Death Valley
Historic Resource Study
A History of Mining
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A. The Bullfrog Hills

1. Introduction

In 1900 the state of Nevada was entering its third decade of depression. The incomparable Comstock Lode, which had stimulated the migration of 60,000 people into the Nevada territory, had financed a major portion of of the northern effort during the Civil War, had made Nevada into a state, and had spawned numerous smaller mining booms between the 1805s and the 1870s, had died out by 1880. Since then, no new strikes of importance had been found, the population of the state had fallen to 40,000, and the economy was suffering the effects of twenty years of decline. Some cynics even suggested that Nevada should revert to territorial status. Such was the fate of a state whose entire economy was built around the boom and bust cycle of a mining frontier. [1]

In 1900, however, the cycle was reversed. Silver was discovered at Tonopah that year, and massive high-grade gold deposits were located at Goldfield two years later. The great boom days returned to Nevada, and prospectors, spurred by dreams of untold riches, once again blanketed the mountains and deserts of Nevada. No more discoveries were made which rivaled the riches of Tonopah and Goldfield, but numerous smaller camps were established which bloomed briefly on the desert, dreaming of becoming another Virginia City. Rhyolite, the metropolis of the Bullfrog district, was one of these camps.

Illustration 1. Map of the Bullfrog Hills Area.

Gold was first discovered in the Bullfrog district in the summer of 1904. The initial finds were high-grade surface ore assayed at $700 per ton--just the kind of stuff to start a boom. Shorty Harris, one of the discoverers, later described the reaction of Goldfield when he and his partner, Ed Cross, brought in their samples:

I've seen many gold rushes in my time that were hummers, but nothing like that stampede. Men were leaving town in a steady stream with buckboards, buggies, wagons and burros. It looked like the whole population of Goldfield was trying to move at once. Timekeepers and clerks, waiters and cooks--they all got the fever and milled around wild-eyed, trying to find a way to the new "strike".

A lot of fellows loaded their stuff on two-wheeled carts--grub, tools and cooking utensils, and away they went across the desert, two or three pulling the cart and everything in it rattling. Men even hiked the seventy-five miles pushing wheelbarrows.

When Ed and. I got back to our claim a week later, more than a thousand men were camped around it, and more were coming every day. A few had tents, but most of them were in open camps.

That was the start of Bullfrog and from then things moved so fast that it made us old timers dizzy. [2]

Although Shorty Harris was guilty of much romanticizing in his later interviews, events did indeed move fast. Towns sprang up overnight in competing locations. Amargosa was laid out on September 30th and had sold 35 lots within three weeks. Beatty, to the southeast, was located on October 20th, and the towns of Bullfrog, Bonanza and Rhyolite were started by competing townsite companies in November--all within a few miles of each other. Amargosa reported 1,000 lots sold before the town was two months old, some for as high as $200 each, and by November the town boasted three stores, four saloons, two feed lots, restaurants, boarding houses, lodging houses, a post office and 35-40 other tent buildings. Prices, of course, were in proportion to the boom atmosphere and the costs of freighting 70 miles from Goldfield. Lumber for building was scarce and sold for $100 per 1,000 board feet, while hay for prospectors' burros and teamsters' mules went for $100 a ton.

The boom continued through the spring of 1905. Thirty teams a day left Goldfield for the Bullfrog district in January, and one traveler counted fifty-two outfits arriving in the district during one day in March. Confusion reigned supreme, especially for prospectors who left town for a few days in March, to find upon their return that the entire town of Amargosa had picked up and moved a few miles south to the town of Bullfrog. Bonanza's citizens had the same experience, as their town was moved to Rhyolite. Mining claims changed hands furiously, for ground near a publicized claim was worth $500 to $2,000, even if a pick had yet to strike the earth. By May, Rhyolite counted twenty saloons, a sure sign of wealth. [3]

Illustration 2. Early advertisement from the town of Bullfrog. From the Bullfrog Miner June 9, 1905.

By late spring, the dust had settled a little, at least to the point where one could leave home overnight and expect the town to be in the same location when returning. Rhyolite and Bullfrog, located only three-fourths of a mile apart, had become established as the leading towns of the district, with Beatty, four miles to the east, running a poor third, and Gold Center barely surviving. Four daily stages connected the district with the outside world, post offices were running at Beatty, Bullfrog and Rhyolite, lots in Rhyolite which sold for $100 in February were selling for $4,400, and wheel and faro games were going twenty-four hours a day. "It reminds one of the old times," remarked one prospector. In addition, Rhyolite, Bullfrog and Beatty each had a bank, and each had a weekly newspaper. The Bullfrog Miner printed its first issue on March 31st, the Beatty Bullfrog Miner on April 8th, and the Rhyolite Herald on May 5th.

The boom kept pace through June. 3000 people were estimated to be in the district, the telephone line was completed to Bullfrog and Rhyolite, and the telegraph office opened. Over 300 messages were sent over the wires on the first day of operation, mostly to Goldfield brokers and stock dealers. By the first anniversary of the district in August, both Bullfrog and Rhyolite had their own piped-in water systems, Rhyolite had yet another bank, and the two towns had a population of 2,500, with another 700 at Beatty and 40 in the tent city of Gold Center. The Rhyolite Herald listed 85 incorporated companies working in the district. [4]

The pandemonium subsided somewhat in 1906, as the rush phase of the boom slowly turned into the more controlled phase of development. 165 mining companies were reported working in the district, and all had hopes of developing another mother lode with just a few more feet of digging. Rhyolite gradually won the battle with Bullfrog and by spring had emerged as the metropolis of the southern desert, when Bullfrog's store, saloons and newspaper moved up the hill to Rhyolite. Not one, but three railroads announced plans to construct lines into the district.

Illustration 3. Bullfrog, Nevada, November 1905. Courtesy, Nevada Historical Society.

Illustration 4. Rhyolite, Nevada, November 1905. Courtesy, Nevada Historical Society.

Then, the first hint of disaster struck, with the earthquake and fire of San Francisco. Feverish developments slowed momentarily, as miners, owners, and promoters waited to see what effect the destruction of the west coast's financial center would have upon their fortunes. The boom spirit was still too prevalent, however, for the effect to be prolonged, and with the promise of financial aid (if needed) from mining promoter Charles Schwab, the bustle returned to camp. By the end of 1906, Rhyolite seemed assured of its self-proclaimed title of Queen of the Desert, when the Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad completed its tracks into town. With the advent of cheaper rail freightage rates, the camp was certain to add to its monthly payroll of $100,000, and to continue its development. [5]

The year of 1907 was another good one. Fifty cars of freight per day were arriving over the Las Vegas & Tonopah in February. The town had grown to a population of 3,300, and lots at the heart of Rhyolite were selling for $10,000. A school census was taken which showed 250 children of school age, so a wooden schoolhouse was built, as was a concrete and steel jail for older folks. The Rhyolite Stock Exchange was incorporated and opened on March 25th, to ease the effects of feverish stock trading on the over-worked telegraph wires to Goldfield and San Francisco. In June, the Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad came into town, opening rail connections with the north, and in September electric power was brought into town over the poles of the Nevada-California Power Company. The power was hooked into the already-wired homes, stores and offices of Rhyolite, as well as into the machinery of the big Montgomery-Shoshone mill, which soon began operations. Another newspaper, the Rhyolite Daily Bulletin appeared to compete with the district's three weekly papers. Production figures for the district went over $100,000 for the first time during the month of September, and the arrival of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad the next month augured even more prosperity. [6]

brokerage house
Illustration 5. Home of Taylor & Griffiths, Rhyolite Brokers.

Mining was the name of the game. For those who were not lucky enough to own their own mines, stock dealing was the next best thing. The firm of Taylor & Griffiths, one of Rhyolite's leading brokerage houses, was the site of much dealing, speculation and stock promoting. Photo from Rhyolite Herald, 15 June 1906.

human victim
Illustration 6. Prospecting in Death Valley was not a venture to be taken lightly. This victim, who was never identified, was found in the valley in 1907. Prospectors who found him estimated that he had been dead for two days. Photo courtesy of Death Valley National Monument Library, Neg #1138.

Even the panic of 1907, which some would call a depression, did little to dampen the spirits of Bullfrogers. Newspapers noted, almost with wonder, that the panic seemed to affect the Bullfrog district much less than it did other mining camps in Nevada and California. The local banks were forced to issue script for a few months, due to the shortage of cash, but the local merchants gladly accepted it--even advertised for it--and the panic was put down to the manipulations of greedy eastern financiers. Despite the panic, property values sky-rocketted during 1907, and the year-end tax rolls reflected the prosperity of the young town, which was assessed taxes on almost two million dollars worth of real and personal property. [7]

1908 followed suit. The year opened with the big Montgomery-Shoshone mill treating 200 tons of ore per day, and with the promise of more mills to open soon, thus increasing the district's production and prosperity. To house all this money, the grand three-story, $60,000 John S. Cook Bank Building was completed in January. By February, all the banks were back on a cash basis, and reported that they had needed only half the amount of script which had been printed for use during the Panic. Production soared as new mills and mines went into operation, reaching an estimated $170,850 in the month of April. By September, the Bullfrog district ranked as the third largest producer in the state of Nevada, trailing only Goldfield and Tonopah. The Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad finished its magnificent passenger station in June, which immediately became one of the showcases of the southern Nevada region. By the end of the year, the Rhyolite Herald estimated the total production for 1908 as close to $1,000,000.

Construction continued apace, as the three-story concrete and stone Overbury building was completed in. December at a cost of $50,000. Now at its height, Rhyolite fairly bustled with activity. The newspapers enthusiastically claimed a population of 12,000, although a more probable estimate would be 8,000. The town now had an opera house, a new $20,000 concrete and steel, two-story school building, hotels, ladies' clubs, and even a swimming pool. The large concrete and stone buildings which dominated the main streets were flanked by hundreds of wooden stores, offices and residences, although a few late-arrivals still lived in tents on the outskirts of town. The Western Federation of Miners' local union, with its healthy membership, union hall and hospital, threatened to surpass the local at Tonopah. Rhyolite even had a manufacturing base of two foundaries and machine shops, and the Porter Brothers, leading merchants, had built their original tent store into a imposing building complete with freight elevators and a stock worth $100,000. Dane halls and brothels, ever a sign of prosperity in a mining camp, spilled over from their assigned districts on several occasions, drawing the attention of the town council. Rhyolite and the Bullfrog district, it seemed, had arrived. [8]

Illustration 7. Rhyolite near its height in February 1908. The Overbury building, and the John S. cook Bank building, to its right, dominate the city. The tracks of the Bullfrog and Goldfield Railroad may be seen in the lower right and lower left corners. The lumber yard of the Tonopah Lumber Company is in the lower right, next to the city jail. The school house is not yet built. Various mines can be seen in the background, and the former city of Bullfrog is at the extreme left background. Photo courtesy of Nevada Historical Society.

In the meantime, the Rhyolite and Bullfrog boom were having much the same effect upon the surrounding Death Valley country as Goldfield and Tonopah had had upon the entire state. Spurred by the Bullfrog boom and dreams of wealth, prospectors swarmed out of Rhyolite into the hills and deserts of southeastern Nevada and southwestern California. Backed by flush Rhyolite merchants and promoters, these men examined the countryside as it has never been examined before or since. For a while, the results seemed almost too good to be true, for strikes and mining camps blossomed out of the wilderness almost everywhere one could see. On the east side of Death Valley, the entire South Bullfrog district grew up around the Keane Wonder mine, while farther to the south arose the boom camps of Lee, Echo, Schwab, Greenwater, Gold Valley and Ibex. Farther to the west, across the Death Valley sink, prospectors out of Rhyolite found and established the mines and camps of Emigrant Springs, Skidoo, Harrisburg and Ubehebe. All these camps looked upon Rhyolite as the metropolis of the desert, and Rhyolite merchants, teamsters and outfitters, located at the railhead, profited immensely from being situated at the distribution center for the region.

As usual, however, the gold fever which swept the country contained more fever than gold. Some of the smaller camps died almost as soon as they were born, leaving little more than a ripple on the surface of time. Some, like Greenwater, spent all their energy on booming, and when the dust had settled, nothing was left to be seen. Most lasted a year or two, or even three. But with the exception of Skidoo and the Keane Wonder, all the smaller camps died before Rhyolite, and the fate of the offspring presaged the fate of the parent.

Illustration 8. Sketch Map, Bullfrog District.

On the surface, Rhyolite seemed as robust as ever in early 1909, and the citizens of the town even started a movement to split the county in two, making Rhyolite the county seat of the southern portion. Such ambitions, however, were hopeless, for the cracks were already appearing in the facade. Although the boom spirit had carried the Bullfrog district through the San Francisco disaster and the panic of 1907 without appearing to harm the camp, underlying problems were beginning to surface. Investor confidence was weakened by the financial difficulties, a fatal blow to any mining camp. Two of the three Rhyolite banks had closed by the end of 1909, and shady dealings involving two of the district's most promising mines further shook investor confidence. The Montgomery- Shoshone mill continued to mill its low-grade ore throughout 1909, but there is nothing romantic about low-grade ore. A brief new boom at Pioneer, to the north, seemed to arrest the process of decline for a short time, but a disastrous fire roared through that camp before it was even built, and it never recovered.

The process of decay is harder to document than that of boom, since the local newspapers would never, dare print any discouraging news, but the evidence was there. The Rhyolite Daily Bulletin was the first newspaper to close, printing its last issue in May of 1909, and the Bullfrog Miner followed suit in September. The December tax rolls told the real story. When the time came to ante up for county taxes, owners of 156 properties--or 28 percent of the total tax base--elected to quietly leave town and let their properties be confiscated by the county treasurer, rather than spending more money in a losing cause. As the Mining World summed up, "Mining operations in the Bullfrog district were rather dull last year." [9]

The camp plodded through 1910, struggling to keep alive, and hoping that some prospector would make the strike which would bring back the days of prosperity. Their hopes were doomed, however, and when tax time rolled around again, 168 taxable properties (44 percent) were left to the care of the county treasurer, as their owners had departed. The First National Bank closed its doors that year, the fast bank to leave Rhyolite.

The trend accelerated in 1911, when the Montgomery-Shoshone, the only mine to make any significant production in the district, finally shut down in May. The 1911 tax rolls again showed owners of 1.18 properties (43 percent) leaving town rather than pay taxes, and the Mining World sounded the death knoll. "The Bullfrog district is almost deserted, save by a few lessees, who at intervels [sic] make a small production . . . . The Montgomery-Shoshone, after demonstrating that ore averaging $6 a ton could be profitably milled, has closed down, having exhausted its pay ore." [10]

The Bullfrog district, too, was exhausted. The town and camp did not die with a bang, and hardly with a whimper. Companies who had money left in their treasuries held on to properties, hoping for a comeback, and several dozen intrepid souls stayed on in Rhyolite, eeking out existence by leasing mines and extracting occasional small shipments of ore. The great days, however, were definitely gone forever. The Rhyolite Herald finally gave up and closed down in June of 1912, and the town slowly died.

Periodic efforts were made to reorganize and rework the mines on a small scale, which kept Rhyolite from becoming a complete ghost town for several years, but none were successful. In 1914, the Las Vegas & Tonopah discontinued service to the town, above the protests of the few remaining citizens. In 1916, the Nevada-California power company cut off electricity to Rhyolite, and began to salvage its poles and wire. The Inyo Register described the once thriving town in December of that year: "Rhyolite, once a camp claiming several thousand population, is practically a deserted village . . . the movable buildings have been moved away from time to time, and the process is still going on. At present it is contributing to the upbuilding of the camp of Carrara. . ." By 1920, although a few companies and individuals still held on to their Rhyolite properties, hoping against hope for a revival, the camp was completely deserted." [11]

And so Rhyolite was slowly dismantled to serve the needs of new boom camps, and the cycle was completed. Although small-scale efforts were made to revive the camp from time to time--including one during the fall of 1978--the good days were gone. Today, the crumbling remains of its once imposing structures, together with its picturesque location, make it one of the west's most popular ghost towns. Ironically, Beatty, 4 miles to the west, which played little sister to Rhyolite throughout the boom years, was saved from decline by the construction of Nevada Highway 95, and today that little town of several hundred thrives on the trade of tourist, military personnel and truckers traveling between Las Vegas and Reno.

Illustration 9. Rhyolite, 1978. John S. Cook Bank building. Photo by John Latschar. .

Illustration 10. Rhyolite, 1978. Rhyolite jail. Photo by John Latschar.

Illustration 11. Golden street, Rhyolite, looking south from John S. Cook Bank building. Facade of Porter Brothers store on left, ruins of Overbury building on right. Photo by John Latschar.

Illustration 12. Rhyolite's pride, the $20,000 school building. Completed after the boom had left the Bullfrog rose, the building was never used to capacity. Photo by John Latschar.

All was not in vain, however. The Bullfrog district produced $1,687,792 worth of ore in the four short years between 1907 and 1910, doing its part, along with the other small camps and the bonanzas of Goldfield and Tonopah, in pulling Nevada out of its two-decade slump. Without the stimulus of this early twentieth-century mining boom, of which Rhyolite and the Bullfrog district were a distinct part, Nevada would not have had the new economic base with which to survive the great depression, and to emerge as a prosperous mineral, tourist and military state of today. [12]

Just as important, without the boom and bust days of Rhyolite and the surrounding territory, we would not have the opportunity today to study, appreciate and preserve the memories of these early twentieth-century mining camps. And, thanks to the Bullfrog boom, Death Valley National Monument is rich with such a heritage of bygone days.

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Last Updated: 22-Dec-2003