Monday, August 18, 2008

Postcard from Tonopah, NV

June 8, 2008

We left San Diego about 4:00 a.m., to avoid much of the desert heat. We took a breakfast break and refueled at Barstow (later, we found the cheapest gas was at an Arco station near Peggy Sue’s 50s Diner in Yermo, about 8 miles beyond Barstow). Note: regular unleaded gas was selling for about $4.50/gallon in June, 2008 in this desert region.

We continued on I-15 to Baker, with its famed humongous outdoor thermometer, where we turned off on CA-SR 127, the cutoff road to Death Valley National Park. At Shoshone, we turned off on CA-SR 178/NV-SR 372 to Pahrump, NV. The town itself is nondescript, but a worthwhile stop is Pahrump Valley Winery, one of only three licensed wineries in Nevada. We stopped in for a complimentary wine tasting and bought a couple of white wines suitable for summer quaffing-a semi-dry Symphony for $11 and White Peak, a fruity white blend for $10. The winery is in a garden-like setting, a true oasis in the desert.

Pahrump Valley Winery. Note the zinfandel
vineyard in the foreground.

Next stop was Rhyolite, a ghost town located just outside of Beatty. One of the most photographed ghost towns in the West, Rhyolite was founded in 1905. Built of stone and concrete, the town had three-story office buildings, banks, churches, an opera house, hotels, a school, and dozens of streets, all complete with plumbing, electricity and telephone service. By 1911, Rhyolite's one mine, the Montgomery, had closed after producing $2 million in gold. There is little left to see today, but considering the substantial derelict remains, one can sense there was once a sizable city at this site.

Railroad Depot, Bank and Bottle House, Rhyolite.

Further along US 95 is Goldfield, another mining boomtown that sprang up in 1902. By 1906, the city reached its peak population of 30,000. Goldfield was such a vibrant place that it became a venue for major boxing matches. At that time, Goldfield was the largest city in Nevada. However, as was so often the case with mining boomtowns, when the bust came, coinciding with the 1907 financial panic, the population declined sharply. By 1910, the population was under 4900, and by 2000, the estimated population was only 440. Goldfield has retained its role as the seat of Esmeralda County, despite its current status as an unincorporated town.

The most prominent building in Goldfield is the four-story Goldfield Hotel. The hotel, constructed in 1908, was considered the finest lodging between Kansas City, MO and San Francisco when it was built. Of course, its fortunes declined as gold mining played out and it closed in 1946. However, there is hope for its restoration as its present owner plans to restore the building as a boutique hotel. In fact, there is a mini-historic restoration boom occurring in hopes of bringing back Goldfield as a tourist destination.

Goldfield Hotel, currently under restoration.

We decided on Tonopah for the overnight stop since it was about 500 miles from San Diego and offered several choices for accommodations. At about 6000 feet in elevation, afternoon temperatures were in the comfortable 70s. Tonopah is the seat of Nye County and offers several attractions worth visiting. (Click Tonopah History for a good rundown about the town).

Tonopah’s history paralleled that of Goldfield, except that its more diverse economy has enabled Tonopah (population 3000), to survive as a viable small town today despite the fluctuations in mining activity. It benefited from the World War II Era development of the nearby Nellis Air Force Bombing and Gunnery Range, and later the missile testing facility. Additionally, Howard Hughes’s Summa Corporation was active in the Tonopah mining industry during the 1960s and 1970s. In recent years, tourism and the role of county government have gained in importance.

We had just enough time to visit the Central Nevada Museum, 1900 Logan Field Road. Its exhibits cover Nye and Esmeralda County history, with an emphasis on silver and gold mining. Jim Butler, who is credited with the discovery of a major silver lode in Tonopah, is given extensive coverage.

Tonopah Historic Mining Park, is situated on 100 acres of abandoned mines, and visitors have the opportunity to explore mine shafts and other aspects of Turn of the 20th Century mining technology. Admission is $5 ($1 discount if staying in local lodging) to do a self-guided tour. We hope to see this park the next time we pass through Tonopah.

Downtown Tonopah’s sports two five story landmarks: the Belvada Apartments, built in 1906 as a bank that foundered in the Panic of 1907, and the Mizpah Hotel, that dates from 1908. They have both undergone recent restorations, but were both for sale, as of 2008.

Mizpah Hotel, Tonopah.
Photo courtesy of Western Mining

We decided to stay in the Jim Butler Inn and Suites, 100 S. Main Street, located literally in the shadow of the Mizpah Hotel. It was nothing fancy, but it was quiet, and they offered a double room with a modest continental breakfast for $65 (AAA discount). The motel office has a collection of Jim Butler memorabilia, alluding to the site’s original ownership by this historic figure.

AAA recommended the El Marqués Mexican Restaurant, 348 Main Street, for dinner. Indeed we found it to be popular with the locals, which is usually a good sign. Their carnitas were delicious, and dinners were cheap at about $7.

In all, we found much to enjoy in Tonopah, and would recommend staying a couple of days to explore the sights in this historic mining area.

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