I just finished up what was likely my last session in Tonopah, Nevada for a while. That is, until they add even more to the survey! I thought I'd give a quick History of Tonopah and a summary of the field work because it all turned out to be quite interesting.
Early 1900s Tonopah.The modern city of Tonopah was founded on May 19, 1900 by Jim Butler. Butler was traveling through the area and stopped for a little break. A popular version of the story is that Butler's mule wandered away and he went to look for it. When Butler found the mule it was standing near a rock outcrop that appeared to be saturated with silver. Butler took a few samples to send to the assayer. After one assayer said the samples were worthless, another confirmed Butler's suspicions of rich silver ore deposits in the Tonopah area.
Word was sent to Butler concerning the rich silver in his samples, however, Butler did not respond rapidly. Instead, he stayed at his Monitor Valley ranch to finish up his hay harvest. Butler's neglect to file a claim on his lode site nearly lost him a fortune. Word spread of the Butler Claim and scores of miners flocked to the Tonopah area to find it. The claim remained elusive to all but Butler.
On August 27 Butler finally traveled to Belmont, Nevada to file his claims. Belmont was the county seat of Nye County at the time. Butler filed eight claims including the famous Desert Queen, Burro, Valley View, Silver Top, Buckboard, and Mizpah claims. These six claims turned into some of the largest producers of silver that the state had ever seen.
Once the Mizpah mine was started in October of 1900 a small camp called Butler began to form. In December Butler decided to lease all of his claims for a period of one year. Butler and his partner, Tasker Oddie (future Governor of Nevada and namesake of a street I live near) would receive 25% royalty on all gold and silver mined from the claims.
The town began to grow. In January there were 40 men in the camp. By March there were 60 men and within a few weeks the population was 250. A post office named Butler opened on April 10, 1901 and it wasn't until March 3, 2005 that the name changed to Tonopah.
Nearly $750,000 in gold and silver was produced from Tonopah mines by the summer of 1901. The mines were consistent producers for the next 40 years. By 1901 the town had assay offices, doctors, lawyers, lodging houses, saloons, merchants, restaurants, and a population of 650.
By 1902 Butler consolidated his claims into his new company, the Tonopah Mining Company. The company controlled mines in several states as well as one in Nicaragua. In Tonopah, the company owned three shafts, the deepest of which was 1500 feet. The ore was mined in more than 46 miles of lateral tunnels. Other companies produced ore at similar rates and soon processing facilities would be built at Tonopah. Until then the ore was shipped to other towns for processing.
The peak in ore production for Tonopah took place from 1900 to 1921 with $121 million in gold and silver extracted. 1913 produced the most ore at $10 million. By WWII only four companies remained in Tonopah and a huge fire in 1942 destroyed one of them, including a nearby hotel. The end of the major mining period in Tonopah came when the Tonopah Goldfield Railroad ceased operations in 1947. The tracks were removed and no railroad connects to Tonopah to this day.
Over the years since the boom individuals and companies have made claims at mines in the Tonopah district but nothing substantial was located. Now, however, a new resurgence is beginning.
With the ongoing technological advances in mineral extraction technology companies like Allied Nevada Gold are coming back to Tonopah. High yields of deep ore deposits are forecasted to earn millions of dollars for the modern gold companies and their stockholders. This would likely mean an increase in populations and a resurgence of business activity for some of the former great towns of the gold and silver rush era.
That leads me to our current survey project outside of Tonopah. All of this information, by the way, is publicly available. Check out Allied Nevada Gold's website and you can see presentations on expected mineral yields and profiles of core drilling projects. They are entirely transparent as a company because they are publicly traded on the NYSE.
For our survey we first conducted a thorough walk-over of the entire area. We mostly found evidence of historic mining with only a handful of prehistoric sites recorded. Most of the mining related features that we recorded were prospecting pits and mining claim cairns. Over 1800 of these features were recorded!
Some of the larger sites that we recorded included larger historic mining sites. These sites often contained a large waste-rock pile with a leveled platform at the top where access to the shaft was located. In all cases the headframe was gone but the internal frame of the mine shaft remained. Sites also included foundations for hoists and generators and leveled platforms for other mine support buildings, such as tents, blacksmith buildings, and carpentry buildings. These sites always included a large amount of historic trash that was used to date the sites.
Again, this information is all publicly available. A large portion of the project area is on leased BLM land and there is frequent local recreational vehicle traffic through the area.
I gained an appreciation for historic artifacts on this project that I previously did not have. My interests have always centered around the axiom, "The older the better!" However, I've always liked how datable historic artifacts are. If you know a bit about can manufacture and bottle maker's marks you can almost date a site to a single year, if not a narrow range. That is pretty nice. I even encountered a concrete platform that had a date engraved right on it! You can't ask for better dating.
While working on this project I bought and read several books on historic mining and the history of Tonopah. They gave me a better understanding of the town and its history. They also showed me the value of understanding an area before you go to work in it. Since I've worked in many areas across the country I have always tried to find literature about the cultures in the area before I go there. That was especially important here because none of us knew anything about historic mining practices and equipment, yet, we were asked to describe these sites and, essentially, reverse engineer what we saw for our site descriptions. We learned a lot as we went along and I'm sure our site recording accuracy improved every day.
I can't count the number of times that I've gone to a project and worked with people that just put their heads down and walked. They were looking for, what? I don't really know. When you have worked all over the country you realize that not every historic site and not every prehistoric site is the same. That might seem silly to say out loud but think about it. How much do you really know about the unique cultures and their life-ways before you work in an area? Did they build subtle earthworks? Did they have pottery? Did they build mobile structures like teepees or did they built pit houses? All of these things have different expressions on the ground after hundreds and thousands of years of neglect and abandonment. We have to know how to tell what we're looking for. We have to be professionals. We have to be committed to the archaeology and to the people who's history we are trying to describe. That's not to say that I haven't worked with some really great, dedicated, archaeologists. There are those out there that really enjoy their job, and not just during work ours.
I highly recommend a stop in the sleepy town of Tonopah if you are traveling US95. It's the main highway between Las Vegas and Reno. And no, you will not see alien spacecraft as you pass the Nevada Proving Ground and the infamous Area 51. Critical thinking is a skill that you have to work on and develop every day.
Cogito Tute! (Think for yourself)