When Saloonkeeper Tom Kelly about 1905 found obtaining good timber too difficult to allow him to build a house, he turned to something he knew well — beer bottles. Kelly collected and used an estimated 51,000 bottles to construct a house of glass and adobe in Rhyolite, now a ghost town, in the Nevada desert near the eastern edge of Death Valley.
Rhyolite was a perfect example of a boom town. When gold was discovered in the vicinity in 1905, the rush was on. By the following year the town, initially called “Bullfrog” after an area mine, had 10,000 residents. Shown above in its heyday, Rhyolite reputedly was so wealthy that serving the community were three stage lines, among them the first automobile stage, and three railroads, including the Tonopah & Tidewater, the Bullfrog-Goldfield, and the Las Vegas & Tonopah. “As many as a hundred train cars waited at the depots with incoming freight, and reloaded with gold-laden ore,” claimed one account.
At its peak Rhyolite boasted an efficient water system complete with mains, 400 electric street lights, a school for 250 children, a miners’ union hospital, public baths, an ice plant, a weekly newspaper, foundries and machine shops. On the darker side of its economy were numerous brothels, gambling halls, and an estimated fifty saloons. One of these was owned by Tom Kelly who stepped into the spotlight of history only briefly at age 76 when he decided to build a house, possibly intended for family members.
Kelly’s choice of building materials was driven by a lack of good local timber. He chose bottles, he said because “it's very difficult to build a house with lumber from a Joshua tree." Beer bottles were particularly common in Rhyolite. Anheuser Busch brewery in St. Louis had made the American West its special marketing target, literally flooding mining areas with its beer. Although its ads depicted crates of bottles carried by mule trains wending through the mountains, most beer came by rail car.
As result, the most prominent bottles in Kelly’s house were from the Adophus Busch Glass Works in Belleville, Illinois, and the Adophus Busch Glass Mfg. Co. of St. Louis. The bottles are readily identified by the “AB” monogram on the base. Busch established these factories in his never-ending quest to find sufficient glass containers for his ever-increasing beer production. A second prominent bottle carried the mark “R & Co” and a number. Those were made by Reed & Company who operated the Massillon (Ohio) Glassworks. Reed was a major provider of beer bottles, including for Anheuser Busch, particularly supplying Western bottlers. The marks of both bottle makers are shown below.
From his own drinking establishment and other Rhyolite saloons, Kelly had no trouble gathering the thousands of glass items needed for construction, also including wine, whiskey, and medicine bottles, The saloonkeeper laid the bottles on their sides, with the bottoms facing out, and mortared them together with adobe mud. Few if any were cleaned before placement. Some bottles like the Hofstetter’s Bitters shown here were laid on their side, apparently to add decoration.
Estimates differ widely on how long it took Kelly to build the three room, L-shaped dwelling. Some accounts say five months, others more than a year. He is said to have spent about $2,500 on the building with most the money going for wood trim and fixtures. The structure was decorated with a gingerbread roof strip and boasted a front porch. The interior of the house had plaster walls and a wooden floor that resembled a big city home. One writer has speculated: “To the miners of the day, this was a castle.”
Whatever Kelly’s original intention was for the house, by the time it was finished he had a new idea. Whether it was his advancing age, the foresight to see the future of Rhyolite, or another reason, upon completion Tom decided to capitalize on the widespread attention the structure had attracted and raffle it off. Tickets cost $5.00, equivalent today to about $100.00. Local lore has Kelly selling about 400 tickets. If true he realized $2,000 from his effort, less than he is said to have spent. The raffle was won by locals named Bennett, three of the family shown above. They lived in the bottle house from 1906 until 1914.
Saloonkeeper Tom Kelly, having built his bottle house, faded from the scene. So did Rhyolite. Almost as fast as it had developed, the town declined. As the richest ore was exhausted, production fell. A financial panic in 1907 dried up investment money for new prospecting. A major mine began operating at a loss and closed in 2011. In an attempt at levity, Rhyolite took the penguin as town mascot with the saying: “It is as hard to find gold in the Nevada desert as it is a penguin.” Out-of-work miners moved away and the town population plummeted. By 1920 the census recorded only 14 residents and Rhyolite thereafter became just another Nevada “ghost town.”
Through it all, however, the bottle house survived. In 1925 Paramount Pictures chose Rhyolite for the filming of two movies called “Airmail” and “Wanders of the Wasteland,” the latter a silent film in early Technicolor. The studio repaired the roof of the bottle house and after filming was completed donated the property to the “Improvement Association” of the nearby town of Beatty, Nevada. That organization operated the house as a museum until 1953 when the house was sold to a couple who ran it as an antique store. In recent years the building has remained standing, although empty, and a tourist attraction for those willing to drive off Nevada State Route 374 to what remains of Rhyolite for a look at the bottle house Tom Kelly built.