Tonopah, Nevada

Tonopah was one of Southern Nevada’s most prosperous mining communities, drawing hundreds of prospectors from its founding in 1900.  Silver was first discovered on May 19, 1900, by prospector Jim Butler who was traveling through the area.  On an overnight stop, Butler discovered silver outcroppings near Tonopah Springs.  When Butler’s friend Tasker Oddie  (later Nevada Senator and Governor) had Butler’s sample assayed, it was found to be worth $50-$600 per ton.  That August, Butler and his wife staked eight claims in Tonopah.  Mrs. Butler christened the first three claims Desert Queen, Burro, and Mizpah.  The Mizpah became Tonopah’s largest producer over the next forty years.  Later that year, Butler leased his claims for one year, collecting 25% of the royalties from the gold and silver ore that was mined. 

In 1901 several companies opened, including the West End Consolidated Mining Company and the Tonopah Extension Mining Company.  In January, the mining camp had a population of 40, including three women.  By springtime, the population rose to 250, and Tonopah’s first stage, the Concord, arrived from Sodaville.  In May 1901, Tonopah’s first post office and the largest building in the city, The Mizpah Bar & Grill, opened.   That summer, Tonopah’s population reached 650.  W.W. Booth advertised the district through his newspaper, the Tonopah Bonanza.  As word spread, more prospectors entered the area, and three large mining corporations were formed in early 1902: The Tonopah Belmont Mining Company, the Montana Tonopah Mining Company, and the Tonopah Mining Company. 

The camp was still relatively primitive in 1902.  Prices, crude sanitary conditions, and Tonopah’s isolation made it difficult to obtain supplies. This changed in early 1903 when construction began on a 60-mile-long narrow gauge railroad connecting Tonopah with the Carson and Colorado Branches of the Southern Pacific Railroad at the Sodaville Junction. 

By the end of 1903, Tonopah’s population surged to 3,000.  With several profitable silver and gold strikes, production boomed, and mining stocks listed on the San Francisco stock exchange since April soared.  A building boom followed the mining boom. There were thirty-two saloons, six faro games, two dancehalls, two weekly newspapers, several mercantile stores, and two churches built before 1904.  On July 25, 1904, the town celebrated the completion of the narrow gauge railroad with speeches, sporting events, horse races down Main Street, and several dances. 

The population continued to grow as transportation to the district became easier, and by May 1905, the Nye County seat was moved from Belmont to Tonopah, the post office changed its name to Tonopah, and construction began on a new $55,000 Nye County courthouse.  On July 7, 1905, Tonopah’s first city government was incorporated.  In the fall, the two railroads in Tonopah merged into the Tonopah and Goldfield Railroad Company, its track gauge standardized and extended to Goldfield. 

Tonopah survived the financial panic of 1907.  The city had five banks, modern hotels, cafes, an opera house, a school, electric and water companies, numerous gambling halls, and several four to five-story buildings downtown.  In 1908 and 1909, Tonopah was devastated by a series of fires.  In May 1908, a fire destroyed an entire block of the commercial district.  A year later, the roundhouse and the machine shops at the Tonopah and Goldfield Railroad burned to the ground.  The infamous Belmont fire occurred on February 23, 1911, when the 1,200-foot mine shaft of the Belmont Mine caught fire.  Seventeen men perished from the toxic fumes of the blaze. 

Mining activity expanded in 1912 when the Belmont mine and mill began operating in July.  The daily wage for a machine operator averaged $4.50-$5.50 per shift. The following year was Tonopah’s most profitable: Annual production in gold, silver, copper, and lead was valued at $10 million.  Several mills were constructed to process 1,830 tons of ore daily, including the Tonopah Belmont Development Company’s massive 500-ton mill on the east side of Mount Oddie. 

Tonopah reached its peak production between 1910 and 1914.  Between the end of  World War I and the Great Depression, four companies remained active: the Tonopah Mining Company, Tonopah Belmont, Tonopah Extension, and West End Consolidated Mines.  In 1921, four of the twenty-five principal silver mines in the nation were still in Tonopah, and Tonopah was the nation’s second-largest producer of gold. But on October 31, 1939, a fire destroyed the Belmont Mine, and another fire in 1942 closed the Tonopah Extension Mill.  World War II brought an Army Air Force Base to the area, but it was shut down upon the close of the war.  When the Tonopah and Goldfield Railroad ceased operations in 1947, Tonopah’s remaining mines closed, and the population dwindled. 

The total production of Tonopah’s mines over its forty years of production is estimated at over $150 million, and during that time, Tonopah produced many millionaires and statesmen, including Tasker Oddie, Jim Butler, Frank Golden, Zeb Kendall, and Key Pittman.  In the words of Nevada historian Stanley Paher, “Virginia City had put Nevada on the map; Tonopah kept it there.”

Tonopah, Nevada

Searchlight — circa 1929-33

UNLV describes the history of Searchlight in the following;

“Gold ore was first discovered in Searchlight by Paiute Indians in 1870, 55 miles south of Las Vegas, but it was not until 1897, when G.F. Colton, a notable prospector, discovered a rich gold vein and word spread, that Searchlight boomed. The following year, the mining district was fully organized. The Quartette Mill opened in 1898 and soon became one of the city’s finest producers. In 1902 the first newspaper, Searchlight, began publishing, and the Duplex Mining Company constructed a twenty-stamp mill. In 1903 a miners’ strike brought the town’s production to a standstill until the mining companies brought in non-union miners to work the mines. The boom peaked during the spring of 1907 when the first train of the Barnwell & Searchlight Railroad arrived at Searchlight’s station to a warm greeting of a fifty-piece cowboy band. In 1907 Searchlight contained over forty-four working mines and a population of 5,000. However, Searchlight was hard hit by the financial panic of 1907.

The city recovered after a number of years and, by 1910, was noted for its fashionable and modern amenities and its commuter train. The community boasted a luxurious hotel, several saloons, a barbershop, a lumberyard, shops, cafes, union halls, boarding houses, schools, several stables, the newspaper, and its own hospital. The biggest mines were the Quartette, Cyrus Noble, Little Brown Jug, Old Bottle, and Duplex, whose gold production totaled $7 million. In 1934 a flotation mill was built, and a 30-ton custom mill ran briefly in 1935. However, by the late 1940s, little was left of the once modern boomtown of Searchlight.”

Image courtesy of the Franklin M. Murphy Photograph Collection, approximately 1929-1933. PH-00232. Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Las Vegas, Nevada.


from Chapter XXV – Ballarat. Ghost TownLoafing Along Death Valley Trails by William Carruthers

A familiar figure throughout Death Valley country was Johnny-Behind-the-Gun—small and wiry and as much a part of the land as the lizard. His moniker was acquired from his habit of settling disputes without cluttering up the courts. Johnny, whose name was Cyte, accounted for three or four sizable fortunes. Having sold a claim for $35,000 he once bought a saloon and gambling hall in Rhyolite, forswearing prospecting forever.

Johnny advertised his whiskey by drinking it and the squareness of his game, by sitting in it. One night the gentleman opposite was overwhelmed with luck and his pockets bulged with $30,000 of Johnny’s money. Having lost his last chip, Johnny said, “I’ll put up dis place. Ve play vun hand and quit.”

Johnny lost. He got up, reached for his hat. “Vell, my lucky friend, I’ll take a last drink mit you.” He tossed the liquor, lighted a cigar. “Goodnight, chentlemen,” he said. “I go find me anudder mine.”

Johnny had several claims near the Keane Wonder in the Funeral Mountains, held by a sufferance not uncommon among old timers, who respected a notice regardless of legal formalities.

Senator William M. Stewart, Nevada mining magnate, had employed Kyle Smith, a young mining engineer to go into the locality and see what he could find. Smith, a capable and likable chap, in working over the districts, located several claims open for filing by reason of Johnny’s failure to do his assessment work.

It is not altogether clear what happened between Johnny and Smith, but Smith’s body was found after it had lain in the desert sun all day. There being no witnesses the only fact produced by sheriff and coroner was that Smith was dead. Johnny went free. Other escapades with Johnny-Behind-the-Gun occurred with such frequency that he was finally removed from the desert for awhile as the guest of the state.

In a deal with Tom Kelly, Johnny was hesitant about signing some papers according to an understanding. His trigger quickness was explained to Kelly who was not impressed. He went to Johnny and asked him to sign up. Johnny refused. Kelly said calmly, “Johnny, do you see that telephone pole?”

“Yes, I see. Vot about?”

“If you don’t sign, you’re going to climb it.” Johnny signed. He put his gun away when he acquired a lodging house at Beatty, where he died in 1944.

The Hog Drive to Daggett


A totally unrelated photo of Leslie Kirchner riding his pig reminds me of the legend of the Daggett Pig Drive.

There were too many pigs, and it would have been too expensive to have them hauled to market, yet the little girl’s family needed the money to live in a hotel in Long Beach or someplace like that. The decision was made to drive the hogs to the railroad depot in Daggett as an old-fashioned cattle drive to Abilene. Betty was excited.

There were hogs and pigs as far as the eye could see, being guided by drovers experienced not with driving pigs but with small cattle. One-eyed Ben, the old man, said, “Driving pigs is just like driving tiny cows, except they don’t have horns, which is good because pigs are angry.” The hogs snorted, grunted, and squealed as they hurried down the dusty road. The trick, however, was to keep them from running and losing all their weight.

Little Betty cried when her father told her pigs were classified into ‘lard’ or ‘bacon.’ That meant the dreams of her two favorite pigs, Willis and Tina, wouldn’t be getting a pig wedding and then having a pig family together. Their future looked dark. “Lard or bacon?” thought Betty.

“Cheer up, Betty,” her father told her. “Have a stick of gum.”

And she did, and she stopped crying and went to live in a hotel in or near Long Beach.

The End

Fiction inspired by a true event as described in “Daggett, Life in a Mojave Frontier Town,” by Dix Van Dyke – Edited by Peter Wild.

Vincent Gap Trailhead is Finally Open

Mt. Baldy and Dawson Peak as seen from the PCT. This view is looking across upper Lytle Creek and still some miles below East Blue Ridge.

Vincent Gap trailhead is once, again, open to vehicles coming in through Wrightwood. Highway 2 continues to be gated to any driving west of the trailhead. If you’re looking to hike up to Mt. Baden Powell or drop down into the East Fork, all this is possible now and through the summer and autumn months.

Looking out across the East Fork of the San Gabriel River to Pine Mountain, Dawson Peak and Mt. Baldy. This view is from a spur ridge just below summit of Mt. Baden-Powell.
A native Columbine graces the East Fork just downstream from Mine Gulch Campsite .