Wandering Tonopah’s historic streets

Tonopah’s historic buildings tell stories. Fortunately, they’ve got some pretty good yarns to share.

In fact, one of the best ways to get a sense of the community’s fascinating past is to wander up and down its streets with a copy of the brochure, “Tonopah, Queen of the Silver Camps,” produced by the Tonopah Chamber of Commerce, as your guide.

Silver was discovered at Tonopah—the name is Shoshone for “little wood, little water” or “brush water” and derives from the presence of natural springs in the area—in May 1900 by a part-time prospector and rancher named Jim Butler.

Butler’s discovery was important because Nevada was experiencing a severe economic depression that started when Virginia City’s mines began to fail in the early 1880s.

Within a year, Tonopah was a booming mining town with several thousand residents. Records indicate that miners extracted nearly $4 million in ore by the end of 1901.

Two years after the Tonopah strike, large gold deposits were uncovered 30 miles south in Goldfield. The success of the two communities and several others in the region shifted political and business power to the area for the next decade.

During Tonopah’s heyday, many substantial buildings were erected in the community, befitting a town on the rise. By 1902, it had two newspapers, a telephone company, a school, a water company, power plant, post office, and dozens of businesses.

Over the next three years, it acquired rail service, a high-rise hotel and a county seat and courthouse. The town’s population peaked at about 10,000 in 1907.

Among Tonopah’s early visitors were such luminaries as boxer Jack Dempsey, who wandered Central Nevada picking up club fights in 1915-16 (he was Heavyweight Champion of the World from 1919 to 1926) and famed lawman Wyatt Earp, who owned a saloon in Tonopah in 1902.

Tonopah’s decline was rapid and steep—by 1910 it had lost nearly two-thirds of its population—but it never became a real ghost town.

Over the decades, it has survived as a result of periodic mining revivals, county and state government jobs, tourism (Tonopah is the halfway point between Reno and Las Vegas) and the U.S. military, which has maintained facilities in the area since World War II.

If you explore the streets of Tonopah you’ll still find plenty of reminders of its early days. For example, the town’s most prominent building is the Mizpah Hotel, an impressive, five-story structure located in the center of the town.

The Mizpah (on the corner of Main Street and Brougher Avenue) was built in 1908 by a group of investors who included local businessmen Cal Brougher and R.J. Govan as well as mining entrepreneurs George S. Nixon and George Wingfield. Designed in a Neoclassical style, the building was constructed using locally-quarried stone, brick and concrete.

As with many similar projects built in mining towns, the hotel was completed just as the community’s fortunes started to wane and was the last major construction effort in the town’s early mining years.

While never abandoned, by the early 1970s the Mizpah had fallen into disrepair. In 1979, Las Vegas hotel-casino operator Frank Scott rehabilitated the hotel. In recent years, it has periodically open, depending on the ownership (it’s currently operating).

Adjacent to the Mizpah on Main Street is the Brougher-Govan Block building, a three-story stone structure of Neoclassical Revival design that is now part of the Mizpah Hotel. Brougher and Govan built it in 1905 to house their banking operations.

Next door to the Brougher-Goven building is the two-story stone Tonopah Liquor Company building. Constructed in 1905, it boasts a large stone pediment and a high standard of quality workmanship.

Across Main Street from the Mizpah are a handful of other substantial buildings that help form the core of Tonopah’s historic commercial district.

Directly opposite the Mizpah is the two-story Frank Golden Block, a stone structure on the northwest corner of Brougher and Main that was built in 1902. The building, now used as a lodge by a fraternal organization, was the first significant commercial building erected in Tonopah.

Owned by an early Tonopah businessman, Frank Golden, the structure was Tonopah’s first major commercial structure and housed the town’s first locally-owned bank. It later served as a jewelry store and law offices.

On the southwest corner of Brougher Avenue and Main Street is the State Bank and Trust Building, erected in 1906. This five-story structure is made of brick and granite and reflects the Neo-Classical Revival style.

The State Bank and Trust didn’t occupy the building for long—the company folded in 1907 as a result of a spectacular mining stock swindle. Later, it housed the Nevada Club Saloon and the First National Bank of Nevada.

A few doors south of the State Bank and Trust is the H.A. McKim building, a significant two-story stone structure built in 1906. It served as a mercantile during Tonopah’s first few decades.

Part Two of the Tonopah walking tour in next week’s column.

Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.


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