Friday, October 02, 2009

Ghost Town of Metropolis Continues to Fascinate


In the fall of 2008, visitors to the town of Almere, Netherlands, found a remarkable sight in a grassy lot in the town center—an exact replica of the Lincoln School archway found in the ghost town of Metropolis.

Constructed of plywood and high resolution photographs printed on self-adhesive vinyl, the duplicate arch, called “Reclamation,” was the work of American artist Kristin Posehn, who prepared it for the Museum de Paviljoens.

In addition to the full-scale image of the decaying arch—which included chipped bricks, cracks and bullet holes—Posehn’s exhibit featured reprints of front pages of the Metropolis Chronicle, newspaper advertisements and promotional pamphlets.

It also had contemporary and historic photos of the town as well as copies of the original architect’s drawing of the Lincoln School. The Metropolis arch art project was displayed for about three months before being dismantled.

Posehn’s project just goes to show that the community of Metropolis continues to fascinate people. Unlike most Nevada ghost towns, Metropolis wasn’t a town built from the proceeds of gold or silver mines that went bust but rather was an early 20th century land promotion.

In 1909, the Pacific Reclamation Company and the Metropolis Land Improvement Company were formed by Harvey Pierce of Leominster, Massachusetts, to develop 40,000 acres located about 17 miles northwest of Wells, Nevada in Elko County.

Pierce and his staff crafted a promotional campaign that was long on hyperbole and, perhaps, short on total honesty. Posters and brochures were filled with extravagant claims about the area’s fabulously fertile soil, lengthy growing season and abundant water.

The company boasted that the new planned community would house 7,500 people and have convenient rail transportation. At least the part about the rail service turned out to be true.

To further enhance the project, Pacific Reclamation constructed the Bishop Creek Dam on a tributary of the Humboldt River to provide a reliable source of water to the farming community.

As new residents flocked the community, which by the end of 1911 had 700 people, the company laid out a town site and began construction of several buildings including a wooden Meeting Hall that also served as a church, theater and gymnasium (and later as a school) as well as the three-story, 50-room Metropolis Hotel.

Coinciding with the hotel’s opening was the completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad eight-mile spur line between the town and the main rail line at nearby Tulasco.

In June of 1912, as the town was really starting to flower, the Pacific Reclamation Company received bad news. A group of downstream farmers in Lovelock had filed a lawsuit arguing that the company was illegally withholding water behind the Bishop Creek Dam that rightly belonged to them.

It turned out that Pacific Reclamation had neglected to file for proper water rights. A subsequent court decision sided with the Lovelock farmers and the company was ordered to lower the water levels behind the dam so that there was only enough to provide the town with water and to irrigate 4,000 acres.

The impact of the decision was devastating to Pacific Reclamation. The company went into receivership and the community lost its biggest developer and benefactor.

While the ornate Lincoln School, already under construction when the water rights issue flared up, was completed at a cost of $25,000, it was the last major construction project in the town. Before the year was over, the Metropolis Hotel had closed and the local newspaper had ceased publication.

And then came Mother Nature. In 1914, the region entered a prolonged drought, which, it turned out, was normal and typical for the area.

The dry conditions triggered twin disasters for the farmers: an invasion of wild jackrabbits that ate nearly all the crops coupled with an infestation of Mormon crickets, which are ravenous swarms of insects who eat everything, including paint on houses.

The dry spell continued for more than four years, which meant the rabbits and crickets returned every year.

By the early 1920s, only about 100 people still lived in Metropolis and the surrounding farms. The railroad gave up on the town in 1925 and ripped up the tracks.

In 1943, the magnificent Lincoln School was closed and three years later it was dismantled and the bricks sold off. All that remained was solid concrete floors and an elaborately decorated concrete arch entrance—the same one made famous in Posehn’s artwork halfway around the world.

Today, not much remains of Nevada’s first master-planned community. About a half dozen homesteads are still active in the area and trace their roots to the Metropolis development. There are also two cemeteries, one on a small hill east of the town center and a larger one west of the former site of the Lincoln School. Both are still tended by locals.

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