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A Magic Mining City - TONOPAH, Nevada



Gary B. Speck



TONOPAH!  That word rings of silver, silver and more silver.  Tonopah was one of the magic mining cities that exploded into being almost overnight across the southern Nevada Desert during the first decade of the 20th Century.  Ever since the Comstock Lode and its main support town of VIRGINIA CITY burst into the Nation’s news in the latter half of the 19th Century, almost every silver boom town compared itself to The Comstock!  Tonopah probably came the closest to being the second Comstock with around $150 MILLION in silver being pried from the desert soil – the second richest silver mining town in the state. 


Tonopah’s beginning started almost in the stereotypical way.


There was the desert prospector and his partners. 


There was the burro.


There were skeptics, and optimists.


The discovery of silver at Tonopah followed the West’s most typical pattern.  ALL except for two.


1.     The date of discovery IS well known.

2.    The prospectors didn’t give away their claim in some drunken stupor.  They held on and profited mightily.


It all began with a BELMONT area rancher named Jim Butler.  He was not down-on-his-luck, but just enjoyed prospecting.   He was down in the Tonopah area when one of his burros wandered off.  At least the gist of the most popular story of the discovery.  Anyway, when he found the critter, he also discovered a rich outcropping of silver.  He took several samples, and headed over to a nearby mining camp to show the samples to some miners and verify if they appeared valuable.  They all agreed the samples were worthless iron ore, so Butler headed back to his ranch.  He contacted Tasker Oddie, a friend and local attorney.  Despite the nay-saying miners who earlier saw the samples, Oddie and Butler both agreed the samples were worth assaying, but neither had the cash available for the work.  They knew Walter Gayhart, a teacher and part-time assayer in Austin.  Gayhart agreed to do the assay, becoming the third partner, taking a quarter of Oddie’s quarter share.


When the results came back, all three knew this was a bonanza - 640 ounces of silver and $206 of gold per ton of ore.


The three partners all returned to the discovery site and staked claims.  Due to the distance from civilization, start-up costs were high, and the three partners needed capital to begin development of their mines.  But, money was tough, so they added a fourth minor partner, Wilse Brougher, who was able to loan them a wagon for hauling ore.  The four men sacked up a load of ore and shipped it to a mill in Utah.  When the check for the ore came back, word spread, and the grapevine went into overdrive.  They were quickly surrounded by other miners and prospectors, all staking claims to try and grab a little piece of the action.  However, in the end the four partner’s claims were the richest.  In January, 1901, the small mining camp of Butler had 40 men, and it was soon destined to grow FAST!  On April 10, 1901, the Butler Post Office opened its doors and by summer some 650 folks had arrived.  Butler and his three partners decided to lease out the mines, rather than spend their own limited funds on them.  One source calls Butler “the laziest mining tycoon of all time” because he made the original discovery, then traded partial ownership to his partners and leased out the property rather than do the physical work himself.  Lazy?  Or smart?


They had the richest vein, and were smart enough to know that since development money was not forthcoming, leasing out the mines for a 25% royalty this was the fastest and easiest method to get to the businesses of extracting ore without expending large sums of money – AND still make money.  A year after the discovery, the four men had 130 active leases on their properties!


In October 1901, money came, and the partners were offered $336,000 for their claims.  As the leases were still active, they agreed, providing the sale would finalize when the leases expired on December 31.  That was agreed to, and the sale consummated.  It is said that the leases produced $4 million the first year, so that plus the sales price, set the partners up for life!  Lazy?  I don’t think so!  Smart?  You betcha!


Jim Butler’s May 19, 1900 discovery was the impetus to kick-start Nevada’s fading silver mining industry.   In January 1902, the million-dollar Tonopah Mining Company was incorporated, and mining of Butler and his partners’ former claims began in earnest.  This new mining company was the impetus for development, and people streamed in by the thousands.  On March 3, 1905, the Post Office changed its name to reflect the commonly used name of TONOPAH.  This boom was the beginning of the last wild decade of frontier mining, coming on the bootstraps of the general demise of the Comstock and the die-off of excitement in the Alaska-Yukon gold rush. Shortly after Tonopah burst onto the scene more rich discoveries rocked Southern Nevada, each creating instant, modern mining cities where a year previously was barren desert.  GOLDFIELD  followed in 1903, and RHYOLITE in 1905.  T.H. Watkins, in his book, Gold and Silver in the West, says: 

They (Tonopah, Goldfield & Rhyolite) were almost reflexive booms – the last twitches

of life in a dream that had survived more than three hundred years on the North American continent,

but had finally come to its ending in the deserts of Nevada. The dream was born in myth, and while

it flourished, it caught and held the imagination of its time and storied our history with the muscular legends

of a romance unmatched in American life.”


Even though the mining industry continued to survive, it was under a much different set of rules, regulations, corporate entities and the resultant litigation. The old ways and the Old West were dead, replaced by “civilized” modern ways of doing things. This last gasp, was the Old West dying with its boots firmly still on its feet!


Tonopah and Goldfield survived their first decade, and both are much less active and smaller; yet are still living, breathing towns, and the county seats of their respective counties.  Rhyolite, however, is a dead husk, a magnificent ghost town filled with picturesque memories. 


Under corporate leadership, the TONOPAH mines kicked into high gear, pumping out millions in silver each year.  The town quickly grew into a booming, modern mining city with brick, rock and concrete buildings lining the main street.  Railroads arrived, and the number of businesses skyrocketed.  Off to the west, MILLERS developed into TONOPAH’s milling center with dozens of mills and hundreds of stamps pounding the ore into submission.  The ore was then shipped out on railroad lines that spiderwebbed across the desert. 


By the time of the 1910 census, the excitement level had subsided somewhat and the city’s population had dropped from an estimated 10,000 people, stabilizing around 3900.  Mining companies began erecting mills at TONOPAH, which doomed MILLERS.  As production continued to rise, Tonopah gained importance and as the county seat since 1905, had become the largest city in southern Nevada. 


The mines produced well through the 1920s, but decline set in during the Depression years of the 1930s. However, in 1942, they closed for the war effort.  Even so, TONOPAH still had around 2500 people, but something else happened.  The United States Army built an airfield east of town (SEE TONOPAH ARMY AIR FIELD) and TONOPAH’s population trebled to some 7500 when around 5000 soldiers arrived to staff the air field.  After the war ended, the military abandoned the air field, and TONOPAH faded.  It woke up briefly in the 1950s, housing thousands of military personnel when the Air Force established a secret nuclear testing base to the south.  Once Nellis Air Force Base and the testing ranges became self-sufficient, the troops that stayed in TONOPAH moved on-post. TONOPAH again began to snooze in the warm Nevada sunshine.  It stirred briefly in the early 1980s when the Anaconda Company worked a huge molybdenum mine off to the north, but the mine closed in 1986.  The official census numbers reflect TONOPAH’s ups and downs: 1930 – 2115, 1980 – 1951, 1990  - 3616, 2000 - 2627.


Because of its location at the eastern junction of a pair of US highways (US 6 & 95) midway between Las Vegas and Reno, and its significance as County Seat, TONOPAH has never totally faded.  This magnificent relic of past mining days is a prime example of a class E town, retaining much of its charm, many empty buildings (including several multi-story ones), AND a friendly population that relishes the community’s importance to the state’s history.  It is still the Nye County seat and the largest town in that part of Nevada. The Chamber of Commerce calls it the “Queen of the Silver Camps,” and that description still rings true.  However, today’s silver comes from the pockets of those who stop and spend a little time in this faded queen rather than from deep in the surrounding hills.



I truly enjoyed my visit to this historic town, walking the nearly deserted main street and visiting the foundations of once-magnificent mills to the east. 


What’s left to see? 




TONOPAH is privileged to have most of the buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During the time of my visit on an early Sunday morning, I pretty much had Main Street to myself.  The rising sun warmly illuminated the west side of Main Street, highlighting chipped bricks, gouged mortar joints and reflecting off dirty windows. Utter silence reigned.  Faded signs glowed warmly, and even in the shadows, the ghosts stirred at a long-closed Chevrolet dealership.  The Mizpah Hotel, built in 1907-1908, and opened in November 1908 to great fanfare is now closed, its decorative railing still proudly proclaiming the name.  The old Masonic Hall, multi-story apartment building and Tonopah Liquor Company buildings sucked up the warm sunshine.  Other unnamed businesses some of which are still open all share a piece of the past.


After wandering around downtown, I headed to the massive foundations of the old Belmont Mill on the east side of the hill and north of US 6.  I’d spotted the ruins the previous evening on my return trip from Belmont and wanted to explore them on my way out of town in the morning. This is not a hike for those who are not at least half-way in shape.  Despite the seemingly minor height of the hills around TONOPAH, don’t forget that the elevation is over 6000’!  If you’re out of shape, you WILL know it QUICKLY! (Voice of experience.)  If you are able, hike to the top of Rushton Hill (behind the mill).  TONOPAH lies spread out at your feet to the southwest, while the concrete foundations of the Belmont Mill lie to the east.  Unfortunately at the time I was there in early July 2008, the massive wildfires in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and the normal westerly winds created a pall of eye-watering, lung-burning smoke throughout the area, which affected the photo opportunities AND my lungs.  At the mill are numerous relics of the old days including an explosives bunker, winch, settling tanks, oven or kiln, and many foundations and slabs from the actual mill building.


Despite the smoky skies, it was a very enjoyable day.  The people I ran into were friendly and open about their love for the town - even the police officer who kept an eye on me while I was wandering about taking pictures.  Every building, every back street, every ruin exudes history. 









Belmont Mine – milling complex Tonopah

Approx. 6280’



SW¼ Sec 36, T3N, R42E, Mount Diablo Baseline & Meridian (CA)

Mizpah Hotel – Tonopah





Rushton Hill – Tonopah




SW¼ Sec 36, T3N, R42E, MDM

Tonopah - Town Center


38.0671553 / 38° 04’ 02” N

-117.2300825 / 117° 13’ 48” W

S½ Sec 35, T3N, R42E, MDM / N½ Sec 2, T2N, R42E, MDM

Tonopah - Junction US 6/95




NE¼ Sec 2, T2N, R42E, MDM



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FIRST POSTED:  March 01, 2010

LAST UPDATED: March 31, 2010





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