GOLD HILL, Nev. - The American Flat Mill Site outside of Virginia City is now closed to the public. The full closure order went into effect on Friday. Demolition is underway.
"We're in the preliminary stages of demolition," Leon Thomas of the Bureau of Land Management, Carson City District Office said. "We are mobilizing all equipment so we can go ahead and get rolling as far as demolition for the American Flat Mill site."
The area, known to many as American Flats, has been a gathering place for tourists and locals alike since the mill closed in the 1920s. Graffiti covers the crumbling walls that once made up one of the largest concrete structures of its time.
"The place has a warm spot in the hearts of many on the Comstock," said Michael "Bert" Bedeau of the Comstock Historic District Commission. "It's been used over the years for a wide variety of purposes, none of which were particularly sanctioned by the BLM. It was a party site, it was a paint ball place, it's obviously been an attractive place for artists of all styles so it's had a wide variety of uses since it actually declined and became a ruin."
A 2008 report from the Office of the Inspector General listed the site as a potential safety risk.
"There's tagging all over and if you look at the top you wonder, how did people get up there and tag," Thomas said. "People are climbing to the very top of the structures, we have concrete falling, we have Rebar, we have people trying to go into the structures where we have standing water where people can fall in and drown, hit their heads, so there were several safety issues we were concerned about at this site."
The plan is to complete demolition by next February and then restore the area with natural vegetation, add interpretive panels and open the area back up by 2016.
"We are doing a full interpretation of what was here before," Thomas said. "We're doing a diorama for the history museum, we have done a full historic American Engineering record that gives a full-blown view of the buildings inside and out before demolition that will be held with the National Park Service and we're doing a 15-minute documentary illustrating the site."
UNR Journalism Professor Howard Goldbaum has photographed the site extensively and is in the process of creating a virtual tour of the grounds and buildings.
"From various vantage points on the hillsides you can click into the center of the structures and you will be able to go into each of the buildings, point by point, 360 degrees and up and down," Goldbaum said. "When completed, the project will have more than 120 different points going into the buildings, into the system of tunnels and up to the Virginia & Truckee Railroad in the hills above."
He hopes to augment current images with historic photographs. There's a preview of this tour at www.allaroundnevada.com/american-flat-mill-sample/
It was a sad day for many on the Comstock.
"I think it's really said, it's a historical place," said Ashley Sturges, who works in Virginia City. "A lot of people came from different states to see this place and I think it's sad to see it go. I'm sure a lot of others feel that way too."
It was a place that held fond memories for a lot of residents here.
"My Dad and I used to go quail hunting out there and it's just a beautiful place," Virginia City resident Krra Wood said. "It's a great piece of art and people should have the opportunity to go see it, like an open museum. If you're allowed to walk through the cemetery and enjoy that concrete art then why can't you go out and enjoy American Flats?"
She says a lot of visitors were attracted to the site during their time in Virginia City.
"People from all over the world come here and they'd ask us about the mill, wonder why it's closing," Wood said. "To say because it's a hazard, they'd always say the same thing, well, hasn't it always been a hazard? I think you could easily put some limitations on it rather than tearing the whole thing down."
Groups did voice their opposition to the demolition but ultimately, it wasn't enough.
"I'm disappointed," Bedeau said. "There was input given to the BLM but we didn't have people marching in the streets or anything like that. We had hoped that perhaps the BLM would work to find an alternative to demolishing the site but after the process was complete they still decided to tear the place down."
He says the mill was the last serious attempt to make mining in the historic period work. It was only operational for a few years.
"This mill represented a major investment in the 1920s to try and make something of the ore that was left up here, low-grade ore, and unfortunately the economic model this was all based on didn't work," Bedeau said. "The price of silver plunged and they couldn't make any money off their investment so it was rapidly shut down and gutted. It became a ruin very shortly thereafter."
This is how longtime local David Toroni remembers it:
"It was a home away from home for myself in my teens. We always respected it as enter at your own risk. It became a free party palace basically for generations. We used to have keggers there, kind of an outlaw party place, one of the last in the true west. The catacombs below, the hall of kings, hall of spiders, the main building. Art was painted by visitors from all over the planet. Bonfires, friends, music, graffiti and true Nevada freedom without interruption - that's what it was. It is sad to see a true generational relic fall to the face of extinction. It will forever be remembered as our sacred home away from home."