As we drive the back roads, we see a number of ghost towns listed on our map. However, there is nothing but building foundations to see at most of them. Rhyolite is an exception. Considering that the town was really only in existence for fifteen years and that was over one hundred years ago, it’s amazing how much has survived intact. As we explored the place signs warned us not to wander far, because of rattlesnakes. I wondered if there really were snakes or if this was an economical way to keep tourists from destroying what still remains.
In 1904 prospectors found quartz deposits laced with gold in the area and the rush was on. Over 2,000 claims were filed in a thirty mile area. The town of Rhyolite immediately boomed wth buildings springing up everywhere. One bank building erected in 1908 was three stories tall and cost $90,000 to build. It had marble floors, electric lights and steam heat. A stock exchange and Board of Trade were formed. The red light district drew women from as far away as San Francisco. There were hotels, stores, a school for 250 children, an ice plant, two electric plants, foundries and machine shops and even a miner’s union hospital. The town citizens had an active social life including baseball games, dances, basket socials, whist parties, tennis, a symphony, Sunday school picnics, basketball games, Saturday night variety shows at the opera house and pool tournaments. The Alaska Glacier Ice Cream Parlor delighted the local citizens. An enterprising miner, built a Bottle House out of 50,000 beer and liquor bottles easily obtained from the local saloons. He didn’t bother to wash the bottles, because water lines had not been brought to Rhyolite yet. He raffled off the house and a family lived in it until 1914.
A mill had been constructed to handle 300 tons of ore a day at the Montgomery Shoshone mine. The mine had become nationally known because Bob Montgomery once boasted he could take $10,000 a day in ore from the mine. It was later owned by Charles Schwab, who purchased it in 1906 for a reported 2 to 6 million dollars. Three railroads served the town.
The financial panic of 1907 took a toll on Rhyolite and this was the beginning of the end for the town. The second school was finished just as people began moving out and on. In the next few years mines started closing and banks failed. Newspapers went out of business, and by 1910 the production at the mill had slowed to $246,661 and there were only 611 residents in the town from a high of 8,000. In 1911 the directors voted to close down the Montgomery Shoshone mine and mill. In 1916 the light and power were finally turned off in the town.
Today we could see several remnants of Rhyolite’s glory days. Some of the walls of the three story bank building are still standing, as is part of the old jail. The train depot (privately owned) is one of the few complete buildings left in the town, as is the Bottle House. The Bottle House was restored by Paramount pictures for a Douglas Fairbanks movie in 1925. Ghost towns in remote spots appeal to artists and one came here from Belgium and built a series of statues out of a material that looks like white plastic. I thought they looked like the ghosts of the old residents of Rhyolite, but a set of twelve was labeled The Last Supper.
When we stopped for lunch at a less ghostly town nearby, the proprietor encouraged us to stop at Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge on our way back. We have felt skeptical about the origin of the supposedly natural lake in our campground and we were astonished to see how much water was gushing out of the ground at Ash Meadows in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Early settlers tried to harness the water and grew cotton and alfalfa there. In the 1980’s a real estate development tried to build a 30,000 home community there and they were stopped by the lowly pupfish. The gushing water comes from an underground aquifer that never would have provided enough water for 30,000 homes, but did create a unique ecosystem that was being destroyed by the construction bulldozers. The tiny pupfish live in few other places and conservationists pleaded its case and won. In 1984 the wildlife refuge was created, but it took years to restore the land and reestablish the environment. A magnificent visitor center was recently opened and boardwalks brought us to a few spots where the water was flowing at 2,800 gallons/minute. The refuge includes a deep cave called the Devils’ Hole where divers have submerged almost 500 feet and have not found the bottom. Apparently the drought and draining of other aquifers in California have not affected this area.