A sign touting the best cheeseburger around lets you know you are approaching the eucalyptus-shaded desert oasis of Nipton, Calif. Gently situated on the sloping bajada leading down to the Ivanpah Valley, Nipton is a tiny spot of green in the vast eastern Mojave Desert west of Searchlight, Nevada, just ten miles off Interstate 15 — and 43 miles and a world away from Las Vegas.
Now, instead of old-time laborers coming to Nippeno Camp on their way to work in the mines, or people traveling through on their way to and from Searchlight, folks come for the great lodging accommodations at Hotel Nipton, a Spanish Territorial-style adobe building or in the unique tented cabins. They come to watch the trains, buy lottery tickets, have a conference or just have a meal. Or they come to spend time in the quiet openness of the Mojave.
Nipton owner Gerald Freeman said, “To my mind, people who live in the desert, or who like and are comfortable and prefer the desert as an environment, are quite a bit different than the type of personality that might like to live in a remote area up near San Francisco for example. Desert people are a special breed. There has been a fair amount written about the psychology of what it is that allows a person to be comfortable in the desert, and in their own skin.
“Most people are not.
“There was a book called The Desert is Yours [by Erle Stanley Gardner], and he made an observation about people who drive what was then Highway 91 from LA to Vegas, and how they drove at the fastest speed possible with the windows rolled up tight and the air conditioner on, getting from big city LA to downtown Las Vegas. They were completely discomforted by being in the desert. And I’ve seen it right here in Nipton. I mean it doesn’t take a day or two days to define somebody who is quite comfortable being here or someone who is not … because there’s a … I’d say a certain loneliness about it, or aloneness about it. You are not in a crowd of people. You are in a big space. That can be scary to most people. They are just ill at ease.
“We can’t pay certain people enough money to come out here and work for us but we can find people who will work here for nothing just to be able to live here,” he said.
When the community was first established in 1900, it was known as Nippeno Camp, said Freeman. “That was because the nearby gold mine, the Nippeno Gold Mine, was where the guys were going to, and coming from work, so the place they hung out and got their supplies was Nippeno Camp … later changed … to Nipton.”
Freeman has a home here as well as one in Henderson, Nev. He considers Nipton his permanent abode; he is registered to vote here, and this is the address on his California driver’s license.
“I was born in Los Angeles — Hollywood — in 1933, and grew up in LA. However, when World War II started, and the Japanese bombed the Pacific Coast, my mother, who was a nervous sort, moved us to Palm Springs, which in 1941 was a very small village in the desert. I became desert acclimated at that point. I earned my first 50¢ selling newspapers in Palm Springs,” he laughed.
“I could never stand the idea of being contained by four walls, so I always followed a line that led me out-of-doors. I went into geology as an academic pursuit, and earned my degrees in geology, in order to be outdoors. When Los Angeles became overcrowded and hard to get around in, and too expensive to live in, I looked for an alternative place to live. In the course of doing my gold mining out here in the desert, I just happened to find Nipton for sale as a ghost town.
“I acquired it and took possession in 1984 under a lease/option arrangement from the previous owner and I bought Nipton in 1985 — escrow closed in January.
“William Huth had some plans to put in a mobile home park but that ran into obstacles. It was essentially a ghost town. Nothing worked. None of the buildings were occupied or had doors or anything else.
“I had a gold mine nearby. Good proceeds from the gold mine let me see what I could do with Nipton, make it a home and a business,” Freeman said.
HISTORY OF NIPTON
Gerald and I were chatting at the Whistlestop Cafe, home to the cheeseburger mentioned before. I asked him how this unlikely collection of small homes, conglomeration of trailers, RVs and charming hotel came to be.
“It all started in the 19th century during the mining era, when there were mines on Clark Mountain — silver mines. And there were also gold mines in the Mojave Desert’s Vanderbilt District,” he said.
“The roads that brought in miners and supplies crossed right here where Nipton is located … and wagons used to stop here. Then later around the turn of the century, Senator William Andrews Clark, [a Montana mining baron and United States Senator] decided to build a railroad connecting Salt Lake and Los Angeles Harbor. Senator Clark had it surveyed in 1885. He finally got the financing to build the railroad just before the turn of the century and construction passed through Nipton in 1904.
“Before the railroad came it was simply that little crossroads where wagons would stop overnight and maybe stay a day or so. I don’t think there was even any construction here. It was just where one east/west wagon road crossed one north/south wagon road,” he said.
“When the railroad came through and the first train ran on Feb. 9, 1905, it crossed the little road that ran west from Searchlight up to the mines on Clark Mountain. Well, once the railroad was in and there was a road from Searchlight through to the tracks, that became the most convenient way for people who were living in Searchlight to get to the rails and the rails were the closest, fastest way to get to Los Angeles or Chicago. At that time Searchlight was proposed as the capital city of Nevada. It was a mining center of its own.
“The rail stop was set up at Nipton for the purpose of offloading supplies for the miners and people and picking up cattle. At that time there was a lively cattle industry out here in the Mojave that shipped cattle to the stockyards in Chicago,” Freeman said.
Since I was staying at the Hotel Nipton, a charming bed and breakfast with comfy beds and southwestern decor, I asked Freeman about its origins. It seemed like an unlikely place for a hotel. We really are in the middle of nowhere out here.
“As much as we know it was built between 1904 and 1910,” he said. “I think probably more about 1908 to 1910. It was built by the railroad to accommodate travelers. The hotel was constructed from what was available, and that included railroad timber as support beams and rammed earth, which is more or less equivalent or related to adobe. So the walls of the hotel are about 16 inches thick. Think mud and clay and straw. Basically an adobe building.
“It was the first proper structure in the Mojave Desert to that time. It was built well before Kelso Station and the schoolhouse in Goffs for example, which are proper buildings, not just lean-tos or tents or temporary structures, mining buildings and so forth.
“You have to cast back to the days, let’s say between 1910 to 1920 — the early railroading days. The trains did not run at night nor did they have dining facilities on them and they didn’t run that frequently. So a person wanting to travel between Searchlight and Los Angeles might take a stagecoach to Nipton, lay over at the hotel … and wait for the train which might come a day or so later. Meals were served as well — breakfast, lunch and dinner. There was a need to accommodate people waiting for the next train east or west bound and Hotel Nipton was built by the railroad at that time.”
THE CLARA BOW CONNECTION
With the miners, cattle, cattlemen and cowboys, there came an improbable Hollywood connection, the “It Girl” herself, silent film star Clara Bow.
When I first discovered Nipton back in about 1999, I was fascinated by the fact that THE Clara Bow had stayed at the hotel. Heck, I was fascinated by the notion of a hotel in the eastern Mojave Desert. Bow was a couple of generations before my time, but being a black and white film buff, I knew her name. What on earth would Clara Bow be doing out here, at this unlikely desert hotel?
As it turns out, a cattleman/cowboy by the name of George Beldam had gone to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune in silent films under the name Rex Bell. While working in the film industry he met Clara Bow. As silent movies evolved into the “talkies”, Bow worked less and less. Her high, squeaky voice and fast-moving, almost frenetic style of acting wasn’t suited to the new style of movie making.
After a couple of years together, Clara Bow married Rex Bell, and he moved her to a new home near Searchlight they called the Walking Box Ranch. Her filmmaking became more and more intermittent and Bow lived in the desert with her husband and two boys.
Bell’s film career also waned and he became a full time rancher, eventually working his way into politics in Las Vegas. He was elected Lieutenant Governor of Nevada in 1954 and won again in 1958. Rex Bell passed away from a heart attack on July 4, 1962 when he was in the early stages of his campaign for the Nevada Governor’s seat.
Freeman said, “The Bells’ ranch was 16 miles from Nipton, and it took them two and a half days to run their cattle from there to here, and they would spend a day or two loading cattle onto the train.
“Bow also picked up her fan mail in Nipton which came in by the car load — a railcar load — because she was still a pretty big number.
“Clara would come with husband and boys on the cattle drive and she always stayed in Hotel Nipton, room three. That room has her name today.”
Decorated in antique oak furniture, delicate bedside lamps and feminine wallpaper trim, it was the perfect room for me that evening. It had a comforting feel, which was nice as a storm thundered through a little before midnight.
“I don’t know if Clara Bow was that much into the ranching side of things,” Freeman said. “She wasn’t really cut out for the ranch life. She was a very big celebrity in the town of Searchlight at that time and around this area in general. I don’t think she did too much of the ranch work herself. I am wondering if she ever rode a horse,” he said.
Union Pacific trains still race past the town, horns blasting, crossing bells going off — 10 to 15 a day said one engineer I talked to. His train had to wait for another to pass by so he took the opportunity to hop off for a restroom break at the store. (Earplugs are suggested if you decide to stay the night at the hotel.)
NIPTON, HARLEYS AND THE CALIFORNIA LOTTERY
If you make a stop at Nipton you will most likely see a gathering of motorcycles. Harleys seemed to be the bikes of choice the days I was there, with their deep rumble and black-leather-clad riders.
Biker Ed Ehle from Las Vegas said he comes out almost every weekend just for fun. “I’ve been on motorcycles since I was 15 years old — 45 years. That was back when you could go down to the service station and rent a Yamaha 80 for the day.”
Ehle left the Yamaha-days behind years ago and rides a sleek black Harley Davidson now.
“One of the fortunate aspects of our location,” Gerald said, “is we are about the half-way point on a half-day trip out of Las Vegas. Riders take a little trip down Nipton road — stop for a break, have some food at the Whistlestop Cafe then go through Searchlight and back to Vegas. We are a popular destination for motorcycle clubs and individual riders predominantly out of the Southern Nevada area.”
Another fascinating draw to Nipton is the California Lottery.
Michelle Muniz was busy filling out lottery tickets in front of the store while her husband Nelson watched trains and his kids playing under a large shade tree in the parking area. “There are a lot of bonuses to coming out here,” she said. “We go rockhounding nearby for quartz crystals, turquoise and agate. We like to play lotto here better than other places. It’s peaceful.”
Freeman said, “With the lotto we got very lucky. In 1989 the California Lottery Commission approached us to establish a point of sale for lottery tickets. We were qualified and had online lotto in 1990. At that time we were the closest California vending location to Southern Nevada. Nevada doesn’t have the lottery.
“There were times during the big lotto mania draws when there were thousands of people waiting outside to get inside to buy lottery tickets.
“And at one point it was on national TV — Dan Rather even had it on his program as a piece of the big news of the day,” Freeman said.
“We’ve had Lotto for 20 years. For the first two years we were the biggest seller in California. One day we sold more than 100,000 tickets. I would say we have sold in the multi-millions in tickets. I know payouts have been in the millions, a wild guess — $10,000,000, maybe more.”
THE LATEST NEWS IN NIPTON
I asked Freeman what was new at Nipton.
He explained how Nipton’s fortunes were directly related to the 1994 California Desert Protection Act, which was enacted into law on Halloween. At that time, the Mojave National Preserve was created by Congress.
“The California Desert Protection Act, more than anything else, gave Nipton a permanent place on the map that it never had before,” he said.
“It had a tenuous hold as a place on the map up until that time, but in 1994 it was established as a gateway location, and community serving the visitors to the new national park area, the Mojave National Preserve. Shortly after the creation of the Preserve, Hotel Nipton starting filling up during prime season and we needed to expand to accommodate visitors to the area.
“So we started building tented cabins that were suggested to us and were inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, and we resurrected the name ‘Nippeno Camp’.
“To the tented cabins/conference center, we’ve added an assembly hall, which is the historic school building that has stood in Nipton since 1930. We’ve renovated it and have given it the name Freeman Hall. We added that facility within the last two to three years.
“Now there are conferences, weddings and business meetings held there. A desert explorers group out of Barstow had a weekend gathering in Freeman Hall.
“There are places for trailers to hook up, people can rent a house, or a campsite, or an RV or an RV hook up in Nipton. There is space available for people to settle in for a bit, accommodating a variety of lifestyles.
“We have room for artists-in-residence. We have a single-bedroom house we call the Hermitage. We renovated it so it is comfortable and fully furnished. It is for artists who want to occasionally come out to work in the desert — painters, photographers, writers or even scientists. We make special arrangements at reduced rates or in-kind exchange or it costs $150 a day if rented to a tourist. But if an artist wanted to come out and stay for a couple of months we would do a different arrangement,” he said.
“The most recent big new thing here in Nipton was the addition this year, 2010, of our solar generating plant to generate about 85% of our power. We intend to continue to progress in that direction.
“I would like to think Nipton is the happy medium between rampant development and closing up the land, because we plan to develop a sustainable, green, desert community which is in harmony with the environment and resource conservation.”
Walking Box Ranch
Mojave National Preserve