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The Strange Case of Rhyolite, Nevada

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WEIRD TALES 5: THE STRANGE CASE OF RHYOLITE, NEVADA

The Strange Case of Rhyolite, Nevada

It's on the edge of town...well...on the edge of what town is left. A simple white cross surrounded by wire fencing. Inside the fence on the grave are trinkets, toys, beads, shoes, coins and even an old radio. The white cross has writing on it. On the cross-bar it says "Isabel Haskins" and at the top reading down, "AKA Mona Bell, 1908." It's located across from the jail and what would have been 'the other side of the tracks.' The tracks would have belonged to one of the three railroads that came into this once-bustling metropolis in 1908. Yes, three railroads raced to get their tracks into this remote desert locale on the edge of Death Valley. Thousands of people were there in 1908. Optimism was running high, investors were betting that this would be one of the West's biggest cities in just a few years. This was the city whose main street was actually "Golden Street" and that many believed would be the next American "Chicago!" But if you haven't heard of Rhyolite, Nevada or watched its NFL team play on Sunday or visited its large shopping malls or strolled down its financial district it's because it didn't quite happen the way people thought it would. So what happened to Rhyolite, Nevada?

overbury building in prime

The Overbury Building on Golden Street in Rhyolite, 1907 (Photo Courtesy Central Nevada Museum)

It started out simply enough. In 1904 a prospector and his friend found some gold, staked a claim and word got out. There was a rush to the site and it turned out there was more gold in the ground. That was sufficient to get a camp going in Nevada at the turn of the twentieth century. Throw in a couple of hustlers and promoters and a willing media and the money starts flowing, if not from the mines, at least from speculators and those who gamble with their money.  But unlike other mining camps Rhyolite looked like a sure winner. After all Charles Schwab, one of those rich Easterners, invested nearly $2 million in the big mine at Rhyolite. From 1905 to 1908 there was no stopping Rhyolite and its population grew into the thousands. No one is quite sure how many thousands since its peak was not during a census year.

rhylite town 43 cnm 300 dpiRhyolite at its peak. A Booming Metropolis on the edge of Death Valley. (Courtesy Central Nevada Museum)

But just as Rhyolite was hitting its stride other forces were at work. In 1906 the great earthquake and fire of San Francisco demolished that city. Money and manpower were needed to rebuild. As it was one of the prime money streams for Rhyolite and the Nevada mining boom, it was a stream that was drying up. Then in 1907 a financial panic hit Wall Street.

1907_panic

A 50% drop in the value of the stock market, a run on the banks, wild speculation and failed corporate takeover attempts led to the panic of 1907. Seen here is a swarm of folks on Wall Street during the October, 1907 bank panic.

But why would the panic affect a booming town 3,000 miles away? Because investors were sinking millions into stock into mining companies that were sprouting up all around Rhyolite that were supposed to be striking mother-lode style gold deposits. And finally the man who had promoted Rhyolite as one of the next big cities in America became disillusioned and wrote that its one big working mine was nothing more than an investment swindle. Those three things shook Rhyolite to its core....and at its core....there wasn't much more than just a belief that it was as rich as everyone thought it was. When the confidence died, so did the town. It only took about 18 months but Rhyolite's population dropped from around 10,000 to about 600.  Soon there were no banks and by 1913 the last newspaper man had closed the doors saying "Goodbye dear old Rhyolite" and the town was officially dead. It took a while but over the years people carted the old town away.  Some of the more valuable furnishings were auctioned, others were just hauled off, including entire houses. It took a while but eventually Rhyolite was being returned to the desert.

overbury pillars good ruins

The remains of the Overbury building at Rhyolite today.

And what about that lone grave on the edge of town? It turns out that "Mona Bell" was a prostitute who was only 21; young and full of life, trying to go straight from a life of prostitution. But in January, 1908 she was murdered by her pimp-boyfriend Fred Skinner. It was an event that was so horrific it shook the town to its core; A young,  woman led astray and cut down in the prime of her life. All that remains is a simple grave. But why the trinkets? Why the shrine? Perhaps it's a way of touching the old Rhyolite; a way of reaching out to the past; a way of bonding with the fate of a young woman whose life was full of optimism, energy and excitement; but whose trust was violated, whose heart was broken and who, in the end paid the ultimate price. Just like Rhyolite itself.

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