Rhyolite 1907, Where Are We Now?

This sculpture, in Rhyolite, Nevada, represents very well for me the tension between presence and absence that happens in Western ghost towns.

On our drive south for Christmas, Renee and I stopped at Rhyolite, a ghost town nearby Beatty right off the main highway to Death Valley. Despite going by many times I’d never been there before and it was a stunning ethereal experience of standing in what had clearly been an important place for many people now tumbled into ruins among vivid colored cliffs, only tempered by a threatening overcast extending all the way along the line of Nevada. We stopped and parked along the old railway station and walked down the entrance road, which had most likely been the main street, now just tortured facades reminiscent of photos of bombed buildings. The emptied building dominates the skyline.

Ruin dominates the skyline. Other than the mountains, of course, which always dominate the real skyline in most Western cities.

It’s an idea that has interested me for a while. We are, well, future dwellers, at least it has always been a persistent feeling I’ve had—and the pace of human development, of the development of human population and technology leads to the idea of our being on the crest of a wave. But being in a place like Rhyolite begs you to consider that, in the midst of all of this population growth and networks of communication, culture, industry, et al., why do those of us who want to explore out in the reaches of the West find ourselves in a much less  populated planet than anyone would have experienced at the turn of the century? Where there were thousands of people there is now no one.

The old train depot, sadly, was swathed in chain link.

Rhyolite existed more or less from 1904 to 1909 (if you’re interested in details of the history, based on my fairly cursory research and just based on the quality, read the wikipedia article on Rhyolite, in addition to telling you all you want to know about the town, it is, in my opinion, a really great example of a Wikipedia entry). In those five years of existence it came to boast a train station, a bank with Italian marble and stained glass, two railroads, a building made of emptied bottles, thousands of people, a school and then another school, concrete sidewalks, maybe some more pools (based on this ghost towns’ site, by the way the as far as I could see uncited, but clearly  best text on this site’s entry begins “one of the most interesting stories”).

Thinking about Rhyolite and how it represents the conundrum of the West in modernity, where even with the explosion of outdoor recreation we are still just a shadow of past use, I got curious about ghost town. Its specific naming seems pretty obvious, but I wondered, when did that term come into use? It had to have been in some way cultural, there had to have been a moment when “empty” or “abandoned” town became “ghost town” and based on my quick search, the date is 1931. The term seems to have been in use before this, based on a footnote appearing in Western Places, American Mythology: How We Think about the West by Gary Hausladen (which I found randomly, and is published by the UNP, and is now on my must-read list!), but based on a search of “ghost town” and 1931, that date is most likely the result of photographer Paul Strand and his striking photos. I don’t know anything beyond this, nor even if this is correct etymology, but it is really striking to come from 1931, when the West went for the first time from untapped area for exploration, to closed, to Dust Bowl and “nowhere.”

The famous bottle house. With a miniature bottle replica of the town. 

After walking the main street, we stopped at the Goldwell Open Air Art Museum, where Belgian artist Albert Szukalski created The Last Supper and, even more pertinently for me, the Ghost Biker. They capture really perfectly the idea of absence in presence that overwhelms me in Western ghost towns.


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