Tonopah and Goldfield
They Were the Hub of Nevada's Gold Rush
Story and Photos by Roger McPherson

Standing on the abandoned Las Vegas and Tonopah grade, Allen Metscher points out the Florence Mine. His father and uncle once worked underground in the Goldfield mines.

Located just 25 miles apart, the great discoveries at Tonopah in 1900 and Goldfield in 1902 helped Nevada emerge from a quiet period and reawakened exploration in the West. "Tonopah is the center of things," says Viola Whipperman, the assistant curator of the Central Nevada Museum in Tonopah. "We're roughly 240 miles from Reno and 200 miles from Las Vegas."

At left, a panorama of Tonopah looking west toward Mount Brougher. The Tonopah Historic Mining Park in the foreground at center encompasses four major mines, including the Mizpah, Desert Queen, and Silver Top mines. At right, the grounds around the central Nevada Museum in Tonopah have a small scale mine, typical buildings and mining equipment. Inside the museum is an assay office and displays about the railroads, mines and social life of Tonopah and Goldfield.

These silver and gold-rush towns in central Nevada still retain their stately buildings and mining history. There's the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah, "the best stone building in Nevada," some say, named after Jim Butler's great Mizpah Mine (which was staked by his wife, Belle). Rooms with red carpet, oak furniture and beautiful views recall Tonopah's past.

The Central Nevada Museum at the south edge of town is full of information about the glory days in Tonopah and Goldfield. On the grounds next to the museum are typical mining-camp buildings, a railroad scale building and equipment, from hand tools to modern machinery.

Just back of town, on Mount Oddie's slope, a mining park with the great Mizpah, Desert Queen and Silver Top Mines, has walking tours of its open stopes, hoists, headframes, and power houses.

The discovery of Tonopah came about because Jim Butler systematically investigated the hills and was rewarded after years of effort. In an excerpt from Butler's writings was this quote "I noticed quartz in everything contacts, fossils, changes in shrubbery, animal or insect life, agate beds . . . In fact, all were interesting and none passed unnoticed, more especially quartz, which is the home of my long years of search."

In this case, a wandering burro led Jim Butler to the outcrop. He was driving a buckboard with two burros when he camped at a small spring the Indians called Tonopah and one burro wandered off. He tracked the animal for three miles, finding it and a dark rock he thought was quartz.

This burly, good-hearted man was involved in prospecting from age 13. "Have seen six weeks at one time that no Human being were near me--nothing but the ever familiar Howl of the Lonely coyote. So accustomed to such a life, has made it almost by first nature to prospect."

He broke off 30 to 40 pounds of the rock, but an assayer threw the rocks away without even testing them. On his way back to his ranch, Butler picked up more samples and left them on the porch of a general store. Tasker Oddie, Butler's friend and, later, senator and governor of Nevada, thought the samples might have something and he sent them to another assayer.

News came back that it was rich ore, but Butler was away at his ranch at the time. Meanwhile prospectors, including the original assayer who threw away the samples, searched the area but couldn't locate Butler's find. Butler and his wife finally staked eight claims, along with Oddie and the storekeeper.

That first year mining was done on a lease basis, with a 25-percent royalty going to the owners. Four million dollars in ore was taken out before the leases expired on January 1, 1902. Sacks of rich ore were stacked around successful operations before being shipped off to the nearest railhead at Sodaville. Tonopah became the supply center for prospectors, and the new camps of Rawhide to the north and Goldfield and Bullfrog (Rhyolite) to the south were discovered between 1902 and 1907.

Lottie Stimler Nay left her teaching job in nearby Belmont to join the Tonopah excitement that first winter. Employed by the Butlers, she set up a "soup house" on the road to the mines, expecting to cook for 15 people. She ended up cooking for 80 men, scrambling to find enough supplies when winter blizzards held up the freight wagons. She wrote, "My efforts to make a fortune in Tonopah have proved futile, but of course everyone cannot be fortunate. It is the pioneers of every place who endure all the hardships, and smooth and prepare the way for those who come later. I have lived in Tonopah ever since, and have been an interested spectator of its wonderful and rapid growth."

I found a reference library at the Central Nevada Museum with bound copies of The Tonopah Miner, Tonopah Daily Times and other newspapers. Interviews with Nevada pioneers, files on Jim Butler and even videotapes are available for research. Mrs. Whipperman pointed out Lottie Stimler Nay's story and set up a video on the new Tonopah Historic Mining Park for me. She also suggested where to go to find samples of Tonopah mineralization.

Like the Comstock of Virginia City, these near-surface veins of gold and silver are related to the circulation of mineralized solutions in a volcanic environment. They had a limited vertical extent, below which the ore was too low-grade to mine.

They were called "bonanzas" because of the rich areas of massive quartz veining which contained concentrations of silver and gold. However, unlike the fault-controlled Comstock, these deposits under Tonopah and Goldfield are related to calderas--volcanic domes with a deep-seated igneous source which cause ring fractures, explosive vent breccias and fissures through which hot, mineralized fluids percolate.

While many calderas are not mineralized, a few have the right conditions to produce rich deposits. The world-class Round Mountain gold-silver mine to the north is a collapsed caldera.

Tonopah is a beautiful town, with winding roads leading through older residential neighborhoods. Brougher Mountain southwest of town has a panoramic view of the main mining area between the main street and Mount Oddie to the north. Part of the Desert Queen Motel sits on tailings from one of Jim Butler's mines. In a vacant lot below Brougher's slopes I found a rich chunk of quartz with black silver sulfites in crustified bands. The silver-to-gold ratio here is about 100 to 1, with acanthite as the principal silver mineral.

Viola suggested I visit the abandoned dumps of the Tonopah and Belmont Mine half a mile east of town, off Highway 6--a likely place to find examples of Tonopah mineralization. I turned off the highway at Ketten Road and saw the concrete foundations and huge rock piles just ahead on a well-graded dirt road.

Breaking open some of the black rocks revealed pink rhodonite, a form of manganese associated with epithermal veins. Other rocks had the yellows and oranges of iron alteration. Andesite was veined with quartz and altered to green chlorite with pyrites.

On the hillside overlooking the mine's foundations I had a picnic lunch, and then for "dessert" I wandered around the hillside, picking up mineralized specimens.

At right, oxidized samples from the Tonopah-Belmont Mine dump have rhodonite, quartz veins, jasperoid, and andesite with pyrites.

Quartz with irregular dark bands of ore minerals was localized in veins along the east-trending Tonopah Fault. The productive zone was a 200-yard-thick shell, with its apex at the surface near the center of the town. The Comstock was the only larger deposit of this type in the United States, and it also had much greater gold production. The district produced $147 million with silver at 40 cents an ounce!

Every summer Jim Butler Days celebrate Tonopah's past with mucking and drilling contests, shootouts, a kangaroo court, events for kids, dances, cook-offs and historical programs. The Tonopah Chamber of Commerce has brochures and dates for the celebrations.

Similar to Tonopah, a deeply emplaced caldera about five miles in diameter is thought to be the source of Goldfield's rich ore. Goldfield was founded when an experienced Indian prospector brought gold-bearing rocks to Tonopah. Prospectors followed him to Rabbit Springs and found float gold nearby. By 1904 Goldfield began shipping rich ore, and soon brick and stone buildings were built. A railroad connected Goldfield and Tonopah to the main lines, and operated until 1947. A few of these historic buildings still stand as reminders of Goldfield's boom years. Mining peaked in 1910, with over $10 million being produced by the Goldfield Consolidated Mining Company. By 1918 major mining had ceased, although in the 1980s open-pit operations developed near-surface veins and microscopic gold and leached dump material.

At left, an open ledger in the Goldfield Recorder's office waits for the next mining claim to be recorded. Located in the Esmeralda County courthouse, this office has been in operation since 1907.

In Goldfield, I picked up a map of historic buildings from the Esmeralda County Court House Recorder's Office and strolled around Goldfield's historic downtown. Allen Metscher, a long-time resident of the area, took me on a driving tour. His grandfather died in a cave-in in the Mohawk Mine, and his father and uncle died of silicosis from working in the Combination Fraction, the Florence and the Mohawk. "They would come out of the mines just white from the dust," he said sadly. He pointed out the old jail, swimming pool and the depot for the Tonopah Goldfield Railroad. On the low hills behind town green and yellow mine dumps of ore and waste rock are guarded by wooden headframes.

When I first approached Goldfield from the north, I visited the cemetery on the outskirts of town. A group of plain white crosses in a plot above the cemetery hinted at some disaster. "In 1908 the graves were moved during the night," Allen explained. "Passengers on the Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad didn't like getting off the train next to the cemetery so the railroad got permission from the county to move the 70 bodies," Allen explained. From their resting place the early pioneers of Goldfield look out over the distant stone and brick buildings.

Little remains of the railroad except concrete foundations. A 1913 flood came down off the Malpais Plateau and swept through the railroad area, scattering debris downhill for miles.

Goldfield continues to attract both honest and shady operators. We had driven by the 1905 Santa Fe Saloon and out Diamondfield Road, where the landscape was all typical of Western mining.

"A blind miner, Heini Miller, had a telephone wire running from the Santa Fe Saloon three miles to his mine," he told me. "He would hang onto the line to guide himself to his mine." Allen was happy to see that Miller's headframe was still standing over the abandoned mine.

We followed the Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad grade south of town. "They never did build it north of Goldfield, but they kept the name. It runs alongside the Bullfrog-Goldfield Railroad here." He gestured at the rusty buttes and Joshua trees on the sagebrush-covered hillsides. "We ought to rebuild this old railroad and bring people out here, so they can see how beautiful Goldfield is. . . . Just like a Hollywood Western."

I had to agree.

Allen got interested in old railroads while working near the Nevada Central Railroad below Austin, Nevada. He walked the railroad grades around Goldfield, picking up pieces of the old rail to make a display for the Central Nevada Museum in Tonopah.

"Stop!" Allen suddenly commanded. He bounded out of the car and began picking spiky stems from a green bush. "Squaw tea," he explained. "I fractured my arm and one of my Indian neighbors told me this was good for aches and pains." I took a stem and began chewing it. "It's bitter," he warned me, "but you're not hurting enough if you can't stand it. Mormon tea . . . some call it Eplieda nevadensis."

Specimens of the dark argentite and gold-crusted ore of Goldfield lent itself to high-grading. Hidden pockets in miners' overalls, special boot heels and pick handles, and lunch boxes were some ways this ore made its way to assayers' offices.

These were exquisitely beautiful samples of quartz bands with frills of gold against the darker argentite. Most of the gold is native, though a small amount occurs as a variant named goldfieldite. Tiny specks of gold cluster thickly enough to appear as a band. Some specimens have an inner zone of free gold and quartz covered by a reddish-gray copper-arsenic mineral with an outer layer of pyrites. On other specimens the gold forms a crust on quartz and bismuthinite. The common enclosing rock is flinty quartz which has replaced the volcanic dacite and andesites. (To see rich specimens, visit the Keck Mineral Museum at the University of Nevada in Reno, written up in the June 1998 issue of Rock & Gem).

At left, a the Keck Museum Tonopah silver ore specimen with pyrargyrite, ruby silver, pyrite and quartz.

While working in the Wheelbarrow Stope of the Clairmont Mine, Allen's father and uncle, George, ran into some high-grade after a blast. "Dad said that the streak of gold looked like a yellow streak of lightning traveling across the roof of the drift," Allen exclaimed.

Using a file he happened to have, his father pried loose some of the rich ore and took it home in his lunch box. "He sold it to a local assayer for $800," Allen told me. "Then a new helper was assigned to their shift, and they were laid off the next day."

In an ore-deposits class, one lab had us examine specimens of greenish-yellow vuggy and brecciated quartz samples speckled with pyrites from Goldfield. Their surfaces were covered with thin films of drusy quartz. The particular "dusty" look of these altered rocks comes from the alteration of feldspars into alunite and clay. Wide areas show this alteration--again, a key to the presence of mineralization somewhere within the alteration envelope.

The widespread alunite alteration from acid solutions has led to the name of "acid-sulfate" for this type of deposit where the circulation of sulfuric acid played a critical role.

Walk anywhere around the mining areas of Goldfield and pyrites will be the most conspicuous mineral. The ground is saturated with pyrites. And many of the rocks have a plain, fine-grained, soft texture from their alteration to alunite and clays.

After a look into Goldfield's history, I slowly drove the dirt roads and old railroad grades leading out of town. Vast mounds of low-grade ore are stacked for eventual processing. Many of these are oxidized and crumbly. Occasionally, in the ditches and back roads, are the resistant quartz specimens which fell off an old ore wagon, or came to their present location by sheer carelessness. With a rock hammer I tested the rock to see if it had pyrites, gray sulfides, and was fractured and brecciated.

The Goldfield Consolidated Milling and Transportation Company Railroad hauled ore a mile to the north, where the old foundations and acres of crushed tailings can be seen. The tailings are claimed, but the railroad grades form natural walking routes for those looking for a piece of Goldfield high-grade.

The towns of Tonopah and Goldfield were once the major hub of activity in central Nevada. Railroads hauled rich shipments of ore to smelters and brought passengers to these busy cities in the high desert. Residents are proud of their history and are more than willing to share it with others. The Museum, historic buildings and mines provide an in-depth look at what life was like in these gold and silver camps. And when you enter through the Mizpah Hotel's massive oak and brass doors, you get the feeling you are following in Jim Butler's footsteps.


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Bob Keller