There is no better place to learn the story of central Nevada’s early 20th century mining boom than the Tonopah Historic Mining Park.
Created in the mid-1990s, the 130-acre park in the heart of the old mining town of Tonopah encompasses several mine sites that were among the state’s biggest silver producers in the early 20th century.
Tonopah, located about halfway between Las Vegas and Reno, traces its origins to 1900, when a local rancher named Jim Butler discovered rich silver veins in the area.
Within a few short years, Tonopah was booming, swelling to a population of more than 3,000 in 1902. In the first half of the 20th century, Tonopah’s mines produced an impressive $150 million in silver.
While active mining continued in Tonopah into the 1940s, its most productive years were from 1900 to about 1915.
During that time, Tonopah’s most successful mines included the Desert Queen, Mizpah and the Silver Top (all originally claimed by Jim Butler) as well as the Montana-Tonopah and Northern Star. Today, all five of those mines are located within the boundaries of the Tonopah Historic Mining Park.
One of the best things about visiting the mining park is taking a self-guided tour of the grounds. It begins in the visitor center, a sturdy brick building that was constructed in 1903 by the Tonopah Mining Co. for use as a power substation and telephone exchange.
In the 1970s, the Summa Corp. bought the building and converted it into an assay office. During that time, Summa, which was owned by billionaire recluse Howard Hughes, purchased most of the Tonopah area’s mining claims.
The visitor center contains several displays of historic photos and mining equipment as well as a well-stocked gift shop with a large collection of Nevada mining and history books. There is also a small theater room showing films about early mining in Tonopah.
From the visitor center, the tour ambles to the site of the Silver Top Mine, which operated from 1905 to 1948. The most prominent feature of the mine is the giant triangular hoisting works and headframe (the tall wooden thing that looks like an oil derrick).
Here, you can still see the thick cables used to lower the miners’ cages (still attached) into the underground mine. Adjacent is the “grizzly,” which was the name given to an ore-sorting house. Low grade ore was tossed into a massive waste pile beside the house.
Continuing on the tour, you walk over a metal stope bridge, which crosses a stope or exposed mine shaft, which, in this case, is about 500 feet deep. Looking down, you begin to get an idea of how deep these places were — and what it was like to have to work there.
The trail heads to the Mizpah Mine hoisting works and headframe, which operated from 1902 to 1948. The Mizpah’s headframe is made of steel and it’s much bigger than the one at the Silver Top. Here, you can stand on a grate over the lighted mine shaft and view a 600-foot drop to the bottom of the mine.
Adjacent to the Mizpah, you can tour several buildings including the mine office, the company garage, a warehouse and the timber framing house.
The latter was where large hunks of lumber, brought in by train, were cut into smaller sizes for use in stabilizing the underground shafts. Nearby is a powder magazine, a small building used to store the dynamite that was used during mining.
From here, the trail leads around a Tonopah and Goldfield Railroad trestle, which was used from 1905 to 1948. This wooden bridge is the last surviving structure from that railroad, which ceased operating after World War II.
Adjacent is an overlook offering views of a glory hole, a 200-foot deep pit that was created in 1922, when a portion of the Mizpah Mine collapsed.
From there, the trail climbs to the stone foundations of a couple of old mill sites before reaching the wooden headframe of the Montana-Tonopah Mine. Here, you get a great view of the entire park as well as the town of Tonopah.
The trail continues to the site of the Desert Queen mine, where you’ll find another picturesque wooden headframe, hoisting works, and the mine shaft.
The Burro Tunnel “Underground Adventure” offers an opportunity to walk into the reconstructed shaft of one of the original mines and step into a steel viewing cage that is suspended over a 500-foot mine stope.
The Tonopah Historic Mining Park is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is a modest $5 per adult and $3 for seniors and children 8-17 (7 and under are free). For more information, call 775-482-9274 or go to www.tonopahhistoricminingpark.com.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.