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Mining for Gold (and Silver) in Special Collections by Peter Michel

By Su Kim Chung on March 14, 2017 5:02 AM | Permalink

Above: A view of Tonopah in the early 1900s (Leon Rockwell Collection, PH: 0008-0159)

If March brings to mind the luck of the Irish and a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, it might be a good time to highlight Nevada’s last great Gold Rush, and the towns along the rainbow. Over the years, UNLV Libraries Special Collections has acquired numerous documents and photographs from the great gold and silver mining boom in Tonopah and Goldfield. Selections from many of these collections are accessible online through our Southern Nevada: The Boomtown Years digital collection. The history revealed in these collections, of Goldfield and Tonopah and the men who made, and lost their fortunes there, offers researchers new perspectives on an intriguing aspect of turn-of-the century Nevada and the Western frontier.

 Above: A street scene of Tonopah in 1913—captured by local photographer E. W. Smith—includes a view of a bakery, a tailor shop, a bank and a real estate office. (Sherwin Scoop Garside Collection, PH: 0067-0094)

Our Southern Nevada: The Boomtown Years collection includes hundreds of photographs, some taken by professional photographers who set up studios in Tonopah and Goldfield, others captured by amateurs who took advantage of the new inexpensive Kodak Brownie cameras to send pictures home to show their families what life was like in a real Western boom town.


Above: A photograph taken in Goldfield, Nevada in September of 1904 captures everyday life in the rugged mining town. (Booth and Allen Goldfield Album)


Above: Spectators watch a July 4, 1903 drilling contest at Main and Brougher Streets in Tonopah, Nevada. According to writing on the reverse of the photograph, “These contests, as well as races, tug-of-wars and baseball games were an important part of early holiday celebrations.” (Central Nevada Historical Society Collection, PH: 0082-0011)

Among the many original documents from Tonopah and Goldfield now digitized are letters written by Earle Rinker, a young man from Indiana who came to Nevada seeking his fortune. In a series of letters he wrote to his mother and other family members over a two-year period, Earle described his adventures in the mining town of Goldfield. He also collected souvenir programs, postcards, commercial photographs and newspapers, meal and theatre ticket stubs and grocery receipts, that together document a common experience of those who flocked to Goldfield after 1905. Although the time he spent there was relatively brief, it’s clear from the survival of this collection that it represented a significant part of his life that he carefully preserved.

Above: A letter from C. A. Earle Rinker to his mother dated March 20, 1908. (C. A. Earle Rinker Collection, MS-00514)

The collections also include a variety of records reflecting life in this diverse and rambunctious community, items such as the Minute Book of the Goldfield Women’s Club, a program of the nationally famous Gans-Nelson boxing match, photos of parades, the famous transcontinental automobile race (the Great Race of movie fame) that passed through Goldfield, and an assortment of maps showing streets, mining claims and geology, as well as underground works.

Above: A map of the U. S. patent and location surveys in the Goldfield Mining District, Esmeralda and Nye Counties, 1907 (Southern Nevada History in Maps Digital Collection)

A complementary collection was recently digitized by the Nevada Digital Newspaper Project as part of the NEH funded Chronicling America, Historic American Newspapers Project hosted by the Library of Congress. The Tonopah Bonanza, the longest running newspaper in the region is now online, an easily searchable chronicle of the people who lived there. The Goldfield News will be digitized in the second round of this UNLV-led grant project.

Above: July 7, 1907 edition of the Tonopah Bonanza (Southern Nevada the Boomtown Years Digital Collection)

Goldfield and Tonopah were not simply picturesque Old West mining towns filled with colorful characters; they were the location of Nevada’s biggest and most profitable industrial and corporate enterprises. An important part of that history (and the collections that document it) comes from the mining companies themselves. The records in our archives are primarily from companies and financial institutions that made the boom of the boomtowns possible. Our collections from the Goldfield Consolidated Mining Company, the Tonopah Mining Company, and the Tonopah Divide Mining Company also represent some of the largest and most profitable industrial enterprises in the United States.

Above: Jim Butler raises a baton at a celebration in Tonopah on July 1, 1903. Butler was the first to find silver in Tonopah. (Tonopah Goldfield Album)

It is no fluke of historical survival that what remains of most mining companies was the paper they printed on, because for many of these companies they only (or mostly) existed only on paper. After ore was discovered, money was required to mine, transport and process it. Machinery and equipment had to be purchased, shipped, installed and maintained. Engineers were hired to appraise, map and inspect the mines, design and build equipment and machinery; buildings and smelters were built; labor and managers hired; lawyers and stock brokers retained.

Above: Brokers at the Goldfield Stock Exchange, February 29, 1908 (C. A. Earle Rinker Collection)

All this required investment capital, raised on the issuance of stocks and bonds, secured by the potential value of the ore and profits realized after shipping and processing. Mining camps were flooded by lawyers, brokers, and bankers. Prospectors often quickly sold their claims for the first offer made. To a poor prospector, a few thousand dollars for a small hole or outcropping was windfall enough.  But the brokers and speculators played another game having little to do with digging rock out of the ground. It was selling stock. And stocks were bought and sold in frenzied trading in the local stock market in the town, where men watched the rising and falling prices being chalked on a board, scenes played on a larger scale in San Francisco and New York.

Above: Postcard of the Tonopah & Goldfield Railroad dated December 7, 1907. (David Coons Collection, PH: 0029-0012)

Creating the excitement that would attract an investor looking for a quick and easy profit was called “booming”. Local newspapers boomed the towns by running headline stories on the latest strikes, stories sometimes fueled by little more than rumor or high hopes. National newspapers boomed the region for its business and economic prospects. Mining companies and brokers, represented by our Charles Sprague Collection, promoted the vast potential of still unexplored and undeveloped mines in slick prospectuses with photos and reports from mining engineers identifying rich veins waiting to be tapped. Companies issued ornate stock certificates whose value now as collectibles far exceeds the value they ever had as stock. The proliferation of claims and companies created the colorful patchwork claims maps that characterize the mining districts and which became part of the promotional package for the towns and mining companies.

Mining companies, like the railroads and other large industries in America at the turn of the century, merged and became large conglomerate corporations, controlling mines, smelters, local railroad lines and sometimes entire towns. A few giant mining companies survived for many years and produced voluminous records of a business entwined with many other businesses in the local and national economy, from local and national suppliers, to markets and processing plants at the far ends of the continent.


Above: Transporting a wagon load of ore from a Goldfield mine (Tonopah-Goldfield Album, PH: 0350-0132)

By the end of the First World War, the gold and silver mines began closing in Nevada as the country entered a recession, the mines played out, prices for bullion dropped, investment dried up and railroad operations ceased. The mining boom was coming to an end. Southern Nevada would not experience another boom until a massive dam project was begun on the Colorado River--the Hoover Dam.

Peter Michel, Curator