Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Goldfield Walking Tour - Part 1

Goldfield Hotel (Photo courtesy of Vivaverdi)

Years ago I stopped in the historic mining town of Goldfield when an elderly woman carrying a bag of groceries walked up to me as I climbed out my car and practically demanded that I give her a ride home.

Amused by her boldness, I consented and drove her to her house, which was an old, tumbled-down, stone building covered with a red, rolled asphalt roof.
“I live here during the summer,” she said, adding, “It’s the old brothel—come on , I’ll give you a tour.”

I followed her inside. She placed her paper sack on a wooden table near the door and began to describe her unusual house, which seemed to consist of a long hallway lined with doors on either side.

Customers entered through the front door, as we had, she said, paid their money to someone sitting behind a desk near the entrance, then went into the room of their favorite working girl, if she wasn’t already occupied. There were six small rooms, three on each side of the building. In addition to the hall door, each had an exterior door with window.

“Know why there are so many doors?” the old woman asked me. I shook my head. “It’s so that you could leave without any of the other customers inside seeing you. It was more private that way.”

She took me down the hall to a small room in the back of the building. She pointed up to a bucket on a hinge that was attached to a wooden beam in the roof. A rope hung down from the bucket. She explained that this was where the girls took showers.

We walked outside and she told me that the area around her brothel had once been Goldfield’s red light district, home of the town’s houses of prostitution, dance halls, and seedier saloons.

I don’t remember much else of what the old woman said that day but I thought of her recently when reading in Sally Zanjani’s book, “Goldfield,” that at one time 500 girls worked in the city’s red four-block light district.

Of course, Goldfield, which is located about 200 miles south of Fallon via U.S. 95, was much more than a large tenderloin section. At its peak in 1907, the town had a population of more than 20,000 and a developed area that covered more than 50 city blocks.

Wandering the streets of Goldfield, you can find that the ghosts still speak loudly.

They talk of better times—when Goldfield was the largest community in Nevada and the hub of the state’s political and economic power. And they murmur of bad breaks, like the tapped-out mines, fires and floods that hastened the city’s demise.

Goldfield traces its beginnings to two miners, Harry Stimler and William Marsh, and a Shoshone named Tom Fisherman. Just after the turn of the century, the latter apparently discovered gold in the mountains south of Tonopah. In 1902, he led Stimler and Marsh to his find and within months a small mining camp had developed.

The site was originally called “Grandpa,” supposedly because Marsh declared it was going to be the granddaddy of all mining camps. Interest in the camp was modest until 1903, when additional gold discoveries were uncovered. The following year, a townsite was plated, which was named Goldfield.

Goldfield boomed from 1905 until about 1910, when it entered an extended period of decline. Despite its relatively short time at the top, a great number of substantial buildings and homes were constructed in Goldfield.

A disastrous flood swept through the town in 1913, destroying dozens of buildings and accelerating the town’s depression. The coup de grace, however, was a major fire in 1923, which burned most of the town’s commercial district.

Today, Goldfield remains one of the most vivid reminders of Nevada’s early 20th century mining boom period. In spite of disasters, neglect and decay, more than 100 historic structures have survived more or less intact.

Walking its dirt streets (the only paved road is U.S. 95, which runs through the middle of the town), you can still find plenty of buildings that help tell Goldfield’s story.

Starting at the north end of town (driving on U.S. 95 from Tonopah), you pass Columbia Mountain (on the left), site of the area’s most significant gold discoveries. The first ore found there was apparently extremely rich—which helped generate the initial enthusiasm for Goldfield—but the deposits were not particularly deep, which is why the mines had such a limited life.

Just beyond the mountain, the highway curves east and enters the town, where it becomes known as Crook Street.

For a half mile or so, you pass other ruins and dilapidated structures on either side of the road before reaching the center of Goldfield, which you recognize because its the location of the town’s most significant survivor, the Goldfield Hotel.

Constructed in 1907-08, this massive four-story brick building rises 56 feet high and can be seen from miles away. The hotel was once the most luxurious in the entire state with an elevator, overstuffed, leather lobby chairs, crystal chandeliers and other elegant features.

The hotel was financed by one of Goldfield’s largest mining consortiums, the Hayes-Monette Syndicate, at a cost of more than $250,000. Shortly after is completion, it was sold to George Wingfield, who controlled most of Goldfield’s mines and was an influential political and business force in Nevada during the first quarter century.

While the hotel managed to stay open until the 1940s (and avoided serious damage during either the 1913 flood or 1923 fire), it has not operated for several decades. In the mid-1980s, the structure was partially restored by a San Francisco millionaire, who hoped to reopen it, but the work was never completed.

More on Goldfield next time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Nevada's Most Historic Dams

Bishop Creek Dam

Hoover Dam is easily Nevada’s most famous dam. But did you know there are others that are equally historic? In honor of Hoover Dam’s 75th birthday this year, I’d like to take a look at some of the Silver State’s most noteworthy and historic dams.

Bishop Creek Dam—Originally called the Metropolis Dam, this structure was built in 1912 to provide water to the farming community of Metropolis, 20 miles north of Wells. But downstream farmers won a lawsuit contesting the dam and it has never been used to its full potential. Fill in the dam included brick rubble from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. More recently, the state has begun work to replace this decaying concrete dam with an earth fill dam so this historic wedge will soon be gone.

Wild Horse Dam—There are actually two Wild Horse dams. The first one was built in 1937 to store water to irrigate hay meadows on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, 60 miles north of Elko. Poor construction rendered the dam unsafe, so in 1969, a second, larger dam was built upstream from the original. The first dam still stands beneath the waters of Wild Horse Reservoir.

Angel Lake—As dams go, the one creating Angel Lake, 12 miles south of Wells, is small, measuring a mere 15-feet across. Built in the 1880s, this dirt-and-rock barrier is one of the state’s oldest dams and creates a picturesque alpine lake.

Cave Lake—The earthen dam creating this scenic mountain lake is so low profile that most visitors don’t realize Cave Lake is a manmade reservoir. Nestled in Eastern Nevada’s Schell Creek Range, Cave Lake was created by a rancher in the 1920s and enlarged in 1961 by the Nevada Division of State Parks. A 27-pound, five-ounce brown trout, a state record, was caught here in 1984.

Davis Dam—With its blocky, angular design, this dirt-fill and concrete slab looks the way a dam ought to look. Located on the Colorado River, 67 miles downstream from Hoover Dam and a mile north of Laughlin, Davis Dam was constructed from 1946 to 1953 and created Lake Mohave.

Lahontan Dam—This impressive concrete, earth, and rock dam has distinctive design touches, such as an elegant archway and suspension bridge leading to an outlet tower. Constructed in 1911-15 as part of the Newlands Project, the dam captures water from the Truckee and Carson rivers, and then feeds it to nearby Fallon area farms.

Marlette Dam—Part of the oldest water system in Nevada, this dam was constructed on Marlette Lake in the 1860s by the Carson and Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Company. In 1877, a series of flumes and pipelines were built to carry Marlette’s water to Virginia City. The system was one of the engineering marvels of the 19th century, transporting water from high in the Sierra Nevada range, down 2,700 feet to Washoe Valley, across the valley, and back up 1,400 feet to Virginia City.

Tahoe City Dam—Sitting at the north end of Lake Tahoe, this dam is the spigot that pours water into the Truckee River, which provides nearly all the water for Northwestern Nevada. Built from 1909-1913, this 14-foot concrete sluiceway raised the level of Lake Tahoe by more than six feet—which translates into 732,000 acre feet of water—despite vehement opposition from shoreline property owners.

Derby Diversion Dam—This concrete dam is one of Western Nevada’s most controversial barriers. As part of the Newlands Project, it diverts Truckee River water to Lahontan Reservoir. The diversion helped turn Fallon into an agricultural center but also sparked nearly a century of legal squabbling over water rights. Derby is located 20 miles east of Reno.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Toast to a Ghost: The Story of Rawhide

Despite the fact that very little remains of the old Nevada mining town of Rawhide, the place refuses to fade away.

Perhaps it’s because of its colorful name—Rawhide—which conjures images of western false storefronts, saloons with swinging doors and old prospectors wandering the streets with their burros and pickaxes.

But while once upon a time Rawhide may have been able to boast all of those iconic features, it’s been a long time since anyone has been able to belly up to a bar in that community.

Rawhide trace its beginning to December 1906, when a miner named Jim Swanson is said to have found gold in the area, which is west of the Buckskin Mountains of central Nevada.

A few months later, Charles Holman and Charles McLeod joined Swanson in working the site. Holman, in fact, is credited with naming the town. Allegedly, he called it Rawhide as a play-on-words to indicate his dislike for a nearby mining camp called Buckskin, which had tossed him out.

McLeod and Holman staked several claims on a mound that became known as Hooligan Hill. Their holdings proved promising and they sold them to a larger mining operation for $20,000 plus 10 percent of the profits.

By the end of 1907, word about Rawhide’s riches had spread and it became a classic Nevada mining boomtown that swelled to about 7,000 people.

The rush to Rawhide attracted a number of well known—and notorious—Western figures including Bill “Swiftwater” Gates, who had made a fortune in the Alaska gold rush, as well as “Diamondfield” Jack Davis, who occasionally worked as an enforcer and strike-breaker for Goldfield’s mining boss, George Wingfield.

Additionally, among those early residents was George Graham Rice, a legendary conman who reportedly had embezzled about $100,000 from investors during the earlier Goldfield mining boom.

Other, more reputable arrivals included George “Tex” Rickard, who opened a bar in Rawhide called the Northern, and invested in several local mines.

Despite all the interest and feverish activity, Rawhide’s glory days were brief, less than a half dozen years. One of the town’s main challenges was a lack of a water source. The precious liquid had to be hauled in from a distant well and was sold at the incredible price of 5-cents per galloon.

Still, at its peak Rawhide had a telegraph and long distance telephone service as well as three banks, five newspapers, a half-dozen restaurants, several dozen shops and hotels, more than 30 saloons, a school and a thriving red light district known as Stingaree Gulch. It was also served by a daily automobile-stage with mail service from several surrounding communities.

In September 1908, however, tragedy struck the town when fire destroyed a third of a mile of local businesses and residences. While some of Rawhide was immediately rebuilt, the community didn’t entirely recover as mining revenues began to dip.

Less than a year later, the Rawhide boom was over. Most of the population moved on to other, more promising communities. By the 1920s, Rawhide was almost completely abandoned.

But while the town didn’t last very long, it did make an impression. In 1908, famous British romance novelist Elinor Glyn came to Rawhide to get the flavor of a real Western town for her books and wrote about her visit.

Rawhide also experienced several unsuccessful railroad-building attempts. The closest to becoming a reality was the Rawhide Western Railroad, which would have linked the town to the Nevada-California Railroad at Schurz.

With less than three miles of grading to be completed, the railroad line was abandoned after investors bailed following the 1908 fire.

Today, virtually nothing remains of old Rawhide. Modern mining operations can be seen in the area but there is little to mark the town beside a small cemetery. Even the original Rawhide Jail has been relocated to the city complex in Hawthorne.

A non-profit group,, is working to develop a permanent historic display in Rawhide (funded by Kennecott Minerals) that will tell the history, geology and folklore of the community.

The former site of Rawhide is located about 55 miles southeast of Fallon via U.S. 50 (go about 30 miles), Nevada State Route 839 (turn right and continue another 10 miles) and about two miles of dirt roads.