a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Monday, January 12, 2009

Bottle House still glitters in Nevada ghost town

Tom Kelly had a clever idea to build a house with beer bottles in 1905 in a then-new bustling gold rush town near a stretch of Death Valley, Nev.

The part-time prospector didn’t have any problem finding his building materials because there were 50 saloons then in Rhyolite, just one year after gold was discovered within its boundaries.

“He just got drunk a built crazy stuff,” said a Nevada Bureau of Land Management ranger who would only identify himself today as Fred.

Kelly quickly raffled of his three-room Victorian cottage by selling 400 tickets a $5 apiece, said Fred, a friendly older man dressed in cowboy attire.

The quirky home builder was fortunate to turn a profit because the city of 10,000 people was about to become a ghost town almost overnight. Before a nearby two-story brick and stone schoolhouse could be constructed, there weren’t any more children living there to attend classes in the building.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire had wiped out California’s booming financial district, leaving Nevada without the money to continue financing its mines. By 1910, there were only about 675 Rhyolite residents left, and that number would dwindle to 20 within another decade.

Today, a few crumbling buildings and a weird art installation outside a restored shack sit among rusting metal roofing scraps, glass shards and other building parts that have blown or fallen off the structures. The Goldwell Open Air Museum's strangest piece is a giant pink block statute of a nude female that seems entirely out of place among the ruins.

The Spanish-influenced Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad Depot dating to 1908 is the most intact building on the site a few miles west of Beatty, a speck of a town a two-hour’s drive north from Sin City along a lonely Interstate 95.

The facade and concrete ground floor along with a couple of walls with missing windows are all that remain of the school. The thicker walls of two vaults still have their roofs at the shells of two former banks next door. There also is a desolate cemetery with withered wooded grave markers inside plots lined by either rusting metal fences or rickety pickets that are turning to earth.

Kelly’s house that was built with an estimated 50,000 glass bottles, meanwhile, was restored decades ago for a silent Hollywood movie, “Wanderers in Wasteland,” said the guide/guard named Fred.

Outside that house circled with a barbed wire fence sits two rows of miniature glass-mosaic buildings that Kelly constructed when he worked up a good drunk, Fred said.

This is a great destination for someone visiting southwestern Nevada for a few days and seeking an adventure that doesn’t involve placing bets at the casinos. It's one that should be taken the sooner the better because it won't be long before the rest of this city turns to dust behind the bottle house.

After walking around Rhyolite for an hour, head further west, take the next left and follow the routes through Death Valley back to Las Vegas. You won’t regret taking this day trip into the harshest climate in North America.

(Captions: That's Fred between yawns outside the bottle house, top, and what's left of the John S. Cook & Bank Co., bottom.)


Alison said...

I think I read about that house when I was a kid. Probably in World magazine or something.

Also, nice banner!

Douglas Roesch said...

Fascinating stuff, as usual...