Ghost Town: Rhyolite


The sun was low in the sky as I stopped to get a closer look at the ghosts on the horizon just outside Death Valley. The white draped figures seemed to rise up out of the scorched sand, reflecting the blistering sunlight, as if they were really spirits from the mining town of Rhyolite engaged with each other in heated debate. The sculpture by the late Belgian artist Albert Szukalski is actually supposed to represent Christ’s Last Supper, but because of its location it makes me think of the people who once animated this vibrant boomtown.

The artwork sits just south of the town site ruins, and is part of “The Goldwell Open Air Museum” which features a set of colossal outdoor sculptures created by Szukalski and a group of prominent Belgian artists. Wandering north from the ghosts, I pass a few old shacks and a rusted out truck on my way to the old “Main Street” where the broken silhouette of the Cook Bank facade dominates the skyline.

With three stories, it was the tallest building in town and had cost $90,000 to build. The bank had two vaults, Italian marble floors, mahogany woodwork, electric lights, running water, telephones and indoor plumbing. Today its skeletal remains testify to perhaps the most dramatic tale of boom and bust in the history of western mining towns.

Rhyolite got its start in early 1905 as one of several mining camps that sprang up in the wake of a gold discovery in Nevada’s Bullfrog Hills, near what is now the eastern boundary of Death Valley National Park. It was named after a type of silica-rich volcanic rock common in the area. The townsite was platted by a group of claim owners who decided they might do better promoting a town at the site of their claims rather than working mines on them. Rhyolite was laid out with 36 blocks, and lots were initially given away to miners to get the camp started.

As the gold rush intensified thousands of gold-seekers, developers, miners and service providers flocked to the Bullfrog Mining District, where there were over 2000 claims within a 30 mile radius. The largest producer was the Montgomery Shoshone mine, and as the Rhyolite townsite was well-placed in a sheltered desert basin nearby, people settled there. The Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad started running trains to Rhyolite in 1906.

The "Last Supper" ghost sculptures at the Goldwell Open Air Museum just outside the Rhyolite town site.
The ruins of Rhyolite are centered on an almost movie-set perfect main street.
The railroad station in completely intact and gives a real sense of what the town might have felt like in its hey dey.

The town quickly boomed and by 1907, Rhyolite had electric lights, water mains, telephones, newspapers, a hospital, a school, an opera house, and a stock exchange. ​The railroad station was a Spanish-style building that cost $130,000 to build, and was now serviced by three different railroad companies. The red light district drew women from as far away as San Francisco. The town citizens had an active social life including baseball games, dances, basket socials, whist parties, tennis, a symphony, Sunday school picnics, basketball games, Saturday night variety shows at the opera house and pool tournaments. Published estimates of the town’s peak population vary widely, but scholarly sources generally place it in a range between 3,500 and 5,000 in 1907–08.

Rhyolite declined almost as rapidly as it rose. After the richest ore was exhausted, production fell. Mines started closing and banks failed. Newspapers went out of business, and by 1910 the production at the mill had slowed to $246,661 and there were only 611 residents in the town.

The Cook Bank shut its doors in 1910, only two years after opening. On March 14, 1911 the directors voted to close down the Montgomery Shoshone mine and mill. In 1916 the light and power were finally turned off in the town. By 1920 the entire town was almost completely abandoned and only 14 people called Rhyolite home.

Not long after the town became a ghost, it started to become a “destination” as Death Valley became the subject of books, radio programs, and movies. Paramount Pictures used Rhyolite as a setting for their film “The Air Mail” in 1925 and restored a bottle house that would become one of the ghost town’s iconic attractions.

The house was built by an Australian miner, Tom Kelly, in 1906 before the railroad reached Rhyolite. Building materials were scarce, so instead of looking for wood which was nearly impossible to find, Kelly used adobe mud and glass bottles. With an estimated 50 saloons operating in Rhyolite at the time, Kelly collected 50,000 bottles in less than six months, enough to build a three-room L-shaped home.

The ruins of Rhyolite quickly became a tourist attraction as Death Valley gained increasing notoriety with a wave of visitors beginning in the 1930s after resorts were built around Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek where natural springs were thought to have curative and restorative properties. The curious flocked to see Death Valley Scotty’s “castle” and made a stop to visit the “ghost town” nearby.  The old Rhyolite railroad depot became a casino and bar, and later it became a small museum and souvenir shop that stayed open into the 1970s. Today it is one of the few intact buildings left in the town.

The incredibly picturesque ruins and the easy access en route to Death Valley have made Rhyolite one of the most photographed ghost towns in the West. But despite being heavily touristed the site manages to maintain its sense of authenticity. The protection and preservation provided under the umbrella of the nearby National Park help keep the site pristine and prevent commercial intrusion.

The ghost town of Rhyolite is on a mixture of federal and private land. It is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management and not within the boundary of Death Valley National Park. It is easily accessed via paved roads from the park or from Beatty, NV.

Tom Kelly's Bottle House, which was restored in 1925 by Paramount Films, is intact and also has an interesting "collection" in the adjacent garden.
Some of the shacks and outlying buildings of the town show what it might have been like for some of the town's poorer residents.


All text and photos ©2021 JoMarie Fecci/ Please contact us for any usage permissions or for further information about the journey or locations included in this reportage.