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The Complete Nevada Traveler by David W. Toll
Tonopah Travel Info
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Tonopah in Nye County NV
Numerous sculptures decorate Tonopah's streets, this one dedicated to the soldiers of World War Two.


The Nevada
Travel Network
Description and History of
Tonopah
by David W. Toll
Modern-day Tonopah is a magnificent relic of Nevada's 20th century mining boom
Modern-day Tonopah is a magnificent relic of Nevada's 20th century mining boom.
From The Complete Nevada Traveler, the Affectionate and Intimately Detailed Guidebook to the Most Interesting State in America. Buy the Book Here

The Mizpah Hotel





Tonopah Nevada was the first modern mining boomtown with railroads, telephones and electricity.
Tonopah was the first modern mining boomtown with railroads, telephones and electricity.
A HUNDRED YEARS AGO AND MORE, Jim Butler discovered silver at Tonopah in May, 1900, but it took weeks before the rich assay report reached him, and weeks after that before he could stake his claims, because his wife Belle famously made him get the hay in before going off mining. Thus it was late August before he and Belle located eight claims. They began mining in earnest in October, and attracted additional settlers into camp. Tents blossomed everywhere in the sagebrush, and a few wooden structures made a scraggly line on Main Street. Maybe 600 people, about 565 of them men, lived in what was still called Butler City, and a newspaper set up to serve them in June.
For the next several years production was rich and steady, population growth was strong and continuous, and only a few years after the discovery, Tonopah was a true city with curbs, gutters and street lights, a stock exchange, banks, telephone and telegraph service, municipal water, railroad connections north and south, hotels, restaurants, brothels and daily and weekly newspapers.

High grade ore, 1903. - Tonopah, Nevada High grade ore, 1903.

The settlement depended for its prosperity on the railroad, and on the mines that blossomed and wilted along the slopes and side canyons of the Reese River Valley all the way to Austin, 90 miles to the south. Galena, Jersey City and Lewis were three of Nevada's most prominent mining camps in the 1870s, all of them served by the railroad at Battle Mountain, as was Pittsburgh in the 1880s and Dean in the 1890s. After the turn of the century the mines at Hilltop, Bannock, McCoy and Betty O'Neal all shipped by way of Battle Mountain.

In 1903 Tonopah was still a tent camp; five years later it was a city.
In 1903 Tonopah was still a tent camp; five years later it was a city.
Tonopah sprang to life, just as the mining excitement at Nome, Alaska, was tailing off, and drew a large number of sourdoughs, among them Tex Rickard, Wyatt Earp, and Key Pittman. The Tonopah boom also coincided with the last waning of the Comstock as the center of political and economic influence in Nevada, and Tonopah men managed much of the state's affairs for more than a generation afterward. Key Pittman went to the U.S. Senate where he was known as "The Senator from Tonopah" because of his vigorous support silver mining.

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Tasker Oddie, Jim Butler's attorney, was both a U.S. senator and a Nevada governor. Earp made himself useful as a gambling dealer and "persuader" in local politics; even in his fifties he was not a man to fool with, though the dent he made in Tonopah history is nothing like his previous impact on Tombstone, Arizona. Rickard's flamboyant Nevada career led him eventually to Madison Square Garden with a young fighter named Jack Dempsey.

Brougher Avenue, 1905. - Tonopah, Nevada Brougher Avenue, 1905
Butler was an energetic and efficient miner, but he has been described as the laziest mining tycoon of all time because of his practice of giving leases to others to develop his properties. The leasers, working against deadlines, established Tonopah as a major mining bonanza by taking $4 million in ore from Butler's mines and building a substantial city. By 1905 it had captured the county seat from failing Belmont.

In 1908 the Great New York-to-Paris Race cars came through Tonopah.
In 1908 the Great New York-to-Paris Race cars came through Tonopah.
Like Austin forty years previously, Tonopah was the headquarters and fitting-out place for hundreds of prospectors prowling the brushy wilderness of central Nevada, and whose discoveries helped raise Nevada from the economic coma it had been suffering for 20 years. They also restored the state to its accustomed place on the front pages of the nation's newspapers. Tonopah peaked in the years leading up to World War I, when the mines averaged 38.5 million a year in production.
A few of the bonanza gold and silver mines are open for underground tours, Tonopah NV A few of the bonanza gold and silver mines are open for underground tours

From there it was a long, slow downhill slide. As the '20s gave way to the '30s, and the '30s to the '40s, mining slowed and finally stopped. Ranching and the highway trade became the main economic resources. Population dwindled and for 50 years of hard times interupted only briefly by the activity of WWII the increasingly shabby city clung to the barren swale between Mounts Oddie and Brougher, half awake and distracted. It was silver the old city wanted, with three shifts a day in the shafts and half a hundred hammering mills crushing rock day and night.
In 1979, after nearly 60 years of decline, Tonopah erupted in its second mining boom of the 20th century. Suddenly the Mizpah Annex Cafe was a crush of men in Air Force fatigues or the flannel shirts and blue jeans of construction workers and miners. Waitresses raced from table to table with pots of coffee and platters of flapjacks.

Anaconda's molybdenum mine north of town
Anaconda's molybdenum mine north of town.
Fleets of buses hauled the men out of town to work. Nine hundred of them were building the great new Anaconda molybdenum mine and mill, and hundreds more worked in a dozen gold and silver mines producing bullion at a furious rate. The Air Force was so busy at its missile test range beyond the mountains to the southeast that it had to lease whole motels in Tonopah to accommodate the troops.

The population went from fewer than 2,500 to more than 4,000 in about a year. When school was out in June, 1980, there were 475 kids enrolled in school. When school opened again in September, there were more than 700 students for whom to find classrooms and teachers. At the only grocery store in town the clerks worked steadily to restock the shelves with almost 6 tons of groceries every day, and customers idled their cars in the street, waiting for spaces to open up in the parking lot.

Prime rental properties in 1980. Tonopah, Nevada
Prime rental properties in 1980.
Every structure with a roof over it was rented. A temporary 300-space campground was built at the Anaconda worksite. Every vacant lot that could accommodate a trailer was put to use, giving the tangle of old streets an incongruous look: a flamingo-pink aluminum cube stuck between a swaybacked old cottage on one side and a fitted stone mansion on the other. There was an armed robbery, the first in more than 60 years, and Tonopah congratulated itself on its return to full urban status.

Tonopah, as seen from the Mining Park.
Tonopah, as seen from the Mining Park.
And then one day the boom was over. The price of gold and silver slid and the mines closed down. The market for moly went so bad that even mighty Anaconda had to close down its operation and sit on its $240 million investment. The Air Force got enough of its base built to move the men inside, and then encouraged them to stay there. Tonopah slowed down again.


The most prominent symbol of this boom-and-bust history is the Mizpah Hotel at the center of the city. Built in 1907 and '08 on the site of one of Jim Butler's old camp sites, the five-story hotel was immediately the center of glamour and elegance in dusty, hard-working Tonopah. It had steam heat, electric lights and elevator service, and advertised itself earnestly as "The Finest Stone Hotel on the Desert." When a husky young roustabout named Jack Dempsey strode into the flourishing Mizpah six years later, Tonopah was at its peak.
The Mizpah Hotel, now restored to its original elegance. Tonopah, Nevada
The Mizpah Hotel, now restored to its original elegance.
The Mizpah slipped into poverty during the long decline along with the rest of the city. It livened up briefly during World War II when the Air Base was busy training bomber crews, but this flicker of prosperity ended with the war. In 1950 new owners erected the now familiar lights on the roof. The lobby was remodeled to accommodate a small casino and cocktail bar, but the economic tide was still running the wrong way. By the late '60s an inside room (in which the window opened onto a corridor, rather than to the outside) rented for $2.50. With a bare bulb dangling from a frayed cord, and a swaybacked metal bed hugging the wall for support, these rooms were great favorites with cowboys sleeping off a payday Saturday night.
Tonopah's Main Street still has many distinguished buildings dating from the original boom.
Tonopah's Main Street still has many distinguished buildings dating from the original boom.

But in 1937 a kid from Las Vegas had fallen in love with the historic brick and stone structure while traveling to a high school track meet in Yerington. Nearly 40 years later, as the president of a multi-million dollar construction company and builder of the Union Plaza Hotel in downtown Las Vegas, he bought it. In 1979, after three years and $4 million, Frank Scott opened the glamorous old hotel, its rooms and suites furnished with antiques. It was a glittering jewel box designed for high-rolling gamblers.
Scott's dream of his remote "ghost town hotel" was suddenly trampled under the feet of commercial travelers hurrying to sell goods and services to the mines and military in Tonopah, and the fine furnishings and appointments were superfluous to these practical visitors. The later collapse of the boom left the Mizpah with only the highway clientele, and a few years after that it was closed in bankruptcy.


The Mizpah has been revived, restored and reopened at the heart of the city.
The Mizpah has been revived, restored and reopened at the heart of the city.
In the summer of 2011 the Mizpah was purchased, restored and reopened by Fred and Nancy Cline, winemakers in the Carneros District of Sonoma County California. Nancy's grandmother Emma Ramseyhad come west when her brother struck it rich in Goldfield. Harry Ramsey was heavily invested in the Goldfield mines, and sister Emma became Goldfield's postmaster.
The Clines have committed themselves to restoring the Mizpah, first to its function as a full-service hotel half-way between Reno and Las Vegas, and then to its rightful place as a premier destination in Central Nevada.
Another symbol of the mining boom is the Scolari's supermarket at the south end of town, which brought old Tonopah all the way into the 20th century about 30 years ago. As Tonopah struggles into the 21st century local folks are worried that it might close. Next door, the modern Station House Hotel-Casino did close for a while, but a new owner has reopened it in fine style.


The Historic Tonopah Mining Park comprises several of the original silver mines.
The Historic Tonopah Mining Park comprises several of the original silver mines.
Photo by Max Winthrop
The mining and military boom left Tonopah with a large number of new motels - the Jim Butler Motel across the street from the Mizpah was designed and factory-built in modules, trucked to town and erected in two days. The modern Hi-Desert Inn, Silver Queen and Sundowner motels are all on Main Street. The Clown, on the north end, is the newest.
There's now an easy access road from behind the Mizpah to the Mining Park.
There's now an easy access road from behind the Mizpah to the Mining Park.

You can spend half a day exploring Tonopah's old neighborhoods and you can spend a lifetime exploring the beautiful country nearby. The Central Nevada Historical Society Museum - you'll see it on Logan Field Road on the south (uphill) side of town - displays relics and memorabilia of central Nevada, meticulously and lovingly preserved. Slide shows on local history are available, and antique mining machinery decorates the parking lot.
The Central Nevada Museum is at the south (uphill) end of town.
The Central Nevada Museum is at the south (uphill) end of town.

You'll also see numerous sculptures and murals here and there around the old city. They've been placed there in the hope they will lure you to park and get out of your car for a few minutes. Do it, you'll enjoy it.
Tonopah has a swimming pool and a lawned park with playground and picnic tables. Barsanti Park, named for the WWII "Fighting General from Tonopah," is at Bryan and Booker Streets. A couple of smaller parks can be easily found in the Anaconda subdivision off Radar Road, and Jim Butler Park overlooks the town from the east.



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