Nevada State Museum exhibit showcases early 20th century mining

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A Nevada State Museum exhibit opening Saturday honors the early 20th century mining towns that pulled Nevada out of a 20-year depression.

"Tonopah and Beyond" uses photos and cartoons and some mining equipment to commemorate Tonopah, Goldfield and more than 100 mining towns launched in the early 1900s.

The exhibit, funded in part by the Bretzlaff Foundation, will remain in the Jim Calhoun Changing Gallery Exhibit for about a year.

The exhibit's opening coincides with the 100-year anniversary of the Jim Butler legend that immediately led to the founding of Tonopah. Butler supposedly threw a rock at his burro on May 19, 1900, and suddenly realized the rock was high-grade silver.

Tonopah quickly sprouted around Butler's find. In 1902 an even larger mining encampment went up 30 miles to the south in Goldfield, which became Nevada's largest city until both Goldfield and Tonopah went into permanent decline in the mid-1910s.

"We're celebrating the 100th anniversary of Tonopah and the launching of 20th century mining," said Bob Nylen, the museum's curator of history. "At the time of the turn of the century, the population of Nevada had dropped to about 40,000. There was talk of taking statehood away. The state was going through a difficult time."

Nevada's population had slipped from 62,000 in 1880 to 42,000 in 1900 as the Comstock mining boom dwindled, long before Las Vegas was founded.

Tonopah stimulated new mining activity in places like Rhyolite, Manhattan, Belmont, Aurora and dozens of other places that are nothing but ghost towns today.

More than 100 mining-era photographs from many of these towns, especially Tonopah and Goldfield, make up the bulk of the museum exhibit. Several are from photographer P.E. Larson, who took more than 1,000 pictures in Goldfield from 1905 to 1908.

"Larson shot a variety of things," said Doug Southerland, the museum's director of exhibits. "We have some from around the mines, some around town. Some of the shots of people are pretty humorous. There's one of people passed out around the bar and there's the two-headed burro in Death Valley. He has wonderful shots of labor turmoil and the militia coming in."

The Larson photos make their second appearance at a Nevada State Museum exhibit. They were part of the "Frozen in Silver" exhibit in 1982.

"Tonopah and Beyond" also features four cameras used by Larson, including a panoramic camera where a crank turns the lens to capture an extremely wide angle. Larson's daughter donated the photos and cameras to the museum in the 1970s.

Larson, however, did not shoot the 12-foot panoramic photo of Tonopah in 1913 that is the exhibit's showcase photo.

Even a close inspection of the panorama won't reveal the two huge tears that museum photographer Scott Klette mended earlier this month. The photo had been glued to four pieces of cardboard held together by a frame that sagged, tearing the picture.

"We had to literally chisel the photo from the cardboard," Klette said.

Klette, museum registrar Sue Ann Monteleone and a couple of volunteers put in 50 hours over three days to restore the panorama to pristine condition.

A close look at the panorama, however, does reveal the pitfalls of using a hand crank to make a lens sweep in panoramic fashion. A few spots in the photo are a bit blurred because the lens slipped or was cranked too quickly during its sweep, Klette said.

Along with all the photographs, "Tonopah and Beyond" also showcases cartoons drawn by Arthur Buel for the Tonopah Daily Sun newspaper. Each cartoon features Jim Butler's burro offering some pointed comment.

"I thought I was coming up with a neat, quick thing to do," said Dorothy Nylen, the museum's exhibits artist. "But it didn't end up that way."

She envisioned putting in one day to prepare the cartoons for exhibition. The task took nearly two weeks.

The Buel cartoons illustrated how the modern microfilm technology doesn't replace having the newsprint itself.

"A lot of libraries have microfilm and dispose of the newspapers," Southerland said. "The microfilm becomes the primary record. But when you run microfilm through a machine for 20 or 30 years it becomes scratched."

Once Nylen scanned the microfilm cartoon images onto her computer, she needed to put in an average of two hours per cartoon to erase the scratches with a mouse. Ironically, original issues of the Tonopah Daily Sun do exist at the Nevada Historical Society, but they were inaccessible.

"We weren't able to get copies of the originals," Dorothy Nylen said. "The originals are important. Microfilm doesn't replace the original."

Fittingly, Buel and Larson owned a mine together and were friends.

Bob Nylen, Dorothy's husband, noted that none of Nevada's major cities have major exhibits planned for the 100th anniversary of Tonopah, where key figures in 20th century Nevada made their names.

George Wingfield, Key Pittman and Pat McCarran spent parts of their lives in Tonopah, the town where Howard Hughes got married.

"We don't want to overlook a watershed event in Nevada history," Nylen said.


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