In May 1900, a central Nevada rancher named Jim Butler discovered a ledge of silver that sparked one of the largest mining booms in Nevada history. Within two years, more than 3,000 people were living in the town.
By 1905, Tonopah had eclipsed the mining camp of Belmont as the area’s largest silver producer — and took the county seat away from Belmont, today, a ghost town.
Reminders of the region’s rich mining past can still be seen throughout Tonopah. From the headframes, the huge, triangular-shaped hoists built over mine shafts, on the mountainsides to motel names, such as the Silver Queen, it is obvious mining made Tonopah.
The fact becomes even more evident after a visit to the Central Nevada Museum, the town’s remarkable storehouse of local history and culture.
A good place to begin a visit to the museum is outside. Here, on the museum grounds, you will find an extensive collection of mining equipment, a row of old miner’s houses and other buildings as well as artifacts that tell the Tonopah story.
Wandering through the collection offers fascinating insights into the lifestyles of Nevada’s early miners. For example, a rustic two-room wooden cabin, lined with canvas, shows the modest and crude accommodations built by these hardy pioneers.
Even more revealing is the tank house, a metal cylinder that once served as housing for a Chinese miner. It is basically a large steel drum with a door cut from the side and illustrates how just about everything was reused in mining towns.
An old wooden barn contains the tools and equipment of an old blacksmith shop that once stood in Tonopah.
One of the most impressive of the artifacts — all of which have been moved to the museum grounds to preserve them from vandalism, destruction or theft — is a full-size headframe from the mining camp of Manhattan (north of Tonopah).
Other mining items include a stamp mill, ore carts and lift, various cranes, and drilling equipment.
Inside the main museum building, visitors will find excellent interpretive displays including a nice assortment of Native American crafts such as baskets, a water jug, arrowheads, and a cradleboard. Photographs show petroglyphs (rock writings) found in the region.
Adjacent is an extensive mineral display showing gold and silver ore and other precious or valuable metals found in area mines.
The museum has a large collection of early 20th century photographs of Tonopah and Goldfield. One display shows several views of early Tonopah, including scenes of the Mizpah Hotel, just after it opened in 1907, and the effects of fires on the community.
Another display shows Goldfield during its peak, with shots of the Goldfield Hotel, the Nixon Block of buildings, the Esmeralda County Courthouse, and the disastrous fire of July 7, 1923, which destroyed dozens of blocks of homes and buildings.
A nearby display case contains objects preserved from Goldfield, including photos of its most important citizens, old mining certificates, a box from the Goldfield Candy Company, and a Goldfield Hotel spittoon.
The museum also has the partially burned, but still operational, organ used from 1905 to 1923 at the Goldfield Presbyterian Church, which was destroyed in the 1923 fire.
A fascinating exhibit shows early miners’ equipment as well as color photos taken in 1987 by Philip Metscher (who, with his brothers, Bill and Allen, helped to develop the museum) of the underground mining tunnels still found beneath parts of Tonopah.
Other items on display are a potpourri of regional history, including a 1919 whiskey still, an 1880 saddle, late 19th century pistols and rifles, early 20th century toys, merchant tokens for local businesses (dating back to the early 20th century), and slot machines.
One corner of the museum is devoted to the long presence of the U.S. military in Tonopah, including the development of the Tonopah Airbase during World War II (lots of plane parts found in the desert are on display).
A well-stocked gift shop offers a good selection of Nevada history and travel books.
Tonopah is located about 175 miles south of Fallon on U.S. 95. For information on hours and other details, go to: www.tonopahnevada.com/CentralNevadaMuseum.html.