It began in 1904 when Frank "Shorty" Harris and Earnest L. Cross discovered gold in the hills west of what would eventually be the town site. First a small camp called Bullfrog emerged. Then another camp named Rhyolite took form a mile to the north. It included numerous saloons, restaurants, and boardinghouses—all in tents. Lots were offered for sale for $50 each in February, 1905. Months later lots were then $1,200. One of the first buildings constructed was the two-story Southern Hotel. The first post office, housed in a ten-by-twelve tent, opened on May 19, 1905. There were several small camps within a radius of a few miles of Rhyolite that eventually merged with the southern part of the rapidly expanding town.
The Bottle House, a house built from thousands of beer and liquor bottles by Tom Kelly in 1906, was restored by Paramount Pictures in 1925 for use in a movie. The Bottle House was restored again in 2005. Another building, the bank building, was 3 stories tall and cost $90,000 to build. The LV&T train station was built to accommodate the influx of people to the area in search of gold. The first passenger train into Rhyolite arrived on December 14, 1906. A school was built in early 1906 without anticipating the number of children who would occupy it. The building was inadequate and was blown down by strong winds in September 2006. School was held in the county hospital building until a second school building, begun in 1907, opened in 1909. The school included both classrooms and an auditorium; however, it was used only briefly and was never filled.
At its peak, the town had forty-five saloons, an opera house, a number of dance halls, a slaughterhouse, two railroad depots, several hotels, stores, an ice plant, two electric plants, foundries, machine shops, a miner’s union hospital, a stock exchange, a Board of Trade,and countless other buildings. It even had three public swimming pools. In January 1907 a network of 400 electric streetlight poles were installed to light Rhyolite twenty-four hours a day. The town also boasted plumbing and telephone service. During Rhyolite’s brief reign of glory, more than eighty-five mining companies were active in the hills around the city. The Montgomery Shoshone mine was sold to industrialist Charles M. Schwab in 1906 for a reported 5 million dollars.
On May 18, 1906 a killing occurred in Rhyolite when a man named Steve O'Brien stabbed his wife with a miner's candlestick. When a town deputy sheriff and the judge showed up, the crazed O’Brien stabbed the judge. In retaliation, the deputy shot and killed O’Brien. At this time, Rhyolite did not yet have a jail and the lawmen had to transport the offenders to a jail in Bullfrog. At a cost of $15 a day to rent the horse rig, the town began to see the need for building its own jail.
The Panic of 1907 is believed to have dealt a death blow to the town. Most of the town’s investors were from the East. When they withdrew their backing, all the mines were forced to close. The devastating effects of the panic did not affect Rhyolite until the spring of 1908. It was then the trains were almost always filled with people leaving town. By the end of 1909, the population was well below 1,000. The town continued to struggle to stay alive hoping for a new boom that never came. The lights and power were turned off in 1916. The population of the almost dead town had shrunk to fourteen by the beginning of 1920. The last resident died in 1924.
The bottle building was given to the Beatty Improvement Association for maintenance as a historical site. In 1936, N.C. Westmoreland rescued the depot and converted it into a casino and museum. His sister H.H. Heisler maintained it later as a museum and curio shop. The train depot, which is still privately owned, is one of the few complete buildings left in the town. The ghost town of Rhyolite is on both federal and private lands.
As one approaches the town an unlikely group of prominent Belgian artists created a self-described art situation consisting of seven outdoor sculptures that are colossal not only in their scale, but in their placement within the vast upper Mojave desert. The Goldwell Open Air Museum includes a life-size, ghostly interpretation of the Last Supper painting by Leonardo Da Vinci; a 25-foot high pink woman made of cinder blocks; a 24-foot high steel prospector accompanied by a penguin; and more.