It is hard to imagine that there might be a more dramatic example of a “boom to bust” ghost-town than the story of Rhyolite, Nevada, one of several gold mining towns that for a few brief years in the early 1900’s, was a real going concern.
Rhyolite, situated roughly 120 miles north of present-day Las Vegas, was a town that sprung up from a two-man camp in January of 1905 to become the largest city in Southern Nevada by 1908 (population estimates range from 6,000 to 12,000), and yet by 1910, there were only 675 people left. The last full-time resident of Rhyolite died in 1924 at the age of 94.
Let me take you back to January 1905, when two men found gold in the Bullfrog Hills, and incredibly within two weeks, 1200 people had converged on the area! A mere 5 months later (June 1905), that number had doubled again to 2500, and Rhyolite ultimately became the home of the region’s biggest producer, the Montgomery Shoshone Mine.
Industrialist Charles M. Schwab bought the Montgomery Shoshone Mine in 1906 and invested heavily in infrastructure, including piped water, electric lines and railroad
transportation, that served the town as well as the mine. By 1907, Rhyolite had electric lights, water mains, telephones, newspapers, a hospital, a school, an opera house, and a stock exchange. In fact, there were 400 electric streetlights in place by January 1907, and the town featured concrete sidewalks, a virtual novelty at the time. By 1908, as the population swelled, there were 50 saloons, 3 newspapers, a monthly magazine, and a local police force and fire department.
In it’s first 3 years of operation, the Montgomery Shoshone Mine produced more than $1 million in bullion ($26 million in 2014 dollars), but in 1908, the wheels began to fall off for Rhyolite. With the richest ore becoming exhausted, nervous investors ordered an independent study on the mine, and when the findings proved unfavorable, the stock value crashed, and further funding was limited.
The Rhyolite Stock Exchange opened on March 25th, 1907 with 125 members, including brokers from New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other large cities. An astounding 60,000 shares changed hands on the first day, and by the end of the second week, the number had topped 750,000!. The share value peaked at $23 (in historical dollars), but by 1908, that number had tumbled to $3. Once the sour report was released, the shares further toppled to just 75 cents. When the mine closed for good on March 14th 1911, a mere 6 years after gold was first discovered, the share value was down to 4 cents, before finally being dropped from the exchanges.
By 1915, buildings had begun to fall into a state of disrepair and by 1920, it’s ruins became a tourist attraction, and a setting for a motion picture.
One of the most famous structures in Rhyolite was the Glass Bottle House, built by Tom T Kelly in 1906. Kelly used a reported 51,000 empty beer and liquor bottles collected from those 53 saloons, and he had hoped to raffle off his novelty home to offset his declining income from the mines. That never happened, but in 1925, Paramount Pictures restored the home and it was featured in the silent picture “The Air Mail”.
In that construction boom of 1906-1907, there were some remarkable buildings that appeared along Golden Street, Rhyolite’s main thoroughfare. There was the 3-story John S. Cook & Co Bank that cost $90,000 (in historical dollars) to build and featured Italian marble stairs, imported stained glass windows, and various other luxuries. That building also housed brokerage offices and the post office.
There was a two story, 8 room school house built in anticipation of the town’s ongoing prosperity, but the school was barely occupied before the mine dried up, and the population began moving away.
A magnificent railway depot that at it’s height served three different railway lines, ran to and through Rhyolite, and in 1907 there were enough side-rails in place to accommodate over 105 cars that lay in wait to be filled with ore from the Montgomery Shoshone Mine.
As reality set in, shutters began going up on doors and windows and buildings became abandoned. All three banks had closed by March 1910. All the newspapers were gone by June of 1912, with the Rhyolite Herald Weekly the last to go. The post office closed in November of 1913, and sadly, the last train left the station in June, 1914. Perhaps the final chapter was written in 1916, when the Nevada-California Power Company turned off the electricity, and removed all of it’s lines.
Apparently, not all of the buildings crumbled. Some were disassembled in their entirety and moved to nearby Beatty. In other cases, the materials were simply stripped away and used for reconstruction in other emerging communities. Two buildings survived intact. The railway depot and the bottle house.
The railway depot was reincarnated in 1937 as the Rhyolite Ghost Casino, and it later became a museum and gift shop that was run by one of the 16 full-time residents that re-occupied Rhyolite in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Across the “street” from the railway depot are the remains of what Mary and I assumed to be an old railway caboose. While the structure itself was the frame of a caboose, it was actually a Union Oil Gas Station that was opened in the mid 1930’s to serve the visitors to the Rhyolite Ghost Casino, and those curious tourists who were making their way to see the remains of a Gold Boom Ghost Town.
With respect to mining in the area, Rhyolite experienced a second “boom from 1988 to 1998. With the development of modern technology at their disposal, three companies operated a profitable open-pit mine at the base of Ladd Mountain, adjacent to the old ghost town.
As we approached Rhyolite, we crossed back into Nevada (from California), and were welcomed by a bullet-riddled sign. Tell me again there isn’t a need for gun controls in the United States.
A short way down the highway, a left turn into the south entrance of the old ghost town brought us to the Goldwell Open Air Museum. Thinking we would find all kinds of historical displays and artifacts from the town’s heyday, we were surprised and mildly disappointed to find a disinterested older gentleman sitting on the porch whittling away at a piece of wood, and tinkering with and an old machine of some type.
The museum has nothing to do with the ghost town itself and it’s primary purpose appears to be to sell art and materials produced by a Belgian artist, Albert Szukalski, who in 1984, created this piece, the “Last Supper”. The grounds around the so-called museum were “littered’ with some of his other works, which while intriguing, as I said, had nothing to do with the actual history of Rhyolite itself.
We stood in the middle of what was once Golden Street, in a town where almost overnight, a bustling, modern city (for it’s time), emerged and disappeared in little more than 6 years. A mild wind was blowing dust and tumbleweeds among the remaining structures, and as we glanced around we found it hard to believe that these few crumbling structures were all that was left.