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Consider this a mini Tour Around Nevada, if you will, of 17 historic south-central towns.
Photo: Charlie Johnston (Tonopah's Mizpah Hotel)
Tales vary concerning the spring day in 1900 when Jim Butler and his stubborn mule supposedly stumbled upon Tonopah’s silver lode. Some say that while looking for the ornery critter, Butler happened across a silver-rich outcropping. Another story contests that when Butler found the mule, he picked up a rock to hurl at the ill-behaved animal and noticed the stone was heavily laden with silver. And retired Nevada State Archivist and self-proclaimed “myth buster” Guy Rocha discounts that a mule was involved at all. Whatever the case, Tonopah’s birth mirrors its entire existence: unlikely, unique, and at times, a little ornery.
Such quirky stories as Butler’s surround the birth and existence of many towns in Nevada Silver Trails territory, such as Pioche being so rowdy in its early days that 75 bodies were interred in the cemetery before a single person died of natural causes, and Rachel’s appeal to devotees of the unexplained thanks to its position on the Extraterrestrial Highway and proximity to top-secret Area 51.
From tent cities that grew to mining metropolises overnight and faded to obscurity almost as quickly, to a bedroom community that has grown to become a tourist destination in its own right, the once-mineral-rich Silver Trails towns still hold plenty of treasures.
Tonopah was home to one of the biggest mining booms in Nevada history. While several other mining towns were starting to fade away, Tonopah revived the failing mining industry in the state and was nicknamed the Queen of the Silver Camps. The silver- and gold-rich ore discovered in 1900 by Jim Butler, a part-time miner, kept the mining wave constant for two decades.
The Tonopah Historic Mining Park (right) and museum offers a taste of what mining in the early 20th century was like—the self-guided tour covers four of the original mining camps. Visitors can walk through some of the original buildings, see exhibits, and go on an underground mine tour. The Central Nevada Museum offers a different glimpse into the history of the state with exhibits on Jim Casey, Howard Hughes, Butler, and the original inhabitants of the area, the Shoshone.
The Mizpah Hotel opened in 1907 as the first permanent structure in Tonopah and featured temperature-controlled running water and an electric elevator. After going through several owners, the Mizpah finally shut it doors in 1999. However, after a much-appreciated facelift, the Mizpah reopened at the end of August. Owners Fred and Nancy Cline have been restoring the old hotel to its former glory since early 2011 and promise to keep the integrity of its history intact. “The early pioneer spirit abounds in Tonopah, and the Mizpah is one of the few authentic places left which embodies that spirit,” Nancy Cline says. “[The restoration of the Mizpah] is a project which honors the perseverance and tenacity of the men and women of the early 1900s. It is a monument to their spirit.”
Perhaps the most remarkable sight to see in Tonopah is something man has had no part in creating. The area has some of the darkest night skies in the country, allowing for the beauty of the Milky Way to shine. While in most cities only 25-50 stars are visible, more than 7,000 stars can be seen in Tonopah, even with the unaided eye.—Cristiana Corrao
Town of Tonopah
102 Burro Ave., Tonopah, NV 89049
The once-booming silver camp in high, dry central Nevada—now showing signs of re-birth from high silver prices—takes some getting used to. If you don’t mind wind, dust, and even snow in June, aren’t unnerved by rattlesnakes and can live with underground rumblings from the Atomic Energy Commission’s testings 40 miles away, you become enamored of the fun-loving community of 1,500 people which never quite became a ghost town.
“Tonopah: the town that wouldn’t die”
Nevada Magazine, Fall 1975
ALAMO & ASH SPRINGS
The principal community in Pahranagat Valley, Alamo is the gateway to bird-watching, fishing, camping, and other outdoor recreation at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. The town—named for the area’s abundant poplar trees, called alamo in Spanish—was founded in 1901 and recently celebrated its 110th birthday in July.
Today, the town of 1,100 about 90 miles north of Las Vegas via U.S. Highway 93 is primarily a ranching community. Three gas stations/truck stops (one of which is in the nearby town of Ash Springs) receive the majority of outsider traffic through town, and a handful of restaurants and motels provide services for visitors interested in staying a while.
In addition to the wildlife refuge, Alamo’s proximity to many of Lincoln County’s best American Indian petroglyph and pictograph sites makes it an attractive base for excursions to see ancient rock art, and the warm Ash Springs, a few miles north of Alamo, are great for a relaxing dip. The homemade baked goods at Windmill Ridge in Alamo (which also provides lodging in a set of small cabins) are worth a visit alone.
Borax mining in the Amargosa Desert and Death Valley region led to the first settlement in Amargosa Valley around 1905. Two years later a pair of railroads were built across the valley to transport the borax and gold, silver, and lead from nearby mining districts around present-day Beatty. The railroads’ utility dwindled along with mine output, and by the early 1940s the long-abandoned rails were salvaged for the war effort. The arrival of electricity in the 1960s heralded a period of growth that was bolstered further by the growth of Las Vegas, about 90 miles to the southeast, through the latter half of the 20th century.
Amargosa Valley’s heaviest-hitting area tourist attractions include performances at Death Valley Junction’s historic Amargosa Opera House, the off-highway vehicular playground of Big Dune, and the bird- and wildlife-watching destination of Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
Amargosa Valley Chamber of Commerce
821 E. Amargosa Farm Rd., Amargosa Valley, NV 89020
The gold rush that began in the Bullfrog Hills in 1904 brought more than 2,000 claims before the stampede of miners finally slowed in 1914. With the influx of people to the area, Beatty was the most ideal location to supply water and became the railway center for the Bullfrog Mining District. Named after “Old Man” Montillus Murray Beatty, a miner who owned a ranch along the Amargosa River, it became the supply hub for Bullfrog, Gold Center, Transvaal, Rhyolite, and Springdale.
Today, Beatty is home to about 1,000 residents. Preserving the history of the town and the mining district is the Beatty Museum and Historical Society, established in 1995. Outgrowing its first two locations, the museum currently resides in a historic church. The building was recently expanded to hold its ever-increasing collection of documents and photographs and now includes a research room. The Death Valley Nut & Candy Company is the largest candy store in Nevada and offers old-fashioned candy, gummi candy, chocolate, and even homemade ice cream.
Beatty celebrates its rich history every October during Beatty Days. The three-day celebration, October 28-30, is filled with exhibits, vendors, music, competitions, historical re-enactments, and the always-entertaining Beatty Bed Races. On November 4-6, Beatty plays host to the ninth annual Death Valley Conference on History and Prehistory. Photo: Richard Stephens
Considered one of the primary gateways to Death Valley National Park, Beatty—along with its neighbor to the south, Pahrump—is the ideal place from which to stage a visit to the largest national park in the continental United States. A little closer to town, a limestone outcropping about two miles south of town looks like nothing more than pale gray rock, but a visit to Mudmound reveals much more. Fossils of 480-million-year-old crustaceans such as barnacles, gastropods, and brachiopods can be found within the limestone.
Five miles north, Bailey’s Hot Springs offers private bathhouses for guests. A former railroad depot, Bailey’s was originally built in 1906 as a watering stop for the mining area. Neotropical birds make their home along the Amargosa River during the spring and fall migrations. The area regularly supports 21 species of birds and is a great location for birding.—CC
Beatty Chamber of Commerce
119 E. Main St., Beatty, NV 89003
In its heyday, Caliente was one of the major points on the Union Pacific Railroad line between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City. In 1923, the Caliente train depot was built to accommodate the high traffic of the railroad and serve as a maintenance facility. However, when diesel replaced steam engines in the 1950s, the stop at Caliente was no longer needed, and Las Vegas became the new maintenance site. Today the mission-style depot contains the town’s city hall, library, an art gallery, and the boxcar museum.
In the early 1870s, Caliente was briefly called Dutch Flat, but was renamed Culverwell in 1874 after William and Charles Culverwell, who bought a ranch in the area. The name changed again in 1901 to Calientes when hot springs were discovered in a cave near the base of the nearby mountains. Postal officials dropped the “s” from the name later that year. The hot springs are still in use today and are available year-round.
Union Pacific finished the railroad line, used to transport wares to mines in Pioche and Delamar, in 1905. The addition of the railroad made Caliente the most populated town in Lincoln County by 1910. Its current population is about 1,100.
The beautiful retreat at Kershaw-Ryan State Park is three miles south of town and has camping, hiking trails, a wading pool, and a picnic area. A little farther south, picturesque Rainbow Canyon is a worthy stop as well.—CC
Originally comprised of a dozen or so tents, the mining district of Goldfield was established in 1903. Within four years Goldfield had become the largest city in Nevada, boasting about 20,000 residents.
During its glory days—which lasted until 1910—Goldfield offered some of the finest amenities between Chicago and San Francisco. Goldfield’s prominence in the early 1900s was such that in 1906, the city hosted the lightweight championship boxing match between Joe Gans and Oscar “Battling” Nelson, a historic fight that lasted 42 rounds, ending with Gans winning the title following a disqualifying hit by Nelson. The Santa Fe Saloon & Motel (left), built in 1905, is still in business today and rents four rooms. Photo: Larry Prosor
Also still standing today, but abandoned, is the Goldfield Hotel. Built in 1907 out of stone and brick, it has about 200 rooms, each initially equipped with a telephone. A rarity during that time, Goldfield was served by three railroads that spanned collectively from 1905 to 1940.
Goldfield’s boom was brief and, by 1910, most of the hype—and population—had dwindled. A devastating flood in 1913 preceded a fire in 1923 that destroyed a 53-block area and most of the working-class neighborhoods—only six commercial buildings were left standing. Today, a tour of the town revives the past during visits to these historic buildings.
The current population is about 300.—CC
Goldfield Chamber of Commerce
115 Columbia Ave., Goldfield, NV 89013
WORTH A CLICK
Goldfield Historical Society
Though it’s known as a military town, Hawthorne began as a railroad depot for the Carson and Colorado Railway in 1881. While it had a brief foray into mining, as many towns in Nevada have, Hawthorne survived several unstable periods before finally being established as the Naval Ammunition Depot in 1930. Known today as the Hawthorne Army Depot, its main function is as an ammunition center—the largest in the world.
The Hawthorne Ordnance Museum has on display a variety of ammunition that dates to the early 20th century, along with vintage photographs and military uniforms. The USO building, opened in 1942 as a WWII military personnel facility, is still open and used as a community center. The town’s annual Armed Forces Day Celebration in May honors its military past and present.
About 10 miles northwest of Hawthorne is Walker Lake, a remnant of the Pleistocene epoch Lake Lahontan and an ideal location for boating, fishing, and swimming. Only two native fish remain in the increasingly saline water, thetui chub and Lahontan Cutthroat Trout.—CC
Hawthorne Convention Center
950 E St., Hawthorne, NV 89415
LUNING & MINA
Known to most as the two places on U.S. Highway 95 between Hawthorne and Tonopah where the speed limit drops precipitously—and aggravatingly—low, Luning and Mina share more than a highway and respective speed traps.
Just eight miles apart, the towns were founded following the discovery of gold and copper in nearby hillsides. Mina, the larger of the two then and now (a couple hundred residents compared to fewer than 100 people in Luning, today), was an important railroad junction for nearby mining towns including Candelaria. When the mines’ utility faded, the towns’ demises followed.
Today, few services are available in either town. Mina’s Desert Lobster Café is an attention-grabber and worth a stop. The boat-turned-restaurant (at right) is hard to miss and serves up hearty burgers and fish ’n’ chips. A seasonal, walk-up burger stand offers an alternative choice to the Desert Lobster. The Sunrise Valley RV Park, also in Mina, offers full hookups, tent camping, hiking trails, and WiFi.
Luning’s rock and souvenir shop is worth browsing through, and the town’s single café is said to serve stellar burgers and malts. The two towns also combine for a spattering of small-town watering holes.
Nevada Silver Trails
The Shoshone originally inhabited the valley they called Pah Rimpi, meaning “water rock” because of its many flowing artesian wells. The settlers who came toward the end of the 19th century derived the name Pahrump from the indigenous name.
With its wide array of activities, recreational as well as things to do in town, Pahrump can accommodate a variety of visitors. The Pahrump Valley Museum carries on the legacy of the Old West with exhibits of farming and mining equipment, Native American and cowboy artifacts, historical documents, and an impressive collection of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia. Since its founding in 1991, the museum has also acquired several historic buildings, including a house constructed entirely of railroad ties and the former schoolhouse.
Pahrump Valley Winery and the new Sanders Family Winery offer wine tastings and tours. The former hosts an annual Grape Stomp, October 8-9, and is home to Symphony’s Restaurant, one of the area’s best fine-dining establishments. If wine doesn’t pack quite the punch you’re after, Pahrump Valley Roasters is Southern Nevada’s largest coffee roaster and recently expanded to include a café at 921 State Route 160, Suite 402 in Pahrump.
For adrenaline junkies, there are the nearby Pahrump Valley Speedway and the Spring Mountain Motor Resort and Country Club. Mountain trails and two area golf courses are musts for outdoor enthusiasts.
The city’s proximity to Death Valley National Park makes it an ideal entry point and place to gather supplies for a trip into the park. Tecopa Hot Springs Resort in California, about 40 miles from Pahrump, offers hot mineral baths and other health- and wellness-oriented attractions in a peaceful desert setting.
Pahrump also hosts several annual events throughout the year, such as the Pahrump Fair and Festival, September 29-October 2; Wild West Extravaganza, October 14-16; and Pahrump Powwow, November 18-20.—CC
Town of Pahrump
400 State Route 160, Pahrump, NV 89060
As much as it is a nice place to live and retire, it’s also become a great Nevada getaway. Pahrump is one of the state’s more RV-friendly destinations. It boasts six major RV resorts and makes a great base camp for adventures at nearby Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and Mount Charleston. The area offers [two] golf courses, one of which (Furnace Creek) is at 214 feet below sea level.
“Tour Around Nevada: Pahrump”
Nevada Magazine, September/October 2009
Panaca, a Mormon settlement born in 1864, is the oldest surviving town in eastern Nevada. Dubbed Pan Nuk Ker by Southern Paiutes, Panaca was founded after Mormon missionary William Hamblin staked the Panacker mining claim. This farming community survived its early years by selling produce to miners in nearby towns, primarily Pioche. The 19th-century architecture remains largely unchanged, making a trip here a true step into Nevada’s past.
Stemming from its Mormon roots, Panaca is the only town in Nevada that doesn’t allow the sale of alcohol and, along with Boulder City, forbids gaming.
Two miles northwest of Panaca is Cathedral Gorge State Park. The water-carved ravine is framed by unique cathedral-like spires that were created by erosion from rainwater on the soft clay. Miller Point, near the northern entrance, offers a breathtaking overlook of the canyon.—CC
It’s alleged that 75 murdered men were buried at Boot Hill cemetery before anyone died of natural causes in Pioche. It was considered the roughest mining town of the 1800s, where henchmen were hired to guard mining claims and guns were considered the lone rule.
Silver deposits were discovered in the area in 1864, and, four years later, San Francisco financier Francois L.A. Pioche purchased the initial claim. The ensuing mining camp was named Pioche’s City and later just Pioche.
The million-dollar courthouse is a must-see for any visitors to the town. After Pioche took the county seat from Hiko in 1871, plans to build a courthouse were started.
The beginning cost for the construction was $26,400. However, due to negligence and refinancing, by the time the final payment was made in 1937, the cost had risen to nearly $1 million. Restored in the 1970s, it has become a living history museum with each room in the spirit of its original function. Formal tours are available daily from May through September. The town’s other museum, the Lincoln County Museum, holds many important artifacts from Pioche’s past and is home to an impressive black light mineral display.
Other enticing activities include hiking in five nearby state parks, fishing, golfing, and off-road driving. The Labor Day celebration held annually draws people from around the state and beyond. Tournaments, parades, and other activities take place during the four-day celebration, September 2-5.—CC
Pioche Chamber of Commerce
752 Main St., Pioche, NV 89043
[Pioche’s] best-known landmark is the Million Dollar Courthouse, a block north of Main Street. Construction of the two-story brick courthouse was bid out at $26,400 in 1871 but cost $88,000 by the time it was completed the next year. Refinancing by corrupt officials multiplied the debt over the years until by 1937 the cost to Lincoln County taxpayers reached nearly a million dollars.
“Living Ghost Towns”
Nevada Magazine, April 1983
The first mention of UFOs in Rachel was in 1989. Bob Lazar claimed he worked with scientists to reverse engineer the propulsion system on alien spacecrafts. His claims were never validated, but the extraterrestrial whirlwind in southeastern Nevada was officially ignited. Originally called Tempiute Village because of the Paiute Indians who used to reside there, and then Sand Springs when it was a tungsten mining town, the town settled on Rachel in 1977, named for the first baby born in the newly named town. The extraterrestrial frenzy began after the mine closed in 1988.
Located north of the Nevada Test Site along the Extraterrestrial Highway—State Route 375 adopted the mysterious moniker in 1996—Rachel has been something of a celebrity since the 1989 news was leaked to a Las Vegas television station. Since then, the town has been frequented by UFO enthusiasts from around the world. Much of the hype is due to the activity and secrecy surrounding Area 51, a top-secret military test and development facility near the test site at Groom Lake. Geocaching is another popular draw to Rachel, and more than 100 caches in the region make the town a “power-caching” site.
The only business in Rachel is the Little A’Le’Inn Restaurant and Bar. Open for more than 20 years, it offers the famous Alien Burger and alien-themed gift shop. The restaurant hosts several events throughout the year including holiday dinners, Rachel Day every May, August’s Extraterrestrial Midnight Marathon, and alien search parties.—CC
WORTH A VISIT
HC 61 Box 45, Rachel, NV 89001
SMITH VALLEY & WELLINGTON
The neighboring farming and ranching communities of Smith Valley and Wellington combine as one of the state’s most productive and important agricultural regions. Following the 1860 mining boom in Aurora, a bridge over the Walker River and a stagecoach station were established at the site of Wellington (the name “Wellington’s” came about in 1863). The station eventually became a trading post, general store, and post office for the region’s growing number of farms and ranches. Today, about 2,500 people live in Smith Valley and Wellington.
While nearby Yerington is the easiest place in the region to find services and a hotel room, Wellington does boast a handful of shops and eateries, including Wellington Mercantile and Sweet Country Café, which has, according to Yerington’s Debbie Arrighi, “the best homemade lemon meringue pies in the universe.”
Smith Valley’s Walker River Resort offers RV hookups, bed and breakfast-style lodging, and myriad outdoor activities. Wellington’s original one-room schoolhouse (shown above), dating to 1898, still stands as the Wellington Station Resort Museum and makes for an informative history-laden stop. Fishing and camping along the Walker River and nearby Wilson Canyon are favorite local outdoor activities. Turkey hunting is also popular.
WORTH A VISIT
Walker River Resort
700 Hudson Way, Smith Valley, NV 89430
A small trading post and saloon were all that made up the area of Pizen Switch—a reference to the whiskey sold in the bar—in the 1870s. As the town grew, it seemed to the few residents that a town named for alcohol was unrespectable, and the name was changed to Greenfield—all the while, the mailing address was Mason Valley.
It is said, but disputed, that the name was finally changed to Yerington in 1894 as a way to flatter Henry Marvin Yerington, the man who could get the town included on the railroad route. The railroad never came, but the town prospered despite it. Today, about 3,000 people call Yerington home. “You have [attractions like] the Loneliest Highway, but to get to Yerington people have to turn off the road,” long-time resident Arrighi says. “But when you get here, it’s quite a treasure.”
The Lyon County Museum showcases artifacts from the town’s early days. The collections are held in seven different buildings including three old schoolhouses and a replica general store and blacksmith shop.
Grammar School No. 9 in Yerington was restored and converted into the Jeanne Dini Cultural Center in 1998. The theater within the center holds productions year-round. Photographs and art are hung in the Café at the Center. The Yerington Theatre for the Arts operates the center and presents different forms of art, educational programs, and cultural events.—CC
City of Yerington
102 S. Main St., Yerington, NV 89447