It was the first place in Nevada to have concrete sidewalks and the first place in the state to have electricity. Founded in 1905, it soon had three railroads, a stock exchange, a hospital, a symphony, a few churches and many brothels. Nope, it’s not Vegas but a ghost town called Rhyolite, named for a silica-rich volcanic rock with the promise of gold that caused a frenzied rush that just as quickly turned to bust.
Considered one of the coolest ghost towns in the US, Rhyolite is 35 miles from Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park. Magellan and I can be hot or cold on ghost towns. Rhyolite? Definitely the former.
Arriving on a Sunday morning in March, we thought the weird juxtaposition of Rhyolite, a short-lived town built on gold and greed, right beside the non-profit Goldwell Open Air Museum with its iconic sculpture of The Last Supper, was rather unorthodox. “Let’s look at those sculptures on the way out,” I said to Magellan. “We’re here to see Rhyolite.”
We could imagine Rhyoliters like founder “single-blanket jackass-prospector” Shorty Harris sauntering over to Golden Street, where three walls of the Cook Bank still stand tall, framing the desert-blue skies like a Clint Eastwood movie set. Or Charles Schwab, the wealthy steel-magnet financier, arriving in top hat and tails at the Tonopah train station to withdraw his investment before the financial Panic of 1907, the Knickerbocker Crisis, reminding me of Leonard Cohen’s lyrics in Closing Time:
Yeah I missed you since the place got wrecked
By the winds of change and the weeds of sex
Looks like freedom but it feels like death
It’s something in between, I guess
It’s closing time
Or miner Tom Kelly, building his famous Bottle House studded with tens of thousands of mostly Adolphus Busch empties that he collected in only a year and a half from Rhyolite’s thirty-six saloons. Or Isabelle Sadie (Peterman) Haskins, aka Mona Belle, lifting her crimson crinoline skirts in the dance hall with her name glorifying the marquee.
“What’s this?” we wondered looking at a gravesite adorned with gaudy-coloured fake-pearl necklaces, blood-red plastic flowers, silvery high-heels, an empty bottle of aquavit and Mona’s name etched on the white, wooden cross in the lone grave in Rhyolite.
Living Las Vegas was our bible of the town’s most famous murder. Married just out of high school, Mona Belle eloped to Rhyolite with another man, a fast-talking gambler and pimp named Fred Skinner. In an argument in early January 1908, allegedly over money, Fred shot her dead. He claimed she pulled the trigger first, then begged him to shoot her in a murder-suicide but was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years. Mona Belle’s remains were transferred to her parents, who lived in Ballard, now part of Seattle. It’s only Mona Belle’s ghostly spirit that arises here.
After wandering about Rhyolite for an hour or so, we returned to the Goldwell Open Air Museum. And wondered still: why did Belgian-Polish artist Albert Szukalski choose acreage right alongside Rhyolite for his ghostly, hooded, empty figures of plaster-coated burlap—characters in The Last Supper as vulnerable to deception as Mona Belle?
Both venues are free so economics wasn’t a motive. It’s said Albert was inspired by the striking similarity between the scenic vistas of the Mojave Desert and the Holy Land. I prefer my version, that he chose this location to contrast the ghostly line of vulnerability that separates the edge from the abyss, boom from bust, beloved from betrayed, from which neither sex nor religion provide more than temporal escape. No matter the intended or implied theory, these side-by-side attractions offer a diversion from Death Valley, a “broken hallelujah” that we highly recommend.
The National Park service tells you more about Rhyolite.
For lunch, head to The Happy Burro in Beatty, 100 W Main Street. “The chili’s still got another two hours to go,” the waitress told us, “but our burgers are pretty good.” They were. It’s said the people of Beatty raided Rhyolite as it ghosted so we wondered about the origin of the saloon’s antiques as we sat outside in the sun and listened to two local wide-girthed jubilados, nursing their first beers of the day and extolling their chiropractors. “Did I tell ya about my brother’s wife? She was cyclin’ two-and-a-half miles a day on her exercise bike, so much she got back problems. Now she’s hooked on OxyContin. Just goes to show ya dunnin’ it?”