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The Strange Case of Rhyolite, Nevada



mona bell grave



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.


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.


The Twenty Mule Team Trail - Part 4



The Twenty Mule Team Trail - Part 4

The Heart of Death Valley

harmony today 2

The remains of Harmony Borax Works in the heart of Death Valley National Park

As soon as William Tell Coleman bought the claims from Aaron and Rosie Winters in 1881 (Part 3) he went about setting up his borax operation. He established the Meridian Borax Corporation and two primary operations were created. One in the heart of Death Valley he called Harmony, near a large salt playa which contained borax. The other was near a deposit in the Valley to the East of Death Valley and was named for that valley: The Amargosa Works . 'Amargosa' means bitter water and the valley was named for the underground river which flows its length.  The Amargosa Valley is 2,000 feet higher in elevation, just cool enough in summer that the plant could operate.

amargosa works closeup 1 copy

The photograph above was taken after the Death Valley and Amargosa Operation shut down (note the car). This area is located just south of Shoshone Village on Highway 127 in California.

Supplies and equipment to set up the operations were brought up by wagons in 1882 and men were recruited to work in the valley named "Death"! Some took one look at the place and left. Chinese laborers were brought in to scoop up the borax off the valley floor just as they had done throughout Nevada. The railroads had arrived close enough to the valley (165 miles - similar to distances of shipments in Nevada) to make hauling possible. In 1883 Coleman started hauling borax out of the Amargosa Works first, then out of Death Valley's Harmony works in Death Valley. For about a year he contracted with Charles Bennett of Pahrump to haul out the borax, then decided to build his own wagons and hire his own teams of mules.

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The Harmony Borax Operation in 1883 - prior to the building of the large wagons.

Note the enclosed boiler building in the background (as opposed to the exposed adobe remains) and the barn where the sacked borax was stored.

Coleman had his wagons built in the California desert town of Mojave. Though he had his engineer study the most popular wagons of the day, Coleman's wagons were unique, having 7 foot rear wheels and 8 inch iron tires for the desert sand. Today only one in tact set of the borax wagons remain, at the Harmony Borax Site.look how big the wheels are adj 180dpi

It's amazing how tall these wheels are when you stand next to them!

The wagons could carry 11 tons each. The entire outfit consisted of two ore wagons and a water wagon hitched in the rear. A team of 20 mules hitched in pairs stretched in front of the wagons for more than 120 feet. The entire outfit fully loaded weighed 36.5 tons or 73,000 pounds. It's about the same weight as a big-rig truck today. Coleman's operation lasted only 5 years from 1883-1888 because he made a bad investment in raisins and lost a fortune. He had to sell off the operation. Today you can visit the Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley and see where William Coleman started a legend. In the next episode of the 20 Mule Team Trail - We'll talk about the Mules! For the entire story see "The Twenty Mule Team of Death Valley."

If you plan on visiting the site of the original Harmony Borax Works see: Nevada Silver Trails






If you had been in Nevada in 1900 you were probably there because your parents or grandparents came for the big mining rush to Virginia City some thirty years earlier. But in 1900 Nevada is not a land of excitement and far from a land of plenty. It was in a severe depression and the towns once thriving during the excitement of the Comstock discovery were now turning back to the desert. columbus marsh bldg foundations 300 dpi

Ghost Towns like this at Teels Marsh were the remnants of better times!

It was getting so bad that one US Congressman even suggested that Nevada's statehood be revoked. That was a shock, especially after the glory days of Virginia City and the great comstock discovery. Millions in silver had been taken from the ground in the mountains southeast of Reno. Fortunes were made, a thriving city was built, its riches helped supply the union during the Civil War, and it was one of the reasons Nevada gained statehood.

historic virginia city pic

virginia city crystal barVirginia City in its heyday (above) and today.

But by 1900 it was all over. Every prospector that lingered in Nevada was hoping to make the next big strike, including Jim Butler. Jim and his wife, Belle lived and worked on a ranch not far from Belmont, Nevada. Jim was a "sometimes prospector", fluent in the Shoshone Indian language and would often leave the ranch to go looking for a claim. So, in May of 1900 Jim set out to do just that. He packed his burros (donkeys) and reached a place about 65 miles southwest of his ranch; a place the Indians called "Tonopah", which translates roughly as "greasewood water." This was probably due to the greasewood brush growing near some springs.  Jim made camp for the night and when he awoke the next morning his burros were missing. When he found them he picked up a rock to toss at them to get them moving but the rock seemed unusually heavy. It appeared to be rich in silver. Jim took the rock home and his friend, Tasker Oddie, had it assayed. It was rich in silver. Oddie sent a messenger to Jim at the ranch and told him to get back down there and stake the claims. Jim didn't seem to feel the urgency until his wife Belle made him load up the buckboard and head for Tonopah.

me  jim found tonopah a 200dpi

     The story goes that Jim found silver while looking for his burros but the Indians probably showed him where it was.

When they got there they began staking claims. Belle struck a claim she called the Mizpah. She must have been thinking of the biblical story of Jacob and Laban who set up a cairn of stones to symbolize their covenant of protection and blessing. Maybe she saw the stones she was setting up as a similar blessing. Whatever the reason she claimed the Mizpah and it became the richest mine in Tonopah. Soon prospectors were coming from all over. The Butlers let them work the mines for a share in their profits. And it wasn't long before big money came in from the East. Nevada was back in business! The boom started which would become the last great gold rush of the American West.

jim and belle in front of tent

Jim (on the ground, right) and Belle (behind him).

For the entire story see "Chasing the Rainbow" on DVD.

To re-trace the silverrush visit the Tonopah Historic Mining Park in Tonopah, Nevada. There you can see the historic Mizpah Mine which Belle discovered, explore the Silver Top mine and visit the remains of the old railroad that came into town.

mizpah building construction 1902 300 dpi

Construction of the Mizpah, 1902

mizpah buildings

The Mizpah at the Tonopah Historic Mining Park today.

Visit this historic Mining Park Museum and discover for yourself

The Silver that Saved Nevada!

For Tourist Information see: Nevada Silver Trails


The Great Desert Railroad Race




For the story of how this cool railroad depot got stranded out here in the desert ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada

Click the picture below!


And for information on visiting Rhyolite, Nevada see: Nevada Silver Trails


The Heiress and the Ghost Town


Blog - blog


What do these two have in common?


The picture on the left shows a high society woman from the 1930s. The image on the right is of an abandoned railroad station at the ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada on the edge of Death Valley.  The woman on the left died in a New York City hospital on May 24, 2011 at the age of 104. The train station was only used as a railroad terminal from 1906 to 1911. The woman was a reclusive heiress to one of America's wealthiest men. The abandoned train station belonged to that same man!

The headline on the New York Times article read simply: Huguette Clark, Reclusive Heiress, Dies at 104. But Huguette Clark was a direct link (and possibly the last living one) to the heady days of the Bullfrog Gold rush to the Death Valley country. Her father was Senator William Andrews Clark who made his fortune in the copper mines of Butte, Montana. But in 1905 Clark had other plans: railroads. He had built the Los Angeles, San Pedro and Salt Lake Line and with the new mining boom taking place in Tonopah, Nevada, Goldfield and Rhyolite he wanted to build a line to the gold country. He decided to build the Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad. While construction was well underway Huguette was born in Paris in June, 1906.


Montana Historical Society Photo

Huguette (R) with her father William Andrews Clark (C) Sister Andree' (L)

But Clark was a tough businessman - and some claim scandalous - as he literally bought his Senate seat in 1898. In those days US Senators were elected by state legislators, so Clark showered the legislators with thousand dollar bills and his seat was assured! In his railroad dealings he pulled back on a deal he had made with Francis Marion Smith to provide a railroad connection for his Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. And that's what led to the building of the Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad.

Building out of the tiny town of Las Vegas in 1905 clark stretched his line across miles of desert to reach the booming town of Rhyolite! He built one of the finest depots anywhere on the desert - a depot that was made to last - just like the town. And the Las Vegas and Tonopah railroad depot, at the top of the hill in the ghost town of Rhyolite - still stands today.  And as an additional sidebar, Clark County - the county where Las Vegas resides - is named for her father, William Andrews Clark. But the living link - Clark's daughter Huguette - has passed away. And with her - the last living link to the extraordinary days of the Bullfrog/Rhyolite mining boom!

For the entire story of William Andrews Clark and the railroad see THE GREAT DESERT RAILROAD RACE!


The Twenty Mule Team Trail - Part 3


The Twenty Mule Team Trail - Part 3

Death Valley Discovery!

(For the video version see The Twenty Mule Team of Death Valley - click here)

In 1881, at the height of the Nevada borax boom, Francis Marion Smith was producing Smith Brothers borax from Columbus Marsh, Teels Marsh and Rhodes Marsh in Nevada. There was a borax boom taking place in Nevada and prospectors were roaming about looking for new fields of the salty white stuff. One of those prospectors was Harry Spiller. Harry came down from the marshes in Nevada (essentially along Highway 95 today) and ended up at a little hut in Ash Meadows. He needed a place to stay for the night and Aaron and Rosie Winters took him in.

aaron and rosie winters sepia 200 dpiAaron & Rosie Winters

When they got to talking about prospecting, Henry showed Aaron and Rosie how to test for the presence of Borax. Find a likely looking spot, dig up a little of the white salt you suspect has borax, add alcohol and sulfuric acid and light the mixture. If there's a green flame - there's borax! When Henry left, Aaron took Rosie and went to where he remembered seeing some possible borax: in the salt flats of Death Valley.

death valley memories cover salty floor adj

Death Valley's White Salt Flats Lured Aaron and Rosie

So Aaron and Rosie made camp at the mouth of Furnace Creek. They went out and scooped up some of the white, salty stuff. Aaron followed Henry's instructions. Then Aaron lit the mixture. He looked at the flame and shouted "She Burns Green, Rosie! By God we're rich!!" He sold his claims to William Tell Coleman for $25,000. Coleman was one of America's most successful businessmen. He had helped keep California in the union during the Civil War and some even wanted to run him for president. For years he had distributed canned goods including salmon, fruits and other items around the country via rail and with his fleet of clipper ships. Now he was interested in producing borax himself. And Aaron's claim was a great place to start.  As for Aaron and Rosie, they took their money and bought a ranch near Pahrump, Nevada. Sadly Rosie died not long after and Aaron went to the nearby mountains living out the rest of his days as a hermit. But back in Death Valley it would be Coleman who would develop Death Valley's borax and set up the transportation system which became legendary. That story coming up in part 4!

coleman old

William Tell Coleman who bought and Developed

Death Valley's borax operation

Purchased claims: 1881, Began Developing 1882, First shipment 1883

For the Entire Story: DVD: The Twenty Mule Team of Death Valley!

Click Here!


20 Mule Team Reenactment Shoot




This blog on the shooting of the 20 Mule Team Reenactment on Friday, May 27th is one of the most artistic interpretations I've seen. We'll be posting clips and more information on the shoot in the coming days. For now enjoy the blog by Merilee Mitchell!

Mules and Vodka! - 20 Mule Team Reenactment


The Twenty Mule Team Trail - Part 2


teels marsh

The view Smith may have first had of Teels Marsh

In 1872 a young man from Wisconsin named Francis Marion Smith found work in the borax fields of Nevada as a woodchopper. It was at Columbus Marsh, Nevada and if you missed it we covered that in Part 1.    But Smith was not content to chop wood for other people nor was he content to chop wood period. He was on the lookout for his own borax claim and in 1872 he found it. Just over the mountain from the successful Columbus Marsh operation he saw a dry lakebed that looked a lot like a borax deposit. So Smith went down to the site, tested it for borax and struck his claims. He and his brother set up shop and they established Smith Brothers Borax.

francis smith 1875 copy

Francis Marion Smith in 1875 While Building his Borax Empire

Now their main distributor for their product was a man named William Tell Coleman. Coleman was a wealthy and established businessman in the United States. He had made his fortune by distributing goods like salmon, fruit and a whole variety of other products. He owned his own fleet of clipper ships and had his offices in San Francisco, Chicago and New York. In fact some had wanted to run Coleman for president in 1856 and during the Civl War it was Coleman who kept California in the union despite some strong confederate leanings at the time. But now in 1872 Coleman saw the value of borax and helped Smith get established by providing a loan for creating the new company. It wasn't long before Coleman's investment paid off and within several years Francis Marion Smith was the Borax King, buying up many of the companies he had worked for at Columbus Marsh years earlier.

teels marsh borax works
The Remains of Smith's Borax Operation at Teels Marsh from the 1870s bears a striking resemblance to the Death Valley Operation of the 1880s.

In the late 1870s Nevada was the center of Borax production. It was being scraped off of dry lakebeds by Chinese laborers, processed in large vats using a gravitational process, placed in sacks then lifted into large wagons. Many of these wagons were manufactured by Studebaker and were called the Nevada Iron Axle Wagons capable of hauling ten tons. The wagons were hitched in tandem and were often pulled by 16, 18, 20, 24 mules approximately 167 miles to the railroad at Wadsworth, Nevada. This system of hauling would later be used in Death Valley and many would claim the system was invented there but it had been proven to work long before the Death Valley operation ever began  - in the harsh deserts of Nevada.

For the entire story see The Twenty Mule Team of Death Valley.


The Twenty Mule Team Trail - Part 1



columbus marsh 2

Columbus Marsh today, 40 miles West of Tonopah, Nevada in Nevada Silver Trails Territory

Mules have been hauling freight around the American desert for a long time. And when it came to hauling the white,salty substance known as borax, one of the first places it was found, mined and carted out of, was here at Columbus Marsh. In the late 1860s and early 1870s Columbus was full of activity. Businesses were thriving, there were buildings with large smokestacks and everyone it seemed was rushing to Columbus, Nevada.  It's located about 40 miles due West of Tonopah, Nevada and is rich in mining and freighting history.  It's a great place to explore. There are plenty of foundations and ruins, enough to capture the imagination. And it was here that a well-known brand and a familiar household product had its beginnings. And why shouldn't it. There was plenty of borax just lying around on the surface waiting to be scooped up, refined, sacked and shipped. People were waiting for it in New York, San Francisco, Chicago and in households around the country. In those days it was touted as having medicinal properties and was sold in drug stores everywhere. People brushed their teeth with it (not recommended), used it to keep away bugs and some believed it would even cure baldness. But its most famous use was as a laundry additive and household cleanser. 

20 mule team borax

The most famous brand became 20 Mule Team Borax and is associated most closely with Death Valley. But its true start was in the deserts of Nevada. It was here at Columbus Marsh in 1872 that a young man from Wisconsin, Francis Marion Smith, found work as a wood chopper for one of the Columbus Borax operations. But he wasn't content to just chop wood.....nope....he had something else in mind.  More on that in our next installment of "The Borax Trail!"  And while you're at it check out the film "The Twenty Mule Team of Death Valley"!


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