Queen of the Silver Camps

Highway 95

Great place to stop and start your exploring from.

In 1903, miners rioted against Chinese workers in Tonopah, which spurred a boycott in China of US goods. The town started about 1900 with the discovery of rich gold/silver ore by a prospector, Jim Butler. The ore eventually played out, and abandoned mines can be found throughout the area.


Tonopah Springs, later the site of one of the richest booms in the West, was an Indian campground for many years, long before Jim Butler spent a chilly night here. A number of stories exist as to how Butler discovered the ore. The most popular version is that Butler's mule wandered away and when Butler found the ornery critter, he noticed an outcropping that appeared to be heavily laced with silver. Butler took a number of samples. The date was May 19, 1900. This quiet start belied the actual importance of the discovery. Butler firmly believed he had discovered an important silver deposit but he had trouble convincing the assayer he visited in nearby Klondike. The assayer told him the samples were worthless, consisting mainly of iron, and he threw them into the back of his tent.

Butler was still convinced that his find was genuine. On his way back to his Monitor Valley ranch, he stopped at Tonopah Springs once more to gather samples. Back at his ranch, Butler put the samples on his windowsill. Not too much time passed before Tasker Oddie, later to be governor of Nevada, stopped at the ranch and spied the ore samples. He offered to pay for another assay and Butler agreed to this. Butler, in turn, offered Oddie a quarter interest of the assay. Oddie heartily agreed. He took the ore samples to William Gayhart, an Austin assayer, and offered Gayhart a quarter interest in his quarter. Gayhart found the assay ran as high as $600 a ton. When Oddie was notified of the value of the samples, he immediately sent an Indian runner to Butler's ranch to alert him of the rich find. Butler did not react rapidly. He stayed at his ranch to complete the hay harvest and did not even bother to file claims on the lode site!

News of the discovery traveled to Klondike and soon, scores of eager prospectors were searching around Tonopah Springs, to no avail, for Butler's lode. Butler finally went to Belmont, and on August 27, 1900, he and his wife filed on eight claims near the springs. Six of these - Desert Queen, Burro, Valley View, Silver Top, Buckboard, and Mizpah - turned into some of the biggest producers the state has ever had.

February 28, 1911, is the darkest day in the town's bright history. A mysterious fire, small but smoky, broke out at the bottom of the 1,200' shaft of the Belmont mine at seven in the morning. A number of men had already gone below before the seriousness of the situation was realized. The fumes were extremely toxic. Calls to the hoist operator came in slowly at first but soon became frantic. Although many men were brought to safety, 17 men perished in the mine. All died from the choking fumes, not the fire. A number of the dead had actually made it to the hoist lift but were so weakened that they fell out of the cage to their deaths at the bottom of the shaft. Actual damage to the shaft was only $5,000. The cause of the deadly fire was a candle left on a pile of dry timber by a careless night watchman. This was the only major mining accident in the Tonopah mines. The Belmont mine was soon reopened. It produced $38 million in silver and gold before another fire in 1939 closed the mine for good.

Tonopah is still a vibrant town, however. Tourism now plays a large part in the local economy. Many buildings still remain from the boom era, including the Mizpah Hotel, completely renovated during the late 1970s. Other points of interest include the Nye County Courthouse, built in 1905 at a cost of $55,000 on land donated by Jim Butler; the old Tonopah Public Library, built in 1912 and now the oldest active library in Nevada; St. Mark's Episcopal Church, built in 1906 and one of the better known landmarks in Tonopah; and the ruins of the old 500-ton Belmont mill, on the east side of Mt. Oddie. An extremely interesting place to visit is the Tonopah Historic Mining Park. The mines, formerly owned by Howard Hughes' Summa Corporation and donated by Echo Bay Mining Company, and a walking tour of the mining complex has been organized. The walk features numerous old headframes, buildings (including three hoist houses with all original equipment), mining equipment, and a huge glory hole. All of the major discoveries of Jim Butler are on the 110 acres comprising the park grounds including the Mizpah, Silver Top, Desert Queen, Montana-Tonopah, and North Star Mines.

A must stop for any visitor is the fantastic Central Nevada Museum. Many great displays and a complete research section are featured. Also, there are extensive outdoor displays, which feature artifacts, small and large, from all over the area. This includes parts of a stamp mill from Manhattan, hoist cages, parts from military aircraft that crashed during Tonopah's years as a military base, buildings from various towns, and a nature walk featuring native plants and fauna. The museum was originally supposed to be located in the old Tonopah depot, but it burned in August 1980. Only the heavy vault doors, needed to protect the silver and gold bars, were saved and now adorn the archives vault at the museum.

For anyone visiting ghost towns in the Nye County area, Tonopah is an excellent choice as a home base. Supplies of all sorts are available in Tonopah as well as reasonably priced lodging.