The Ghost Town of Rhyolite, Nevada
Continuing my series on Death Valley National Park, California, this post explores one of the most photographed and alluring ghost mining towns in the old west – Rhyolite, Nevada. Although not technically located within park boundaries, Rhyolite proudly sits just outside the eastern edge of Death Valley, approximately 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas. This legendary ghost town lies in the Bullfrog Hills of southwestern Nevada near the small Amargosa desert town of Beatty in Nye County. A very popular tourist attraction and setting for many Hollywood movies, Rhyolite is rich with character and stark desert beauty. There is even a large outdoor sculpture garden adjacent to Rhyolite – the Goldwell Open Air Museum – which is not to be missed. This historic but short-lived town is named for rhyolite – an igneous rock in the same glass as granite, composed of light-colored silicates.
The origins of Rhyolite came about in 1904 when prospectors Shorty Harris and E. L. Cross discovered an abundance of gold-laced quartz in the Bullfrog Hills at the western edge of a volcanic field in southwestern Nevada. According to historic accounts, the rock (mineral) was green and spotted with chunks of yellow metal, looking similar to the back of a frog – thus the name bullfrog. The town sprouted in 1905 during an ensuing gold rush as one of several mining camps in the region. Initially a two-man tent camp in January 1905, Rhyolite rapidly grew to a town of 1,200 people within two short weeks.
There were over 2,000 claims covering everything in a 30-mile area, the most promising being the Montgomery Shoshone mine, which prompted hoards of gold seekers to move to the Rhyolite townsite. By June of 1905, it had quickly ballooned to a population of 2,500 hearty souls and had 50 saloons, 35 gambling tables, a red light district complete with cribs for prostitution, boarding houses, 16 restaurants, 19 lodging houses, a public bath house, weekly newspaper, and six barbers.
In early 1906, the nearby Montgomery Shoshone Mine was sold to famous industrialist Charles M. Schwab, who greatly expanded the operation by hiring many workers, building a large mill to refine the ore, and bringing in water, electricity, and a railroad. By 1907, Rhyolite had electric lights, water mains, sidewalks, telephones, a hospital, a two-story school, at least three banks, an opera house, police and fire departments, a train station, and a stock exchange. Completed in 1908, the Las Vegas & Tonopah Depot structure at Rhyolite reportedly cost $130,000 to build. The depot is a classic California mission style building made from cut stone hauled from Las Vegas. The upper floor of the depot functioned as housing for ticket agents and other employees; interestingly, there were separate waiting areas and baggage rooms for men and women. Published estimates of the town’s peak population in 1907-1908 vary widely, but reliable sources place it in a range between 3,500 to 5,000 people. During Rhyolite’s heyday, more than 85 mining companies were active in the rugged hills around the desert townsite.
Sadly, Rhyolite’s journey from boom to bust town was a rapid one. The venerable words “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” certainly applies to Rhyolite. The town declined nearly as quickly as it rose to distinction after the richest ore was exhausted and production fell. Due to the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco earthquake and financial panic of 1907, raising capital became very difficult. Concerned that Rhyolite may be overvalued, mine investors ordered a study in 1908. Unfortunately, the conclusion was quite unfavorable and the company’s stock took a massive nosedive. By late 1910 the mine was operating at a loss; it closed in 1911, forcing out-of-work miners to leave the area, resulting in a massive population drop. By 1920, the town’s all-too-brief glory days were over. Its streets became deserted and the town’s abandoned structures flourished into great fodder for tourists and film makers.
As the town decayed, entire buildings were moved to nearby Beatty or salvaged for building materials. Although any remaining buildings are in an advanced state of decay, remnants of other structures survived, such as the John S. Cook Bank building on Golden Street, a house made chiefly of empty beer and liquor bottles, the railway depot, jail, and scattered cabins. These enduring ruins live on and remain to be explored, photographed, and enjoyed. Rhyolite sits on a mixture of federal and private land. It is not within the boundary of Death Valley National Park, yet is just 35 miles from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. Rhyolite is currently maintained by the Bureau of Land Management.
Some of the movies filmed in Rhyolite include the 1925 silent film The Air Mail, The Reward in 1965 starring Max von Sydow and Yvette Mimieux, the 1987 science-fiction movie Cherry 2000, Six-String Samurai (1998), and The Island in 2005 starring Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson. The ruins of the crumbling Cook Bank building (which is now fenced off) was used as a backdrop in both The Reward and The Island.
Adjacent to Rhyolite and not to be missed is a spectacular 15-acre outdoor sculpture park, the Goldwell Open Air Museum, started by a group of prominent Belgian artists led by the late Albert Szukalski. These artists created seven colossal outdoor sculptures in the Mojave Desert while seeking adventure and working freely. This art project began in 1984 when Szukalski created and installed a life-size sculpture titled The Last Supper based on the Leonardo Da Vinci painting.
To create this masterpiece, live models were wrapped in fabric soaked in wet plaster and posed. After the plaster had set and the models slipped out, the surrounding rigid and ghostly shrouds remained. The figures were then coated with fiberglass to make them weather resistant. This enduring work of art and Szukalski’s magnum opus forms a ghostly interpretation of Jesus Christ and his disciples, juxtaposed against the barren beauty of the Mojave Desert and surrounding mountains. Being so close to Death Valley National Park makes Szukalski’s interpretation of The Last Supper all the more appropriate.
Eventually six additional sculptures were added to the site in the early 1990s, including the infamous pink Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada, the wooden Icara, Fred Bervoets’ prospector and a penguin (a tribute to early Death Valley miner Shorty Harris), two additional works by Szukalski (Ghost Rider and Desert Flower), and a concrete couch covered in brightly colored tiles by Sofie Siegmann titled Sit Here! Artists from all over the world still seek out Goldwell, and artist residency and workspace programs have been introduced. The park is free and open 24/7 to the public.
Click on these links to the Goldwell Open Air Museum outdoor sculpture garden and ghost mining town of Rhyolite for more information. All photographs are HDR (high dynamic range) images comprised of bracketed RAW shots processed in Lightroom, Photomatix Pro, and onOne Software’s Perfect Effects. They were shot with a Nikon D800 DSLR camera.
On a final note, I want to apologize to my blog subscribers for the lengthy delay in getting this new post out. Unfortunately, I have encountered severe problems over the past two months with my prior web hosting company, Go Daddy. I was unable to create any new posts or upload images to my website. Despite numerous calls to Go Daddy tech support, this issue was never fixed so I had to change web hosting providers. The process of migrating my entire website to a new and wonderful hosting company – Hostgator – and then changing my domain name servers, has taken a great deal of time and effort but has been very worthwhile. Hopefully these problems will never again occur. This has been extremely frustrating not to mention embarrassing. All I can say is “No Daddy!”