Bringing Ghost Towns To Life

History, On the Road
on March 31, 2002

A halo of predawn light hovers over Mount Dunfee in the high desert country of southwestern Nevada. Three jackrabbits zigzag through an empty lot, and partridge-like chukars scurry across the street seeking haven beneath sagebrush.

It is 5:30 a.m., a time when things seem not quite real to the eye, when shadows can be mistaken for apparitions. But that’s what you’d expect—and maybe even hope for—in an old ghost town.

Welcome to Gold Point, Nev.—population five.

The former mining town is under the constant watch and upkeep of Herb Robbins and his sidekick/saloon bouncer/business partner Walt Kremin. Of the 55 old miners’ shacks and period buildings remaining in Gold Point, Robbins and Kremin own 28.

“That would include the historic outhouses, too,” quips Robbins, who purchased his first piece of property in Gold Point in the late 1970s.

The town at the base of the Shale Hills has been Robbins’ dream—make that obsession—for 23 years. A wallpaper hanger by trade, Robbins, 50, qualifies as an authentic mining historian, owning more than 600 books on the subject. It all started when his friend, Kremin, noticed a newspaper advertisement in 1978 offering three Gold Point lots for sale.

“I wanted to say I owned a piece of a ghost town,” Robbins admits, “but the more I bought, the more I wanted.” Indeed, Robbins financed some of his recent Gold Point purchases and restoration undertakings with an uncanny modern-day parallel of an old-time miner’s strike: He hit the jackpot in Las Vegas in 1998, playing slot-machine poker, for a whopping $222,636. Just two years earlier, Robbins had struck another mother lode at a casino in Reno, accumulating $481,000 on 171 jackpots over several months.

Yet he is quick to say, “Had I not won that money, I’d still be doing what I’ve been doing here all along—buying and fixing up when I can.”

Today, his and Kremin’s holdings include a saloon and the former post office. The two have a visitor-friendly policy that enables them to present Gold Point to tourists in its authentic state, not spruced-up and restored to conform with state codes.

“You’re always going to have dust in a place like this,” remarks Kremin, “but you’re never going to have dirt.”

‘Something to see’

From coast to coast and town to town, Americans are finding a part of their lost past in treks to places like Gold Point. Ghost towns or their remnants can be found in every state of the union and in every state of condition. Gold Point is a still-standing symbol of these once-thriving communities whose best days are behind them.

“Ghost towns embody the determination that drove fortune hunters, explorers, and settlers to cross the country to find riches and a better life,” notes Carol Shull, keeper of the National Register of Historic Places for the National Park Service. “They are at the heart of the American story.”

Stanley Paher, author of Nevada Ghost Towns and Mining Camps, was first lured to the fascination of old ghost towns by a series of questions raised: Why are they here? What drove people to mine for gold or silver? Why one place and not another? What Paher found was a pattern of evolution that began with the founding of a gold or silver camp. When things dried up in one gulch, the miners would move to the next, founding another town.

“In Nevada,” Paher says, “the reason for abandonment was far more brutal. A mill might be built, mines would be recorded; but if there was another strike across the valley, the miners would just simply abandon the inferior place for what they thought was the superior one. Mining communities showed very little loyalty to making the town a permanent place.”

Love of the outdoors in part contributes to the growing popularity of ghost towns, Paher says. “In the last four decades, more and more people have been looking for relics, wanting to get in the open air, wanting to explore and hike. That makes old ghost towns a natural—searching for old coins with metal detectors, hoping to find some token or small relic they can take back home.”

Paher ranks Gold Point among the top ghost towns in Nevada. “Not one stone or brick building was built there, so it was a poor town,” he says. “Nevertheless, it survived for many years. It is definitely something to see.”

Amateur archaeology

Gold Point’s centerpiece, the saloon, is the good-time place—a 110-foot-long compound containing an eclectic mix of artifacts, a place “where strangers become friends,” laughs Robbins. This particular evening some of Robbins’ co-workers from Las Vegas, up for the weekend, wander in. They join longtime Robbins friend Pat Miles and his daughter, Brenda, 9, who have come down for the summer from Sacramento, Calif. Robbins’ girlfriend, Sandy Johnson, also is there, along with Kremin. Sandy helps run Robbins’ modest bed and breakfast, a collection of rustic but renovated mining shacks that Robbins one day hopes will be his bread and butter when he retires.

“We put everyone to work,” says Robbins, the self-appointed town sheriff, pointing to Miles manning the magnificent back bar obtained from another ghost town in Bodie, Calif. Everyone is especially fond of Brenda, who is beyond her years in ease of conversation and knowledge of the area. She fails to escape Robbins’ work mandate, being simultaneously christened honorary bartender and chief plastic cup disposer. But her real work lies on Gold Point’s dusty boulevards.

“The roads need to be ridden,” she offers, suggesting dedication to purpose, “and I’m the one to ride ’em,” referring to her daily jaunts about town on her mountain bike.

The roads in Gold Point haven’t changed much since the town came into being in 1868. It was known then as Lime Point, after the area’s lime deposits. But in 1908 a silver boom bolstered the town and it was re-named Hornsilver. During that era, its heyday, 225 tents and buildings covered the town site, and its population reached an all-time high of 1,000. The town took its current name in 1930, when more gold than silver was mined.

Dried-up mining veins usually caused a camp’s demise, but World War II stole the crucial manpower from Gold Point mines, which reopened after the war only on a small scale until 1960.

Robbins’ fascination with old ghost towns and their mines is powerful.

“It’s like playing amateur archeologist,” he says. “You go into a tunnel and don’t know what you’re going to find around the corner. It’s the unknown. I don’t think I’ll ever find what I’m looking for, because I’m looking for everything and then nothing in particular.”

Except maybe a few old ghosts.

Another sort of death awaits even the best-preserved old ghost towns, once their preservationists are gone, and Robbins acknowledges the likelihood that no one ever will match his zeal for keeping the old ghost town alive.

Well, perhaps one.

“Brenda,” he says, reflecting on the little girl whose heart belongs to the dusty lure of Gold Point. “Walt (Kremin) once said, ‘She’s in love with the same thing. She’s got a passion for it.’”

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