Located in a state where it seems that every other town is a ghost town, Rhyolite, Nevada stands out as one of the best of its kind: those crumbling monuments to recklessly optimistic metropolitan development during the boom town days of mineral exploitation in the American West. At its peak, in 1907, the population of Rhyolite is estimated to have risen to somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 people; scores of businesses and houses sustained these people as they mined the hills for gold. Today, a few fractured sections of those buildings that were made of brick or stone still stand as evidence of the wealth, or dreams of wealth, that once existed in Rhyolite.
The ghost of Rhyolite is located in western Nevada, near the still-living town of Beatty, on the corridor of land called the Amargosa Desert, between Death Valley National Park and Nellis Air Force Range. Gold was discovered in the hills there in 1904, and Rhyolite, named for the ore in which gold was found, grew up in competition (which it "won") with the nearby settlement of Bullfrog. The town's prospects were agressively promoted to outside investors--so much so that the hillsides were soon littered with hotels, banks, 45 saloons, a stock exchange, a schoolhouse, and a large railway station that was served by three rail lines. The local power company supplied electricity to 400 streetlights. Unfortunately, only about $2 million in gold was mined from the area--not nearly enough to show for all this growth when the double whammy of a national financial panic and the San Francisco Earthquake caused investors' money to dry up. The residents of Rhyolite, finding nothing to keep their ambitions alive, soon departed; with them went any reason for the continuation of the desert metropolis and businesses carted away anything of value (including the railroad tracks) that wasn't too deeply rooted. In 1910, a census of the town revealed 675 remaining citizens; 10 years later that number was 14.
So how is it that a useless old ghost town continues to draw thousands of tourists every year? Highway 95, the main road between Reno and Las Vegas, helps, as does the related survival of nearby Beatty (Gateway to Death Valley). There are also three very good reasons to get off the highway and take the side road into Rhyolite. First, while the town has its share of piles of weathered sticks that used to be shacks, it is also home to many sturdier ruins--picturesque stone facades haunted by the fact that they are younger than so much that is still alive. The rail depot is still in relatively good condition and shows signs of having been used for illicit purposes, perhaps during Prohibition. This is a great place to have your picture taken.
The second reason for visiting Rhyolite is the Ghost Museum, which is usually closed. Calling ahead on short notice won't help at all here, so it's a good thing that all the exhibits are outdoors. What's exhibited are large sculptures made from junk and cheap materials: painted cinder block, twisted chrome auto bumpers, and the signature medium, plaster-impregnated sackcloth that was obviously draped over the artists and allowed to harden. The crazy-looking place is the work of some crazy Belgians--Albert Szukalski, Fred Bervoets and others--who only show up once a year to add a new piece, so nothing's going to stop you from fooling around with the art or--as I did--adding a stuffed monkey to most of them and documenting the results.
And last, but hardly least, in Rhyolite, is the Bottle House. Certainly there are other houses built with bottles in the world, but this one is placed in a context where it almost seems normal and prosaic; bottles are, after all, good insulators, and the town's 45 saloons provided more free building materials (which were used like bricks) than the builder, Tom Kelly, could use. Kelly built his Bottle House in 1906, and used leftover scraps to build a minature replica of the town around him for children to play with. All of it is still standing; it was "reconstructed" in the 1920s for a western movie and has been the subject (and sometimes victim) of other restoration efforts. A current project is attempting to remedy some of the damage done to the house by past "benefactors". If you're lucky, you may meet the caretaker, who plays the part of a grizzled desert rat to the hilt, and hear his stories about the place.
The Friends of Rhyolite keep the place more-or-less fixed up, and hold a Rhyolite Resurrection Festival every year--sort of an arts fair. More information is available by writing to them at P.O. Box 85, Amargosa Valley, NV 89020.
Moreno, Richard. Roadside History of Nevada. Missoula: Mountain Press, 2000
Castleman, Deke. Nevada Handbook. 4th ed. Chico: Moon, 1995
Peck, Donna. Nevada: Off the Beaten Path. 2nd ed. Guilford: Globe Pequot, 1999