Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013 | noon
Population: 2,552 per 2012 estimate
Location: Just about halfway between Las Vegas and Reno on U.S. 95. It’s 215 miles from Las Vegas, 235 from Reno.
GPS: 38.069211°, -117.230586°
Elevation: 6,041 feet
Halfway between Las Vegas and Reno, Tonopah was the boomtown’s boomtown. High quality (and high quantity) silver ore was discovered in 1900 by a rancher named Jim Butler, and the town that would become known as the “Queen of the Silver Camps” was born.
Within its first decade, there were five banks, an opera house, a major hotel and, of course, several saloons, places to gamble and a red-light district.
Why? The quality and quantity of the silver was very good. And unlike other camps, Tonopah wasn’t all rough-and-tumble. The Works Progress Administration’s 1940 guide to Nevada noted that “society was organized” and young men who arrived for jobs in banks and mining offices found they needed the formal clothes they left behind because fancy “dinners and dances in such clothes were nightly affairs.”
But like all boomtowns, Tonopah would see a bust (or three), and economically, it started to sputter out after World War I. Still, there were high hopes. Consider this from the WPA guide:
“Tonopah is not merely a town and not merely the producer of $125 million. To almost every living Nevadan more than 40 years of age, Tonopah – with its lusty son Goldfield – stands for modern Nevada, for youth, excitement, hope and the great adventure of a lifetime.”
Things picked up in World War II. Pilots were being trained at what’s now the airport. (Massive, decaying wooden hangars remain there.) But after the war, things slowed. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, things picked up again with new mining and Air Force activity at the nearby Tonopah Test and Training Range. (The Stealth fighter was developed, and years later mothballed, at the test range.) But economically, those booms played out as well.
Today, Tonopah is not seen as “modern Nevada.” The empty stone buildings that line the main street are monuments to an era gone by.
The future: Someone said the story of Tonopah could be summed up in one sentence: The McDonald’s closed. But life doesn’t hang on the Golden Arches. (Does it?) No one expects Tonopah to return to its glory days, but it’s a survivor. U.S. 95 still runs through town, and that keeps it going. And there’s still mining and the test range. And people still come for outdoor activities. The reopened Mizpah Hotel will also help the town, which has some worthy attractions of its own, including the Central Nevada Museum and the Tonopah Historic Mining Park.
Also to note: Tonopah is the setting for many great Nevada stories, but don’t accept them all at face value. Historian Guy Rocha, the former state archivist, chased down a long list of Nevada stories, including several about Tonopah, and wrote a series of here.essays about Nevada myths. A favorite that centers on Tonopah is, “What didn’t happen at the Mizpah Hotel!”
If you go: It shouldn’t be hard to find. It’s roughly halfway between Las Vegas and Reno on U.S. 95. The historic Mizpah Hotel has reopened after years of dormancy, and the new owners have done quite a job. There are several other hotel options and a casino.
There are recreational activities, from camping to off-roading, nearby, and there’s a track that features racing all summer. The Tonopah Historic Mining Park provides a good experience – it’s on an actual mine site and has been well restored. It hosts the annual state mining championships. As well, Tonopah trumpets its dark nighttime sky, supposedly the darkest in the continental United States, which makes for great stargazing.
Jim Butler Days, which is a great celebration of the town, is typically held in May.
Remember: Tonopah is higher than “the mile high city” Denver, so be sure to bring sunscreen, drink plenty of water and pace yourself if you’re not used to the elevation.
On the web:
This is the town’s web site, and it provides a good overview of what’s there.
If you like to watch the stars, this is a great place. The website "Tonopah Star Trails" claims you can see 7,000 stars. More information and a map are available at the website.
The Tonopah Historic Mining Park is an impressive site, and it gives a sense of what mining was like years ago.
The Central Nevada Museum offers free entry and provides an overview of the area.
There are plenty of opportunities for hunting, camping, fishing and hiking. Off-roaders can also find places to go. Much of the land is under the Forest Service, and you can find more here.
The Royston Turquoise provides tours of its facility, but be sure to call ahead.