Mon, Jun 28, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Crotchety old man guards Nevada ghost town

With a shotgun and disdain for strangers coming to his hometown, Hank Dahlstrom holds the line in Goldfield

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Goldfield, Nevada

Goldfield, Nevada, which once had nearly 30,000 people when gold was being mined, is now down to about 300. The hotel, left, was bustling and Hank Dahlstrom, 77, not pictured, was pumping gas at his garage, right.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Hank Dahlstrom is a relic, a crosspatch, a hermit. At 77, he is not an attractive man. He smells like a train yard hobo. He chews cigars. He appears to bathe in motor oil. He has long ears and hair in strange places. He has dirt in his nails and is pestered by flies. His vocabulary is coarse and he would be happy if outsiders never showed their faces in these parts.

Dahlstrom has a wife, but he chooses not to live at home. Instead, he sleeps on a soiled cot in the back room of his automotive garage behind the glass counter, with only his whiskey, his shotgun and the sound of highway traffic to occupy his mind.

The garage is in Goldfield, halfway between Las Vegas and Reno on Highway 95, which runs dead through the middle of town. Once a mining center, Goldfield is now a crumbling carcass, a living ghost town of 300 people.

About 4,000 cars come through every day on their way to the big cities and occasionally a tourist stops to rummage through the antique rubble. And some of the visitors, who include foreign tourists, are stealing the whole town one surreptitious brick at a time. Baubles, glass, metal, rock, anything not nailed down and sometimes, the nails -- a drive-by pickpocketing.

"It tees me off," Dahlstrom says. "This stuff doesn't belong to them. People used to break into my garage and take tools and stuff. Anything they could. You got to have a watchman here all the time."

To that effect, the old man has for at least the last 20 years slept on the cot in a his old garage, armed with two long barrels and two pistols, worrying about thieves in the night.

"I don't know why they do it," he said. "The world's going to hell."

Dahlstrom's garage is on Cook Street and Fifth Avenue. It is rundown and neglected, the fuel pumps are long gone. Old belts and calendars from more prosperous years hang on the interior walls. It is filled with automotive machinery of the 1950s, dozens of oily caps, scores of dried-out cigars remnants, hundreds of beer bottles, dust, grease, flies. It is strange that people should want any of it.

"But they do," said Sargeant Micki Knight of the Esmeralda County Sheriff's Department. "And when we catch them they are prosecuted."

For instance, there is a house north of Dahlstrom's Garage along the highway that is made of soda bottles and mud. It is so popular among souvenir hunters that the walls have partly collapsed.

"That property belongs to someone," Knight said. "So do the blood and the memories and the labor that went into those bottles."

Goldfield was, at the turn of the 20th century, the largest city in Nevada. As the name implies, gold was discovered nearby. In 1903 only 36 people lived here. By 1908 the population had boomed to nearly 30,000. Eleven million dollars in gold was pulled from the mines. It is the place where mine owners broke the back of the Industrial Workers of the World union. The hotel is said to be haunted by the ghost of a prostitute. The short history is that the gold dried up and the people disappeared. The Dahlstroms stayed.

Goldfield is the county seat of Esmeralda County, one of the most isolated and sparsely populated in the country, with about 1,000 residents. Employment here consists mostly of government jobs and saloon work. Conversations consist mainly of drinking habits and love lives and funerals. And while most every young person within 300 miles seems to have been sucked into the vortex of Las Vegas, five generations of Dahlstroms remain rooted around Goldfield.

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