Wells, Nevada, is a textbook example of American urban archeology. Unlike Europe, where successive civilizations are stacked vertically, in Wells the artifacts of human habitation are arranged horizontally. At the oldest end of town is Front Street, which faces the railroad tracks. In midtown is Main Street, also known as Highway 40. Contemporary businesses, clustered about the intersection of U.S. 93 and Interstate 80 feature spacious parking lots and towering signage. Gas, food, lodging and a truck wash are the main industries.
Time was when Wells had much more to offer, especially along Front Street. There was a movie theater, a hotel, a bowling alley, a bank, three or four saloons and even a newspaper office. Way back in 1972 I snapped this picture of Charles “Bud” Triplett Jr., editor and publisher of the Wells Progress. At the time, the publication was still being laid out on a Mergenthaler Linotype machine.
A few doors to the west was Quilici’s, where I used to cash in aluminum cans in order to refuel my VW van and finance my writing habit. Empty beer cans were abundant in Wells, radiating outward in concentric rings from the local bars and brothels.
In 1976 Mr. Triplett died and the newspaper office was relocated to a motel room on Main Street. An establishment named Swett’s was replaced (appropriately) by a laundromat. Everything else became either a warehouse or a thrift shop, except for one building next door to the former Wells Progress, which for a short time was a combination real estate office and art gallery. Inspired by Front Street’s colorful facades, the proprietor figured that if she were to open a gallery, the customers would come—but, alas, they never did.
By and by the local chamber of commerce came up with a scheme to capitalize on the historic nature of Front Street. Explanatory plaques were affixed to vacant storefronts and a self-guided walking tour mapped out. On the day I took the tour I was surprised to run into two fellow tourists—a couple from Las Vegas.
“We walked into the bar over there and asked directions to the self-guided walking tour of historic Wells,” the man told me. “A hush fell over the place. It was as if I had just asked if anyone could explain Newton’s second law of thermodynamics.”
Finally, just about the time the city had raised sufficient funds to replace the burnt-out street lamp in front of the Martin Hotel, an earthquake rattled the town. Mobile homes were knocked off their foundations and brick walls came atumblin’ down. After the dust had settled, the whole of Front Street was declared unsafe for human habitation.
Last time I passed through, a bulldozer had obliterated the Wells Progress building. All that remained was the asphalt tile floor, bits of broken glass and splintered wood. No more Linotype, no more Wells Progress, no more progress, period.
Uptown, the blight has spread to encompass the Ranch House Casino, where Melvin Dummar and I once passed an evening desperately trying to turn our nickels into quarters and our quarters into dollars. But today the Ranch House, which took all our money that night, is closed. The windows are boarded up, the parking lot empty. Wind has carried off most of the giant rotating signboard. Where did it all go? And where’s my complimentary beverage?