Dennis Cassinelli: The story of Tonopah

I am sure that readers of my columns have noticed that I have written articles about several towns in Nevada. Unlike some writers, I usually do not write articles about a place unless I have been there, worked there or actually experienced the place.

Some time ago, I did an article about Goldfield, Nevada and today my article is about Tonopah, which has a very similar history due to being part of the central Nevada mining boom that occurred about the turn of the century.

My mother-in-law, Mary Murphy grew up in Tonopah, so family and I have made several trips there over the years. She had an aunt who lived there that we visited as well. When I was working in Goldfield, I stayed at the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah, since Goldfield had no accommodations. I jokingly called it the Mishap Hotel.

The story of Tonopah began with the discovery of silver by a prospector named Jim Butler on May 19, 1900. The legendary tale of discovery says that he went looking for a burro that had wandered off during the night and sought shelter near a rock outcropping. When Butler discovered the animal the next morning, he picked up a rock to throw at it in frustration, noticing that the rock was unusually heavy. He had stumbled upon the second-richest silver strike in Nevada history, next only to the Comstock.

Butler was convinced the ore samples he found were silver ore. It was not until Tasker Oddie, later to become governor of Nevada, stopped by and offered to have the samples assayed, it was found the assay revealed the ore was worth $600 per ton.

Men of wealth and power soon entered the region to consolidate the mines and reinvest their profits into the infrastructure of the town of Tonopah. George Wingfield, a 24-year-old poker player when he arrived in Tonopah, played poker and dealt faro in the town saloons. Once he had a small bankroll, he talked Jack Carey, owner of the Tonopah Club, into taking him in as a partner and to file for a gaming license. In 1903, miners rioted against Chinese workers in Tonopah.

By 1904, after investing his winnings in the Boston-Tonopah Mining Co., Wingfield was worth $2 million. When old friend George S. Nixon, a banker, arrived in town, Wingfield invested in his Nye County Bank. They grub-staked miners with friend Nick Abelman, and bought up existing mines. By the time the partners moved to Goldfield, Nevada and made their Goldfield Consolidated Mining Co., a public corporation in 1906, Nixon and Wingfield were worth more than $30 million.

Wingfield believed that the end of the gold and silver mining production was coming and took his bankroll to Reno, where he invested heavily in real estate and casinos. Real estate and gaming became big business throughout central Nevada. By 1910, gold production was falling and by 1920, the town of Tonopah had less than half the population it had 15 years earlier. Small mining ventures continued to provide income for local miners and the small town struggled on. Located about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas, it has supported travelers as a stopover and rest spot on a lonely highway.

At the historic Tonopah mining park, the rich history is brought to life through preserved and restored equipment and buildings, historic exhibits, video presentations (in their onsite theater), and a self-guided walking tour. Guided Polaris tours are also available. Prior scheduling is recommended. All of the buildings located on the property are open for visitors to enjoy. You can experience for yourself how it was to work in a turn-of-the-century mine. The park covers more than an astounding 100 acres, and the grounds are constantly changing. New exhibits are added frequently and restoration of existing buildings is ongoing.

Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian. You can order his books at a discount on his blog at


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