Western Trips

Western Trips

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Rhyolite and Goldfield Nevada / The Gold Mining Boom Towns Of The 20th Century

goldfield nevada

Locating and visiting the sites of old ghost towns can be a lot of fun when your western trips take you to Nevada. Nevada mining was at one time what the state was all about.

Anytime you try to learn more about Nevada history, the subject of mining is front and center. Today, vacations to Nevada usually are centered around the gambling meccas of Las Vegas and Reno. Back in the time that gold and silver mining had their heyday those two cities barely existed.
Mining and Gambling

Take a road trip on Route 95 north from Las Vegas and you'll see an area that at one time was one of the hottest, both weather wise (the weather in Nevada can be real hot) and prospecting wise, in all of the state. In a twist of irony the modern gambling casinos of modern Nevada have much in common with how the state initially grew. To a prospector, mining was a big gamble. It wasn't a sure thing. It was like throwing your chips on the table and hoping that luck was with you. For the lucky few who hit a rich ore vein and became fabulously wealthy, there were thousands upon thousands who found nothing. Thousands who left the mining region broke.

Old West Mining Towns

Most of our knowledge of western mining starts with the 1849 California Gold Rush. The first discovery of gold dust at a sawmill near Sutters Fort in the Sierra Nevada foothills. After that the great rush took place in and around Virginia City Nevada where the Comstock lode became one of history's richest.

After that, in the latter part of the 1800's was the gold discovery in the Black Hills of South Dakota and the founding of a camp named Deadwood which became a wild west legend. The last great Gold Rush was in the very beginning of the 20th century. Much of the activity was in the camps, later to become full fledged towns, of Goldfield (shown in the picture above circa 1905) and Rhyolite (Cook Bank in Rhyolite shown below right). Both mining towns were located east and northeast of Death Valley, not exactly on one the overland trade routes.

bank in rhyolite nevada
In many ways the mining camps were quite similar to the camps fifty years prior with the exception that automobiles were mixed in with horses and mules. It's interesting to note that back in the Census of 1890, the government declared that the frontier was a thing of the past. The Indian Wars were officially viewed as over after the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.

The Army of the West was dismantling many of their forts and the automobile was becoming popular for those who could afford one.

In the case of the southwestern Nevada mining camps, the frontier was alive and well regardless of what the U.S. Census Bureau had to say. All accounts of the time seem to list the same cast of mining camp characters as you would have run into decades previous.  There were the honest independent prospector who bet the family farm on the big strike to come. There was also the dishonest independent miner in whose ranks included the sellers of stock in nonexistent mines and just like in Las Vegas and Reno today, the gamblers flocked to these thriving camps in droves. Add to all this the tenderfoot eastern money men who wanted to buy up claims to help make their next million.

You'll also have to add saloons by the dozen, banks, general stores (but not as many as the saloons)  and red light districts. Goldfield and Rhyolite possessed all of these.

Another interesting attribute of a thriving mining town was the entertainment available. Miners not only wanted to be entertained after a hard days digging but equally important they had the money to buy a ticket. As a result it wasn't rare for entertainers from big cities like San Francisco to make their way to the mining camps and the money. A circus, a dance troupe, musicians..all of these performances could be available to a hard working miner in a prosperous mining town. There were also local newspapers available such as the Rhyolite Bullfrog Miner, a copy shown below left. The paper's name came from the fact that the town was located in the Bullfrog Hills.

Gold and Nevada

rhyolite nevada newspaper

There was probably no better way for someone to quickly amass a fortune or go totally broke than mining for gold or silver with your life savings. This held true back to the California Gold Rush and right up and into the 20th century.

By and large all of the towns in Nevada were connected with mining in almost every way. Even when farming was undertaken in this arid region, the farmers counted on the miners and mining operations to pay the bills. Nevada gold ran the economy. Those who had the most gold seemed to also run the camps.

A fact that some might not realize is that there were a good many prospectors who after discovering a promising site and digging just a little to uncover some high grade ore would turn right around and try to find a buyer for the claim. The work and capital required to get the ore up from the ground and then transporting it to a rail head could be overwhelming therefore many just simply wanted to sell their claim to someone else.

The type of mining going on outside Goldfield and Rhyolite was "hard rock" mining. This involved drilling through rock to great depths underground. This was much more costly and dangerous than "placer" mining which involves sifting through surface dirt. Often  moneyed easterners would be sought out to invest in claims. Some claims offered for sale had value..often times they did not. The trick was to sell the claim hopefully sight unseen.

Gold in Nevada was king. The downside of course is when you had a camp or town that relied solely on one economy, when the mines played out then the camp vanished. If a camp grew to become a town, it too disappeared when the mines played out. Such was the case for both Rhyolite and Goldfield.

Because Goldfield and Rhyolite were producing a great amount of high grade ore and the population was increasing to such a degree that the railroad came to town. There was the Bullfrog Goldfield Railroad which ran between Goldfield and Rhyolite and the Tonapah and Goldfield Railroad. Most historians put Rhyolite's peak boom time population between 1907-1908 at about 4,500-5,000 however I've read some estimates that put it as high as 10,000. Goldfield had a peak population estimated at 30,000 in 1906. This is a tremendous amount of people in such a desolate area of southwestern Nevada. Rhyolite had telephones, electricity, a school, an opera house and a hospital. All of this however in Rhyolite pretty much played out by 1908 after the Montgomery Shoshone Mine (shown below in 1907) suffered financial problems due to the financial panic gripping the country in 1907. Capital couldn't be raised and on top of that the mine's value was downgraded by geologists. Rhyolite declined about as fast as it appeared.
montgomery shoshone mine in rhyolite nevada

In regards to the much larger Goldfield, not only did the entertainers head there but also Wyatt and Virgil Earp arrived in 1904. Virgil ended up being hired as Deputy Sheriff but after about six months on the job contracted pneumonia in 1905 and died. Wyatt left Goldfield shortly thereafter. Just like many other big mining towns Goldfield eventually started to decline and by 1910 had a population estimated at only 4,800. That's down from 30,000 in just four short years. Again, the reason was that it's largest mine closed down and ore output was steadily declining each year. When the ore disappears so do the people. Gold in Nevada was everything. In 1923 a fire destroyed most of the town.

Visiting Goldfield Nevada

What's there today for the adventurous visitor to see? In Goldfield there is the high school which somehow survived the 1923 fire. There are also remnants of the popular old Goldfield Hotel and you will also see an interesting monument commemorating the Light Weight World Title fight held in Goldfield during it's heyday on September 3, 1906 between Joe Gans and Oscar "Battling" Nelson (pictured below right). It was called The Fight Of The Century. Singers, actors, actresses, musicians and prize fighters..the entertainment was in Goldfield to be had. The 2000 census listed 440 residents in Goldfield which now is home to many artists and most likely people wishing to escape the crowds.

The Ruins of Rhyolite

Regarding Rhyolite, most everything lies in ruins. There is the shell of the Bottle House Saloon and an old caboose that was once used as a gas station. There is also the remaining shell of the Cook Bank Building shown in the 1907 picture above. There is also a sculpture park which is part of the Goldwell Open Air Museum at the southern entrance to the ghost town.

I think the history of some Nevada ghost towns is absolutely amazing. In an old mining town like Rhyolite, you have just a few relics existing today at the site of  what once was a town with perhaps as much as 10,000 inhabitants. Towns like Rhyolite and Goldfield offered their citizenry all of the cultural and commercial venues you might have in a modern city or town today.

Knowing exactly what transpired one hundred years ago  in this southwestern Nevada desert land is what makes a visit there so interesting. Make sure to take your camera because you'll have photos that could  become interesting conversation pieces.I would highly recommend you add Nevada ghost towns to your trip planner. A fun educational and low cost Nevada side trip. Another very interesting story concerning Rhyolite, Goldfield and Death Valley is the amazing story of Death Valley Scotty.

What is Rhyolite today?  It is now a Nevada ghost town situated in the Bullfrog Hills,  located about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas Nevada in Nye County and on the eastern edge of Death Valley. Goldfield is located about 240 miles southeast of Carson City Nevada on U.S. Hwy-95.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images from the public domain)

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