The incredible hulks
Monoliths at American Flat may be living on borrowed time
It was sometime in the early 1960s that my father took me to see American Flat. It was on a plain southwest of Gold Hill that had once been the site of a major mining and milling operation.
Like a lot of Nevada kids, I enjoyed climbing the hills of the Great Basin. Exploring ghost towns—real ones more than the Virginia Citys and Goldfields—was of particular interest. In most cases, there was little left of those towns. That was not the case with American Flat.
Huge buildings stretched over several acres. Most of the plant complex had once been covered with a vast roof, but over the decades, all the wood had either been harvested or had rotted or blown away. What was left were several concrete monoliths that had a powerful, melancholy mystique. The dominant structure technically had two stories—two floors, that is—but was actually as tall as modern five- or six-story buildings.
We spent only a little time there that day, but in subsequent years, a friend and I went back regularly to camp. We spent time exploring the buildings’ tunnels, levels, rooms, sumps and so on. The Flat was endlessly interesting. We stayed in what we called the office, a small building on the west slope below the huge plant. We never knew for sure whether it had been the company’s office, but it seemed the most likely place. There were weekends when we never saw a soul.
Though there was mining on the Flat in the 1800s, the concrete complex was not a Comstock-era relic. It was constructed in the 1920s and began operation in 1922, operating only a short time. Expectations of the operation were never realized. That was basically the history of American Flat—one after another mining operation began with high hopes and ended soon afterward. But while operations lasted, they were publicized far and wide by local promoters.
In 1881, the Wanganui Chronicle (Wanganui is a New Zealand city that later became the sister city of Reno) reported, “A curious instance of natural silver-plating is reported from the Lord of Lorne Mine, of the American Flat section, Nevada. The sides next to the veins and the hanging walls of the ledge are covered with a thin coating of natural plating of pure silver as smooth as glass.”
In 1894, the Deseret News reported, “Nevada is shipping some immense blocks of silicon from American flats to the San Francisco fair.” This was presumably that year’s International Exposition where the state had a mining display. (Though the term American Flats is often heard, the name appears in both Nevada Place Names and the database of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names as American Flat.)
There was talk in 1902 of extending the Sutro tunnel through American Flat.
In 1932, new mining at the Flat received heavy news coverage but was another disappointment.
In 1968, billionaire recluse Howard Hughes’ minions bought up mining claims there.
There’s a book edited by Joe Curtis about the mining history of the Flat, but in the last half century, it’s the cultural history that has gotten more attention.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, I was out of state after being drafted and when I came back to Nevada, it was a while before I went back up to the Flat. Others, though, were there. The isolation of American Flat ended as many, many people discovered it. Their interest in the property was less respectful. Though some photographers valued it for its stark black/white features, others took pleasure in trashing the place. It became a party site. Eventually it was covered everywhere to a height of about 7 feet with graffiti. The extent to which that strip, thick with coats of paint, wound in and out of every room, wrapped around every column and building, was astonishing. It transformed the feel of the property from a stately, sad place where good men once worked, to a caricature, vandalized into an eyesore by small people with no respect for its history.
“When I first went there, it was like, ‘Whoooa!’ There was a mystique to it,” said historian Guy Louis Rocha. “But with the graffiti, it’s a lot less appealing. It became a garbage pit. It was once a beautiful hulk. Now it’s an ugly hulk.”
Those with the spray cans probably had no idea what they were doing to the site. Before that, there were rarely serious proposals to demolish the structures at American Flat. After the property was trashed, such suggestions were heard regularly.
In 1990, for instance, an editorial by Gary Elam in the Comstock Chronicle was headlined “Disneyland on the Comstock.” (This technique was also used in an adjoining column that described Vilnius, Lithuania as “Berkeley on the Baltic”). The editorial read, “During our hike around the ruins we saw a preschooler mimicking her parents who were spraying some indecipherable slogans on the walls. When the toddler ran out of paint, she just tossed the can into some sagebrush already smothered with other junk.”
Elam did not call for destruction of the buildings, but politicians tend to jump on these hints, and after the editorial’s publication, Sheriff Bob del Carlo was talking about demolition. “There is a thin line between what’s historical and what’s dangerous,” he said.
Furrows were plowed across the roads into American Flat to block access, and sheriff’s patrols chased people away.
Actually, it is surprising how few deaths and injuries have occurred at the site. Soon after the 1922 operation began, at least one worker, Rodie Sheeke, was killed after an ore train failed to stop when it was supposed to and crushed him against an ore dump. (Safe working conditions were not major concerns of mining companies.) In 1935, firefighter George Harris died while working a fire at American Flat. And in the 1980s or ’90s—no one can seem to remember—one person died while recklessly driving a vehicle up an old ramp.
There were frequent claims about happenings on the property that usually did not withstand investigation. A story about Satanic worship at the site—probably generated by some structures on the southwest corner of the property resembling movie-style pagan altars—was discredited by an official probe.
Del Carlo’s demolition proposal was not well received. One Comstock resident, Shirley Geste, wrote in a letter to the editor that the Flat was a relatively good place for kids to let off steam. Not only that, she wrote, “It might also behoove the newly righteous among us to recall that some few of the very teens they plan to bar from the Flats would probably not be among us if such restrictions had been placed on the petting parties of their parents in the exact same locale.”
In 2008, the inspector general of the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a survey of public land hazards. The Washington Post reported that it “cited several problem spots within the lands operated by the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, including a dilapidated, two-story concrete building at the American Flat Mill site, near the town of Virginia City, Nev., that is ‘extremely dangerous’ and a known ‘party hangout’ for local teens … ”
In December, the BLM announced plans to demolish all eight buildings and other structures in the concrete complex: “Under the selected alternative, all eight mill buildings would be demolished, voids and tunnels filled, and building footprints and other disturbed areas covered with native borrow material/soil and revegetated.”
The feds have signed an agreement with the Nevada Historic Preservation Office to record the site for history before any demolition.
It’s not clear whether Congress will provide funding for the demolition, but the clock may well now be ticking for the once-beloved site.
In 1991-92, I went to Spain for a month over Christmas and New Year’s. In the town where I stayed, Algeciras, graffiti was everywhere. There, it’s more a political tool and does not have the same stigma as in the U.S. One thing I noticed was that it was employed mostly on public buildings, and certainly not on historic structures. An aqueduct dating by one account to 1098 was respected and untouched. American Flat came sadly to mind.