Searchlight, Nevada: A Living Ghost Town

In the arid southern corner of the Silver State lies Searchlight, Nevada. Once the site of a gold mining boom, Searchlight has become a "living ghost town," where modern structures stand alongside the ruins of historic buildings from its heyday.

Abandoned buildings in the living ghost town of Searchlight, Nevada

After a morning spent loading up the car that would serve as my home for the next 30 days, I said goodbye to Los Angeles and set my sights eastward. Months of planning had reached an end and it was finally time to set out on my epic month-long journey to explore America's Rust Belt and the abandoned places along the way.

The beautiful California sunshine, warm desert air, and the freedom of the open road filled me with a sense of peace and euphoria. John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" poured from the stereo. I was living the dream.

Several hours later, I crossed the Nevada border and made a quick stop to refuel in the little town of Searchlight. I was still about 30 miles from my first planned stop, a huge abandoned pet cemetery outside Boulder City, Nevada.

Standing at the gas pump, a cluster of rusty old buildings down the road caught my eye and I couldn't resist taking a closer look. I had barely begun my road trip, and already I'd stumbled upon an abandoned piece of history purely by chance. I love it when that happens. 

Abandoned buildings in the living ghost town of Searchlight NV

Originally settled by prospectors in the late 1800s, Searchlight, Nevada is now home to about 500 residents, a third of whom are retirees drawn to the peace and quiet of small town life. 

Abandoned buildings in the living ghost town of Searchlight NV

Searchlight is the hometown of Senator Harry Reid, whose father was a miner. Reid is often cited as the town's foremost historian and is the author of Searchlight: The Camp That Didn't Fail

George Frederick Colton, a prospector from Utah, stopped in Southern Nevada on his way to the Superstition Mountains in Arizona, where he hoped to find the legendary Lost Dutchman Mine. His plans quickly changed in 1897, when he discovered gold in Searchlight. Colton immediately established a mining claim and began excavating the incredibly lucrative Duplex Mine. 

Abandoned headframe of Duplex Mine in Searchlight NV

Word of Colton's discovery spread, and in a few short years, Searchlight became a mining boom town. By 1906, over 300 mining claims had been established. Searchlight's population grew rapidly, reaching a peak of 1,500 in 1907, making it more populous than Las Vegas at the time.

Abandoned buildings in the living ghost town of Searchlight, Nevada

In 1907 the Barnwell and Searchlight Railroad was completed, linking Searchlight to important rail lines in the region.

Abandoned buildings in the living ghost town of Searchlight, Nevada

By 1917, much of the high quality ore had been excavated from Searchlight's mines. With the rising cost of gold and silver production, all but the most productive mines closed, and many people left town.

Abandoned buildings in the living ghost town of Searchlight NV

Flooding from a major storm destroyed the railroad line on September 23, 1923. Due to the declining importance of the route, the rail was never restored and became abandoned the following year.

After U.S. Highway 91 bypassed Searchlight in 1927, the town's population dropped to 50.

Searchlight experienced a temporary resurgence in the 1930s and 1940s during the construction of Hoover Dam. Workers were drawn to Searchlight for its bars, gambling and brothels. One of Searchlight's more notable brothels was The El Rey Club, which was tremendously popular in the 1940s, when prostitution was still legal in Clark County. The establishment burned down in 1950. 

Abandoned building in the living ghost town of Searchlight Nevada

The origin of Searchlight's name remains a mystery. Many explanations have been put forth, though none have been definitively proven true:
  • George Frederick Colton, while lighting his pipe with a Searchlight brand match (manufactured. by the Diamond Match Co.) discovered rocks containing flecks of gold.
  • While looking for gold in the area in 1897, Colton, in a moment of frustration, remarked that it would take a searchlight to find gold ore there.
  • Searchlights were once used to guide patrons to the brothels in area.
  • Searchlight was named after a riverboat with the same name that transported ore along the Colorado River. 
Abandoned buildings in the living ghost town of Searchlight, Nevada

Thank you for joining me on my Epic Rust Belt Road Trip. Be sure to come back next week, when I'll post pictures and stories from the eerie abandoned pet cemetery outside Boulder City, Nevada.

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Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Rust Belt

Just shy of a year ago, I created Places That Were so that I could share pictures and stories of the many abandoned places I've explored. One of my first posts announced my Epic Exploration Road Trip of early 2015, in which I traveled through the Western United States, exploring abandoned places along the way.


I'm thrilled that so many people came to this site to join me as I recounted my journey. Thank you all so much!


Every post since then has focused on one or more of the incredible abandoned places I explored on that first road trip. The only exceptions are a few articles about sites closer to home:
-Fatalities and Films of a Ghostly Movie Ranch in Acton, CA
-The Mystery of Canned Heat House
-Abandoned Water Park in the Mojave Desert - Lake Dolores aka Rock-A-Hoola



Those of you who follow my social media feeds probably know that I took a month-long road trip last fall, my Epic Rust Belt Road Trip of 2015 (#RustBeltRoadTrip2015). I drove from Los Angeles to the Rust Belt (formerly known as the Manufacturing Belt), to explore the abandoned ruins of the former industrial powerhouses that once epitomized American ingenuity and prosperity.

It was mind-blowing to see how cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Gary, Youngstown, and Akron, which flourished in the early and mid-1900s, have plunged into severe economic ruin. Urban centers that once embodied the American Dream now resemble war-torn cities of the Third World.


It must have been heartbreaking to watch helplessly as automakers and other industrial giants turned their back on American workers and moved their manufacturing overseas to take advantage of cheap wage standards and nonexistent labor protection laws.


I had recently been laid off from the job I loved, so exploring the Rust Belt was a deeply symbolic experience for me. Years of hard work, professional accomplishments, and personal sacrifice become suddenly irrelevant when a company makes cost-cutting its highest priority.


I have a great deal of empathy for the Rust Belt's Places That Were. In a society that often defines people by what they do for a living, I felt like a Person That Was.


Compelled to pay respect to the Rust Belt's historical places, I was on a mission to document what has become of them, and hopefully gain some insight into what we can do to make things better.



Being away from my better half for an entire month was not easy, but I had no choice. This was my last great opportunity to do what I love most. I knew that when I returned home, I would need to resume my career, which means I'll never again have time for a cross-country road trip until I retire.


After weeks of intense research and planning, I hit the road and began what would be the greatest adventure of my life so far. 

Below is a rough map of my route:


I would drive from Los Angeles to Cleveland, spending a day or two in each state along the way to check out ghost towns, factories, hospitals, military installations and other deserted sites. After several days exploring the incredible abandoned places in Cleveland, I'd head to Detroit for a week. There are so many awesome urban ruins in Detroit, it would take months to explore them all. I'd have to be satisfied with the several dozen explorations I could squeeze into my week-long visit. 


From Detroit, I'd head westward along a northern route, gradually making my way back to California. My final destination was an art gallery opening in Oakland, where one of my photos from the earlier road trip would be on display. It was the first and only time any of my work has been featured in a gallery, and it made for the perfect end to an incredible journey. 


I spent most of the month driving, exploring, or resting and was not able to post many updates online, but here is a video I posted from the road: http://www.placesthatwere.com/2015/09/rust-belt-road-trip-2015.html and another I made after I returned home: http://www.placesthatwere.com/2015/10/rust-belt-road-trip-update.html


I hope you all will come back and visit Places That Were over the coming months as I share stories from my Epic Rust Belt Road Trip.


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The Mystery of Canned Heat House: The Bear, The Blind Owl and the 27 Club

In an affluent neighborhood in western Los Angeles County, a two-story house has sat abandoned and decaying for decades. Rumors tell of a time when rock stars, including a member of the infamous "27 Club," lived, jammed, and partied within the sagging walls.

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

I'm always astonished when I hear of abandoned places in L.A.'s upscale areas. It blows my mind that a home could be left to languish in a region where property is prohibitively expensive for all but the most well-to-do buyers. 

When I learned of the dilapidated house in Topanga Canyon, I knew there had to be an interesting story behind it. On the way to meet friends for dinner in nearby Woodland Hills, I couldn't resist the urge to stop and check the place out. 

A simple gate blocks vehicle access to the property, but is easily bypassed on foot. I stepped around it and crossed the wooden bridge over the ravine that snakes along Topanga Canyon Blvd. 

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

The small patio between the house and the hillside is covered in graffiti, trash, and dead leaves. It looks like it would have been a great place to spend a quiet afternoon, or to have friends over for a barbecue. 

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

The interior of the house is in rough shape. Nearly every surface is coated with spray paint. Discarded spray cans fill the bottom of a cylinder that rises up through the center of the structure. 

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

The skeletal remains of a staircase spiral upward to the second story.

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

Much of the floor and ceiling have collapsed, making it somewhat difficult to move around safely. 

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

Couches and a fireplace occupy a sitting room, though it isn't clear whether the furniture was added before or after the place was abandoned. 

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

The cinder block walls appear to peel away from one another in what must have been an intentional aesthetic choice of the architect.

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

The ravine standing between the house and the road was dry, except for a layer of mud. I'm sure it looks much different after a heavy rain. 

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

Situated in the Santa Monica Mountains, Topanga Canyon shares borders with state-owned park land and the affluent beach city of Malibu. Surrounded by lush greenery and scenic views, it isn't surprising that many famous artists, musicians, and actors have chosen to call Topanga Canyon home. 

In 1952, Woody Guthrie was one of the first popular musicians to move to Topanga, followed by many more in the '60s. The neighborhood's residents have included Jim Morrison, Neil Young, Sissy Spacek, Bob Denver, Viggo Mortensen, and dozens of others. 

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

I've read conflicting reports on the history on this particular house. It is said that the property once belonged to Bob "The Bear" Hite, the lead singer of Canned Heat, a band that became popular in the '60s. His band mates and other musicians visited frequently for jam sessions and parties. 

Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson, guitarist and founding member of Canned Heat, often spent the night there. He loved the outdoors and usually slept out under the stars. 

On September 3, 1970, on the eve of Canned Heat's European tour, Alan Wilson was found dead in his sleeping bag on the hillside behind Bob Hite's house. The cause of death was determined to be a barbiturate overdose, though it is unclear whether it was accidental or a suicide. Wilson had been battling depression and made several suicide attempts in the preceding months, but the lack of a suicide note made it unclear whether or not he meant to kill himself that night. 

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

At the time of his death, Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson was 27 years old, making him a member of the "27 Club," a term for popular musicians who died at the age of 27. Other members of the 27 Club include Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse, as well as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, who died only weeks after Alan Wilson.

Bob Hite's house was destroyed in a flood in the 70s. The house that now occupies the property was built in 1990, but construction was apparently halted due to concerns over flooding, which is why much of the interior appears unfinished.

Some claim that Bob Hite's house was actually located on a different parcel of land in the area, but without access to property records I was unable to determine the truth. If you have any information, please leave a comment below.

Abandoned Canned Heat House in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles

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Fatalities and Films of a Ghostly Movie Ranch in Acton, California

Nestled in the Sierra Pelona Mountains, about fifty miles north of Downtown Los Angeles, lies the old mining town of Acton, California.

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

I was on my way to visit family in Palmdale and decided to stop to check out a cluster of abandoned Old-West-style buildings I'd heard about.

I drove down a bumpy dirt road, cringing as branches of the overgrown trees scraped my car. I passed a rusty old trailer surrounded by weeds...

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

and then came to a large clearing occupied by beautiful wooden buildings and a squat little bell tower.

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

Most were large two-story structures with heavily weathered exteriors. Not a single pane of glass remained in any of the windows.

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

I was disappointed to find that every building was completely gutted, the walls buttressed on the inside by long wooden planks. 

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

Ghostly threadbare curtains hung in the empty windows, waving in the breeze.

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

Acton originally served as the site of a temporary railroad camp when the Southern Pacific Railroad was under construction in the late 1870s. The actual town of Acton was founded in 1887 by miners who worked in the nearby Red Rover Mine and named it after Acton, Massachusetts. In the late 1800s, Acton began to transform into a ranching and farming community. 

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

Henry T. Gage, a mine owner who governed California from 1899 to 1903, proposed moving the state capital from Sacramento to Acton, where one of his mines was located, but the plan never panned out. 

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

Acton now has a population of over 7,500 and is home to several animal preserves, one of which is run by actress Tippi Hedren. 

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

This neat group of old buildings is located on Polsa Rosa Ranch, which has served as a filming location since the 1970s. 

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

I was not able to find much historical information about the ranch. I can't be sure whether the structures were originally built there or relocated from other locations. Though it may not technically be a ghost town, several tragic deaths have occurred there. 

In September of 2012 a water tank cleaner drowned on the set of the remake of "The Lone Ranger" starring Johnny Depp. Then in February of 2013, three people died in a helicopter crash during the filming of a show for the Discovery Channel.

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

A surprising number of movies contain scenes filmed in Acton, California, including:
  • Titanic
  • Terminator 3
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • Army of Darkness
  • Windtalkers
  • Red Dawn
  • Blood Work
  • Duel
A few music videos were also filmed in Acton:
  • "High and Dry" by Radiohead
  • "Swingin" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
  • "The Day That Never Comes" by Metallica

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

Abandoned buildings in Polsa Rosa Movie Ranch Ghost Town in Acton California

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And come back next week, when I'll share pictures and stories from an abandoned home in Los Angeles, formerly owned by Bob Hite, the lead singer of Canned Heat, and the death place of one of the members of the infamous 27 Club.

Thank you!