Beyer's Byways: The ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada, is worth exploring

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As a young man, I recall watching the western series “Death Valley Days” with my grandmother. It turned out to be one of the longest-lived Western hits on television, running from 1952 to 1970, and was often the leaping-off point for actors who moved on to more substantial roles and recognition.

That means making a lot more money.

Actors such as Tom Skerritt, Robert Taylor, Ronald Reagan, Phyllis Coates, Fess Parker, Grace Lee Whitney and Deforest Kelley (the last two are mentioned for my lovely Trekkie wife, Laureen).

What was interesting is that the series started as a radio show in 1930 and ran until 1945.

A little imagination could transport us back in time, listening to that large contraption in the living room.

Announcer: “Welcome to another edition of ‘Death Valley Days,’ brought to you by Twenty Mule Team Borax. (Hot mic moment) Too bad this is radio since I’m really getting tired of banging two halves of a coconut together to sound like horse hooves. Would be nice to see some ponies running across the desert instead of — Hang on, clop-clop-clop.”

The author John R. Beyer in Rhyolite, Nevada.
The author John R. Beyer in Rhyolite, Nevada.

Though the radio program lasted 15 years, the above announcer only lasted one show.

What the heck was all this hoopla about Death Valley and the days involved there?

Death Valley is just a low-lying remote desert. Why visit?

It was time to find out the lure of this remote location.

“Time for a road trip,” I said.

Laureen nodded. “When is not time for a road trip?”

She had me there.

Research indicated that Death Valley is a desert valley in eastern California, in the northern Mojave Desert bordering the Great Basin Desert.

A desert within a desert that is within a desert. This should be some fun investigating.

Full transparency – I, along with my family, have traveled to Death Valley numerous times. In fact, I recall as a very young boy spending the night in Scotty’s Castle in the northern part of Death Valley.

“This is Scotty’s Castle,” I recall my father saying, as he unpacked the 20 suitcases my mother had packed into our Oldsmobile for the two-night stay.

“But I thought we were Irish,” I replied. “Where’s Seamus’s Castle?”

“No shepherd’s pie for you tonight with that attitude, laddie.”

Death Valley sees over one million visitors each year. This is truly a happening desert place to go.

My traveling companion Laureen in Rhyolite, Nevada.
My traveling companion Laureen in Rhyolite, Nevada.

From the High Desert, the drive is a bit over three hours, depending on the route since there are a few that lead into Death Valley. We like to take our time and explore all the locales along the way on any of our adventures.

One never knows what there is to discover while cruising the dark asphalt on a trip. Perhaps a small berg with a truly unique antique store. A restaurant serving old fashion malts. A museum offering an insight into ancient Native American history. A Sasquatch suddenly darting in and out of traffic along a stretch of Highway 395.

There is so much to see.

Death Valley is huge. Over three million acres make up 140 mile long, and 15 mile wide valley. It once was an inland sea that had depths of over 600 feet.

This is what makes Death Valley what it is. I wanted to try to describe it simply, but after reading the geologic mumbo-jumbo, I seriously have little idea what it means. But that is science:

Death Valley is a graben, a down-dropped block of land between two mountain ranges. It lies at the southern end of a geological trough that runs north to Oregon. The valley is bisected by a right lateral strike-slip fault system, comprised of the Death Valley Fault, intersected by the Garlock Fault, and the Furnace Creek Fault. Furnace Creek and the Amargosa River flow through part of the valley and eventually disappearing into the sand of the valley floor.

And I am not done yet.

Death Valley contains salt flats or pans. According to current geological consensus, at various times during the middle of Pleistocene era, which ended roughly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, an inland lake, Lake Manly, formed in Death Valley. The lake was nearly 100 miles long and 600 feet deep. The basin in a chain of lakes that began with Mono Lake, in the north, and continued through basins down the Owens River Valley, through Searles and China Lake and the Panamint Valley.

Almost done.

As the climatic changes turned the region to desert, the water eventually evaporated, leaving an abundance of salts, such as common sodium and borax.

A sculpture depicting the Last Supper in Rhyolite, Nevada.
A sculpture depicting the Last Supper in Rhyolite, Nevada.

In laymen’s terms: The valley is deep and surrounded by tall mountains that were once filled with a lot of water, then the water evaporated, which left a big old salty desert which became a bonanza for those looking for riches 150 years ago.

“So, where is our first experience?” Laureen asked, as we rolled southwest out of the town of Beatty, Nevada.

“The ghost town of Rhyolite,” I replied.

“Any ghosts?”

“We’ll see soon enough,” I responded.

Rhyolite was the typical mining town in the late 19th century. A big mineral discovery, a huge buildup of miners encroaching into the area, a settlement being quickly erected, and then the boom died out, as did the town.

A miner's cabin in Rhyolite, Nevada.
A miner's cabin in Rhyolite, Nevada.

But Rhyolite was a bit different.

It is still one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the state of Nevada. Large structures still stand, albeit without all the walls, ceilings, and windows, but still enough structure intact to show the visitor what the town would have looked during its heyday.

Rhyolite also has some interesting pieces of modern art just outside the main town. Really interesting — sculptures of the Last Supper, a 24-foot-tall Lego woman, a changing color trapezoid, a multi-colored hand-molded cement sofa, and a tall metal structure of a miner with a penguin standing next to him.

“And all this time I thought miners used burros as their pack animals,” I said to Laureen, as we drove into Rhyolite.

She nodded. “I’d go with the penguins. They look so sophisticated with their tuxedos compared to burros.”

I had to agree.

At the beginning of the 20th century, rich minerals were found in the Bullfrog Hills, about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Miners flooded the area after more gold was found in various valleys.

The old train station in Rhyolite, Nevada.
The old train station in Rhyolite, Nevada.

In August 1904, two miners, Cross and Harris, found gold on the south side of a southwestern Nevada hill. Their find was very rich, in today’s dollars it was nearly $90,000 dollars a ton.

“We be rich,” Cross said to Harris.

Harris replied, “Yep.”

But the area was also known for high winds and a suffocating heat that made having a permanent mining settlement near their claim questionable.

But there was a certain spot of land that offered shelter from the wind and sat at an elevation of 3,800 feet, which discouraged the crippling heat of Death Valley from invading the area.

Rhyolite was founded in 1905.

Entrepreneur Charles M. Schwab invested in the area and soon a bustling western mining town was born. By 1906. the town had piped in water, electricity, a railroad, and other things that may have taken years to establish, but Schwab knew Rhyolite was the place to be with the rich resources offered in the area, and he did not waste any time in development.

A sculpture depicting a miner and his penguin in Rhyolite, Nevada.
A sculpture depicting a miner and his penguin in Rhyolite, Nevada.

By 1907, there were electric lights, water to homes and businesses, telephones, newspapers, a hospital, a school, an opera house and a stock exchange.

By 1908, the population of Rhyolite had grown to over 5,000 citizens. It was a comparatively large town in a very remote part of the southwest.

Like all towns, there are ups and downs, and Rhyolite was no different. The massive 1906 San Francisco earthquake caused upsets in the stock market, affecting mineral prices, which also caused the financial disaster of 1907.

The town struggled by, but in 1911, the main mine in Rhyolite closed due to the low quality ore being mined.

And eventually investors stopped putting any more money into such a diminishing market.

By 1920, the population was zero.

Rhyolite had only a few years of life, the rest of the time it was on life support.

As I travel around the country, this is a familiar story.

“Do you hear the voices?” I asked Laureen as we wandered around Rhyolite.

“It’s hard not to,” she replied.

As many of my columns mention, it is hard to walk where others have in the past and not feel, if not hear, the voices that once inhabited the towns and byways.

It is as though the people are still there. Not in the literal sense, but in the sense there once was once a vital and living place that no longer exists.

The residents of Rhyolite may no longer be there, but their memories are.

Tom Kelly's Bottle House in Rhyolite, Nevada.
Tom Kelly's Bottle House in Rhyolite, Nevada.

Contact John R. Beyer at beyersbyways@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on Victorville Daily Press: Here's why the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada, is worth exploring