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.

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