11-28-99 Scaring up a Future for Ghost Town, by Ed Vogel

     A Las Vegas man hopes a few casino jackpots will turn a former mining community into a tourist destination. Story and photos by Ed Vogel Donrey Capital Bureau

     GOLD POINT -- When he won a $226,000 jackpot at Texas Station in January 1998, Las Vegas wallpaper hanger Herb Robbins instantly knew what to do with most of his winnings. Robbins, 48, figured he would pour more dough into restoring the dilapidated wooden buildings in his very own ghost town -- Gold Point, 180 miles northwest of Las Vegas. He had won other jackpots -- in the five-figure range -- and that money also went to the renovation of his town. "Nevada is a great state when you get out of the cities," he said. "It's open space and solitude. Maybe I was reincarnated and lived in the old days. It's just awesome here." For the past 21 years, he has used his spare change to purchase lots and buildings in a town whose heyday ended during the Great Depression. At 4 p.m. along Main Street, the only sound is the hum of power in the electrical lines. Blackbirds break up the quiet by cawing while soaring overhead. An old sign at the town entrance states Gold Point, elevation 5,388 feet, has a population of 27. But that many people haven't lived here since the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. On a busy weekend a half-dozen people might enjoy the isolation of the old miners' cabins. On a weekday, the population falls to one or two. Today Robbins owns 24 of the 54 remaining wooden buildings and outhouses in a town where the chief excitement is watching dust devils. A retired Las Vegas schoolteacher who vows vengeance if her name appears in print owns seven other buildings. She bristles at the thought of publicity about her town -- while maintaining a small antique shop for the occasional wanderer. To show her dislike of potential ghost town looters, she has placed a rather nasty sign on the window of her shop. Over a drawing of a hand on the trigger of a gun is this admonition: "Forget the dog. Beware of the owner." But Robbins, a one-time McDonald's manager, is an extrovert. He is a self-admitted party animal who welcomes any company, human or otherwise. He even has designed "Gold Point: the friendly ghost town" T-shirts. His side of town is friendly. "(She) and I are different," he said. "But we both want to preserve and save the town. We watch out for each other, basically we watch out for the town. But you can't keep this hidden forever. I want to share it." For nine consecutive years, Robbins was host of the annual July 4 Wiley Days in Gold Point. More than 300 friends showed up for the celebrations -- complete with fireworks, food and gunfighter skits. Robbins would play Sheriff Harold T. Stone -- in honor of a former inhabitant of one of the cabins. He always died in gunfights with his rowdy friends. The shows concluded with a flag ceremony while patriotic songs blared over loudspeakers. "There wasn't a dry eye in the place after the flag ceremony," said Ken Gates, the town fix-it-up man. "Everyone was crying." Wiley Days were concocted to honor Gold Point's most prominent residents, former state Sen. Harry Wiley (1882-1955) and his postmistress wife, Ora Mae (1897-1980). Robbins speaks reverently of the couple, referring to them simply as "the senator" and "Ora Mae." It is not hard imaging they are still here listening to his storytelling. He has kept Ora Mae's trunk of letters. One of her sons was a prisoner of war during World War II and people from around the world sent their condolences. On the wall of her old post office are photos of President Kennedy along with wanted posters of villains who likely have been dead for decades. Harry Wiley's volumes of the legislative sessions sit on a bookcase. The old gas pump is out front, although somebody stole the Chevron sign. Robbins sees his town as the next Bodie, Calif. -- the ghost town in the Sierra Nevada near Bridgeport, Calif., maintained by the California Parks Department. He'd like the state of Nevada someday to take over Gold Point and convert it into a state park. "The buildings were built as a temporary town," Robbins said. "They have lasted 90 years. I want to make sure they are here 90 years from now." As long as his jackpots hold out, he and his friend Gates will rebuild the cabins. A roof costs $3,000 and every building needs one to weather the passing of time. The pioneers did not put much effort into warming their homes. Insulation is cardboard paper and old newspapers. The headlines on an issue of the Nevada State Journal in the wall of one decaying cabin tell of the great season of Johnny Mize of the St. Louis Cardinals. That would be 1939. Gates and his wife, Connie, live in the Wiley home -- at least when they are not taking part in Robbins' skits. Robbins hopes to soon open a bed-and-breakfast operation. Guests will stay in repaired miner's cabins. Three have been remodeled. He and his longtime companion, Sandy Johnson, will live in a larger nearby home. They will cook meals for the guests and take them on journeys into the desert to visit old mines and petroglyphs. The closest running water is about four miles away. They must haul water from the springs and pump it into large tanks next to their homes. Former Supreme Court candidate Michael Powell knows what life is like without running water. As the grandson of the Wileys, he lived with them in their Gold Point home between his fourth and 12th birthdays. Now a federal public defender in Reno, Powell remembers hauling water in 10-gallon milk cans from a stream on a ranch 12 miles away. "I don't think I ever got completely clean," he said. The lack of water brought havoc to the community in the 1950s. Powell remembers fires destroyed a block of wooden buildings, including the schoolhouse. Regardless of the lack of running water to guest rooms, Robbins figures there is a tourist demand for Gold Point. Guests can shower in the main house. "Foreigners love the Old West," Robbins said. "Germans love cowboys and Indians. To attract guests, he has set up a Web site: Others can e-mail him at [email protected]. But Reno writer Stan Paher figures turning Gold Point into a bed-and-breakfast operation would be a losing proposition. "It is too far from the interstate to try to commercialize it," said Paher, author of "Nevada Ghost Towns & Mining Camps." "I don't think there is that much interest in Gold Point." Nonetheless, Paher rates Gold Point among the six best-preserved ghost towns in the state -- along with Belmont and Manhattan. Unlike Gold Point, the other towns have stone and brick buildings, including schoolhouses. Paher's history places Gold Point's peak at 225 buildings, including 13 saloons and a newspaper around 1910. The community then was known as Hornsilver after a high-grade silver found in the area. By 1930, when more gold than silver was being mined, the town's name was changed to Gold Point. Major mining operations ceased in 1942, but the Wileys and a few others remained. Because the Wileys were around, Robbins figures the town was saved from treasure hunters who loot anything of value from the Nevada desert. "Once the old-timers go, the towns die," Robbins said. "That's how I acquired Gold Point. Sons and grandsons have their own worlds. There is nothing so do out here so they lose interest. People start taking things and it doesn't take long for a town to disappear." Robbins' love for ghost towns soared when he acquired a copy of Paher's book in the 1970s. He estimates he has visited 400 of the 600 ghost towns and mining camps in Nevada. On one mine exploration journey in 1978, Robbins and a friend stopped in Gold Point. The friend engaged in a conversation with a resident while Robbins listened. The following year, his friend saw an advertisement for three 30-by-110-foot Gold Point lots at $500 each. Robbins bought one of them and quickly became enamored of the town and its history. He made regular trips from his home at that time in Sacramento, Calif., to Gold Point on three-day holiday weekends. As he became acquainted with the area, Robbins started making deals on Gold Point real estate. "I figure I have put $150,000 in there, between buying and remodeling," he said. "A lot of people have had it in the family for years, but they never come here. They have no use for it so they sell it cheap."