Leaving Goldfield, I drove north on US 395 toward Tonopah, another major mining camp in the early 20th century boom. Brief showers brought a respite from the heat and the additional altitude (Tonopah is at 6200 feet) made it even more pleasant. I’ve stayed in Tonopah many times and have even joked about retiring here.
In the Spring of 1900, Jim Butler, a rancher and part-time prospector from near Belmont, Nevada, discovered a rich vein of silver near a place that the natives called Tonopah (greasewood springs). According to legend, Butler’s donkey ran away and he went looking for it. Finding it a day later, he looked for a big rock with which to pelt the animal, but the rock he picked up was heavier than normal and upon looking at it, discovered it to be what he thought was high grade silver ore. In Nevada, Butler’s donkey is as famous as the one Jesus rode into Jerusalem and Balaam’s ass (the original smart ass) put together. I should note that serious historians question the historical accuracy of the donkey story, but it makes a heck of a better story than talking about Jim Butler chipping samples off rock ledges in the hot sun.
It took a while for Butler’s ore to be assayed (a process that brought him some additional partners in as he couldn’t afford the assaying fees) and for him to stake out his claims, but in a few years Tonopah was booming. It was an inhospitable place. There was little water and no roads. The closest railroad was the Carson and Colorado narrow gauge, eighty-some miles to the north and by 1900, with little going on in Nevada, only three trains a week ran each way. The C & C connected the Owens River Valley with the Comstock Lode. The Tonopah discovery saved this line, as they soon extended a line to Tonopah (and later on to Goldfield) and converted their tracks to standard gauge so one could take the train from San Francisco (the finance center for the West at this time) to Reno, then to Moundhouse and on to Tonopah.
We didn’t have much time in Tonopah. There was a new museum that I’d heard about (Tonopah Mining Park) and I got there 15 minutes before they closed. I was able to get a few pictures, but next time will plan to spend at least half a day here. Driving through town, I noticed that the Mizpah Hotel is still closed. I’d always wanted to stay it in, but never did. Back in the 90s, I ate there many times and have had a few cold beers in their grand saloon. As we had planned to stay the night in Caliente, 180 miles to the east, we stopped at McDonalds for a quick dinner. My daughter had fallen in love with their new smoothies in Las Vegas, but this McDonald’s wasn’t yet serving them. It was one of the dirtiest McDonalds I’ve seen and they seemed to have been invade by flies. After eating, we left town on US 6, heading past the entrance to the Tonopah Proving Grounds. One of the reasons the town is still going is that the military has had a presence here testing new aircraft. Tonopah’s most recent boom was during the development of the stealth bombers. At Warm Springs, we left US 6 and headed across the Extraterrestrial Highway. We didn’t stop at Rachel this time, but kept going, stopping to watch the sunset in a Joshua tree forest.
Dry rain and open range (ie, cows are not fenced here). East of Tonopah.
I should also note (if any historians are reading this), Tonopah also has the Central Nevada Museum, which has a wonderful archive collection for rural Nevada. There are a number of good books for those interested in learning more about Tonopah. Two that are on my shelves are Russell Elliott’s Nevada’s Twentieth-Century Mining Boom: Tonopah, Goldfield and Ely and Robert D. McCraken, A History of Tonopah, Nevada. Next stop: Caliente!