How A Town Was Lost: Rhyolite

How A Town Was Lost: Rhyolite
Sunrise over the ruins of Rhyolite, Nye County, Nevada, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

All that is gold does not glitter

Labanya Maitra
April 02 , 2020
05 Min Read

Let me tell you the story of a ghost town, nestled at the doorstep of the Death Valley in Nye County, Nevada. Now, remember, this isn’t the kind of ghost town you and I have heard of. If you are thinking along the lines of Bhangarh, think again. You see, independent India never had a gold rush quite like they did in the Wild West. And, today, I’d like to take you on a journey through the ghastly remnants of those short-lived boomtowns. More specifically, I’m talking about a little town—a stone’s throw from Beatty—in the middle of the Mojave Desert: Rhyolite.

The year was 1904. Shorty Harris was on his way back from prospecting a mountain when he found an outcropping of rock, composed mostly of rhyolite and quartz. Now here’s the thing about these two minerals—especially quartz—it’s where gold was found most in the area. So, Shorty picked up a younger prospector, Ed Cross, and the two set out to get samples of the ore. No surprise, the ore was high-grade, and the entire area was home to extremely valuable gold. And as the tale goes, they based an entire development on two saddlebags of ore (cue: unfortunate foreshadowing). 

Ruins of the grand bank in Rhyolite

Within a year, several mining camps—Rhyolite being one of them—sprung into existence. These camps later came to be known as the Bullfrog Mining District. Why? Well, the rocks found by Shorty and Ed were tinted green with chunks of yellow in them, just like a bullfrog. Anyway, I digress.

Shorty had a problem. He drank too much. While Ed sold his claim to Rhyolite for enough money to be able to retire to California, Shorty just about gave it away for $1,600. And so rushed a horde of people into Rhyolite to try their hand at the proverbial (maybe not) pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Most of the time, they lived in tents with wooden structures called Tucker Tents, which were built specifically for mining communities. The reason was simple, when one area or ore failed, you could just pick up the entire tent and move on to the next mining camp.

Rhyolite's school building

Amargosa and Bullfrog, both mining hubs, really established the town. Now, for a dry, arid place like the Mojave, the most important commodity was water. The first water came from the Amargosa River. It was still small mining at this time, but the rush continued. When water was introduced, three major areas started arguing about which would be the main town, and Rhyolite won. Three companies worked together to establish water pipelines to the area. It was a $15 hook-up, and one cent a gallon at that time.

The town was developing, but they had no way to get the ore out from there. So, within three years, they set up three railroads to and from Rhyolite. From the north came the Bullfrog Goldfield Railroad, the second was the Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad, and the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad was third.

By 1907, came electricity. They ran a powerline down from Bishop, California, through Goldfield, and into Rhyolite. That was the longest open transmission line in the world at that time. It was also a gamechanger, and the town was really booming. I mean, they were in the desert, but now they had fans!

The well-preserved rail depot

But Rhyolite needed to communicate to keep its industry running smoothly. Before telephone lines were introduced, they used telegrams, and even before that, it was the heliograph. There was a heliograph station at the top of Bonanza Mountain, and one in the park. They used these to communicate in Morse code, but this only lasted three or four months.

At the peak of its boom, it seemed like Rhyolite had it all. They had two swimming pools, baseball teams, the opera, 50 saloons, 35 gambling tables, 19 lodging houses, 16 restaurants, barbers, bath houses, brothels, and they even had a weekly newspaper—the Rhyolite Herald. The town started resembling a metropolis. Before long, they introduced a monthly magazine, police and fire departments, a hospital, school, train station and railway depot, three banks, a stock exchange, and two churches. From the early prospectors in 1905, the town had grown to about 7,500 to 10,000 people in 1908.

The brothel house

But what goes up, must come down. Rhyolite’s bust actually started while it was still booming. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake all but shattered the financial system in the West Coast, and the funds for mining started dwindling. The other reason was the gold. What do they say about all that glitters?

Well, here’s a quick lesson. There were three types of gold in the region. The first is the kind you can visually see in the form of small veins; the second is ‘spider gold’ that, as the name suggests, looks like a spider web; and the third, which is mined in the modern day, requires a lot of earth to be removed to mine it. The bottomline for miners is that they should extract 0.14 ounces of gold, for every 100 ton of earth moved, for it to be viable. And back in the 1900s, they simply didn’t have the technological capabilities to do that.

As 1908 progressed, there was no market anymore, no product, and no more investment. That was the beginning of the end for Rhyolite, and by 1919, it was all gone.

The ruins of Rhyolite

As for today, you can walk through the ghost of this once-booming town. The Mojave has taken back what rightfully belonged to it. The bank, brothel, school, they all lie in ruins.

But there’s always a silver lining. Rhyolite is one of the most-visited and photographed ghost towns from America's Gold Rush era. Artists have set up camp through the years to leave their creations around this metropolis of the past.

And if you do venture out there, be sure to stop by the RV parked next to the Bottle House and say hi to the town’s caretaker, and only resident, Karl Olsen. He’ll tell you all about the glory days of Rhyolite.

Oh and, beware of rattlesnakes.


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