Thursday, August 1, 2013

It's not just about bottles.

Back in the 70's, before diggers were considered the modern day equivalent of grave robbers by Big Brother, we scheduled a ghost town trip to the Silver State on a yearly basis.

Dirt bikes were the preferred mode of transportation over the vast expanses of dessert. They were two strokes back then and were loud and fast. They also didn't perform well at the mile high altitude that a lot of remote Nevada ghost towns were tucked away at. But, for covering distances in a hurry, they beat the heck out of hiking.

Lewis Nevada is located southeast of Battle Mountain, a few miles off of what was then the Nevada Central Railway.  


 It was connected to the main line at Lewis Junction by a narrow gauge railroad appropriately named, the "BML"  (Battle Mountain and Lewis).

Lewis's claim to fame was silver, lots of it. Although not highly populated compared to say VC or Austin, the age was right; mid 1870's - 1880's! Located in a narrow canyon, building sights were limited. The main part of town, appropriately named Lower Town, was on a flat at the mouth of the canyon. Later, as the town grew, Middle Town sprung up a mile or so up the canyon, followed by Upper Town (also known as Dean) at the head of the canyon where the terrain goes nearly vertical to the peak of Mount Lewis.

And so, in the cold dreary winter months preceding the trip, I poured over USGS topo maps, Metskers and Freese maps, and a stack of ghost town books. The more I studied, the more convinced I became that this was a home run waiting to happen. The right age plus silver mines and railroads, there just had to be "a pony in the closet". Visions of glop top whiskies, great western bitters, killer sodas, and EC&M insulators danced in my head.

Mid June finally arrived and off we went. A large cottonwood on a flat next to the stream at the entrance to the canyon seemed to be a perfect spot to set up camp. Once the trailer was leveled, and things were "just so", we fired up the bikes and began a systematic search. An arroyo fanned out into the dessert floor downstream of camp. Root cellars and dugouts were everywhere on the sides of the arroyo. The flats above were littered with cans and glass amidst the tall sage brush. One spot had a mountain of slick busted blob beers glittering away in the sun. It turned out to have been the sight of the Lewis Brewery. Remains of three mills, the Eagle, Star Grove and one other were perched on the sides of the canyon, crumbling into oblivion.

I walked the right of way of the BML railroad and Mr. Metal Detector gave me a two thumbs up signal not too far "down the tracks" from Lower Town. About a foot down, under ballast and flash flood overburden, a switch lock made it's appearance. Now that's the way to start a weeks dig!


Outers were many, and nearly all had been hammered. One lucky un-dug pit yielded a few bottles, including a green ladies leg bitters, an early aqua Ayers Hair Vigor, a bunch of slicks and... a rust encrusted sawed off ten gauge shotgun and an equally "weathered" pepper box pistol. I doubt that they ended up there by accident~

A couple of days after we arrived, a freak late spring blizzard snowed us in. Stuck in the trailer, I poured over the topo map once again. A concentration of mine shaft symbols several miles up the canyon, and on top of a remote ridge caught my attention. Odd, I didn't recall seeing a road leading to it when we explored Upper Town the day before.

The snow melted rapidly, thanks to bright sunshine and warm temps and the following day, we fired up the bikes and blasted our way through the Slurpee like slop that still remained in drifts in the shade. Once at Upper Town, we located a washed out trail that had once been a road. A road that led up the canyon and toward the mine shaft symbols.

The bike was gasping for air when we hit the 7,000 foot level and I was obliged to lay it down like a dying horse and hoof it the rest of the way. At a mile and a half above sea level, there's not much oxygen and the hike was brutal. And worth it.

As I rounded the last bend before the summit, a wooden cyanide tank came into view. To the right were collapsed cabins. Another couple of hundred yards further, the head frames (gallows), still standing watch above the yawning chasms of mine shafts that their cages had visited time and again, revealed themselves to me. Cabins, flattened by a hundred years of snow slides and baked by as many high desert summers, were everywhere. And so was garbage. Garbage laying where it had been tossed a century prior. No chewing gum wrappers, pop tabs, or other sign of modern visitations could be found. This was it, every diggers dream. "Our own" ghost town. A ghost town that saw it's last visitor around 1900, when the final shovel of dirt was turned and the last wagon rumbled down the trail that I'd just trekked up the mountain on.

To the right, up the ridge another hundred yards or so, was a huge rock. Glass sparkled in the noonday sun and drew me to it. Henry Busch / Minnemucca (sic) Nev. hutches were splattered on top of and littered the ground beneath it. Target practice. And those guys were crack shots. Why couldn't they have missed, just once?

Over the ridge, and downhill a bit, were more remains of hovels. Brass opium tins littered the ground amongst tin cans and bottles. Ahhh, Chinatown... And that was where I decided to park myself for the rest of the day. One particular shanty hadn't fully collapsed (darned near though) and a glance inside revealed a cast iron small bed, a small cook stove made of sheet tin, cast iron pots, pans and lots of opium tins; many with the original brilliant orange label adorned with black Chinese characters and San Francisco tax stamps still intact amidst the rubble on the dirt floor.

A small gully just downhill was packed with solder seam cans, more glass and other discarded remnants of life in the 1890's. The dugouts that were once cabin sites, slowly parted with their treasures. It was here in Chinatown, on a windswept ridge isolated from the white miners stretch of town, that I gained a new appreciation for something other than bottles.

The following items surfaced over the rest of the day;

small ornamental cups (saki?),

a decorated / glazed bowl (rice or soup?), an ornate spoon - minus the handle,

A tall ceramic bottle resembling a ladies leg bitters,

a familiar tiger whiskey, a ceramic green and brown glazed round - uh, maybe a cap to a container? The obligatory marble rolled out to make my acquaintance.


A couple of opium bowls popped out; Neat stuff!
A mysterious clear glass round cut glass object appeared next; it was unlike anything I'd seen. A heavy glass funnel shaped item that was open on both ends, but broken neatly in half. I set it next to the keepers on top of a pile of dirt. Next a clear glass tulip shaped "small goblet" without the foot appeared. It had cherry blossoms painstakingly etched into a pattern that encircled the body. A little blue handle that looked like "willow ware" soon surfaced, followed by a flat round disc.
(Later research revealed that the round glass object, glass funnel, tulip "small goblet", and flat round disc, were all componenets of an opium burner and the little blue handle that looked like "willow ware" was actually the porcelain part of an opium dipper - the metal stem and dipper long since rusting away) (and like a dummy, I left the two halves of the chimney on the side of the hole...)
A brown ceramic (inkwell?) came up next.

Things were beginning to get sparse but the ground gave up one last gem, a cobalt blue bottle with Chinese character embossed on the face.

As the sun ducked behind the peak of Mount Lewis, I gathered up the fruits of the day, carefully packaged them and began the long steep trip back to camp.

Looking back on that afternoon, a few decades later, and gazing up at the shelf where those treasures are now displayed, I can't help but appreciate that, at least for me, it's not just about bottles.

Fast forward several years later - 1980's; we decided to revisit the site. Sadly, a "four lane hi way" had replaced the washed out trail that had lead to the town when I first discovered it. A Canadian mining firm had obliterated the site. The entire top of the mountain had been trucked to a cyanide gold recovery site outside of Battle Mountain...
Henry Busch photo courtesy of American Bottle Auctions, BML RR and Mt. Lewis photos courtesy of Google photo search.


Unknown said...

A very interesting article of a time capsule from past. The tough life would explain the popularity of opium pieces. If you were interested in parting out some pieces I would be all hears. In a era of fakes and reproductions it is refreshing to see the real deal. Cool website and stories I stumbled upon by chance and will now bookmark.

Gewonde said...

Fascinating! Even what remains of the opium lamp is a great find, intact as it is. The glass ones obviously did not survive very well - and a nice cut glass oil reservoir and base such as you show still have value, as do the bowls.

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