Gerald Freeman was prospecting for gold in the Mojave Desert when he stumbled on Nipton.
In 1984, it had become a virtual ghost town. Its sole resident lived in the trading post selling sodas to the occasional wayward traveler who might briefly stop to watch freight trains rumble past on the nearby Union Pacific railroad.
But where most saw desolation, Freeman saw "a little place to make a home" and maybe some money too. The Caltech-trained geologist shelled out $200,000 to buy the tiny, tattered outpost.
For a quarter-century, Freeman struggled to make much of the place, spending roughly $1 million on restoration costs. About 20 people eventually moved into town, most living in recreational vehicles and trailers.
But now Freeman thinks he's finally figured out a way to turn Nipton into a boomtown.
He put up rows of gleaming solar panels, and recently began selling hats emblazoned with the hamlet's new motto: "Nipton, powered by the sun."
It's part of a major push to make Nipton a sustainable wonderland, a green hospitality center for nature lovers headed into the neighboring Mojave National Preserve.
The 80-kilowatt solar installation — enough to power most of the town — is 10 miles from Interstate 15 and two miles from the Nevada border. Freeman has also erected five "eco-cabins" based on designs by Frank Lloyd Wright.
In the next decade, Freeman envisions energy-efficient buildings, an organic farm, electric vehicle charging stations and even more solar installations. If the local winds weren't so weak, he'd erect wind turbines too.
Nipton isn't the only U.S. town hopping on the environmental bandwagon. Turbines are going up in Greensburg, Kan., where a tornado tore through in 2007. Soldiers Grove, Wis., moved its downtown out of a flood-prone area and equipped the new buildings with solar energy.
But Nipton has one advantage: Freeman owns the town and can do whatever he wants with it.
"I decide the priorities around here, and those are to be a real community, not
a Disneyland with staged shootouts at high noon," he said, alluding to Calico, west on I-15, which has turned its ghost town heritage into a tourist attraction.
Government officials and local historians said they're not aware of any officially recognized town in the U.S. owned by an individual. And if some do exist, they're a rarity, experts said.
Nipton began as a covered wagon and cattle rancher stop more than a century ago before evolving into a railroad and mining town. A naturalized English immigrant named Harry Trehearne began developing the community in the early 1900s, building the store and restoring the hotel. Trehearne claimed the town under the Homestead Act and in 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed over the title.
Before Freeman, the town cycled through seven private owners, most of whom had also convinced themselves that the town was on the cusp of major development.
Now it's a handful of converted trailers clumped along a two-lane road. It's been five years since a firetruck came through. The local hangout, the Whistle Stop Cafe, claims to serve the best burgers in town. No one refutes it, since it's the only restaurant within 10 miles. The town is popular with roving motorcycle clubs and at one point sold the most lottery tickets in California. But then another vendor opened up the road in Primm, on the California-Nevada border, and grabbed 95% of sales.
Nipton is already experiencing a mini-boom. The panels made by Skyline Solar Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., are attracting out-of-state visitors curious about doing something similar in their communities.
And since January, the population has more than doubled to 60 residents as clean-tech job seekers flood into the area. In the nearby hills, Molycorp Inc. is expanding its rare earths mine, digging up minerals used in wind turbines and smartphones. A 15-minute drive away in the Ivanpah Valley, BrightSource Energy Inc. is building a solar farm.
Freeman, a smartphone and iPad user, is slowly giving the town a modern makeover, setting up Wi-Fi access around Nipton and sprucing up the town's website. There's talk of building restroom and shower facilities for recreational vehicles. Someday there may even be a school.
"We'll have to feel our way," he said. "But we're fairly free of competition, and that's like having a gold mine that never runs out of ore."
Some residents, though, prefer Nipton the way it is.
Nature lovers Rashawn Gordon, 43, and his wife,
Melissa, 42, like to hunt for dove and quail in the nearby mountains. He bought her a rifle for Christmas, a shotgun for her birthday and a bow and a dozen arrows for Valentine's Day.
The solar panels have encroached on their view of the desert.
"I do like the concept of solar power, but I wish they hadn't put them so close to us," Rashawn Gordon said, pointing to the vast expanse of undisturbed land behind his RV. "As a person of the desert, I'd rather see this."