Thursday, August 19, 2010

Goldfield, Nevada

Travel Tip Thursday is a writing prompt that encourages us to write about places we’ve seen and visited--ie, we gives tips on places to travel as opposed to what to pack (this was added a day after the original post to answer one of my critics). This week, I continue with my trip a few weeks ago through Southeastern California and Southern Nevada.
After leaving Rhyolite, I topped off the gas tank in Beatty and headed north on US Highway 395. Next stop was Goldfield, near the half-way point between Las Vegas and Reno. A hundred years ago, this was the largest town in the state with over 20,000 citizens. It was a boon town and identified by historian Sally Zanjani as the “the last gold rush on the Western Frontier.”

After the decline of the Comstock Lode in the 1880s, Nevada slipped into a twenty year depression and the state almost ceased to exist. There were even discussions as to if it still qualified as a state as it had lost so much of its population and other states were envious of it having two senators and a representative in Congress. But with the turn of the Twentieth Century, Nevada came to life again as new mines were discovered in Tonopah, Goldfield and Ely. Next week, I’ll tell you a bit about Tonopah, but this week, we’re stopping in another of these mining camps that hit it big, Goldfield, the county seat of Esmeralda County.

The rich lode at Tonopah was discovered in 1900. Two years later, the mining district that was to become Goldfield was discovered. According to legend, a Paiute named Tom Fisherman hauled a “picture rock,” a yellow colored piece of ore, into Tonopah that he sold for $10. Fisherman said he found the ore 30 miles south of Tonopah. Several miners headed south and in December 1902, two miners staked the first claims on the north ridge of the Columbia Mountains. They named the mining district “Grandpa,” supposedly because it was either to be the Grandpa of all mining camps or because Grandpah in Paiute means “Great Water.” The former is the most likely explanation as there is no great water in this district, although what constitutes “great water” in this arid region is relatively.

In October 1903, there were 36 miners and investors living in tents. They incorporated a town and changed the name to Goldfield, thinking that it sounded better in their marketing campaign than did Grandpa. Several mines were beginning to produce well. In the later part of 1906, one mine produced nine million dollars worth of ore. Unlike Tonapah, which was mostly silver (a ratio of 86 ounces of silver to one ounce of gold), Goldfield was mostly gold (a ratio of 3 ounces gold to an ounce of silver. In the first four decades of the century, Goldfield produced over 90 million dollars in ore (compared to 148 million for Tonopah). Remember, this was when gold was worth $20 or so an ounce.

In its heyday, Goldfield boasted a fancy hotel and many buildings of brick and block. A number of railways made their way to Goldfield, one coming from Tonopah (which connected to the older Carson and Colorado, a narrow gauge railroad that connected to the Virginia and Truckee at Moundhouse, which connected to the Union Pacific at Reno). This railroad was later converted to standard gauge. To the south, two railroads came north, one from a town that would become known as Las Vegas and another from Lundow, California, a line that also served the borax interest around Death Valley.
Goldfield has a colorful history. One of its early residents was Virgil Earp, Wyatt’s brother and sidekick at the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Virgil worked as a sheriff deputy until his death of pneumonia in October 1905. In 1907, a mining strike resulted in the military being called out, which created some interesting times. The town also became a center for raising capital for new mining adventures in Southern and Central Nevada, many of which were designed to mine the pocket the investors rather than digging for actual gold. The town of Rawhide was most notable among these endeavors. The town also featured boxing matches that gripped the nation. Boxing, in the early 20th Century, was considered barbaric and outlawed in many parts of the nation. But long before Las Vegas became the final home for Sonny Liston, boxing found a home in Goldfield as some of the same promoters of bogus mines also promoted championship fights.

As with most boom towns, Goldfield began to decline after a few years. Several diasters helped the decline. In 1913, a flash food brought havoc on a good part of the town. Then in 1923, a fire destroyed about 25 blocks of the city, including much of the business districts. Another fire, the next year destroyed more of the city. By 1947, all the railroads to Goldfield had stopped running. Had it not be for the town’s location on US 395 and that fact that the town is the county seat for Esmesalda County, the town might have become a truly ghost town. As it is, there is still the courthouse and a few businesses in Goldfield.

It was hot when I arrived. I parked on an empty Main Street and set out with my camera, snapping photos of the old hotel. The last time I was through here, the hotel was being restored, but the developers ran out of money. I photographed the old Methodist Episcopal Church (now a community center), the courthouse, the fire department, the old high school and a bunch of mining equipment.

I’d been to Goldfield a couple times before. At one time, I thought I might like to do a study of the role the churches played in the 1907 miner’s strike, like Liston Pope did with the textile strike in Gastonia, North Carolina (the book he wrote is titled Millhands and Preachers). I was given access to the first Presbyterian minister’s sermons and some of his correspondence (I have copies of his pictures of Goldfield packed up, somewhere). I searched through them but found no reference to the strike and eventually gave up the idea of researching the connection between religion and the strike.

The last time I was in Goldfield was with Ralph, on a Sunday afternoon in January toward the end of the 20th Century. We’d been exploring the backroads and mining camps between Death Valley and Goldfield. We came into town and stopped at one of the bars on a side street for a beer and to catch up on the playoff games. There were six or eight people in the bar and the bartender. The place was warmed with a wood stove and smelled of burning pinion. As we were finishing up our first glass of beer, a man came in a young woman. She was stunning. I wondered for a while if they were a pair, as he was at least 30 years older than her. He told the bartender to give everyone a round and then went on to explain that he and his daughter had driven up to Tonopah, where he had a casino. He had his daughter drive a new sports car up from his Vegas dealership, the car to be given away to some lucky gambler as it helped draw traffic into his casino. He also, it turned out, own that little dumpy bar in Goldfield and so the bartender, knowning who was boss, set us all up with another drink.

On this afternoon a few weeks ago, we didn’t stay in Goldfield very long, just long enough to take a few pictures. As we drove on north, toward Tonopah, a small thunderstorm blew though, cooling off the desert and making the rest of the afternoon more pleasant.

An excellent book on Goldfield is Sally Zanjani's, Goldfield: The Last Gold Rush on the Western Frontier. Another book about the revival of mining in the early 20th Century is Russell Elliott's Nevada's Twentieth-Century Mining Boom: Tonopah, Goldfield, Ely. A colorful book about the unsavy way mining stock was promoted is George Graham Rice's My Adventures With Your Money. This book, first published in 1913 and republished in 1987, was written in prison after Rice was convicted of fraud.


  1. ACK! Can't we rename this Thursday writing thing since it never includes an actual tip about traveling? Why not just Traveling Thursday?

  2. Thanks. Enjoy learning about Nevada. I'm beginning to feel like I've been there. Love the rainstorm pic. Best book about growing up in Reno, Nevada, Walter Van Tilburg Clark's "City of Trembling Leaves."

  3. ticket or tank of gas and point vehicle or allow pilot to pull away from gate and go. nothing more or less to it.

    Nice piece of desert there Sage.

  4. That's the great thing about Nevada. There are so many of these places to explore. A lifetime isn't enough.


  5. You have such great adventures, Sage. I love reading about them. I immediately thought of that song "Willin'" by Little Feat, and its chorus, "I've been from Tuscon to Tucumcari
    Tehachapi to Tonapah..."

  6. I was just rereading one of my stories from Killing Trail that takes place around the area of the Comstock load. Or part of it does anyway.

  7. Murf, I put a disclaimer at the beginning to address your concerns...

    Ron, I haven't read "Trembling Leaves." The Ox Bow Incident by Clark is one of the best Westerners, in my opinion. Clark also published the journals of Alfred Doten,who was a newspaper editor on the Comstock for many years. They are very valuable as he strted writing at the age of 18, when he left home for California in 1849 and kept writing until his death in 1903. BTW, what happened to your blog?

    Walking Guy, I'm just a vagabound, if I can travel, I do.

    Randall, yep, Nevada is a neat state and as much time as I've spent there, there are still places I've not seen.

    Lynn, It's been a while since I heard Little Feat--didn't they also do the Dixie Chicken?

    Charles, now I will have to read the Killing Trail as I lived in the Comstock and have written about it.

  8. It's pretty amazing to think how different things were then, with gold rushes and prospecting and staking claims and such.

    Great buildings, too.

  9. Didn't see it. Can't get past the bad title. ;-)

  10. Bone, things were different and not so different--there are still many examples of stock fraud out there that's not just linked to hard rock mining. But the gold rush days are over.

    Murf, I can't help you then...

  11. intriguing bit of history on virgil well as all the factors that played into the decline of the town...nice pics too. the world sure has changed eh?

  12. You make me want to read up on small towns like this one and road trip from one to another.

  13. I enjoy reading about all these places I'll never see.

  14. I've heard of Tonopah plenty of times before but always as a possible site of some top secret next generation spy plane. I somehow doubt that will be the subject of your writings on Tonopah.

  15. Thanks for the travel info. I will remember to come back here every thursday. THe sportsman and I like to take trips. I can always use a suggestions.

    Thanks for stopping by recently.

  16. Is there anywhere you haven't been? :)