Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Photo Essay: Hammargren Home of Nevada History

Some people like to do stuff, and some people like to have stuff.

And if they've got enough storage space, they get to have a LOT of stuff.

Such is the case with Lonnie Hammargren of Las Vegas. As a former lieutenant governor of Nevada, he's managed to collect monumental pieces of the state's history and put them on display in his home as a museum.

That is—a museum for him and his wife that only opens to the public once a year.

I, however, recently managed to weasel my way into a private tour of the place. I arrived a little early—and my friends were late—so I got to see the neighborhood looky-loos slowing down as they drove by the stark white behemoth glaring out on the quiet residential street of the Pacific Crest subdivision.

The moment Lonnie walked outside to greet me, he was mobbed by a truck full of dudes who seemed to appear out of nowhere. They were asking for tour information, and they were asking to have their photos taken with him.

And it wasn't because of Lonnie's history in politics. It was—and always is—because of the stuff he's amassed.

Of course, there's also the Mayan facade of the house, which Lonnie calls "Castillo del Sol" and which takes up three different lots, the third of which was purchased in 1989.

Then in 1971, Lonnie began collecting seriously, the same year he became licensed as a neurosurgeon—over 15 years before the start of his political career.

He worked for years as flight surgeon first in Vietnam and then for NASA, as flight surgeon to the astronauts. Later, he became the neurosurgeon to the stars of the boxing ring, mostly working to remove blood clots. His roster of former patients also includes a number of other athletes and daredevils.

The first room you walk into inside the house contains lots of Nevada state memorabilia (as does the rest of the property) and bears the flag of the micro nation Lonnie started (ever the politician).

It's also got one of Liberace's former pianos, a singing Hillary Clinton doll, a talking Elvis head, and various knick-knacks and Egyptian stuff.

Somewhere else in the labyrinth is an entire multi-level room devoted to religious artifacts and ephemera, on display under the stained glass dome rescued from the demolished Dunes hotel and casino.

Outside, up on the roof, it can be hard to make sense of what you're looking at—but Lonnie actually does have it all curated into sections, by category.

As he demonstrates some makeshift telescope contraption that somehow indicates the solstices and equinoxes in his "observatory"...

...you have no sense of your precise location until you catch sight of Ridgecrest Drive below.

Up there, you'll find the mannequins you saw from down there...

...including those who are perpetually riding a rollercoaster...

...that just happens to be the "High Roller" from the Stratosphere observation tower.

Is this The Planet of the Apes?

Is it the Rapture?

Nah, it's just Vegas, where old places are always being torn down and there's enough interesting stuff worth salvaging (without costing a thing other than hiring the crane to lift and drop it in).

The first house—the one on the right, the one he actually lives in—has a backyard that's a bit more manicured and subdued...

...but there's still room over there for a red chili pepper hanging from a tree, and for an elephant.

It seems like every year, Lonnie threatens that it'll be his last open house. After all, he turns 79 this year. Preparations must be exhausting.

But barring any rains (it's happened before) or complaints from neighbors (also happened before), Lonnie will open his house once again the weekend before Halloween in celebration of the 152nd "Nevada Day," commemorating when Nevada became a state on October 31, 1864.

And when Lonnie has lived his final day, he plans to be buried in an Egyptian tomb under the house (which is apparently legal in Clark County).

"But what happens to the house after you die?" I asked him. I wondered if it would be sold and then the new buyers would have Lonnie's corpse hanging out in the basement.

"Oh, I don't know about that..." he said, as he wandered toward the next thing he would show us (which was not, unfortunately, the sarcophagus).

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Photo Essay: Taking a Toxic Spin Around Three Kids Mine

You might think that the city of Henderson, Nevada exists because it's a suburb of Las Vegas. And while that may have contributed to its continuing success, the reason it was ever formed in the first place was its natural supply of magnesium.

In the 1940s, magnesium turned out to be a "miracle metal" for wartime manufacturing that attempted to match Germany’s lighter planes and more powerful bombs.

The Basic Magnesium Plant (BMI) has gone down in history as taking the credit for helping the Allies win World War II, but you can't forget another of Henderson's magnesium resources: Manganese One Plant, a.k.a. "Three Kids Mine."

Despite the fact that it was active during three different periods of military activity over the course of more than 40 years from 1916 to 1962—spanning the first and second World Wars as well as the Korean War and early Cold War—the 1200 acres of this open pit manganese mine and mill site has been left to languish.

By 1961, the City of Henderson had been incorporated for about eight years, after the U.S. Government had tried to sell off the entire town as military surplus.

Henderson didn't really need the magnesium anymore, so the mine and mill were closed in 1962.

Most of its rich ore was gone by then anyway. In fact, 40 percent of it had been depleted by 1919.

But that was nearly 55 years ago. So why does it still stand there, used for an illegal dumping ground?

Well, the government actually was using this site to store ore until 2003. So, for over a decade, taggers and trespassers have made this abandoned site of beautiful decay their own.

But in 2012, the Three Kids Mine became the worst-kept secret of the greater Vegas area when street artist Aware decided to paint one of the circular "thickener" pits over the course of three days.

The result? The "Wheel of Misfortune."

Aware doesn't limit himself to graffiti—he's also the guy responsible for, ahem, erecting those naked statues of Donald Trump in New York City's Union Square and LA's Los Feliz neighborhood, among other places, during the 2016 Presidential Election.

If nothing else, it brought some attention to a neglected and heavily contaminated area...

...but it also brought visitors perhaps unprepared for the perils that lie ahead—including three giant open pits, up to 300 feet deep, and full of a lot of discarded whatevers.

In addition to broken concrete and rusted metal, at the Three Kids Mine site today you'll also find enough lead to poison you, diesel fuel, and arsenic in big "waste rock piles."

The site was actually cleared for cleanup and redevelopment in 2014, with a plan to build a housing development of 6000 homes called Lakemoor Canyon.

At least, that was the plan back in 2008: to "eliminate and mitigate environmental hazards" and to  "eliminate and prevent the spread of blight and deterioration."

The entire area is actually owned by multiple parties, including the BLM and the neighboring boat storage facility. According to the BLM, "No viable former operator or responsible party has been identified to remediate and reclaim the abandoned mine and mill site."

In short, the governmental organization considers the Three Kids Mine site a "problem" that needs to be solved.

But nothing seems to have happened with it since 2015, when seemingly all timelines come to a screeching halt. So in the meantime, that means more people can try their luck on the Wheel of Misfortune and enjoy the delicious abandonment while they can.

Here's the official video of the guerrilla art piece being created:

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Friday, October 14, 2016

Photo Essay: Lost City of the Muddy Valley

I feel like I've only scratched the surface of Southern California in my five and a half years of living here—and I have just barely started to explore the Central Coast, Central Valley, and Bay Area.

So I find myself getting a little overwhelmed when I think about how much there is to see in our neighboring states of Arizona (which I just got to explore really for the first time) and Nevada.

There's so much there now—and, as it turns out, there's so much that's already been lost.

An area known as the Pueblo Grande de Nevada—which exists today as a series of adobe ruins that stretches for 30 miles—was once inhabited by the ancient Anasazi Indian Civilization as early as 300 B.C.

In fact, there's an entire museum devoted to the "lost cities" of Nevada that was created in 1935 to preserve their history, as they were slowly disappearing with the construction of the Hoover Dam (then known as the Boulder Dam), which opened the following year.

Archaeologists and historians scrambled to save what they could and relocate it to the museum. They were literally just steps ahead of the bulldozers that were clearing the way for the area to be flooded and turned into Lake Mead.

Ancient petroglyphs were recovered from a nearby canyon and moved here for display in the 1930s (although now we know that artifacts like this should never be moved from their original location). Starting with the "Basketmakers" and ending with the "Pueblos," ancient civilizations built communities here and even farmed. Relics from a pithouse were found on the site where the museum now stands that dated back to 655 A.D. Later, they lived in multi-room adobe structures.

And then all traces of human inhabitation vanished as of 1150 A.D. The valley had gotten its water from a muddy river fed by natural springs (hence the name "Muddy River Valley," now the Moapa Valley), but it's presumed that widespread drought drove the peoples of the Pueblo to settle elsewhere.

But there are really two layers to these lost cities of the former Pueblo Grande de Nevada: the first native inhabitants who left, and the non-native pioneers (the Mormons) who came to settle here.

There are a number of former Mormon towns in the Moapa Valley, but the first to be settled by the Mormons was St. Thomas, founded in 1865. It was to be a stopover point between LA and Salt Lake City, which was about five and a half hours northeast.

They thought the Muddy Valley was in Utah. They even paid Utah taxes. But when a survey in 1870 determined St. Thomas to lie within the state boundaries of Nevada instead, the Mormons promptly fled. They'd struggled to survive there with floods and drought and other harsh elements, but they actually returned to St. Thomas just 10 years later.

And then they abandoned the town a second time in 1938, when it became submerged by the waters of Lake Mead.

Today, Lake Mead has receded so much that the ruins of St. Thomas have been exposed once again.

Walking along the trail through the town is like walking on the sea floor. The ground alternates between the cracked alkali surface of a dry lake bed and the loose sand of a beach.

A lot of tamarisk seems to have grown here, with all that water.

A lot seems to have died here, too.

And it's not certain how long the remains of St. Thomas will be exposed. Maps haven't been updated to show the town or the trails. By all matters of GPS, you're standing in the middle of the blue lake when you're in St. Thomas now.

People say there's not much to see in St. Thomas anymore, but actually there's much more than you might expect...

...like multi-level houses and homes, a garage, ice cream parlor, hotel, post office, stores, and a school (above).

This isn't the first time that St. Thomas has reemerged from the depths of Lake Mead. Droughts in the mid-1940s, early 1950s, and mid-1960s also exposed the remains to curious onlookers.

But this is probably the longest that the ghost town has been exposed since it first vanished. It started to peek up out of the water surface of Lake Mead back in 2002 and has been playing a game of peek-a-boo ever since. But during my October 2016 visit, there was no water to be seen—anywhere.

Nature has a way of correcting itself. It can both consume and retreat.

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