Believe in Ghost Towns


Fall 2015

Ghost towns exercise the imagination. Their evocative emptiness invites the mind to fill in a picture of what once was. Such places are studies in absence, hollow shells whose animating communities have long since evaporated into history. Each is a physical record of a moment in time when a city that had built itself up from nothing seemed, for a time, to be unstoppable, before just as suddenly collapsing, quickly abandoned and forgotten. 

America has thousands of ghost towns across the country, all created by some variation on the theme of boom and bust, and each a cautionary tale for the thoughtful visitor. Often, that tale is a lesson in the perils of putting all your eggs in one basket but, for a boom town, diversification was often limited to supporting the main reason for the boom. Thankfully, some of the best ghost towns are preserved and promoted by the National Park Service, and you can search by state for NPS-administered ghost towns. Many are in the Western states of Arizona, Nevada, and California, and they offer some of the most intriguing time-travel opportunities in the country.

Go from Boom to Bust

For my own ghost towns exploration, I start in the American capital of boom: Las Vegas, Nevada. Is there a more famous symbol of a community springing up from nothing virtually overnight? Driving through town, flanked on either side by the colossal works of the modern-day kings of commerce, I wonder if the residents of the formerly great Western mining towns ever foresaw their own endings, or if they were taken entirely by surprise. Turning north away from Las Vegas in the direction of Death Valley and the ghost towns within and beyond, the land is boundless and bare.

Pick Up the Pieces in Beatty

On my drive toward the sparse ruins of the desert town of Rhyolite (rye-uh-lite), Nevada, I have the benefit of first touring the historical museum of the nearby, still-quite-alive town of Beatty, so a jumble of old photos and artifacts from the former mining town are still fresh in my mind, awaiting assembly in Rhyolite. Along the way are lessons on the fragility of these little worlds, reminders of how suddenly things might move on, of what not to take for granted.   

The stark ruins of the Cook Bank stand against the sky in Rhyolite.
The stark ruins of the Cook Bank stand against the sky in Rhyolite. Photo: Manamana/

Fill in the Blanks in Rhyolite

At its peak, Rhyolite wasn’t so small. Within a few years of its founding in 1904, it had up to 12,000 people walking its streets, drawn here by the discovery of gold, all having high hopes of endless riches. Electricity crackled through a town that was lit up 24/7. Tracks were laid; trains arrived and departed constantly, with freight coming in and gold ore going out. Schools opened, expanded, and rang with the laughter of children. The laughter of adults emanated from 45 saloons, numerous dance halls, and an opera house. The Bullfrog Miner’s Union was a force among the 85 mining companies ripping through the surrounding hills. Then, after the financial panic of 1907, only a few hundred people walked these true boulevards of broken dreams. Shortly thereafter, only a few dozen souls remained. It’s almost frightening to deconstruct one’s mental pictures, from vibrant growth to a fast demise, to the last resident’s death in 1924. The town’s former sense of whimsy survives in a house constructed of 50,000 bottles imbedded in adobe. One of the best-preserved structures is the former town casino, while remaining portions of the four-story Cook Bank, with skies framed through windows, inside and out, appear as evocative ruins. Here, architecture shows its barest bones. To put more flesh on this history, I head north to California and one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the country.

The Bottle House in Rhyolite is constructed of 50,000 bottles.
The remains of the Rhyolite Casino.
The Bottle House in Rhyolite is constructed of 50,000 bottles.
Photo: Perseomed/iStock/Thinkstock
The remains of the Rhyolite Casino.
Photo: buschfee/iStock/Thinkstock

Walk in the Valley of Death

Rhyolite is on high plains desert, bordering one of the most forbidding landscapes on the planet, Death Valley. It’s the hottest, driest, and lowest place in North America, entirely walled in by mountains that trap air baked by the sun reflecting off bare rock. The valley's record high temperature was a broiling 134 degrees Fahrenheit. But from late fall to early spring, it's heavenly.

Mesquite sand dunes in Death Valley, CA during a storm. Looking towards the Panamant Mountain Range in Death Valley National Park Photo: Matthew Kuhns/Tandem Stills + Motion, Inc.

As I enter Death Valley National Park, an eerie silence seems to descend. These landscapes truly deserve to be called “breathtaking.” Over the course of the day, I drive and hike alongside sand dunes, mountains, and salt flats. As the day draws to a close, I join a legion of photographers setting up to catch the shifting colors of the cliff walls as the light angles lower in the sky. As the sun sinks, I feel like I’m entering into a Salvador Dali painting; all surreal shapes, and long shadows stretching into infinite distances. In some ways, the famous name “Death Valley” is a bit misleading, as it conjures up images of unvarying desolation. In reality, however, Death Valley has variety in spades. The park is home to five mountain ranges, more than a 1,000 different plant species, bighorn sheep and coyote, and even a rare species of fish that can only be found here in a deep cavern called Devil’s Hole, the Death Valley Pupfish, last known survivor of an ancient surface lake that dried up here after the last ice age. There are also numerous waterfalls, unexpected areas of lushness with wild grape vines and palm trees, and changes in elevation that go from the dizzy heights of Telescope Peak (11,049 feet above sea level) to the lowest place in North America, the salt-crystal-covered Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level).

Sand dunes and storm clouds, Death Valley, California.
Death Valley National Park, California: The famous Teakettle Junction.
Death Valley National Park, California: The famous Teakettle Junction.
Photo: Matthew Kuhns/Tandem Stills + Motion, Inc.
The remains of the Rhyolite Casino.
Photo: Ian Shive/Tandem Stills + Motion, Inc.

“Death Valley was designated a national park in 1994 to preserve the rich history of the early American settlers who came here to make a living out of this rugged land,” says Cheryl Chipman, spokesperson for Death Valley National Park. “Many of the artifacts of Death Valley’s mining history are still here to see today.” Chipman also notes that not everyone who settled here was content to settle for less, and adds that if there’s an Exhibit A representing that idea then it would have to be Scotty’s Castle. “Scotty's Castle is a desert miracle,” she raves, “a Spanish-style mansion that springs from the desert, creating an oasis around a desert spring.” It is indeed amazing to find this grand, luxurious structure plopped into the middle of the forbidding landscape of Death Valley.

There are ghosts here, too, of the dinosaurs that thrived in a landscape that once looked far different. The fossil record here is exceptionally rich and reaches back hundreds of millions of years. To explore Death Valley is to gain an appreciation of the true depths of time.

Abandoned mining town and equipment in Bodie, California.
Abandoned mining town and equipment in Bodie, California. Photo: Tucker Cunningham/Tandem Stills + Motion, Inc.

See Surreal Landscapes

Driving north toward California’s Bodie State Historic Park, and the ghost town within, I pass mineral-laden landscapes layered in hues of purples and yellows, with huge boulders casually peppered about, fronting the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As the elevation increases, surroundings become less forbidding, and more green enters the landscape, surrounding some few scattered farms. Mono Lake, a shallow, salty, alkaline body of water, seems to materialize out of the desert like a blue mirage. The spooky shapes of naturally formed tufa columns, created by the lake’s peculiar chemistry, stand sentinel along the water’s edge and contribute to the lake’s alien atmosphere. 

Residents of Bodie gather for a hand-drilling contest held on the 4th of July.
Storefront windows of the Boone Store and Warehouse.
Residents of Bodie gather for a hand-drilling contest held on the 4th of July.
Photo: Bodie Foundation
Storefront windows of the Boone Store and Warehouse.
Photo: Getty Images/ JTB Photo

Make a Discovery in Bodie

Bodie, California, is a must-see time-travel experience for anyone interested in the history of the Old West. Though a 1932 fire destroyed most of the town, 170 well-weathered wooden structures remain, locked in a state of “arrested decay.” The town gives a visual sense of its roots, much older than Rhyolite, aided by a small museum. Gold was found here in 1859, discovered by Waterman Bodey, whose luck ran out later that same year during a sudden snowstorm while he went for supplies. By 1880, the town had grown from 20 prospectors to a diverse population of 10,000. Bodie was a tough place. The saloon count here topped 65. Fatal shootings were a daily occurrence. Gambling halls, houses of ill repute, and opium dens helped people pass the time in what was basically a drunken, violent amusement park. Today, the most menacing thing you’re apt to encounter is the occasional wandering cow (guaranteed to be unarmed).

Former residence of James Stuart Cain, a landowner and entrepreneur, who lived in Bodie for 59 years. The town is preserved today largely thanks his untiring efforts to save it. Photo: Bennett Barthelemy/Tandem Stills + Motion, Inc.

School’s Out Forever

Your imagination has more to work with here than in the ruins of Rhyolite, including some intact building interiors, and one is more easily transported back to the days of the Old West. As I look in the windows of the old schoolhouse, an eerie scene awaits. A pump organ stands against a wall, its cover open, ready to play. Lesson books lie scattered on the desks. Sticks of chalk lie in the cradle of the blackboard, still waiting to fall under the hand of a teacher who left the town a hundred years ago. A wooden globe stands on a table by a window, patterned with cracks and faded into unrecognizability by a century in the merciless sun, its northern pole covered in a snowy patina of thick dust. While the town of Bodie lived, that globe represented the living world as it was. And over the long decades, it has stayed in tune with its abandoned home, its little representation of the world fading into blankness as its own world faded around it. Each building in Bodie seems also to hold a story. Walking these dusty streets, you can almost hear the ghostly echoes of the tinkling of saloon pianos and the babble of voices from the locals, all long since dead. 

Travel through Time

Ghost towns transport us to a different era. There is a timelessness to such places, to so much of this region, that allows the mind to wander about through decades, centuries – even millennia – and not feel out of place. The vast open spaces are therapy for the urban claustrophobic. It’s a treat to drive through them, contemplating past, present, and future.

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