Monday, Oct. 23, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Funny what you find in the middle of the desert. A rifle almost as old as Nevada’s statehood leaned against a tree. Cars stuck in the cracked earth like knives neatly thrown by a giant. The bleached bones of bighorn sheep that leapt a little too far.
Mining towns have such skeletons, booming to life and busting into an afterlife sustained by human curiosity. Touring the Wild West’s abandoned past has become an international tourist attraction, to the extent of ghost towns getting Yelp reviews. But until you stand in the shadow of Rhyolite’s silent train depot, you can’t know the feeling of being somewhere and nowhere at once. The lights have been off for a century in this settlement that sprang from gold-ribboned quartz in the Bullfrog Hills, only a dozen years passing between prospectors finding the site and the power being cut. What remains is haunting. You wonder whose footsteps you’re walking in as you pass by the bank, its long-gone roof almost materializing from one proud cornice of painted brick. Who lived here? What is whispered in what they left behind?
Even without placards flagging points of historical interest, ghost towns tell rich stories, and Nevada has quite a collection. In a single day’s drive through red canyons and Joshua trees you could fill your head with forgotten Main Streets and muse on their juxtaposition to our glittering metropolis. You might spot a doorway into solid rock or the ruins of an ice cream parlor hidden for years beneath the dam-swelled Colorado River. A dusty soda bottle might be as striking as a sign’s beautifully preserved scrollwork.
Whatever you see, the view is sharpened by the characters watching over these creaky attics under the stars. They live between times, inside photographs.
The Silver State’s name derives from strikes like the one that launched Belmont.
After that 1865 haul, prospectors found copper, lead and lustrous antimony. Hoping for gold, they staked claims near the home of the man who would become Nevada’s 12th governor, Tasker Oddie. What’s left of Oddie’s house overlooks the main drag, where there’s still whiskey to be had at Dirty Dick’s saloon, along with a bloody mary concocted by the original owner.
Antique and jewelry shops share the street, though Belmont’s deeper draw is the built environment that has lasted 150 years. Among the wreckage of the Monitor-Belmont Mill is a towering chimney stark against the sky, a lighthouse without an ocean. Few bricks are missing, despite it being used for target practice by Tonopah Air Force Base pilots during World War II.
But it’s arguably the second-most striking remnant built with the sturdy red blocks. Belmont Courthouse is the town’s treasure and also a state historic park. Its last case was heard in 1905, but the Nye County community saw to the exterior’s loving restoration. Inside, a generation of graffiti remains part of the historical record, including one inscription some believe was carved by the infamous Charles Manson.
Born of the railroad as tracks flew up across America, Caliente was the halfway point on a lucrative passenger route from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City. The industry’s heyday has a monument in the town’s train depot, built in 1923. Rust-colored tiles cap a perfect mosaic of windows and Mission-style archways, the curving lines of facades loosely echoing the hills behind.
Designed by Los Angeles architects John and Donald Parkinson, the building’s interior is solid oak, once the home of a Union Pacific rail crew. It was a major hub of travel in the West until the 1940s, when steam engines gave way to diesel locomotives. Union Pacific moved its hub to Las Vegas, and Caliente grew quieter and quieter. There were losses, but not in terms of charm, because this ghost town has about 1,000 residents (the definition allows for places “nearly deserted” as industries or resources dried up).
Trains still chug through, but the railroad’s zenith in this Nevada burg is distilled in its boxcar museum. For British paper The Telegraph, David Millward praised the “bewilderingly large collection of padlocks” and “detailed ledger kept by the local brothel in a county where prostitution was and remains legal.”
The springs feeding an oasis weren’t enough to attract a permanent settlement — until Joseph Good struck silver. More silver and lead deposits helped develop the townsite of Goodsprings in the late 1860s, but gold was the foundation of the prosperous community of 1,000 that had formed by 1915. About 200 still live among bits of that legacy, including the Pioneer Saloon and Ghost Town Cafe, complete with sarsaparilla in heavy glass mugs.
A true boomtown in the early 1900s, boasting about 30,000 residents, Goldfield comes with accordingly heady lore. It’s where Wyatt Earp’s brother died. It’s where the Gans-Nelson prize fight went 42 rounds. And the bar at Tex Rickard’s Northern Saloon was apparently so long that it took 80 tenders to serve its crowds. But the ore ran out, and a 1923 fire burned 25 city blocks. The surviving stone courthouse, built in 1907, is the modern seat of Esmeralda County.
“Everything from old gas pumps, antique cars and a barn with more character than a Jack Kerouac novel. I really felt as though we arrived there via a time machine.” That is how veteran freelancer Adam Sternberg describes his first visit to Nelson on the Vegas Photography Blog, underlined with about 20 shots of the Old West gem in the Eldorado Canyon.
Its caretakers outfitted the buildings with wonderful curios — most ghost towns don’t include a gallery of rusted outboard motors in a barn that also houses a cannon. In addition to classic trucks tattooed by the sun, you can see mangled airplane parts left over from the filming of “3000 Miles to Graceland,” in which Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell play crooked Elvis impersonators who rob a casino and wind up in the desert.
Greed weaves with Nelson’s real story, as fights for control of the mines went as far as contract killings. For a sense of what drove the town’s creation and destruction, take a private tour of the nearby Techatticup gold mine’s granite caverns, eerily cool under the mountain.
Did Tom T. Kelly drink all the booze in the 50,000 bottles he used to decorate his house? It’s one delightful mystery of the shell of a town that once was the nerve center for a 30-mile area containing more than 2,000 mining claims. Prime sights include the ruins of the bank and jail, and the remarkably preserved train depot. According to the National Park Service, the Kelly homestead was restored by Paramount Pictures in 1925 — history on top of history.
"The regional press called it one of the richest, wildest and most promising camps in the West," reads the entry on Pioche in the Online Nevada Encyclopedia. The wildness is what most retellings focus on, suggesting that the only rule was the gun. The cemetery tells the story, the spookiness contrasting with the loveliness of Thompson's Opera House. Dating to 1863, it was renovated in 2009 and now houses special events. The history on its webpage describes a natural refrigerator dug from the back of the building into the rock hillside, and how the building would sway during packed Saturday dances.