once-thriving gold mining town is now a ghost town,
with many original structures including miners'
cabins, a train station and the Bottle House, built
by miner Tom Kelly out of 51,000 bottles -- most of
them beer bottles. It was restored in 1926 by
in the desert, nothing moves. Nothing but the dust in the
and maybe the occasional lizard, like this little guy,
doing push-ups on a rock in the shade of a mesquite bush.
and snakes, probably scorpions, and the wind are the only
inhabitants of the places I am looking for here in the
desert. Because in these places, it is the ghosts of the
American West who hold forth.
the average creepy individual ghosts, the vengeful murder
victims and the lost halfway widows and the peripatetic
poltergeists — though yes, you may find those here, too.
are the ghosts whose skeletons are the crumbled bones of
buildings, whose headstones are the signs bleached to
illegible by the sun. The spirits here are not of
individuals, but of humanity in general, from its hopes
and its dreams to its greed and its folly.
are the phantoms of places, of history that have come to
be known as ghost towns
were places once booming, places the dreamers moved heaven
and earth to get to. They came for a treasure, a mother
lode, an impossibility made true. On a rumor, through the
grapevine, at great peril to life and limb, they came.
Pioneers, lone men, hard men, with determination or
nothing left to lose, who came and laid claims, and picked
up shovels and planted dynamite. Lives and fortunes played
out in accelerated real time, but the heydays were
numbered. The hard times may have taken decades, but more
often only years, to draw to swift and disastrous ends.
when the people — the bankers, the paupers, the ladies
of the night and the families who believed their futures
would always be bright — saw the end looming. They left
towns were all the evidence that remained of what had gone
before. The ghosts of boomtowns past.
are ghost towns everywhere — you’d be surprised at
where you can find them, all over the world. But the
American West is where you’ll find those
quintessentially busted boomtowns.
some have gotten a second wind as tourist attractions;
others remain "Hey, look at that!" places
occasionally stumbled upon by the lost. Many have been
tarted up again, with signage and souvenirs, while others
remain virtually untouched – except by the wind, the
occasional rain and the sweep-swish whisking of the
recent trip to Las Vegas, I built in some extra time to go
in search of ghost towns. In this part of the country, you
can’t roll a pair of dice without hitting someplace
rented a car and headed out, along interstates that went
from traffic jams to
that went from 65 mph limits to 70 and then 75 and then 80
(would have taken photos as evidence, but was driving too
fast); that went from neon billboards advertising casinos
and Penn & Teller to the sides of semi-trucks painted
with NUDE GIRLS and big yellow lettered store signs for
Area 51 Cafe decorated with aliens.
knew, then, that I was getting close. The wind picked up.
The ghost towns were waiting at the end of the road.
most common instigator in the boom-to-bust-to-ghost-town
evolution, as you can guess, is the mother lode. Or at
least finding traces of minerals that promised ore galore
and commensurate riches.
contrary to the name, Rhyolite, about 120 miles northeast
of Las Vegas and situated at the eastern edge of Death
Valley National Park, was not established to unearth the
eponymous mineral. Rhyolite was just the most common
mineral miners hit while extracting the gold (and some
silver) in this godforsaken part of Nevada. Or, as one
local explained it, "Rhyolite was what the miners
wandering miners, Shorty Harris and Ed Cross, are credited
with making the find on Aug. 4, 1904, when they noticed an
errant piece of quartz with rhyolite and flecks of gold.
quartz was just full of free gold," Shorty said.
"Talk about rich! Why, gee whiz, it was great."
began in earnest in 1905. Industrialist Charles M. Schwab
got a piece of the action early on and invested heavily in
infrastructure, including piped water, electric lines and
railroad transportation. By 1907, Rhyolite had electric
lights, water mains, telephones, newspapers, a hospital, a
school, an opera house and a stock exchange. But the boom
began to bust quickly after the San Francisco earthquake
and fire in 1906 began drying up the pool of excited
investors. A failing U.S. economy further slowed
operations. By 1911 mining was over.
was once the biggest town in southern Nevada. And today it’s
a pretty extensive ghost town. Well known, as ghost towns
go, it is a relatively popular tourist draw. Not like it’s
swarming with humanity. No, I probably saw a total of two
dozen people all day. But it was harder to catch that
all-alone-with-ghosts-of-miners-past feeling than, say, my
first and truly eerie encounter decades earlier at the
one-shack-plus-snakes town of Bumble Bee, Ariz.
as the day wound down, and I got thirstier, and the dirt
and pebbles and rocks and old pillars of the once-mighty
bank cast longer and longer shadows, and the people in
their rental Hyundais and Porsche convertibles snapped
their last images and drove off in search of cold beers
and hot showers, I got some alone time.
to think about Shorty and Ed, the miners, the
exhilaration, the bankers, the greed, the TNT, the spam,
the hopes, the shysters … all gone now. Out here in the
blasting sun, your pupils get a workout. The size of
pinpricks when you get outside, maybe that does something
to your vision. I started thinking about gold here.
Thought maybe these guys bugged out fast, and missed some.
Thought, as I crunch-crunched around the back of the bank,
thought maybe I saw a glint of something yellow just a
little … bit … farther … ahead.
features: The ruins are extensive, with a bank, miners
shacks, print house, mercantile shop, etc. The train depot
(privately owned) and the Bottle House are both entirely
intact. The bottle house, yes, was built almost completely
of actual bottles — 51,000 beer bottles cemented with
adobe mud. It was restored by Paramount Pictures in
January 1925 for a movie, "The Airmail."
you get to the ghost town, you’ll find Goldwell Outdoor
Art Museum, a pretty cool collection of seven large
sculptures — most notably a ghostlike "Last
Supper" started by a Belgian artist and some of his
took a while to find the ghost town at Silver Reef. It’s
only about 15 miles northeast of St. George, which happens
to be a big town — a reference point — in western
Utah. It’s also either one mile west of Leeds — or it
is in Leeds, depending on your source. The area today is
vast vistas of sandstone in red and gray, worth the drive
even if you never did find the little ghost town that sits
at the end of a development of tony houses at the end of a
quiet residential road.
a different scene from the one 150 years ago, after John
Kemple, a prospector from Nevada, discovered a vein of
silver in a sandstone formation here in 1866. It is one of
only two places on earth where silver was actually found
in sandstone, and for a while nobody believed the silver
was real. It was, and there was enough of it to generate
this particular flash in the pan boomtown, which lasted
seven years before its fortunes began to decline.
features: There’s a museum, as well as the Cosmopolitan
Restaurant, restored to a more or less original version
from the 1870s.
ruins are surrounded by and interspersed among modern
upscale houses, and even the rather crazy-looking
(turrets, for one) studio/art gallery of bronze sculptor
Jerry Anderson. In fact the scenery has made this area a
magnet for artists, and several communities in the area
offer galleries and studio tours.
IRON TOWN, UTAH
25 miles west of Cedar City, Utah, down an increasingly
lonely Route 56 and then 5 miles down Old Iron Town Road
are the fenced-in ruins of this former boomtown.
Originally called Iron City, the ghost town was begun by
Brigham Young, the head of the Mormons, who quickly
realized that the fastest way to an independent Mormon
state was to make the new colony self-sufficient. And one
important factor in this plan was iron, which was very
expensive to ship from the eastern United States. The
operation was set up to take advantage of nearby Iron
its height, Old Iron Town had a schoolhouse, a furnace, an
arastra for grinding fine sand for molds, a blacksmith
shop, a general store, charcoal kilns and cabins for its
workers. It was a productive effort, but several
obstacles, including a lack of transportation, led to its
demise after seven years; the site was abandoned in 1876.
Mountain remains one of the richest iron deposits in the
features: Preservationists decided not to restore the
ruins but leave them in their natural state. Visitors
today will see the blast furnace chimney, ruined walls of
the foundry, the arastra, a charcoal kiln and a cabin. The
beehive kiln is impressively intact. Though off the beaten
track, the site has bathrooms and a picnic area. There are
also two short hikes through the ruins and the desert.
is the old pioneers cemetery in Little Pinto. And on your
way to Snow Canyon — definitely worth a visit for its
stunning, poured-rock-looking lava formations — is
Mountain Meadows, site of the 1857 massacre of the Fancher
Party Wagon Train by local Mormon settlers. There are
memorials to the victims off Route 18.
NEV.: Heading north on U.S. 95 from Las Vegas, travel 116
miles to Beatty, Nevada’s gateway to Death Valley
National Park. Rhyolite is 4 miles west of Beatty on State
Route 374 and is overseen by the Bureau of Land
Management. More info: nps.gov/deva/learn/historyculture/rhyolite-ghost-town.htm
OPEN AIR MUSEUM: You’ll come to the museum just before
you get to Rhyolite. The art is accessible 24/7; the
visitor center, which has some history of Rhyolite, a
small guide for 50 cents (or download your own guide
online in advance for free), plus beautiful handmade
flutes for sale by visitor center overseer Richard
Stephens, is open most days from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. except
Sundays (in summer, usually closed by 2 p.m. because of
the heat). More info: goldwellmuseum.org.
REEF, UTAH: The ghost town is 18 miles north of St.
George, Utah. From Las Vegas (or St. George) take I-15
north to exit 22 toward UT-228S/Leeds. Take that 0.7 mile
and turn left onto Silver Reef Road (it becomes Oak Grove
Road) and just past Juniper Way turn right on Wells Fargo
Road, which takes you to the ghost town. The Wells Fargo
Express Building Museum offers guided tours at 10:30 a.m.
and 1 and 3 p.m. during regular hours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Monday and Thursday through Saturday; $3 per person or $10
per family (435-879-2254). More info: silverreefutah.org.
IRON TOWN, UTAH: From Cedar City, Utah, head west on
Highway 56 for approximately 20 miles. Turn south onto Old
Iron Town Road and go south for approximately 5 miles to
the ruins. The park service recommends visitors first stop
at the Frontier Homestead State Park Museum in Cedar City
to get an overview of the history of the area and to pick
up a self-guided tour brochure. Old Iron Town is open
year-round during daylight hours. More Info:
frontierhomestead.org, 435-586-9290 or
Comprehensive and easy-to-use site for background
information on ghost towns in general as well as a search
engine for ghost towns in the U.S. and Canada.
Another good list of ghost towns, most in the United
States, some in Canada and a few links to those in the