Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Ghost Town Of Tonopah, Nevada

The 2500 or so people who call Tonopah, Nevada home would probably claim it is not a "ghost town." After all, it has a couple of gas stations and places to eat, two casinos, three or four motels, a small supermarket, and is the county seat of Nye County, Nevada with an impressive county courthouse. But Tonopah is clearly in a steep decline. It reminds me of places like Blacksburg, South Carolina; it's not dead, but it's terminally ill. I imagine it won't be much longer before the county seat is moved to Pahrump.

Tonopah is located in west-central Nevada at the junction of Highways 6 and 95, approximately midway between Reno and Las Vegas. Tonopah was founded in 1900 following discovery of silver in the hills surrounding the town site. It grew rapidly; in 1905, it had a population of 3000 and the county seat was moved there from nearby Belmont. In 1907, Tonopah was home to five banks, five newspapers, two churches, and 30 saloons. The Mizpah Hotel was built in that year. Billed as the grandest hotel between San Francisco and Denver, the Mizpah had electric lights, steam heat, ceiling fans in each room, an ornate dining room and bar room, and, of course, a full casino. To keep order in Tonopah, Wyatt Earp arrived from Tombstone and spent a couple of years in town before moving on to San Francisco. A mine operator named Tex Rickard was managing partner in the Mizpah, and in 1913 he noticed that a young bouncer he hired to eject troublemakers from the Mizpah's bar was handy with his fists. That young bouncer was named Jack Dempsey, and Rickard would later manage Dempsey during his time as heavyweight chamption. Although it's now closed, the Mizpah dominates downtown Tonopah:

Tonopah's silver mining output peaked around 1920 and then began a slow but steady decline over the next five decades. The population declined to about 2000, and soon the Nye County government and nearby Tonopah Test Range became the economic foundations of the town. About the only excitement in that period was on January 12, 1957, when reclusive/crazy billionaire Howard Hughes married Jean Peters in Tonopah. The ceremony was performed by a local justice of the peace at the motel shown below; the ceremony was conducted in the second story room immediately to the right of the "Enter" sign. Hughes and Peters flew in from California for the ceremony, and spent only about three hours in Tonopah. The reasons why Hughes decided to get married in Nevada instead of California are not clear; maybe Nevada's easy marriage laws made a spur-of-the-moment wedding possible. At any rate, the site of the Hughes/Peters wedding has seen better days:

But things began to change around 1979. For one thing, there was a massive expansion of activity at Tonopah Test Range. Even though almost everyone who worked there lived on base, they still came into Tonopah to buy booze, gamble, and seek what little entertainment is available in the area. (The new activity turned out to be the first flight tests of the F-117 Stealth fighter/bomber.) A second and bigger cause of Tonopah's reawakening was Anaconda's investment of $240 million in a molybedium mining operation near Tonopah; the skyrocketing price of silver (which hit $50 an ounce in late 1980) also stimulated production of old mines.

Tonopah's population boomed from 2500 to over 4000 in less than a year. The school system enrollment was 475 in June, 1980; when classes resumed the following September, over 700 students showed up. Tonopah's lone grocery store had to go to 24-hour operation to accomodate shoppers. The Mizpah re-opened and was refurbished; former bank buildings were converted into apartments. At one time, over 300 mine workers were forced to live in mobile homes, RVs, and even tents at the mining sites.

And it was all over less than a decade later. The collapse in gold and silver prices caused the mines to close again, and a similar implosion of molybedium prices caused Anaconda to close down its operations and write off its entire investment. The Mizpah closed again along with many other businesses. The result is a city with many abandoned and crumbling buildings, now subsisting on tourism and the county government for survival.

It takes little imagination to see what a grand city Tonopah once was. Here is the Nevada First National Bank Building, with a view of the floor tiles at its entrance. Note the curtains in the upper windows of the building. That's because it was converted to apartments during Tonopah's second boom in 1979. Now those apartments and all businesses in the building are abandoned:

Here's a side view of the bank building above. I suppose the apartments above the bank must've been the "Belvada Apartments," and I love the name of that bar-----the "Alibi Lounge"! I would've loved to have seen the inside of that bar on a Saturday night!!

Business is no better in the rest of Tonopah. The Tonopah Liquor Company is no more, the same is true of the Ace Club and Club House; in fact, all of the buildings below are empty and falling apart:

Newer buildings in Tonopah are also abandoned. The Tonopah Garage below was empty, but someone seemed to have abandoned a NASCAR sportsman division race car under its awning:

Tonopah has a city web site, which is blatantly dishonest and misleading. It even has a "convention center" that looks like a small junior high scool gymnasium and has to be a white elephant-----I wonder if there has ever been a paying convention held there?

But Tonopah is an interesting place to explore for a few hours. You have to drive through it if you drive from Reno to Las Vegas. If you ever make that trip, allocate a little time for Tonopah.