“One of the leading railroad builders of the United States remarked to me that it takes nerve and a great amount of money to construct railroads under conditions prevailing in Nevada, with deserts unpopulated and undeveloped stretching a hundred miles or more before an object of uncertainty can be reached at the other end. He was assured that Nevada would never go backward, and the road is now being pushed to completion.”
-Nevada Governor John Sparks, in a 1907 message to the legislature
Before there were burners in Gerlach, there was Bruno. (More on Mr. Selmi in a bit.) Before Bruno, there were miners, ranchers and railroad men, and a good many sheep, horses and cows. Before cows, there were the Jackrabbit Eaters—Kamodokado in their tongue—a band of Northern Paiute that ranged over much of the Black Rock Desert. And before the Kamodokado, no one really knows. Antelope? Sure. Rattlesnakes, sage grouse, marmots, cicadas. Predecessors of the Paiute, in all probability. And so on.
It is said that the town was named after a Louis Gerlach of the Gerlach Land and Livestock Company, which had originally laid claim to the plat in 1883. Later it was purchased by the Western Pacific Railroad as right-of-way in the early 1900s. For the next sixty years, residents in Gerlach—and there weren’t many, then or now—leased their property from the railroad. It wasn’t until 1972, when the Gerlach Leaseholders Association purchased the collective entitlements for $18,000, or “pennies on the dollar,” as old-timers invariably put it, that Gerlach found itself no longer beholden to Western Pacific. The only stipulation was that its residents pay an additional $500,000 to bring the water system up to Washoe County standards.
The three square miles of present-day Gerlach, Nevada, home to approximately three bars and exactly zero churches, have played host to individuals sundry and diverse throughout its 106-year history. Early 20th century miners trudged in from bygone towns like Sulphur and Empire for cold beers after their shifts. Railroad workers did the same, stopping over on their innumerable coal and supply shipments from Salt Lake City to Oakland. Eighty years later, rocket-car crews from Britain celebrated their setting of the land speed record near Black Rock Point by buying rounds at those same watering holes, and today devotees from around the world likewise gather in anticipation of that singularly indescribable event on the playa, Burning Man. Into this mix throw lifelong ranchers, farmers, hunters; land-sailors, amateur rocketeers, emigrant trail enthusiasts, rednecks, hillbillies, and BLM employees, and it’s clear little Gerlach has seen its fair share of humanity come and go.
“Oh yes, people come and they go, but mostly they go,” said Jola, a postal worker who’s lived in Gerlach all of her forty-odd years. On that blistering July day, she pointed out the post office’s sliding glass doors to the dingy trucks and SUVs filing past on Main Street. “Right now it’s real busy, with all the Burning Man people setting up. And just you wait, it’ll get crazy here—there’s supposed to be like 60,000 people showing up for that in September. But then they’re gone. It’s been sad to watch this town shrink. And that’s what it’s been doing for the last twenty, thirty years: shrinking.”
In 1907, when Gerlach was founded along the Feather River Route of the Western Pacific Railroad some 140 miles northeast of Carson City, Nevada was in its forty-third year of statehood. Las Vegas, all 110 acres of it, had become a town two years earlier, and wouldn’t be incorporated as a city until 1911. Nationwide, milk cost 32 cents a gallon. Bacon, 21 cents a pound. A loaf of bread cost a nickel. In 1907 the third bubonic plague pandemic had reached its peak, having spread to every continent and ultimately killing tens of millions. A year earlier, Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was published. Nevada, meanwhile, was on the up and up, its glittering mineral prospects and 25 million acres of grazing land drawing thousands of westering settlers to places like Carson City, Reno, Las Vegas, Winnemucca. As Governor Sparks described it in a 1907 legislative address,
“The general condition affecting business interests, increase of population and wealth have certainly been manifested since the last Legislature adjourned in a degree beyond all expectations of the most sanguine believers in our future greatness. Looking forward, hopes are better founded than ever before for a continuance of progress and development. Our natural resources so plentifully distributed have scarcely been touched in a way that might be considered as covering more than a small fraction of the unexplored wealth-producing capacity of our State.”
Many went to the hills to seek their mineral fortunes, or to stake out plots of browse for their livestock; many struggled mightily and many failed. Bonanzas were struck and depleted in the span of a decade. People moved on as quickly as they had moved in. Mining towns cropped up around those population centers every hundred or so miles in every direction, flaring briefly and burning out like so many brushfires across the desert.
Small, remote towns like Gerlach—and such outposts are legion in Nevada—often fought a constant battle of attrition, as residents found their tenancy strained by spotty employment and stagnant economies. There are 66 people per square mile in Gerlach, fewer every year. In Las Vegas, growing malignant like a tumor, there’s 4,300.
Six miles south of Gerlach is Empire, an all-but-defunct settlement sometimes called “America’s newest ghost town.” Comprising a gypsum mine, sheetrock plant and a four-street housing subdivision—all owned by United States Gypsum Company—Empire emptied out in 2011, after the plant and mine were closed indefinitely. No one was buying sheetrock, so the company pulled the plug. Staff was forced to relocate. Many of the worker’s children had bused to Gerlach for school. “After the plant in Empire closed, all the students and a lot of the teachers left,” said Jola at the post office. Remodeled in 2009, Gerlach’s K-12 school boasted a student body of 80 kids during the 2010-2011 year. “Last year, there were nine kids. Only nine. And this year, I’ve heard it’s gone down to seven.”
Julie works in the Empire General Store, the company town’s last vestige and the only source of groceries for at least seventy miles around. “Three years ago, there were almost 300 people living here. Now there’s four.” The shelves were stocked with cases of beer, liquor and junk food—prices marked up accordingly—in preparation for the hordes of burners that would soon descend upon the area. In the refrigerator case, seven of the eight cartons of eggs available bore sell-by dates that lay in the previous month. The potatoes had sprouts shooting out of their eyes. “No one wants to deal with the burners around here. I personally don’t understand them,” she said. She acknowledged the business Burning Man brings—begrudgingly, it seemed—but pointed out that increased sales meant more hustle on the part of her and the other two employees. “I’ve only been here three years, and I’m already tired of their parade. Why bring 50,000 people out to the desert, where there’s no water and no food for miles? Why stand around in the hot sun for a week, covered in playa dust? I don’t get it.”
At Bruno’s Country Club in Gerlach, six miles distant but a world apart, the pre-burners—they call themselves the “Department of Public Works”—have already ended their pilgrimage, trickling in to grab beers after a long day spent city-building on the playa. Black Rock City, as the ephemeral metropolis is called—several miles wide, 60,000 burners strong, metastasizing much in the manner of Las Vegas—has already begun rising from the desert, shimmering like a mirage that doesn’t quite go away. Bruno, who emigrated from Italy in 1946 and has run the bar since 1952, welcomes the burners every year. Perhaps more accurately, he welcomes their cash. A consummate businessman, Bruno also operates the lone motel, casino, café, and gas station in town—he owns, in the words of a San Francisco reporter, “just about everything that’s worth owning in Gerlach.” People like to say he’s the honorary mayor, the Ted Turner of Gerlach, the real estate magnate that runs the town.
But Bruno’s getting out of Gerlach, too. Ninety years old, with children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren living elsewhere, he’s “had his fun and made millions, and is ready to get out,” said Terry, who tends bar at Bruno’s. “He bought this place for $6,500 back in 1952. Now it’s on the market for $1.5 million. Whatever happens, this town’s not going to be the same without him.” For a million and a half bucks, the town of Gerlach’s as good as sold—it’s not pennies on the dollar, but in this day and age, not much is.