June 28, 2018

Photo Essay: Digging Into the Silver Royalty of Nevada's "Other" Side

I'll admit that it was my love of trains—not mines—that brought me to the "Queen of the Silver Camps," Tonopah, Nevada. And it wasn't just the fact that I was stopping over there on my way to take a "traincation" in Ely.

Because I'd learned about the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad back in 2012 while doing some exploring around Death Valley—and even though that Borax-owned rail line never actually made it to Tonopah, walking along its abandoned right-of-way at China Ranch put Tonopah on the map for me, so to speak.

I didn't yet know that Tonopah actually already had its own railway...

...the Tonopah and Goldfield Railroad, which served the mining interests of both towns in Nye County along the Nevada Silver Trails.

And it turns out that the only place you can go to see the last remaining structure of T&G RR is not in Goldfield, but at the Tonopah Historic Mining Park.

There, among the displays I found a train trestle that had bee in use from 1905 to 1946, built along the "burro vein" of silver in this wide swath of mining claims.

The vein got its name from the legend of how Tonopah founder Jim Butler struck silver in 1900, a strike which resulted in the establishment of the Desert Queen, Silver Top, and Mizpah Mines, among others.

Apparently his pack of burros were slacking—or, as one version of the legend tells it, one burro was wandering off from the pack—and Butler picked up a rock to throw at it. Noticing the rock was particularly heavy, he took a closer look at it and realized it was glinting with silver ore.

Now, in reality the discovery might not have been quite so serendipitous. The indigenous Western Shoshone people may have tipped him off. Or he may have been looking more closely and concertedly for fortune than he let on.

But two years later, he'd staked his claims and was mining the land with the help of a head frame and hoist house, which lowered mine workers down the primary mine shaft (originally 400 ft deep) to a labyrinth of tunnels, shafts, and stopes.

And at Tonopah Mining Park, as I wandered over to the old warehouse and framing building (both circa 1903), I was very aware that I was walking precariously on severely scarred earth, atop that underground network of passageways.

After all, holes have opened up in the ground before. Whenever it rains or snows, there's a risk of a car getting swallowed up whole into the depths beneath. As it is, you can peer over the "glory hole" and into one of the wood-framed stopes from such cave-ins.

Most of the extant structures—including those of the Silver Top Mine that have been preserved in a state of arrested decay—were used through 1948. The biggest year during that time was 1913, though the bonanza managed to persist even through the Great Depression.

However, in the 1960s, after billionaire Howard Hughes had left Hollywood and relocated to Vegas, he bought "every mining claim in sight" to control much of the Tonopah District silver reserves—though he quickly proved unsuccessful at reviving the mine (and the town, for that matter.) Hughes' former assay office now serves as the mining park's gift shop and visitor center. (More on Hughes' time in Tonopah forthcoming, when I post about my stay at the Mizpah Hotel.)

Hughes was never really the boon to the Tonopah economy. He never even reopened the mines after buying them. So, for the last 70 years, the former mining camp has survived despite hard times. It's not abandoned, but its current population is a mere

It's been called the "other Nevada"—because it's neither Vegas nor Reno. And most people don;t have the pleasure of experiencing this side of the Silver State.

But I had a great time during my brief stay in Tonopah and would love to go back.

Why? Well, the people who live there seem to love it—mines or no mines.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Paying My Respects Along the Nevada Silver Trails
Photo Essay: Clown Motel, Gateway to the Haunted Miners' Cemetery
Photo Essay: The Abandoned Rail Trail to the Amargosa River Waterfall
Photo Essay: The Scenic Route, Nevada Edition

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