A billboard in Tonopah, Nevada said “McDonald’s just ahead in Hawthorne.” It says more about Tonopah than it does about the restaurant — “just ahead” Hawthorne is 104 miles away.
We were in Tonopah because Alie wanted to drive up through the center of Nevada. Tonopah had one asset that made it our destination for the day. Our GPS (sat-nav to our U.K. friends) said Tonopah had a motel. When a fast food restaurant 104 miles away is considered “just ahead,” it is important to know there is a place to rest your head.
On our way to Tonopah, we passed through Caliente, once a railroad center whose lovely station is now used for city offices. I was intrigued by a sign saying there had been a dispute between Harriman and Clark, two land owners, over which would get the railroad right-of-way. The sign said Harriman put a single grade through his pastures “with the aid of a double-barreled shotgun.”
Settling into our motel in Tonopah, we noticed a large sign on the hill behind us: “Tonopah Mining Park.” Of course, we had to go see what it was all about.
There was a gold strike south of present day Tonopah around 1900, and Belle sent her rancher husband Jim Butler down to see what he could find. Legend has it that on his way, Jim camped out for the night and his burro wandered off. Finding the beast, he picked up a rock to throw at it, but the rock was unusually heavy. Jim had stumbled upon a gold and silver vein that became the richest silver strike in Nevada second only to the Comstock Lode.
Jim and Belle set up the Mizpah mine and staked 8 claims to other areas as well. Unable to mine it all themselves, they leased their claims by the square yard to others for a twenty-five percent share. They agreed to every lease just on the basis of a hand-shake. In the following year, lessees took out four million dollars worth of ore.
Big money, however, was needed to properly exploit the find. The Butlers sold out to a Philadelphia-based investor effective January 1, 1902 for $336,000. But to be fair, they told the lessees they could have all they could bring out the day before the new owners took over. Rifle shots were fired at midnight December 31. The appreciative lessees threw the Butlers a farewell party the next night and gave Belle a diamond brooch.
In today’s dollars, about 1.2 billion in silver was removed from the mines. As with many such ventures, however, the mines quickly played out, and the population dropped in half by 1920. Today, the nearby Tonopah Test Range, a restricted military test site which includes famous/infamous Area 51, is the main source of employment. But Tonopah is about half way between Las Vegas and Reno. It is also on the route for many retired “snowbirds” driving between Oregon and Washington and Arizona. As a result, locals are working to pick up some tourist income as well as to preserve history.
The Tonopah Mining Park sits on over one hundred acres, portions of the original four mining properties. There is a visitors center with a nice little museum and film about the history of the area. One can walk down a mine tunnel which intersects with one of the original tunnels and look down a 500 foot-deep shaft. Some original buildings have been restored, and one can take a self-guided tour. A huge “glory hole” was formed in 1922 when several stopes collapsed. The mine was still in operation, but it was night, and fortunately no one was hurt.
Give yourself time to wander. We were only a few miles from Zion and Bryce National Parks when we set out in the opposite direction for Tonopah. Certainly you should visit those magnificent national treasures, and you should probably do it first. But it is so much fun to find a Tonopah Mining Park!
Click on photos to enlarge.
Visit TonopahHistoricMiningPark.com for hours and fees.