A Western spirit for old souls
A few Sacramento artists become pioneers—and preservationists—of an abandoned Old West ghost town
It’s a long, slow and bumpy hour-long drive from the nearest town, and it isn’t until the highway ends that the adventure truly begins. There, somewhere in central Nevada past the salt flats, deep in a scrub and sandy dirt-filled valley, sits the remains of an old mining town. Abandoned decades ago, it’s little more than a few aged wood buildings. But the town’s past and present are rich with Old West lore and an Earth-friendly, cooperative ethos.
The name of this town and its exact location is secret, but it’s not impossible for the adventurous or enterprising to find and, really, that’s the point, at least philosophically speaking. Here, far from the reaches of the Internet or any cell-phone tower, electrical currents or flushing toilets, exists a rugged pioneer spirit that’s at once resolutely independent and community-minded.
Tim White has been visiting this town for nearly 20 years. The Sacramento artist/musician, along with a few friends, discovered it during a quest to find another nearby ghost town. Disappointed by that town’s “modernized” restoration, locals tipped them off to another spot, pointing over the hills and down into the shallow basin with a simple request: “Don’t mess it up.”
They were impressed with what they found—several cabins, lined in a neat, orderly row, run-down yet still largely functional.
Years passed between White’s first and second visit.
“I explored a bunch of other ghost towns in Nevada; this was one of the first I’d been to,” says White, who later researched the town’s history.
Founded in the 1920s, it was built around a cinnabar mine and occupied until the late ’60s. There’s speculation that the last resident, an old woman, may have lived there until the early ’70s.
“I thought there would be a lot more [ghost towns] like it, only to find out later how rare this one was to be so intact, yet hidden,” White explains.
White and friends soon made it a regular destination, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that they considered the town’s conservation.
“Up until that point, we followed the idea that we should only pack our stuff in, then pack it all out and not disturb anything,” he says.
“After a few years, we began discussions of a person’s, or group’s, role in history, with much debate as to whether it’s OK or not to intervene for the sake of preservation.”
Eventually, White says, they opted for a balance between restoration and authenticity. Roofing the cabins, they figured, would help the structures last longer without altering the town’s original feel. Early, well-intentioned efforts led to a bigger, more determined focus.
“[At first] we were trying to do it the easy way by stapling down roll roofing. We figured anything we did was an improvement,” he says. “[But] it all blew off and our work was for nothing.
“That’s when we realized we needed more time, tools, money and planning. At this point we really explored the ideas of preservation.”
Now, the original group hosts an annual fundraiser, called a “Lootenanny,” and weighs out the pros and cons of each task. “We try really hard to not destroy anything, and any improvements are to be fitting with the look of the place as well as its history,” White explains.
Dave Davies stopped by to pitch in on this particular outing. “Desert Dave,” a grizzled ranch caretaker who settled in central Nevada because he wanted to get “really far out,” met the crew several years ago when White’s band played a nearby town. Now, to mark his first visit here, Davies’ set up camp and has spent the week sawing lumber and hauling supplies.
“I just liked what they were doing,” he says, by way of explanation. “It’s good to see.”
The 2009 work-week agenda includes rebuilding a cabin roof; the implementation of a new, more efficient trash and recycling system; and installing a much-debated wood floor in the saloon.
Although most argue that the well-worn planks are a huge improvement over the previous dirt floor, others preferred keeping the building, which once served as a mine post, true to its roots. But in a structure where scorpions are still regularly seen skirting across the walls, there’s little argument about its authenticity, or that of any of the ramshackle buildings, including two outhouses and the four sleeping quarters affectionately known as “Cabins 1-4.”
The buildings are clean and functional despite a lack of electricity or indoor plumbing. Cabin 1 boasts a piano and tiny kitchen rigged with “running water”—a faucet hooked up to a hose that pumps in recycled ice-cooler water from an outside bucket. There’s a tiny, outside solar shower behind the cabins, and a fifth building, which once stood two stories tall back when White and friends discovered the town, that now hangs in an almost cartoonish state of suspended disrepair, its future to be decided at a later time.
The weekend, which marks the culmination of the work, ends with a wedding, photos snapped atop the nearby “Sunset Hill” and a potluck-style dress-up formal dinner. The people here are mostly friends, or friends of friends, who camp out in tents and pickups that dot the tiny settlement. Visitors from nearby towns also catch wind of the gathering and trek in to say hello and share a drink.
Whitey’s Saloon is probably the most popular spot. Named after White (who’s also known as the ghost town’s “mayor”), it’s well-stocked with a full bar boasting several kinds of whiskey and a seemingly bottomless beer cooler. It’s big enough for just a handful of people, but that doesn’t deter the dozens who cram into the saloon and spill out onto the outdoor “patio”—a campfire pit circled by lawn chairs and an awning-covered picnic table.
Nearby is the mine, covered by a thick, heavy wood door that’s routinely lifted so visitors can gawk at its looming depth, approximately 240 feet, measured once using a lantern and rope. Lore has it that someone once drunkenly fell asleep inside it, but for now, safety and common sense are largely observed.
There are no hard and fast rules here (“Rules are a sticky thing. It’s a place that naturally shouldn’t have rules,” White says), but mostly a basic understanding of common decency and a tacit agreement to keep a good thing, well, good.
A well-thumbed log book in Cabin 1 chronicles visits with entries from the regulars as well as locals, outdoor enthusiasts and curiosity-seeking tourists.
“German view of the Wild West come true,” one entry reads.
“Sorry I shot the place up a little. Will patch up during work week,” reads another.
After each stay, nearly everyone pitches in to break down camp and clean, with trash and recyclables hauled away and sundry goods that “belong” to the town (Dutch ovens, tools, etc.) stashed in a secret location.
It’s about reusing, recycling and restoring, White explains, but also about building community.
“I like to think that this place brings out the best in people,” White says. “It is a community, but we all seem to be after the same thing, and it doesn’t feel like a lot of work to foster that sense. It’s just there. It’s a pretty damn happy place.”