Strange Geographies: the Forgotten High School of Goldfield, Nevada

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At the turn of the last century, Goldfield was a mining boomtown -- prospectors were pulling millions of dollars worth of ore out of the ground each year, and with a population that ballooned to more than 30,000 by 1904, it was the largest town in the state of Nevada. It was a classic Old West success story: gun-slinging heroes like Wyatt Earp trod its wooden sidewalks, and in a society where the real measure of a town's worth was its bar-and-whorehouse scene, Goldfield had the rest beat: Tex Rickard's Northern Saloon had a bar so long it required 80 bartenders to run it. Of course, I wouldn't be writing about Goldfield if everything had kept going like gangbusters. By 1920s, the gold mines had started to peter out, and in 1923 a moonshine still exploded and started a fire that took most of the town's wooden buildings with it. Today about 400 people remain in Goldfield, a semi-ghost town set among the barren wastes of Nevada's high desert, surrounded by ghost stories and empty buildings -- many of which are impressive stone and brick structures that survived the 1923 fire.

One of those buildings is Goldfield High School, built during the boom years in 1907. It graduated its last class in 1952, and has stood proud but shuttered ever since, impressive on the outside, decaying within. Over the past few years, a small team of dedicated volunteers has begun trying to save the high school, but restoring it to its former glory is a gargantuan task. Vandals and the elements have had their way with the building for many years, and it will take many more to lift it from the beautiful state of decay it's in today.

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The first thing you notice is a fascinating jumble of layers and textures -- peeled paint, fallen-away plaster, warped and weathered boards and the wooden guts of walls that were never meant to be exposed, all creating this insane, ancient-looking pattern of wear.

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The second-floor hallway, and one of many open or broken windows. Anything with wings or a ladder can get inside.

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Chalk for a long-gone chalkboard.
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Other classrooms still have parts of their chalkboards in tact -- a jumble of original classroom writing from the 50s (yes, really) and graffiti.
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The teacher's writing on this board is still readable. Looks like a pop quiz: 5. What is the most important country in the Western hemisphere? Anyone care to take a guess?
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The floor is beginning to buckle in this classroom.
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Volunteers have started working to replace the floor in another classroom. As you can see, they have their work cut out for them.
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The only time I was ever allowed in the girls' bathroom -- and wouldn't you know it, it's empty.
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A science classroom. How many dissected frogs haunt this room, we may never know.
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The school's main staircase is probably its most impressive feature. Creaking and lacking a few crucial banisters, its a little scary -- but beautiful nonetheless.

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The staircase from the ground floor, a dizzying maze of angles and textures.
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The yellow glow in the picture above is one of the worklights the volunteers have strung around the school. I don't believe in ghosts, and yet I sincerely hope the volunteers don't hang around this place at night.
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Forty-year-old graffiti.
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"Class of 1942," penciled in a doorjamb.
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A teacher's desk.
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A teacher's chair.
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Bars of light in an empty room. The silence in this high school -- generally the last place you expect to be able to hear yourself think -- was almost unsettling.
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Anyone interested in helping out the Goldfield High School volunteers -- with work, donations, or anything else -- can email them here or leave a message at 775-485-3788.

Check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

If you'd like a print of one of these photos, they're available here.

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November 2, 2009 - 2:28am
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