Monday, April 6, 2009

Ghosts of the West

Who Ya Gonna Call?

When I was a kid America was still watching television westerns. We had Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Ronald Reagan hosted for Death Valley Days and Roy Rogers and Dale Evans crooned "Happy Trails to You" every week. It was magic.

It was the time of John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Well before the onslaught of gritty Spaghetti Westerns and the snear of Clint Eastwood.

When I grew up people actually bought wagon wheel furniture and every boy on the block had a cowboy hat, and a holster complete with a six shooter. Of course all the toy guns used caps. The smell of exploded caps was great wasn't it?

While the campfires of the television cowboys have all been snuffed, ghost towns in the west still exist and they still conjure up images of stagecoaches, miners, clanky spur clad sheriff's walking on wood plank sidewalks, and the fearless riders of the Pony Express.

Nowadays if you want to see the best ghost towns you'll have to take a little time and drive well out of your way, cause the best ones are a long way from population centers.  I'm not talking about tourist traps like Boothill in Dodge City, Kansas or the OK Corral in Tombstone Arizona. I'm talking about the amazing condition of Bodie, California, the Independence Mine in Alaska, or the ruins of Rhyolite, Nevada.

Ghost towns exist in various states from fully restored (i.e. like Calico or Columbia in California) to "arrested decay" like Bodie.   


Rhyolite Nevada
At the Edge of Death Valley

Rhyolite, Nevada is one of my favorites because of its location near Death Valley. I happen to love Death Valley. Its geology is stunning and I love the lore of everything from its mining days to its camel races. It is just 23 miles from Skidoo and home to a magnificent unfinished mediterranean castle (Death Valley Scottie's Castle) at the extreme north end of the park. I'm saving a separate blog for America's eccentric's and their castles.

Just outside the east end of the park is Rhyolite, Nevada. Built to support the Bullfrog Mining District it faded away fast with the collapse of San Francisco's financial markets after the earthquake of 1906.

When the sun sets each day in Rhyolite it takes very little imagination to believe that ghosts still own the night in its skeletal structures.  One of its buildings was made from thousands of green beer bottles. 

If you get a chance take a detour to nearby Death Valley Junction and the Amargosa Opera House. The Opera House was built between 1923-1925 by the Pacific Coast Borax Company. It survives today because in 1968 Marta Becket, a former dancer for the Radio City Music Hall, restored the little opera house. At first she performed to small crowds and had to paint an entire audience to keep her company. She has now been at it for over 4 decades. The curtain still rises at Amargosa.

Rhyolite's Bank

Virginia City, Nevada
Queen of the Comstock

As a result of the Comstock Lode gold and silver strikes in 1859 Virginia City Nevada literally appeared overnight. It grew to boast a population of 30,000 making it one of the largest City's west of the Mississippi. It had the first elevator in the west. This is where Samuel Clemens first used the pen name "Mark Twain" while working as a reporter at the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. In fact when there wasn't any news in Virginia City Twain observed that "The seemingly tranquil Enterprise office became a ghastly factory of slaughter, mutilation, and general destruction".

Money flowed from Virginia City's mines till about 1898. The treasures of the Comstock built the mansions on Nob Hill in San Francisco and helped finance the Civil War.

The Comstock mines were so productive that San Francisco's Adolph Sutro invested in the construction of elaborate tunnels to drain them. Alas his timing was off and the mines played out just about the same time his amazing feats of civil engineering were completed. Virginia City is touristy, but it has good bones.

Jerome, Arizona

In Arizona we have Jerome and Bisbee. While Jerome's miner's sought gold, they found copper instead. As far as being a ghost town it is a relative newcomer with its mines finally closing in 1953. Its allure is the way it clings tenaciously to the side of Cleopatra Hill.

The Jail 
Jerome, Arizona

A House in Bodie
Bodie, California

Ah, Bodie. This one gets my vote for the coolest of western ghost towns.  It is about 12 miles off the road about halfway between Reno and Death Valley on the quiet side of the Sierra's. So in point of fact it is dead flat in the middle of glorious nowhere.  It has been protected by the State of California since the early 1960's and its condition makes you wonder why everyone just got up one day and simply walked away. There is furniture in the houses and canned goods on the shelves in its stores.   

Arrested Decay
Bodie, CA

Bodie Hillside
Bodie California

Bodie's Church

Commercial Street
Bodie, California

These towns are the desolate, windy, dusty, homes for the west's hardiest ghosts.

Roadboy's Travels © 2009

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