American Flats

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An Old Haunt, Torn Down

Bummer news this morning from an old friend and fellow denizen of the Nevada desert–they have finally demolished the ruins at American Flats.  To those of us who once tromped around in this amazing and ghostly wonderland, tucked into the hills outside of Virginia City, it comes like a gut punch.

Officially known as the Comstock United Merger Mill, the seven acre complex at American Flats was built in 1922, in order to process gold and silver ore using a technique known as cyanide vat leaching.  Once described as the largest concrete mill in the United States, it was abandoned only two years later.  In the subsequent years it became a kind of mystical playground for successive generations of desert explorers, and a fairly well kept secret, until half of the Bay Area moved into northern Nevada and it was finally taken over by graffiti artists and, undoubtedly, absconding parolees and tweakers with neck tattoos.

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There was no such thing as a tweaker when my college roommate, Dominic Gerbo, and I used to pile into his white VW van–fondly known as Moby Dick–and bomb up the road into the old Comstock Lode country and wander the hills in search of one strange find or another.

American Flats was undoubtedly strange.  If it was not in fact haunted it encouraged visitors to believe it was, and particularly at night, with the wind blowing.  The music made by the wind in that place was occasionally, and abjectly, terrifying.  The complexity of the mill–with its post-apocalyptic ambiance, cold and dark concrete, underground passageways, and strange tunnels to nowhere, left entirely too much to the imagination.

It was dangerous as hell to be running around in there at all, but we didn’t consider that much in those days.

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I had a good friend from Japan, Koichi Yoda, who was attending school in Nevada with a desire to become a filmmaker.  Koichi, whose upbringing in the confines of Tokyo left him somewhat mindblown by the Nevada desert in general, and American Flats in particular, managed to cobble together a script, corral some actors, and make a full-length movie in the ruins.  The film itself was an early, primitive, effort, but I give him high marks for choosing a great location.

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Any building, once occupied and subsequently abandoned, feels like a portal into some other world, and American Flats existed like a passageway into several worlds at once.  To wander the place at night, where it was possible to stumble upon a small party with a campfire throwing bizarre shadows in the columns, or to hear shouts echoing through the tunnels underfoot, all while coyotes yipped in the hills, was to somehow exist on simultaneous planes–a hideout in a post-societal collapse, a medieval fortress in a dark and troubled kingdom, and the wild western frontier all at once.

It isn’t hard to see why they finally bulldozed it under, the world of liability being what it is, but for a while the Flats were a quiet monument to the weird and the haunting, and those of us who had the pleasure of wandering among the ruins, figuring ourselves out as we went, will always remember it for the alternative mindscape it once so wonderfully was.

Here is an interesting website, where you can wander American Flats yourself.  It is best viewed on a full screen.  Click on the red targets and stroll around a while, you might have fun.

 

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7 thoughts on “American Flats

  1. More and more of a bummer everyday. The World keeps a turnin’ in spite of it though. I took various routes back and forth to Yuba City last year. A favorite was U.S. Hwy 95 from Vegas up to Reno and over Donner and the scenic route down CA 20. Stops in Goldfield and Tonopah going both directions and going back southbound included stops at the amazing adobe ruins at Ft. Churchill National Monument. Staying at the haunted Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah. Exploring the intact history that fortunately still remains. What I love about this part of the west is a view where it seems as if you could see a distance equal to the length and breadth of Japan. I could see the storms I was heading into from a long long distance away. I tend to suffer from ” tree sickness ” if am too hemmed in. I guess that started from my West Texas days. Another bummer taking place even in protected lands was coming across graffiti at Joshua Tree National Park during several hikes I took last October. Obscene for the location. Also, the removal of Woath Begley’s tombstone who was shot and killed when ( as it is said ) he bushwhacked Bill Keys in what may have been the last shootout in the old west. Vandals damaged the tombstone and it was removed by the park for protection. Only a plaque stands there now. For that reason I won’t disclose the location of a more elusive tombstone in the park. It’s easy to become selfish in this regard. That’s why they had to fence off Plymouth Rock. Everbody wants their piece of the rock. I have always sought the remote and obscure and my own secret spots. Where the magic is still real and primal. I have one in Yosemite. A private paradise not on any map. Yes, It’s a bummer especially all over California as it is more trampled than most. Thankfully you can still find some of what remains if you can go the distance and are lucky. Yeah…. it’s a bummer all over the place!! Get it while you can. I hope we are not beyond educating and fighting our way out of it, but it can sure feel like it. I recently saw where China appears to be seriously trying to stop their Ivory trade. As the old saw goes you eat an elephant one bite at a time. In this case you save the elephants with the same approach. If we can both save the living and protect the dead humanity truly wins. Nevada… a best kept secret [mostly] and thankfully for a large part it remains that way…
    Unfotunately the final demise of AMERICAN FLATS is an example otherwise! Too damn many bummers though!!
    Thanks for sharing in a shared sense of adventure and primal discoveries Craig. Great piece!!

    Like

    • ST…thanks so much for this contribution. You are a true rambler of consequential insight, and a thoughtful man. We–and I mean all of us–need more of your consideration, thoughtful attribution, and quality analysis. Thanks for this. It is truly appreciated. Be safe out there.

      Like

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