Nevertheless, he claimed it was all luck that one of his burros ran off when he was crossing a line of hills about 50 miles from his ranch in Belmont, Nevada, back in 1900. As he told it, he picked up a rock to throw at the wayward burro, only to feel the rock’s unusual weight. Suspecting silver, he threw the rock into his pack and continued to his destination. An assay eventually proved his suspicion correct. The samples he’d picked up were fabulously rich in both silver and gold.
It’s one thing to find ore. It’s a whole different proposition to dig the ore out, refine it and turn it into money. Money was something Butler didn’t have much of. In fact, he didn’t even have enough to get a proper assay. He offered a share of the riches to his friend Tasker Oddie if he’d get the assay done, but even with Oddie’s help, they still had to bring the man who finally did the assay in on the deal as well. Butler, his wife, Belle, who was a prospector in her own right, and his friends all staked claims. Belle called her claim the Mizpah and in time, it became the richest claim of them all.
Real estate professionals love to talk about the three primary factors in a good real estate deal: location, location and location. Well, Butler and friends had a real problem with location! There may have been a few automobiles in the state of Nevada in 1900, but Highway 95 wasn’t even a distant dream. The nearest railroad was 75 miles away. There obviously was no town, no restaurant, no hotel, not even a McDonalds! And worst of all, the silver ore wasn’t just lying on the ground. It was going to require hard rock mining to get it.
Nevertheless, the word got out and people came. Before long, a bustling tent city called Butler in honor of the discoverer came into being. By 1905, it had been renamed Tonopah, an Indian term for brushy springs, because of the springs near the discovery site.
Jim Butler, it is said, had an aversion to hard physical labor. So he came up with an unusual solution of leasing his and his wife’s claims for a year to people who were willing to put the work into developing the mines. In return, the Butlers got 25 percent of the profit. This worked for a year or so, but then folks with real money showed up and offered to buy Jim and Belle Butler out. He sold their interests for $320,000 in 1902 and unlike so many bonanza discoverers, didn’t squander it. The Butlers eventually moved to California and lived to a ripe old age.
It is hard to imagine what those early days must have been like. Everything needed for the mines had to be brought in by wagon. The rail line 75 miles away was narrow gauge, meaning the rails were only three feet apart. Machinery and equipment had to be off loaded from standard-gauge cars at Mound House near Carson City and reloaded on the smaller narrow-gauge cars. It caused a massive logjam of equipment and supplies at Mound House, while the leaseholders down in Tonopah fretted and gnashed their teeth as the clock ran on their leases. The pressure was so great that new railroads were constructed, two from Las Vegas and one from Mina, where the narrow gauge turned toward California.
Prospectors unable to get in on the Tonopah boom anticipated there might be other bonanza locations in the area. It was only a short time before gold was discovered 25 miles south of Tonopah at Goldfield. The stampede intensified, and from crude tents and ramshackle shacks, two cities emerged. It was the last great rush in which a common man could get rich.
You can still see the evidence of the rush today. Headframes loom over massive piles of tailings against the Tonopah skyline. Stately buildings stand empty now, but still show the elegance of their youth. If you follow the signs to the Tonopah Historic Mining Park, you can walk back in time, exploring the surface facilities of several of the mines, including the richest of them all: the fabulous Mizpah, which produced over $20 million in silver when silver sold for 20 cents an ounce. (It has been selling this year for more than $10 an ounce.) The walking tour is $3 or $7 for an entire family. Veterans are admitted free. Included in the tour is the opportunity to look down the shaft of the Mizpah as well as cross a bridge that allows you to look down a 500-foot stope where silver ore was removed. An excellent 15-minute movie at the visitor center tells of the bonanza and Jim Butler. It as well as the exhibits in the visitor center are free.
The once ornate Mizpah Hotel stands empty today and I can’t help but feel genuine regret since I have fond memories of rooms furnished with wonderful Victorian furniture and great meals in the Jack Dempsey Dining Room, not to mention some exciting times at the craps table. Attempts have been made to reopen the stately Goldfield Hotel as well, but whereas Tonopah appears to be winning its fight for survival, Goldfield seems to me to be slipping toward oblivion. It’s a shame; there are some wonderful old buildings in Goldfield.
On either side of Tonopah and Goldfield, you can see evidence of the bonanza rush along Highway 95. You can occasionally trace the right-of-way of one of the several railroads near the highway. At first, the railroads served as the lifeline of the new communities. But all were abandoned by the 1940s as cars and trucks took over the transportation needs. At Millers rest area north of Tonopah, there is a large flat expanse of tailings across the road. This was the site of the original mill that refined the Tonopah ore. The approach to Tonopah from the north is increasingly marked by tailings, old buildings and occasional headframes. On either side of town, there is evidence of modern claims, showing the dream isn’t dead even yet.
Farther south, you pass through Goldfield. North of town, you can see the foundations of the massive 100 stamp mill that processed the gold ore. Whereas the predominant ore in Tonopah was silver, the Goldfield strike involved primarily gold. Although the town of Goldfield seems more a ghost than Tonopah today, you can see evidence of what this town was when gold frenzy reigned supreme. The massive Goldfield Hotel shows the once hopeful dream that this was a permanent city. Esmeralda County still has Goldfield as its county seat. To the northeast of town, you can see many headframes, piles of tailings and other evidence of the boom.
When we first visited Goldfield 30 years ago, we could travel anywhere we chose among the headframes and tailings piles. Today, that isn’t possible. Fences and no trespassing signs say it all. Tailings are being reprocessed and with the price of gold over $600 an ounce, reclamation of tailings is obviously profitable.
There is still considerable mining activity in Nevada, but today it is mostly big corporations who carry out the exploration and the actual mining of the ore. They have the resources to determine when it is profitable to mine microscopic gold as is done near Carlin, Nevada. The common folks can work in the mines today, but it is highly unlikely that, like Jim Butler, they can actually find gold and profit from it.
Even though the mines at Tonopah and Goldfield were eventually owned by large corporations, a number of individuals made their fortunes there. Tasker Oddie, who became a senator and governor: George Wingfield, who never held public office but was known as the owner and operator of Nevada in the 1920s, and U.S. Senators George Nixon, Pat McCarran and Key Pittman all got their start in Nevada’s last bonanza, and their names now turn up on streets, parks and even subdivisions in several northern Nevada towns.
I continue to stop off at Tonopah on my way through because it was a place where the wildest dreams of ordinary people could be fulfilled. I’m fascinated by a place where equipment had to be hauled in by mule teams, and a couple of entrepreneurs made money hauling passengers between Tonopah and Goldfield in primitive automobiles. George Wingfield commented that before the railroads, it took a week to get from Las Vegas to Beatty, 90 miles south of Tonopah. By 1912, it took less than a day to go from Las Vegas to Tonopah and there were two competing rail lines to choose from. In the long run, I like the place because of its vibrant history. Here, in the middle of nowhere, fortunes were made and careers launched and the State of Nevada was never again the same.
Gerald C. Hammon is a writer who lives in Silver City, New Mexico.