Miners Cabins: Bottles, Barrels, and Dugouts

While the miners and prospectors that opened the vast American West are known for the log cabins they often used for shelter, some of the more eccentric dwellings they built are lesser known but equally interesting.

The Tonopah Barrel House

Desert regions often lacked easy access to the trees needed to build cabins so alternative materials had to be scavenged to be used in building shelters. One very unique example is this little cabin built of barrels at Tonopah, Nevada around 1908.

Tonopah, Nevada Barrel House
Tonopah, Nevada Barrel House ca. 1908

This particular cabin was apparently a curiosity even in the early 1900s as it was used in various postcards, some colorized like the example below.

Tonopah barrel house - colorized postcard version
Tonopah barrel house – colorized postcard version

Bottle Houses of Nevada

Another innovative type of construction that was not uncommon in Nevada mining camps was the bottle house. Tom Kelly’s bottle house, built in 1906 at Rhyolite, Nevada, is the most famous example. This bottle house has been preserved and can be visited today.

Bottle house at Rhyolite, Nevada 2012
Bottle house at Rhyolite, Nevada 2012

At the time that Tom Kelly built his house, there were over 50 saloons operating at Rhyolite. Kelly took advantage of this free supply of material and collected over 50,000 bottles over a period of six months to use in the construction of his three-bedroom house.

Rhyolite bottle house ca. 1920
Rhyolite bottle house ca. 1920

While desert mining camps lacked timber, they always had plenty of bottles. This bottle house was built in Tonopah around 1910.

Bottle house at Tonopah, Nevada
Bottle house at Tonopah, Nevada ca. 1910

Another boom town with a lot of saloons was Goldfield, Nevada. This 1906 bottle house is another example of a home built with the thousands of bottles that were discarded daily by the dozens of saloons operating at the time.

Bottle house in deep snow at Goldfield, Nevada 1906
Bottle house in deep snow at Goldfield, Nevada 1906

The following photo depicts a man and his son posing at their Goldfield bottle house. The photo is captioned “A Novelty in Architecture”.

Man and boy pose at Goldfield, Nevada bottle house ca. 1905

In the following photo, tourists at Rhyolite examine a bottle house that had fallen down. The caption with the photo notes “The weather here is so dry that lots of the bottles still had the labels on them.” It is remarkable to see how well the bottles in these structures held up – some of them for over a century.

Tourists at Rhyolite inspect a fallen bottle house in 1926

During the Klondike Gold Rush, tens of thousands of would-be prospectors and miners crowded the trails to the goldfields, leaving thousands of bottles behind at the various tent cities, camps, and supply depots along the way. Pictured below is a shelter made of bottles on White Pass in 1898.

The roof of this structure is built by laying poles on the top then covering them with moss and canvas. Dirt was spread over the canvas for additional insulation.

Crude bottle shelter on White Pass during the Klondike Gold Rush 1898

Miner’s Dugouts

Another common form of shelter in desert regions was the dugout. Dugouts were characterized by being partially buried in the ground or into the side of a hill. Not only did dugouts require few materials for construction, they provided effective shelter from the elements in harsh desert climates.

This is Randsburg, California dugout image details the rock work used to finish the home that is complete with a chimney. Note the dutch oven for cooking in the foreground.

Miner at his dugout at Randsburg, California ca. 1900
Miner at his dugout at Randsburg, California ca. 1900

The following photo was taken somewhere in Colorado by famous frontier photographer William Henry Jackson, and depicts miners at their stone dugout.

“Miner’s Dug-Out” – Colorado ca. 1890s

The following photo, also by William Henry Jackson, depicts a western pioneer outside his dugout. It is unclear if the man is a miner or prospector, but the image provides good detail on what living conditions were like for many pioneers during this time.

Pioneer outside his dugout – likely somewhere in Colorado ca. 1900

This Colorado dugout was likely located in the coal mining region around Trinidad. The placement in the side of the hill combined with the dirt roof undoubtedly provided shelter from both hot summers and cold winter nights. The men in the photo appear to be coal miners.

Miner's dugout somehwere in Colorado ca. 1900
Miner’s dugout somewhere in Colorado ca. 1900

Dugouts provided shelter for many miners during the rush to Goldfield, Nevada starting in 1903.

Miner's dugouts at Goldfield, Nevada
Dugouts used by miners at Goldfield, Nevada ca. 1905

Some might feel that a simple miner’s life in a dugout has a lot of appeal, however the photo below, depicting a young child sitting in front of her underground home, adds a dose of reality as to what living conditions were like during this period.

Child sits in front of Dugout cabin in Goldfield, Nevada ca. 1905

This dugout in the Salmon River region of Idaho is built into a steep hillside, and almost looks like a cave. It was likely built to provide shelter from harsh Idaho winter weather.

Miners dugout in the Salmon River region of Idaho 1905
Miner’s dugout in the Salmon River region of Idaho 1905

These miners at the Cottonwood Placer mine in Montrose County, Colorado have taken the dugout to a new level by turning a cave into a bunkhouse. Clearly the men have a sense of humor, naming their home the “Ocean Grove”, with signs that read “Ladies without bloomers are not allowed on the beach”, “Tourists without baggage must pay in advance”, and “O.G. dining rooms 16 to one”.

The “Ocean Grove” at the Cottonwood Placer Company in Colorado 1897

Wyoming is known for it’s high-altitude plains, high winds, and harsh winter weather. Certainly a dugout provided much-needed warmth during the winter months. The price was right as well, as seen in this very basic dugout at the Sunrise mine in Wyoming.

Miners at their dugout at the Sunrise mine – Wyoming ca. 1905

The following structure utilizes several techniques and material types, and demonstrates the ingenuity of miners at Nome, Alaska, where materials were scarce and the weather was extremely difficult. The cabin appears to be built of driftwood and canvas, and is partially buried in the sand to insulate the structure from the frigid ocean wind.

Miners at their Cabin on a Nome, Alaska beach ca. 1900

The Ophir Stone Cabin

Ophir, Nevada was an extremely isolated mining camp deep in the mountains of central Nevada. The town’s peak years were in the late 1860s, and it was already in decline by the 1870s.

The combination of the extremely remote and rugged location of the town, combined with scarcity of local building materials, resulted in many buildings being built out of native stone from the immediate surroundings. Many remnants of those buildings still survive today.

Stone Cabin at Ophir, Nevada

One stone structure of particular interest is an old miners cabin built out of rocks collected at the site. This cabin was likely built in the 1860s, and most of the structure is intact.

Interior View of the Stone Cabin

The photo above shows the interior of the stone cabin as it looked in 2012. It would be interesting to know what items were used on the interior to make the cabin more comfortable for its occupants.

The Ridge Beam of the Cabin Was Made With a Hand-Hewn Log

One interesting detail of the cabin is the ridge beam of the roof, which was made with a large hand-hewn log. Remarkably, this beam is still intact today, an indication of how well the dry Nevada air preserves wood. It would be interesting to know where a log of this size was obtained in the 1860s as there were likely none near the camp.

The Ophir stone cabin gives a fascinating look at just how rugged living conditions were in some of the West’s isolated mining camps.

Conclusion

These unique miner’s homes are more examples of the ingenuity and determination of the pioneers that settled the American West. Thankfully some of these structures where documented by photography so that new generations can witness how these pioneers lived during an important time in US history.

Miner’s dugouts at Goldfield, Nevada ca. 1903

Related: Home Sweet Home: Miner’s Cabins of the Frontier West

Miner’s Cabins of the American West

Miners pose at their cabin somewhere in Colorado

The rugged individuals that opened the frontier West were prospecting, mining, and attempting to survive in what was a vast wilderness at the time. Many of the basics of survival had to be sourced directly from the miner’s immediate surroundings, and shelter was one of the first necessities of life that had to be addressed.

Home Sweet Home: Miner’s Cabins of the Frontier West takes a look at the homes of the these intrepid pioneers.