Press Room

Ghost towns

Jul 22, 2011

Nevada’s rural landscape is punctuated with ghost towns — communities built on the promise of mining riches, and then discarded when the dream either died or never quite became reality.

The names of many Nevada ghost towns — Goldfield, Midas, Silver Peak and Goldpoint — attest to the aspirations of those dreamers who hoped they had stumbled upon the next Comstock Lode. In some cases, the towns boomed until the mines played out; in others, the mines never delivered what investors had hoped. All are part of the boom-and-bust cycle enacted throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s in the Nevada desert.

Today, visitors still can see the remains of these mining camps and towns. Some, like Belmont, Rhyolite, Berlin and Goldfield, offer at least a glimpse of their former glory, while others are little more than stone fragments, broken bottles and a mention in a history book or on a ghost town map.

Here are a few to consider:

Rhyolite. One of the state’s most picturesque ghost towns, Rhyolite also was one of the most overly promoted when it came to actually producing gold and silver. Established in 1905 about three hours north of Las Vegas, the town quickly grew to include more than 6,000 residents. Within five years, it boasted three railroad lines, its own stock exchange, several banks and blocks of stone buildings.

Initial assays for the district — called the Bullfrog Mining District because of the green color of the gold ore — indicated ore with a value of $3,000 a ton, but those early signs were misleading. Ultimately, only slightly more than $1.5 million in gold was pulled from the area, considerably less than was spent developing the community.

By the mid-1930s, Rhyolite had collapsed. Many of the town’s structures were dismantled to build other communities, particularly nearby Beatty. However, a few of the hardier structures have survived. The two most intact are a rare bottle house (the walls are constructed of old bottles, a common practice in mining towns where building materials were scarce) and a large, mission-style railroad depot.

Belmont. Located about 45 miles north of Tonopah in the middle of Nevada, Belmont had a lot of promise. From 1865 to 1890, the Belmont area produced about $15 million in gold and silver. For a time, Belmont was the Nye County seat. But once the ore dried up, the town began to fall into the familiar pattern of decay and neglect.

Today, there is still plenty of old Belmont to see. The main street, now paved, is lined with aging storefronts and remains of what was once the town’s central business district. On one side, one can find the arched brick facade that probably was the town bank. Across the way are tumbledown pieces of the former Cosmopolitan Saloon. North of the town’s center is the Belmont Courthouse. The picturesque two-story brick structure has been partially restored by the Nevada Division of State Parks, which no doubt saved it.

Just outside the main part of the town are ruins of an abandoned mill site. Red brick walls and the remains of large smokestacks are all that’s left of the Monitor Mill. Newer houses have been constructed around the older structures, including one home with a satellite dish.

Berlin. Perhaps the best preserved of Nevada’s turn-of-the-century mining towns is Berlin, 23 miles east of Gabbs in central Nevada. Founded in the late 1890s, Berlin never grew beyond a few hundred residents and only produced gold until 1909, then faded away. Records indicate a yield of only about $2.50 per ton of ore. Fortunately, the town was acquired at that time by a mining company, which protected its buildings over the years.

In the 1970s, the town was turned over to the Nevada Division of State Parks, which has maintained its mill, several homes and commercial buildings in a state of arrested decay. The result is a virtually intact mining camp, although the mill equipment was removed for scrap during World War II. State park rangers offer guided tours of the town, explaining the use of each building.

Berlin also is home to some of the world’s largest ichthyosaur fossils. A visit to Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park reveals full skeletons of these giant swimming carnivores that averaged 50 feet to 60 feet in length and weighed 40 tons.

Goldfield. Twenty-six miles south of Tonopah, Goldfield was one of Nevada’s largest boomtowns.

Gold was discovered in Goldfield in 1902 and within five years the town grew to more than 20,000 residents. By 1904, the town’s mines were producing more than $10,000 a day, and within two years, Goldfield had surpassed Tonopah and Virginia City as the biggest town in the state, with more than 20,000 residents. In 1908, the Goldfield Hotel was built, giving Goldfield the most modern and luxurious hotel between San Francisco and Kansas City. It boasted an elevator, imported rugs and gilded gold ceilings.

Goldfield began to slide after 1910, when the mines began to decline. In 1913, a flash flood destroyed several blocks of the city and in 1923 a fire swept through, burning 53 square blocks. Over the years, people drifted away. Still, despite its relatively short life, Goldfield was one of Nevada’s bigger strikes, producing an estimated $80 million to $125 million in gold.

Today, Goldfield remains an interesting history lesson. Despite the destruction caused by floods, fires and neglect, the streets contain the heart of the old town. The Goldfield Hotel still stands and has undergone a partial renovation. Across the street, the large Esmeralda County Courthouse is still in use. Its old-fashioned charm remains evident even in the public seating area, where hat racks beneath the seats hearken back to the days of cowboys and gentlemen attending court.

Once upon a time, Wyatt and Virgil Earp walked the streets of Goldfield, helping to keep the peace. At the Goldfield Hotel, owner George Wingfield — who Fortune Magazine would call the “proprietor of Nevada” — sat in the dining room, dividing up the political power in the state.

And Tex Rickard, who would later build Madison Square Garden in New York, stood behind the bar in his Northern Saloon dreaming of ways to promote a lightweight championship boxing match he had cooked up for Goldfield between Battling Nelson and Joe Gans.

If only the ghosts could talk.