The wild history of the ghost town of Rio Tinto | NevadaAppeal.com

The wild history of the ghost town of Rio Tinto

Richard Moreno
View of the impressive ruins of the old Rio Tinto school house, built in the 1930s and abandoned since the late 1940s.
Richard Moreno

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Northern Nevada ghost town of Rio Tinto is its unusual backstory.

Located about three and a half miles southwest of Mountain City (about 30 miles north of Elko) via State Route 225 and an unmarked but pretty good dirt road, Rio Tinto is generally recognized as one of the last mining boomtowns of the 20th century. It was named after the Rio Tinto mines in Spain, which have produced copper for more than 3,000 years.

Nevada’s Rio Tinto traces its beginnings to the early 1920s, when a prospector, Samuel Franklyn Hunt, spotted an outcropping of rock in the old Cope Mining District southwest of Mountain City that he believed valuable copper ore.

The Cope district had been discovered in 1868 (by a man named Jesse Cope) and produced gold and silver for about a decade before the mines were abandoned. Mountain City, in fact, was founded as a supply point for the district.

The late Elko historian Howard Hickson noted that Hunt believed the site was rich in copper resources but couldn’t persuade others to invest in his claim and lacked the financial backing to properly develop the site by himself.

According to Hickson, Hunt spent the next eight years working on the claim sporadically, dependent on occasional funding from backers. Finally, in 1931, a Salt Lake City mine promoter, Odgen G. Chase, partnered with Hunt to form the Rio Tinto Mining Company, which issued 2 million shares.

Over the next couple of years, Hunt sold large batches of the stock in Elko, including to individuals, stores, bars — anyone willing to invest in his project. The stock sold for 2 to 5 cents per share. Hickson said that some investors soon lost faith in Hunt and his mine and mislaid them, tossed them in the garbage, or, according to one story, used the certificates to paper a bathroom wall.

With funding finally in hand, Hunt began digging for the rich copper vein that he insisted would be found at about the 250-foot level. In February 1932, workers struck a rich body of copper ore — at the 227-foot level. Hickson said the first sample tested out at 40 percent pure copper (with later samples going up to as much as 47 percent).

The stock, formerly viewed by most folks as worthless, jumped in value to $17.50 per share. A few years after the discover, a subsidiary of the Anaconda Copper Co. purchased a majority interest in the claims and renamed the development, the Mountain City Copper Co.

During the period of 1932 to the late 1940s, the Rio Tinto and two sister mines would produce more than $21 million in copper ore.

With the mine’s success, a company town cropped up around the mine site. Within a few years, the community had wide, tree-lined streets and rows of houses and apartments. The town also boasted electricity, water and sewer service, a post office, a movie theater, a grammar school and high school and a recreation center with athletic fields.

By 1947, however, the Rio Tinto and surrounding mines began to taper off. By the following year, the post office was closed and many of the buildings were relocated to other communities.

Today, the most impressive reminder of Rio Tinto’s glory years is the shell of the former school. Large concrete walls and stairs give some idea of the size and shape of the structure.

Additionally, about a half dozen other building, including abandoned houses, sheds, and buildings can be found scattered across the former townsite.

The ruins are located on private property and there are no trespassing signs, so please be respectful of the law. For more information, go to http://www.ghosttowns.com/states/nv/riotinto.html.

Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.