wondering when the whole world will be a ghost town after we’ve finished plundering it and run out of essentials. At least the (remaining) animals and plants will heave a sigh of relief as they move in.

    • Hopefully we get a little smarter before then, Hilary. Although who knows what kind of a price we will have to pay. BTW, on a lighter note, I found the flower. It’s called a Desert Plume and is a member of the mustard family. –Curt

  3. Rhyolite seemed familiar, though I couldn’t say why. I know I’ve never been in the town! When I did a little exploration about the nature of the mineral, I figured it out. When I was in grade school, we made a family trip to Colorado. I’ve always been a great rock hound, and I brought back a chunk of obsidian the size and shape of a large baked potato. As it turns out, “Rhyolites that cool too quickly to grow crystals form a natural glass or vitrophyre, also called obsidian.” I’ll bet you anything I learned “rhyolite” when I did my science project on the rocks I brought back from vacation that year. It’s just been lying there, dormant, waiting for this post to revivify it!

    Wonderful story, and photos. I can’t wait for the next!

    • Never know what you may find rolling around in the dim recesses, Linda. Obsidian is big out in the West. In fact there are mountains (hills) of it. The Native Americans made great arrow and spear heads from it, and, traded it far and wide.

      Glad you enjoyed the story. Next up is the very unique outdoor sculpture museum next to Rhyolite. And then I’ll move on to the ghost town of Bodie.

      –Curt

  4. I enjoyed reading about how Rhyolite became a ghost town and drawing parallels with things in my life that once shone and later died 🙂
    My favourite photo? old caboose.

  5. What a beauty !!!! I was wondering (and would be delighted if you would have the immense generosity to answer my question…) I live in Luxembourg (Europe), was born here as all my family and my Grand-Uncle, my grand-pa’s brother immigrated to the USA in the early 1900. I found out on Christmas day that he actually lived in Rhyolite and was known as Billy Gasoline because he was one of the very first car owners in Nevada 🙂 but also that he actually lived there in 1969 with 6 other people all in her 70’s or 80’s. he actually died the next year aged 85… Was there in Rhyolite any mention of those very last man and women ? I’m only at the very beginning at my research and every slightest hint about him would be a great great help to find out what his life was etc etc. He was also known as the “town bachelor” and died with no living ore relative family known … thank you for your time reading my “special” request !! your photos of the place a beautiful by the way !!!!

    • Sorry, Carole. I even went back and checked my notes, but everything I had came from an earlier period. The only person I came across who would have been there at the same time was Tommy Thompson who maintained the bottle glass house. –Curt

      • Thank you SO much for having done this for me !!! In fact yesterday I found out that there is a photograph of him standing in front of the Revert Store in Beatty and I now know that he was there long before the late 1960’s . So the search continues ! Thank you for your kindness to check your notes and leaving me an answer ! I’m really touched. Kind regards from Luxembourg Europe. Carole

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