Monday, April 30, 2012

Belgian artist breathes ghosts into ghost town

 A town goes boom to bust.  Belgian artists move in. The wacky, wily Charles M. Schwab is featured, along with an Australian saloon keeper who builds a house of bottles. Read on.

During the gold rush in 1905, Rhyolite, Nevada sprang up out of nowhere.  Gold and silver mining, much of it from the nearby Montgomery-Shoshone mine, drove the town's economy. At its peak, Rhyolite's population of 6,000 - 8,000 could find entertainment, alcohol and each other at any of 50 saloons. They could hob nob at the symphony, take in a show at the opera house, and stroll home on streets lit by electric lamps. Sunday morning, those who could get up were able to attend services at one of two churches. Visitors arriving at the train depot could find lodgings at one of three hotels that offered rooms with private baths. Rhyolite was a prosperous town, well-situated in a protected valley.

Rhyolite in 1909, photo courtesy of Terry E. Kurfess, Beatty, NV

Even back then, desert climate, geography and personality tapped a vein of three-dimensional expression. In 1905, Tom Kelly, an Australian saloon keeper, built a house using bottles he collected from his own establishment, and those he gathered from others; in all, he used about 30,000 bottles and completed the structure in less than six months. 

Tom Kelly's house made of 30,000 bottles, courtesy, Coppermine photo gallery
Rhyolite was a bustling boom town built on a bubble. In 1906, Charles M. Schwab purchased the mine. The son of German Catholic immigrants, Schwab was born and raised in Pennsylvania. He embarked on an career in engineering at Andrew Carnegie's Steelworks and moved to Bethlehem Steel where where he became known for union busting, the formation of a successful professional soccer team, and the transformation of Bethelhem into the second largest steel manufacturer in the world. Schwab's interest in a gold and silver mine in Nevada was the beginning of a long career of outrageous risks and escapades in his personal and professional life. 

Schwab invested heavily, building a railway, electric works and sewer system. But the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 followed by the financial crash of 1907 spurred capitalists to more closely inspect their holdings. When a study revealed that the mine would not yield profits, Schwab and the investors decided to cut their losses and shut it down. Within six years, the town had gone from boom to bust.

Then, in 1984, Polish born Belgian artist Albert Szukalski came to the desert seeking to create an "art situation."  Szukalksi created "The Last Supper" based on the work by Leonardo da Vinci, using local people to pose as models. The same year, he completed "Ghost Rider."

Ghost Rider, Albert Szukalski, 1984 photo Maria O'Meara

Other Belgian artists followed. Here, Tim Bransfield stands in front of "Pioneer and Penguin," created in 1994 by Belgian painter Fred Bervoets.

Tim Bransfield, Pioneer and Penguin,  Fred Bervoets, photo Maria O'Meara

An artist-in-residency program attracted installation artists from around the world. German artist Sofie Siegmann created "Sit Here!" with Indian motifs and desert patterns in mosaic tiles.

Sit Here! Sofie Siegmann, photo Maria O'Meara
Albert Szukalski died in 2000 at the age of 54. For years, artists like Bervoets and Siegmann came to create pieces that are unique to the landscape. In these economic times, the Goldwell Open Air Museum works hard to raise money to preserve its artistic heritage. Last fall, they hosted a Luau Night, a befittingly surreal event. If you're in the area, which can mean 200 miles away when you're in the Mojave, be sure to stop by!

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Lure of the Ore

In 1842, the discovery of gold in California attracted hordes of prospectors, engineers, con-men, drunkards, fools and entrepreneurs to the west in a quest for gold and precious minerals. Vibrant colors in the hills and canyons of Death Valley, the hottest, driest, lowest point in the United States, promised rich veins of copper, silver and gold as shown in this photo. 

Artist Drive,  National Park Service

Though the promise of riches never really "panned out," it was not from lack of trying. The discovery of silver and gold attracted entrepreneurs who thought they were up to the challenges involved in extracting, processing and transporting the ore.  In the 1880's, the Modock Consolidated Mining Company was operating a smelter in the Panamint Springs area. George Hearst, father of publisher William Randolph Hearst, was a principle owner of the mining interest. Having exhausted local timber needed for smelting, they needed a new source of fuel, and so, in 1887, they constructed ten kilns to process charcoal for smelting gold, silver and lead. Pinyon pines and juniper growing 25 miles away at an elevation of 6800 feet were the nearest source of timber!

Charcoal kilns at Wildrose, 1877 photo:  Maria O'Meara
Designed by a Swiss engineer and constructed by Chinese laborers, each kiln stands 25 feet high and 30 feet across and could process 40 cords of wood at a time. 

Charcoal kiln at Wildrose, photo: Maria O'Meara
Transporting charcoal to the smelter required hauling carts loaded with thousands of pounds down the 25 miles of twisting, narrow roads; even today, the drive takes you through a narrow canyon and bouncing over hairpin turns on rut-filled dirt roads. The kilns were used for only two years before being abandoned. Due to their remoteness and brevity of use, they are among the best preserved kilns in the west today. They were refurbished by a team of Navajo Indians in 1971. A view from nearby shows how remote the location is. 

View from Wildrose, photo: Maria O'Meara
A mineral less glamorous than gold or silver would make Death Valley famous. Borax or sodium borate was used to make soap, disinfectants, and paints, and as an ingredient for smelting gold and silver. More recently it has been used in rocket fuel. In 1881, deposits of borax were discovered near Furnace Creek, one of the lowest points in Death Valley. Teams of 20 mules transported borax from mines to processing plants on enormous wagons.

Twenty mule team transporting borax c. 1884,  National Park Service
Borax mining proved far more profitable than gold, silver, or copper but processing borax requires temperatures low enough for crystallization and during the sweltering summers, it was so hot, the minerals wouldn't crystallize. Shutting production down for three months a year proved unprofitable, and the borax mines were abandoned in 1888.

Gold strikes continued into the early 1900's, as thousands of claims were struck. Towns with names like Rhyolite, Skidoo and Leadfield sprung up. In its heyday, Rhyolite boasted a population of 10,000 with two churches, 50 saloons, a train depot and a three story bank. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the bank panic of 1907 dried up investments in mining and sent the town into decline. In 1911 the mine closed.

Though there was certainly gold in those colorful hills, the lack of fuel, extreme temperatures and the remote locations made getting it unprofitable. When the bubble burst, the ghost towns, mines, and enormous pieces of equipment were left behind in the desert.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, Death Valley Junction

Death Valley Junction, population 4, sits at a dusty crossroads on the Nevada California border. Here you will find the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. One look, and you will know why the place is said to be haunted and has been featured on Paranormal TV’s Ghost Adventures.

Amargosa Hotel
Amargosa Opera House
A dusty “back in half an hour” card taped to an iron gate greets the visitor. Breathing in, you are hit by the smell – a dusky mixture of mildew, dust, urine and sauerkraut. And the bouncy carpet springing underfoot as you walk from the lobby to the hallway contributes to an increasing sense of the paranormal as you approach the guest rooms.

At first, the portraits painted on the stucco wall are startling in the dim light. But as you look closer, you see the faces are friendly, familiar, even. They look like distant cousins or people you used to work with.

An unexpected breakfast nook off the long hall would be quite charming it weren’t for the pervasive odor of decay and the claustrophobic feeling that the walls are closing in.

Each of the 23 guest room appears to have its own theme. This purple queen is available for $65.00 a night, with an added charge of $12.07 for a rollaway.

The rooms open onto a veranda overlooking a stretch of sand that was once perhaps a pool or cactus garden.

At the southeast corner of the courtyard is the café and bar known for its burgers, burritos and homemade pie. The crust of the banana cream was flaky and crisp, with large chunks of very ripe banana in the creamy filling.  As we left, Teresa, the chef-hostess-waitress-proprietor from Michigan was peeling apples for her apple-raspberry-blueberry.

The hotel, opera house, café and nearby dilapidated cottages were a company town that was built in the early 1920’s by the Pacific Coast Borax Company. What is now the Opera House was a community center that served as dance hall, church and theater. By the early 1960’s, the property had been abandoned and in 1967, Marta Becket, a dancer who was on tour in California fell in love with the place. For $45.00 a month, she and her husband rented it and began fixing it up. Eventually, Marta bought the town. 

She covered the walls with characters, animals and scenes and  starred in her own, unique artistic visions unfettered by the tastes or control of others. The curtain rose at 8:15 every Friday, Saturday and Monday evening for years. On the back wall, she painted a mural of balconies packed with enthralled theatergoers so she would never perform to an empty house.  Unfortunately, the tour guide was mysteriously attending to someone in a room and was unable to show us the theater but this photo hints at the magnificence of the place. Teresa calls it “the Sistine Chapel” of the west. 

photo, mural detail: unattributed on Atlas Obscura

Marta gave her final performance February 12, 2012 at the age of 87. Today, she lives in the hotel.

Marta’s enterprise seems quixotic, eccentric, even laughable, but her energy, independence, and determination are inspirational. Buying an abandoned desert town in order to fulfill an artistic vision over a 40 year period takes courage, confidence and craziness that are enviable. Any ghosts that inhabit the place emanate from her creative spirit.

Sadly, Marta’s vision and the non-profit foundation that controls the enterprise have fallen into turmoil as legal battles rage among Marta’s protégé, business manager and the former operators of the café.  But that is a post for another blog!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Pupfish in Salt Creek

The approach to Salt Creek is dry, stark and silent, with regularly spaced creosote bushes the only form of life. You would have no idea that there is water flowing though a valley just 100 yards from here.

Area nearing Salt Creek, photo: Maria O'Meara

Entering Salt Creek, you are struck by the expanse of greenery, the calls of birds, the buzzing of insects, the sound of flowing water. 

Salt Creek, April 2012, Maria O'Meara
Visitors from around the world are fascinated with life in Death Valley Eileen O'Meara

Run off from the surrounding mountains has brought minerals and salt to this lake bed that is about 100 feet below sea level. 
Pickleweed in Salt Creek, Maria O'Meara
The valley floor is thick with pickleweed, a succulent adapted to living in salt water. As you can see below, it grows in capsule-like segments. When segments become too salty, the capsules drop off and new ones grow in. The capsules taste extremely salty, though I was the only one in my group who would try one.

Pickleweed close-up, Maria O'Meara

Salt grass exudes salt onto the blade's surface. The salt reflects the sun, protecting the plant. 

Water flows into Salt Creek in the spring, Maria O'Meara
Below you can see how incredibly salty this environment is. Layers of salt crystals have built up next to the stream. Chunks of salt gets all over your shoes, on your hands, and little particles coat your skin and the inside of your nose.

Salt deposits by the creek, Maria O'Meara
And amazingly, in this water with salinity higher than sea water, you see hundreds of pup fish wriggling around, mating, attacking each other, and swimming upstream to spawn. Look closely, there are really there.

Endangered pupfish, Maria O'Meara
Apparently they are cannibalistic though mostly they feed on algae.  The great majority die off in the summer as the tiny pools evaporate, and they become stranded. A few survive in the remaining, tiny pools of water. About 10,000 years ago, Lake Manly covered this entire area. The endangered Salt Creek pup fish adapted from life in cold, fresh water to life here in this harsh, salty environment. 
Hundreds of pupfish in springtime, Maria O'Meara