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Photo: Central Nevada Historical Society (Tonopah on July 4, 1906)
…In the year 1900 a recalcitrant burro—affectionately dubbed the desert canary because of his braying propensities—which had strayed away from a prospector’s campsite during the night, was the indirect cause of another flash of gold excitement in the Tonopah area, which followed the decline of the Comstock by almost 20 years.
The burro had hidden behind a rocky ledge. Next morning, after a typical desert breakfast, the prospector began searching for his pack animal. A strong wind was blowing at the time. After awhile the burro was seen behind the ledge. Being in no particular rush, the veteran of the desert decided to await the passing of the sandstorm. As he sat resting on a portion of the ledge, instinctively he plied his field hammer and chipped off, then examined, a few fragments. It was likely looking, but far from spectacular. More specimens were chipped off and dropped into the packbag.
When the wind eventually slackened, the prospector caught and packed his burro, and together they resumed their journey in the direction of Southern Klondike, a new mining camp in Southern Nevada. Upon arriving at that place he showed the rock specimens to several of his friends. They all declared the specimens worthless. The prospector insisted he believed the rock contained minerals. An assayer, after examination, refused to assay the specimens, also deeming them worthless.
Shortly afterward the desert wanderer and his burro returned to his Belmont home in Nye County. Stopping at the ledge near Tonopah (an Indian name meaning big water), he obtained additional specimens, mentally marking the spot, but not bothering to stake out any claims at the time.
Eventually some of the specimens, in an indirect manner, reached the hands of an assayer in Austin. His assays showed values ranging from $75 to $575 per ton in gold and silver. Later the prospector returned to his find, took the necessary legal procedure to secure his claims, and started to dig. A new camp sprung up and grew rapidly, for the news had leaked out and became widely known. This camp was given the name of Tonopah, and development of the new strike saw the town grow to a city of nearly 15,000 persons in a few years’ time.
Tonopah experienced all the growing pains and human emotions characteristic of a western mining camp. Millions of dollars in gold and silver were extracted from the earth before the decline set in. Like its counterpart, Virginia City, the ore decreased in production, and the city passed through a stage of partial depopulation. Many remained, however, and kept the faith, optimistically confident of a future revival. Their faith has not been entirely in vain, for Tonopah today is experiencing a steady, substantial prosperity coincident with the increased gold price and the discovery of new ore bodies of considerable extent.
Goldfield, 30 miles to the south, had a similar boom in 1903, and grew until it was a city of 30,000 population. It likewise ran the whole extreme of glamour and excitement. After producing many millions of dollars in metallic wealth, the same story told of Virginia City and Tonopah became the history of Goldfield. The city staged a partial, but quick, fade-out.
Goldfield in its day sipped the wine of bonanza and drank the dregs of borrasca, but the greater portion of its people stuck to the belief there was still “Gold in Them Hills.” Goldfield is now awakening from its ghostly sleep with increased mining activity and substantial prosperity in its midst. New ore bodies of great extent and remarkable richness, either passed over or undetected in the old days, are being found and developed with highly optimistic results.
Other Nevada camps where superficial development brought thrills to the prospector and miner in the early years of the 1900s have had similar experience. Rhyolite, Pioneer, Bullfrog, Searchlight, Fairview, Rawhide, and several lesser lights have gone through the cycle of plenty and pinch.
Rhyolite boasts of a house built entirely of bottles, erected during the flush days, and also a costly railroad station which was used for only a short time. It now decorates the desert, neglected and abandoned, surrounded by the hills from which many millions of gold and silver were taken before the decline. Rhyolite’s flash of opulence followed shortly after that of Goldfield. Rhyolite can also point with pride to its stalwarts who are biding their time waiting for the revival, which shows symptoms of activity at the present time.
Modern methods in recent years have changed the entire mining outlook in Nevada. The old-time practice of following a burro, and trusting, more or less, to a stroke of good luck for a rich strike has all but passed.
Better roads leading to the more isolated districts; better methods of transportation; a greater knowledge of the geological conditions favorable for metallic deposits; the inauguration, by the State Government, of prospecting schools in which experienced engineers teach not only the fundamentals of ore deposits but also advanced courses; and scientific methods of determining the extent and possible location of mineralized sections all tend toward a more intensive development of the mining resources of Nevada.
Assurance from scientists—conservative men with years of experience and training to back their opinions—that there is more gold and silver wealth lying unfound within the confines of the Sagebrush State than has ever before been taken out, is accelerating the search for the precious metals.
On the other hand, Nevada does not depend solely upon gold and silver in its mining activities. Because this type of mining has been the more spectacular, it has received the greatest attention. Nevertheless, great and valuable deposits of copper, lead, and zinc, to say nothing of huge quantities of nonmetallic minerals of commercial value, are being developed, particularly in the Ely and Pioche Districts, in eastern Nevada, as well as the new and highly potential district of Mountain City, in northern Elko County.
The magic words of gold and silver have been, and always will be, inseparably woven into the fabric of Nevada’s history.
Future prospectors, of scientific bent, will continue to blaze new trails to new discoveries, and this will be followed by development, after which these trails will be remolded into modern highways to serve Nevada in the future.
Editor’s Note: The unnamed prospector in the story is Jim Butler, still celebrated in Tonopah during the town’s annual Jim Butler Days.
“Gold Finds Make Nevada History” was originally published in the July 1936 edition of Nevada Highways and Parks. The preceding is an excerpt from the full story, which can also be found in Nevada Magazine’s 75th-Anniversary Edition (see right for more info).
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