American flatlined

The BLM tore down a Nevada icon. UNR professor Howard Goldbaum documents its life and death.

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For another account of American Flat, see “The incredible hulks” by Dennis Myers at

I grew up on the Connecticut shore. When I was 15, my dad gave me my own boat, a 12-foot wooden skiff with a 10 horsepower rope-start outboard motor. He warned me not to take it beyond the breakwaters on Long Island Sound, a couple of miles out. Later that summer, I found myself—along with a girl in a bikini—way beyond the breakwater, about to begin my misspent youth. Had I been born in the Reno area, however, my youth would likely have been misspent within the ruins of the United Comstock Merger Mill at American Flat.

Just south of Virginia City, the eight skeletal structures of the mill had a far longer decline than they had a working life. The mill was built in 1922 but was shuttered and stripped of anything useful just four years later. While its reinforced concrete construction and its cyanide-slurry process were both innovative for the era, the decline in the price of silver put an end to the venture.

The buildings slowly decayed, the protruding rebar and gaping holes providing an enticing stage for all the drama of youth, an engaging if dystopian setting for graffiti artists, photographers, and Airsoft warriors. The ruins were so evocative that a movie, Godmonster of Indian Flats, was made here in 1973; something about radiation and mutated sheep.

At her Thanksgiving table this year, Cathy Schmidt of Reno told her sons, 20 and 23, that after hearing about it on the news she and a friend went to American Flat to take pictures prior to the demolition. She asked them if they had ever been out there.

“Uh, yeah, Mom,” they replied.

Schmidt asked her sons why they had never told her about it.

“It's not the kind of place you tell your mom about,” they said.

Storey County Emergency Manager Joe Curtis has heard much folklore regarding “the Flats.” Someone once soberly informed him that the structures were haunted due to their use as a home for unwed mothers. Curtis remembers the Storey County fire or sheriff's department responding to emergency calls there a couple of times a month each summer, ranging from out-of-control bonfires to stolen cars wrecked and abandoned in the ruins. One man, according to Curtis, fell from an upper story and was impaled on a piece of rebar. He survived. Another man, inebriated and riding a quad down a flight of stairs in the dark, was not so fortunate.

Yet the site inspired a passionate local following, some of whom commented on the FaceBook “Save American Flat” page, with 2,379 “likes:”

• Jared: “My church as a teenager. Found myself out there.”

• Brandon: “The few random times showing up out there in the middle of the night to no fires, no cars, but random shadows lurking about.”

• Jenny: “A post-apocalyptic zombie inspiring fantasy. Raw and magnificent.”

• Gina: “Every building, every hole & dark space spoke like the walls were written on.”

• Anne: “I have stories I can never tell but also never forget.”

After considering a few alternatives, the Bureau of Land Management determined that the American Flat Mill was a liability they could no longer abide, and contrary to the hopes of historic preservationists and others, oversaw the demolition of the ruins toward the end of last year. As a part of the required historical mitigation, the BLM asked me to create a virtual-reality exploration of the site, now but a memory. While it surely cannot compare with the real thing, this is one memory to which you can always return: