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Ghost Towns — Where Boom Turned To Bust

By Jill Schensul, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (TNS)

Here, in the desert, nothing moves. Nothing but the dust in the wind.

Oh, and maybe the occasional lizard, like this little guy, doing push-ups on a rock in the shade of a mesquite bush.

Lizards, 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.

Not 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.

These 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.

These are the phantoms of places, of history that have come to be known as ghost towns.

All 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.

That’s 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 in droves.

The towns were all the evidence that remained of what had gone before. The ghosts of boomtowns past.

There 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.

Today 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 sidewinder.

On a 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 romantically abandoned.

So I rented a car and headed out, along interstates that went from traffic jams to better-carry-water-in-case-I-get-stuck-or-I’ll-die-before-someone-finds-me; 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.

I knew, then, that I was getting close. The wind picked up. The ghost towns were waiting at the end of the road.

RHYOLITE, NEVADA

The 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.

And, 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 swore at.”

Two 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.

“The quartz was just full of free gold,” Shorty said. “Talk about rich! Why, gee whiz, it was great.”

Mining 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.

Rhyolite 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.

Still, 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.

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.

Notable 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.”

Before 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 compatriots.

SILVER REEF, UTAH

It 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.

Quite 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.

Notable features: There’s a museum, as well as the Cosmopolitan Restaurant, restored to a more or less original version from the 1870s.

The 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.

OLD IRON TOWN, UTAH

About 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 Mountain.

At 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.

Iron Mountain remains one of the richest iron deposits in the country.

Notable 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.

Nearby 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.

IF YOU GO

RHYOLITE, 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 or travelnevada.com.

GOLDWELL 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.

SILVER 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.

OLD 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 scenicsouthernutah.com.

RESOURCES

Ghosttowns.com: 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.

freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com: Another good list of ghost towns, most in the United States, some in Canada and a few links to those in the U.K.

©2015 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: The Goldwell Open Air Museum is located just before Rhyolite, Nev., and features seven outdoor sculptures by Belgian artists. The biggest work is the “Last Supper” by Charles Albert Szukalski. (Jill Schensul/The Record/TNS)

Death Valley In Winter: Perhaps The Only Sane Time To Visit

By Sam McManis, The Sacramento Bee (TNS)

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — High noon at Badwater basin, and here I am wearing a light fleece coat and cursing it because, well, it’s not my high-end, breathable Gore-Tex rain jacket, hanging uselessly back home in the hallway closet.

Yes, it’s raining in Death Valley. This never happens. Oh, all right, they do get a tiny measure of precipitation here in this famously parched desert that spans 5,270 square miles — a whopping 1.9 inches a year. Mostly, whatever falls from the sky is slurped right up by the thirsty soil, making nary a significant puddle, yet, coming in winter like this abbreviated shower, helps the always-iffy prospects for a hearty spring wildflower bloom into being.

But let’s not get carried away with this meteorological anomaly: no torrential downpour, no Old Testament gully gusher, only enough to make drivers turn the wipers to “intermittent.”

For those who’ve visited here only at the height of summer — or heck, even as early as April — this late January drizzle is such a stark contrast to the kiln that usually is the valley floor, where triple-digit readings are the norm by lunchtime. You’d never think you’d actually need to use a furnace at the Furnace Creek Resort, but the woman in front of me at check-in asked about central heating on this (brrr) 61-degree day, forecast to drop to an even more bone-chilling 47 overnight.

“Isn’t this amazing?” said Linda Slater, Death Valley’s chief interpretive ranger.

She hustled over to the information desk at the Furnace Creek visitors center and looked up this season’s rainfall total: 0.16 inches.

“It seems like a lot out there today, though, huh?” she said. “We did have some rain in the beginning of December, but nothing more until (today).”

For the record, in that 24-hour period, the official weather station at Furnace Creek registered 0.26 inches of rainfall; it was the talk of the visitors center. In fact, in an amusing exhibit at the attached museum, tourists are asked to write on Post-it notes, “Where are you from and how is Death Valley different?” One response, in large letters slanting to the right, as if scribbled in annoyance: “From Seattle — Wasn’t raining there when we left. Rained here instead. Oh well.”

There are two ways to look at a Death Valley rainy day: either the proverbial rain bucket’s half-full, or half-empty.

Thinking positively, the landscape takes on a brooding, almost vulnerable presence, far removed from the fiery malevolence of summer. Up at the geologic paint-swatch that is Artist’s Palette, looming above Badwater basin, the rough volcanic rock and multi-hued mineral deposits are so slick they look as if someone just slathered on a fresh glossy coat. Below, in the salt-encrusted basin, you can see the drops make dark brown dots in the granular surface before fading, like time-lapse photography, in front of your eyes, and you wonder if the briny earth there remembers that 4,000 years ago — a mere geologic eye blink, after all — that it was a lake.

Thinking negatively, hitting you like a drop of barometric pressure that led to this rain, you feel the same letdown you might experience when you get to see a handsome actor in person and find his skin is pockmarked by acne scars and discover he’s wearing lifts in his shoes. The landscape is not the vivid eye candy you expected to see, in fact, what you did see when Googling “Artist’s Palette” before the trip. In the overcast and sprinkles, all seems slightly washed out, the usually rutilant serrated hillsides almost a sickly pastel, the greens and yellow tinge of the deep fissures reduced to varying shades of beige. Nary a glimmer, either, of Badwater’s celebrated brilliant winter sunset, the Panamint Mountains in the distance hiding behind thick cloud cover.

Death Valley’s visitors on this day — many of whom, I notice with self-laceration, have thought ahead and brought rain coats — seemed a little befuddled but entirely undeterred. Cameras still clicked mightily, no one bemoaning the lack of vivacity in the images before posting to Snapchat. Sturdy hiking poles went right on plunging into the slightly sticky silt and clay on the popular Golden Canyon Trail heading to Red Cathedral, which, though not quite so brilliant as the name implies on this day, were still Crayola-like sharp. Twelve miles up Dante’s View, 5,000 feet above the basin, people still gamely got out of their cars and gazed down on the view, however obscured.

I mean, what else can you do? You can’t Photoshop nature, can you?

Remember this, too: That scrim of moisture on your brow has come from misty rain, not ever-accumulating beads of sweat from baking in the summer heat. Always a good thing, in my book.

There is, after all, a large subset of Death Valley visitors who have a perfectly pleasant time visiting here in winter, the so-called off-peak season. While March and August are reportedly the most popular months among the park’s 1 million annual visitors — the first because of spring break (“All the college kids,” Slater said) and the second because some off-hinged folks crave intense heat (“Especially the Germans,” Slater said) — some make it a point to visit in December, January and February, before the thermometer and tourists rise precipitously.

“Of course, I’ve always known it gets hot here,” said Chris Fitzpatrick, a tourist from Wisconsin, quite comfortable in a cardigan sweater on the observation deck at Badwater. “My husband, Bob, was laughing because he said the name, Death Valley, doesn’t really draw you here. This is a good time to come.”

“I’ve been here in May before,” Ali Barnes, her friend, interjected. “That’s definitely the latest I’d come. It was over 100 then, yeah.”

“That is a little scary,” Fitzpatrick added. “There was a story, wasn’t there, recently about a lady who went through here in summer with their kid, and she didn’t have water along and, you know what happened. Oh, it was terrible.”

“But I wasn’t expecting rain,” Barnes said. “It’s something different. I’ve been here five times. First time it’s rained. Wintertime, well, today the sun’s not really shining, but when we’ve come out in winter before, the angle of the sunlight, because it’s such a low angle, is so much more dramatic than the one time I was here in May. Then, it was hot and little miserable. (In May) you had this real tall, direct sunlight. No thanks. The low angle of the winter sun makes the rocks shimmer, the definition pops out.”

The winter visitor does, indeed, have some advantages without having to endure sweat-lodge conditions. Hiking is not limited to mornings. Mid-afternoon saw the parking area near the popular Mosaic Canyon Trail, hard by Stovepipe Wells Village, packed, as was an area dotted with shutterbugs nearby searching for “good light” while training their lenses on the Mesquite Dunes. People looped around the volcanic crater at Ubehebe without feeling the hot breath of phantom eruptions.

You don’t have to weigh yourself down with provisions like a survivalist, either, though rangers still recommend bringing plenty of water and maybe some electrolytes, even in cooler weather. Your car’s radiator will thank you, as well. It’s easier to get a reservation at either the Furnace Creek Inn or Ranch, or accommodations at Stovepipe Wells Village or Panamint Springs but, alas, you’ll still pay felonious prices for food (a three-topping pizza for $31; a chicken Caesar salad for $19) and gas ($3.47 a gallon).

It’s true that fewer people may visit in winter, but there seems to be more action. Maybe the extreme heat just encourages sloth, making even the 400-yard trek from your room at the Furnace Creek Ranch to the on-site Borax Museum an act of Olympian toil and testament to personal bravery. Not so in milder days. I passed several pelotons of cyclists whirring like a swarm of bees down Highway 190 and along Badwater Road. More than a few runners were chugging along the soft shoulder, too, without having to wear silly white heat-resistant suits those crazy Badwater Ultramarathon participants do so they aren’t grilled to perfection in the late July broiler. The horses rented out at the Furnace Creek Corral appeared energized, not enervated.

“I think this is the only time in 2015 it’s going to rain right here right now,” said David Walker, of White Plains, Md., strolling the basin (sans jacket, I might add) with his wife, Karin. “We came for the day from (Las) Vegas (a 2-hour drive), and we knew it was going to be rainy all day there so figured it’d be nice here. But I’m OK with it.”

The late January rain also augurs a fertile, if still too brief, wildflower season coming very soon, perhaps as early as late February, Slater said.

“Actually, February is the month,” she said. “The flower season here starts earlier than (at) other desert parks. If it gets real hot in March, then the flowers wilt and droop. That’s happened before. It all depends on the weather, of course. If it stays reasonably cool in March, then the flower season will last. Remember, (the flowers) move up in elevation. If you were to go to Telescope Peak (11,049 feet) or Mahogany Flats (8,133 feet) in the summer, you’ll still see the flowers up there.

“This rain (in late January) may even do something by tomorrow. You may see all these little sprouts shoot up, with this rain — maybe.”

The only reason flowers can take root and sprout in such a harsh milieu is that they are annuals, meaning they bloom for one growing season, the seeds using the modicum of rainfall to flourish briefly before bowing down. They come in yellow, pink, red and pale blue to purple, everything from the woolly daisy to gravel ghosts to Mojave aster. (Every Friday, the park’s Facebook page updates bloom sightings, Slater said.) Death Valley veterans still talk about the so-called “Super Bloom” of 2005, when above-normal rain brought out scores of photographers, not to mention droves of butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.

Last winter? Meh. Not so much.

Amateur — and professional — photographers have more than just flowers to focus on. There are those sublime winter sunsets (weather permitting) and a variety of critters hanging out at different elevations. Snails and cottonball pupfish struggle to survive on the salt flats, snakes and kangaroo rats around the sand dunes and valley floor, desert tortoise, fringe-toed lizards and bobcats at high elevations. Tour vans from outfits with names such as Aperture Academy pull over seemingly every few miles for shutterbugs to capture the sublime color contrast between landscape and blooms.

No matter the season, you have to go searching for many desert creatures (though doesn’t it always seem rattlesnakes will seek you out?), but they can be found if you’re willing to stray from the familiar, i.e., paved, path. Slater and others recommend lesser-known trail offshoots for those seeking a wilder, as well as a quieter, nature experience.

“The thing about Death Valley,” she said, “is that it’s so big that, if you want to get away from crowds, you can get away. I’ve been here on a Presidents Day weekend, and it’s been very busy. But I can find another canyon to walk in where I won’t see a soul. I did one recently. If you go to the west side of Titus Canyon (northeast, in the Grapevine Mountains, on the way to Scotty’s Castle), there’s a trailhead for Fall Canyon. Lots of folks hike there. But I went into the next one over (Red Wall Canyon) and there was nobody there. Maybe it’s not as pretty as Fall Canyon, but it was very peaceful.”

© 2015 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Image: For those who venture up within Death Valley National Park, vistas unfold of the mountain ranges (including Panamint and Amargosa) that run through it. (Jay Mather/Sacramento Bee/TNS)