Crumbling Dreams: Rhyolite, Nevada: Ghost Town in the Mojave Desert

Rhyolite's school building

A few miles east of Death Valley National Park there stand the ruins of a mining town that at its peak numbered more than 3,000 people.  In a span of two years, beginning in 1905, the people of Rhyolite erected a three-story bank, a hospital, an eight-room school, a railroad station, an opera house, and an assortment of other buildings intended to accommodate a vibrant community of miners and their families who had come from far and wide in hopes of striking gold in the parched deserts of Nevada and California.  Within a mere five years the boom ended, Rhyolite’s residents began to flee, and the town began to die.  By 1920, time and the elements had set to work dismantling what thousands of people had so carefully built.

All that remains of Rhyolite are crumbling buildings and the detritus of the people who inhabited them. Old, rusted beer cans lie strewn about on the ground.   Gusts of wind blow them around like autumn leaves.  Defunct mineshafts watch the town from the surrounding hills.  Rattlesnakes seek shelter from the heat of summer and the chill of winter in the rubble of collapsed walls.  Jackrabbits bound through desert shrubs clinging to existence.  The only sounds are the howl of the wind and the scraping of beer cans against hard white sand.

The ruins of Rhyolite speak to a million deliberate decisions, vestiges of thoughts and intentions and hopes and dreams.  “Here we’ll erect a two-story school house so that our kids can grow up in this town.  There, across the wide main street, we’ll build a bank so that we may deposit our earnings and draw on them in the future.  We’ll pipe water into town, build an electrical grid, lay railroad tracks, and construct a train station so that people can come and go.”  Everything about Rhyolite assumes a future, a sustained presence, the persistence of a way of life that we know came to an end but that the town’s inhabitants saw as everlasting.

The Cook Bank of Rhyolite

The ruins of recent history are more haunting than those of the deep past.  Machu Picchu is sublime.  To lay eyes on its green terraces, its crumbling stone walls, and the towering Andes Mountains that protected it from the destructive hands of the conquering Spaniards is to experience transcendence.  Machu Picchu is a celebration of human achievement and audacity.  It doesn’t matter that in the end the civilization that built it fell and nature reclaimed it.  What matters is that people dared to build the city in the first place.

Machu Picchu doesn’t haunt me because I can’t imagine having lived there.  I have no relationship to the people who built it.  Their traditions and way of life are foreign to me.  Rhyolite is different.  I can imagine my great grandparents having worked in its gold mines, sought medical care in its hospital, deposited money in its bank.  I belong to the civilization that built Rhyolite.  It is part of my story.

About a hundred years ago a critical mass of people chose to establish an autonomous town here in the driest, most desolate desert in North America where everything on the surface—the howling wind, the dust, the cracked ground, the snakes, and the relentless sun—warned them away.  All for something shiny that lay buried in the surrounding hills.  I like to think that the works of my time will endure where those of the past crumbled to the ground.  Rhyolite dispels this notion.  Nature makes no exceptions.

A piece of art placed on the outskirts of town in the 1980s.

The Cook Bank

Inside an old train car.

The school.

About atomsofthought
Photographer. Traveler. Writer. Reader.

32 Responses to Crumbling Dreams: Rhyolite, Nevada: Ghost Town in the Mojave Desert

  1. As I read, I couldn’t help but think that the same thing happens in my life. I grasp onto a dream (or a project, or a hobby, or a job, or a person, or an idea…), and I build for all I’m worth. I assume a future, and I prepare for it.

    Sometimes it feels like my life, my thoughts and emotions, are littered with the crumbling remains of futures that would not be.

    • Good point! I think our total buy-in to the future is necessary four our survival. We’re naive and generally optimistic (even after lifetimes of crushing defeats and disappointments, if you think about it) because we probably wouldn’t make it otherwise. I was just thinking that much of childhood, that time most of us, if we’re lucky, remember which such fondness, is filled with failures, mistakes, and often catastrophic upheavals. I remember jumping off of a chair when I was four and breaking my arm (I was pretending to be superman). Reason would suggest that I not jump off of tall things, not pretend to be superheroes, not hike, not climb mountains, not play sports, not take risks. Well, I didn’t learn a single one of those lessons. I’m not even sure I was that much more careful because of what happened. I’m sure I learned something about how to control my body, but I certainly didn’t learn not to risk death and dismemberment in general (which I do just driving a car every day).

      • You’re right, of course! Without a hope for the future – or not even that so much as an assumption that the future will be there – why would we bother?

        It’s interesting that you went straight to that particular memory. I think it says something more about you than about mankind in general. There are plenty of kids who would have taken that route afterwards – the no more jumping, no more risk route. But you did not. There is a lesson for us there even now.

  2. yearstricken says:

    It reminds me of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias.” We build our kingdoms and they slowly turn to dust.

    • Oh what a wonderful poem! I read that for the first time in my senior English class. I remember participating in a great class discussion about it. Funny thing is that most of the class didn’t fully grasp what would probably strike them as an absolute truth now that they’re adults. Time is a great teacher! So was my English teacher, by the way. 🙂

  3. And yet, doesn’t it gladden your heart that the effort was made? And doesn’t it inspire you to dig deep and try, keep trying? Such beautiful buildings they were. Too bad ours are metal and glass, intended only for today’s bottom line. Better that more of today’s builders had their eye on tomorrow.

    • You’re right. It’s sad and inspiring at the same time. On the one hand, relics of the past serve as reality checks that warn against hubris. On the other hand, they’re monuments to the kind of optimism that keeps us going. So strange that such seemingly contradictory messages can inhere in the same thing. Also, it’s cool to see how what at one time was just a building meant to serve a specific function transforms into a work of art decades later.

  4. Anonymous says:

    A modern reminder that the short term dreams of humans will all fall, especially when based on the greed of earthly riches. An excellent read.

    • Very true! What brought that message home was a picture the Bureau of Land Management placed on the main street showing the intact town teeming with residents dressed in the formalwear of the day (1906 or thereabouts).

  5. What an eerie place! They really dreamed large, didn’t they?! Your photos are outstanding.

    My family recently visited the ruins of one of the abandoned coal mining towns in the New River Gorge in West Virginia. I doubt that anyone even dreamed of getting rich there, except for the mine owners, of course. They owned it all–the houses, the stores, the schools….

    The towns were built in remote areas, so nature is reclaiming them to some extent.

    The mountaintop removal mining sites are a different story. I’m not sure that nature can do anything to cover the scarring that is so shockingly raw.

    • Eerie is so right! The gusting wind made it even more so. The whole atmosphere of the place seemed to say, “go away.” It would be one thing if there were just a few crumbling workers’ quarters, but to see a pretty big school, the remnants of a jewelry store, and an opera house, of all things, defies belief! If the population of Las Vegas left tomorrow, I would probably wonder what on earth brought people there in the first place.

      I’m afraid you’re right about mountaintop removal. A hundred years from now a person who didn’t know any better could be forgiven for thinking that some malevolent supernatural creature took a bite out of a mountain. We’ll need larger-than-human time scales for nature to heal that scar.

  6. Great article and awesome pictures! We can photograph Rhyolite over and over again. There’s always new lighting, angles and different clouds.

    Rhyolite is just the beginning of many great ghost towns in Nevada. Just follow U.S. 95 north from Beatty/Rhyolite and you’ll reach Goldfield, Gold Point, Tonopah, Belmont, Manhattan, Austin; the list goes on. All great for photographing and exploring history.

    Cliff Bandringa
    Trip blog:

    • Hi Cliff! I can only imagine the infinite variation in conditions that must make photographing Rhyolite and the other ghost towns a pleasure. My parents are determined to return to the area, and I plan to join them. The California/Nevada border area has become one of our favorite regions in the country. It’s always a little disorienting to return to the density and glitz of Las Vegas after a week out in the boonies. Thank you for the info!


  7. I’m reminded of a story that the father of a close childhood friend used to tell. He said that once upon a time there had been an unusually thoughtful emperor in the Orient who called together his wise men and asked them to come up with a statement that would be true of all things at all times and in all places. What the wise men eventually came up with was: “This, too, shall pass away.”

    Steve Schwartzman

    • I love that story. It goes well with the Ozymandias poem yearstricken mentioned. It’s always humbling to come across direct physical evidence of the truth of that saying: “This, too, shall pass away.” I said it was haunting, but it doesn’t have to be frightening. It’s kind of pacifying to acknowledge the ephemerality of all things and to see that people of all ages have been at the mercy of entropy.

  8. Really enjoyed your musings and photos! I’ll definitely be returning to read more!

  9. I’m fascinated by such places…think of all of the stories that such towns have seen!

    Great post, glad you’re back and sharing your thoughts with us, friend. Have a wonderful New Year!

    • So many stories, so much life in places that seem dead to us now. I don’t want to forget that the people who lived in what is now a ghost town mattered at least as much as I do now.

  10. Painter Lady says:

    I’ve just read this string of comments, all responses to your ‘magical’ post…I feel blessed for the interaction I find through the process of blogging, totally apart from the topics we write…I just think that it’s a very cool thing that writers/thinkers/readers/experiencers of life can connect through this medium. Marshall McLuhan would be thrilled! As a result of your post, I’m going to write about my Rhyolite.

    • Hi! I’m pretty sporadic about blogging these days, but I totally agree with you. The process itself allows for a dialogue and coalescing of ideas and experiences that enrich my life immeasurably. It’s a grand experiment (Life always is, right?). Sometimes I pause and consider that for the majority of my life I didn’t live in this internet-driven, hyper-connected world. Of course, relative to the world my parents knew as kids, the world I lived in as a boy WAS hyper-connected even though the internet had not yet penetrated every facet of life.

      It’s both marvelous and scary. I’ve been so transformed by modern technology and the societal changes it has fostered that I’m not sure I’m capable of REALLY understanding or appreciating what life was like before this wave hit.

  11. Pingback: The Pinetree Line: My Rhyolite, Nevada (Ghost Town of the Mojave Desert) | The Chapel

  12. pattisj says:

    And to think, this wasn’t all that long ago in light of history. It’s hard to imagine anyone being drawn there in the first place.

  13. aFrankAngle says:

    Great post with outstanding pics!

  14. Aside from the amazing pictures, your posts are so thoughtful and beautifully written.

  15. Anyluckypeny says:

    I had a post of a ghost town a while ago too! They are fascinating places to visit!

  16. norcalman says:

    Death Valley is all kinds of crazy fun and the best part is that it holds no attraction for the type of tourist that thinks Hawaii is the only place to be. Good times with good people in Death Valley.

    Thanks for all your posts.

  17. hotlyspiced says:

    It’s so sad to have had a place of prosperity become so desolate. A Frank Angle recommended your blog.

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