According to legend, in early 1900 a potential prospector named Jim Butler was spending the night near the Sawtooth Pass on his way to Klondike, Nevada. The following morning he realized his burro had wandered off. When Butler finally found it he picked up a stone to toss at the beast and noticed the rock’s unusual weight. After bringing the sample down to Klondike, and eventually up to Belmont, Butler realized that he had discovered silver. Likely the story is nothing more than myth, yet however it happened, Butler had found one of Nevada’s largest silver loads. Three years later the town of Tonopah was established around the mines and Butler would forever be a staple in the town’s rich history.
The decision to make Tonopah part of my This is America Too project had roots in the Ingleside neighborhood of San Francisco where I was living at the time. The local dive bar I frequented there, Randy’s, had a great cast of regulars I befriended. Among them was Elliot, a lawyer who worked in Oakland but was raised in Reno. As the trip to Nevada approached I was still trying to decide which town I would visit. I narrowed it down to either Wells or Tonopah and went to Elliot for advice. Not only did he recommend Tonopah but let me know the most scenic route there, told me where I should stay, what to see, and put me in touch with his sister who had connections around the area. The excitement that Elliot showed for Tonopah solidified where I would be visiting in Nevada and when I eventually made the trip I wasn’t disappointed.
I left the Bay Area in the late morning, drove east along the I-80 to Hwy 50, and eventually over the Sierra Nevada to Carson City. In Nevada I met up with Alt I-95 at Silver Springs where I shot south until I connected to I-95. The last stretch along I-95 brought me past the stunning Lake Walker, through Hawthorn, Nevada (where a welcome sign boasted the “World’s Largest Ammo Depot”), and finally to Tonopah. As I approached the town of only 2478 people, 6047 feet up in the high desert, and over 200 miles from any major city center, I couldn’t help but think that it reminded me of what I imagined a mirage would resemble. Entering town along Main Street, I-95’s temporary name as it passes through town, I grew excited thinking about the upcoming days and my chance to explore what I had already decided was one of the most interesting places I had ever seen. In town I took a left into the parking lot of the Jim Butler hotel, named after the town’s founder, and where I would call home over the next four nights.
I entered the lobby of the Jim Butler and the woman who checked me in was not overly welcoming at first, but she quickly warmed up. As I filled out the usual paperwork I listened to her story. She explained how she was from Southern California but came to Tonopah to live with her sister and avoid jail. She told me a bit about the town and warned that there were military zones in the region that were strictly off limits. Once I registered and paid she gave me the key and mentioned that the cable was out. The room was nice and the blasting air conditioner was a welcome relief to the desert heat. I dropped off my belongings and ventured back out for dinner.
When I was first pulling into town I saw the Tonopah Brewing Company and had already made up my mind where I would be dining that night. The brewpub’s design was modern with a giant pickaxe out front. The inside was spacious and to the far left of the bar was the brewery, a true brewpub in the middle of the desert. I later learned that the brewing equipment they used, along with the beautiful bar-top, was all procured from an auction. I glanced over the beer menu and ordered the .999 IPA from a very amiable waitress. I wasn’t disappointed in my choice but I wasn’t overly impressed either. My next beer hit the spot, the Tasker double IPA had the hops I was looking for, on the light side for this style but perfect for my taste. It became my beer of choice over the visit. Along with my brews I got a Sidewinder Pulled Chicken Sandwich; tender smoked chicken on a sesame bun with fries and a choice of four sauces. As I contently chowed down I had a feeling this was going to be my go-to dinner spot for the rest of my time in Tonopah and indeed it was, I returned there every night. After dinner I decided to retire back to the room for the night and grabbed some beers on the way.
When I woke the next morning I continued an email correspondence I started the previous evening with Elliot Miles’ sister Lora about people she may know in town. I wasn’t having much luck and finally I decided I needed breakfast. I went to the front desk to inquire about the best breakfast spot and without hesitation I was told to go next door to the Mizpah Hotel. Everything about the hotel–size, architecture, and most certainly the interior–seemed out of place in a small desert town. Named after the largest silver mine in the area, and built in 1908, it was the tallest building in Nevada for two decades. In recent years, the Cline family, owners of Cline Family Vineyards in Sonoma, CA, purchased and restored the Mizpah to its early glory. Walking inside I was taken aback by the beautiful classic wood décor and elegant furniture, all dimly lit by a number of hanging lamps. Simultaneously, I was amused by the carpeting and lobby slot machines so ubiquitous in Nevada hotels. Combined it gave me the sense I was walking into a semi-anachronistic replica of the Wild-West’s fanciest of hotels. I passed through the lobby to the restaurant located in the back of the hotel. There I learned I was too late for breakfast and settled on a basic sandwich for lunch instead. The waitress Chrissy was in training and it was obvious by the way she bumbled about, but she was extremely friendly and very open to chat. I explained why I was in town and she insisted I meet Ramsey Cline, the son of the Mizpah’s owners. She mentioned that he owned and ran the Mizpah Casino attached to the hotel and filled me in on the story of the Cline’s other ventures in Tonopah which included the brewery I ate at the night before and another building in town they were in the process of restoring. She raved about how friendly and down to earth the family was and I left feeling Ramsey might be a perfect interview for the project.
After eating I returned to my room to pick up my camera with the intention of roaming the town for photos. I checked my email and found Lora sent a last possible contact in the nearby town of Goldfield. I called the courthouse in Goldfield where Lora’s friend worked and was told she was out of town for the week. With all of Lora’s suggestions exhausted I accepted that I would be finding my own interviews. One additional thing Elliot’s sister suggested was that I go to the Mining Park located just behind where I was staying. She mentioned it was mostly run by volunteers and they loved to chat. I went out to explore with the plan of visiting the park a little later in the day.
I walked around town for about an hour, and was both shocked and delighted at what it had to offer. I passed abandoned shacks and dilapidated houses that looked left from the early mining days; random junk in people’s yards ranging from antique washing machines to modern elliptical machines; gutted, rusting classic vehicles, and doublewide trailer-homes with makeshift additions that were too odd to imagine. I think the best way to describe Tonopah would be that it reminded me of a haphazardly designed junkyard; not one piled together because its creator had no respect or love for its contents, but still a product of someone’s desire to simply abandon shit. And because the desert’s dry atmosphere has a way of retarding decay, I only imagined this beautiful collection of crap had pieces as old as the town itself. Of course throughout the town there were many well maintained homes and buildings, however the banality of orderly Tonopah was clouded by what I considered its rustic charm. Eventually the heat got to me and I decided to stop into the TLC (Tonopah Liquor Company), one of the bars on Main Street.
After cooling down with a couple of pints I made my way to the Mining Park. Although it was a short walk uphill, the heat and altitude took its toll. When I entered the welcome center I could tell the attendant Mike both recognized and was surprised that I had walked there. He welcomed me, explained how the park was set up, what the admission was, and asked if I wanted to watch a twenty minute video about Tonopah before going back out into the heat. I happily agreed to watch the video. When it finished I stuck up a conversation with Mike, learned his story, and explained my project. He told me he was from New Mexico and originally came to the state years ago to work at an open-pit mine a few hours away, but was now retired and living in town. Mike’s story seemed fitting for a town born on mining and I asked if he would sit down and share it. He was hesitant so I told him to think about it, gave him my card, took his number, and told him I would give him a call the next day. After we finished I stepped back outside to take a tour of the mine park. The self-guided tour was informative and interesting, but I rushed through it because of the heat. I left the park more knowledgeable about Tonopah’s history, and hopeful that I might have an interview for the project.
On my way from the park I stopped into the Mizpah Casino and checked to see if Ramsey Cline was working. I was advised to check with the cage cashier who told me that Ramsey may be in later that evening. I thanked him and left. With time to kill I decided I would check out one of the other taverns in town called Bug Bar. The location was perched on a hill in the south-central part of Tonopah. Its patio overlooked the town and was visible from Main Street, I had been curious about it since I arrived in town. I hiked up the road leading to it and stepped inside. The interior was beautifully designed to give the feeling of a classic saloon and was filled with a hodgepodge of antiques. I sat down at the bar, ordered a PBR, and just observed the atmosphere. I got the vibe it was the watering hole for some of the later middle-aged locals around town and there was an energy of camaraderie I enjoyed. Not long after getting there one of the patrons came over and started chatting with me. He explained he had helped in the construction, that it was only four years old, built in the spot where the adjoining hotel’s pool used to be, and that the antiques around the place were a collection of the owner, a man named Jim Marsh. Although the name meant nothing to me at the time, I later learned Marsh was an icon in Nevada. He owned a car dealership in Las Vegas and a slew of properties ranging from motels to dive bars all over the region. In Tonopah he also owned the Banc Club, one of the town’s three casinos. Bug Bar wasn’t the last of Marsh’s properties I would step into on my visit but it was the most beautiful. After my second beer I left and returned to Tonopah Brewing Company for dinner.
When I finished eating I decided I would visit the Mizpah Casino once more to see if Ramsey might be in. When I entered I went straight back to the cage and asked the same gentleman for him. He recognized me and made a call to the head office. After a moment he told me Ramsey was available but wouldn’t be able to meet for another fifteen minutes or so. I told him no problem and went to the casino bar to wait. I was surprised that the bartender was the same friendly woman who waited on me at the brewery the previous evening. I ordered a Tasker double IPA, (the casino carried a couple of the brewery’s beers) and asked her about her story in Tonopah. Her name was Crystal and she explained her mother had lived in town for years but she moved back and forth between there and Southern California. Recently her and her partner, Chrissy the very friendly waitress who insisted I meet Ramsey earlier that morning, had returned to Tonopah with their kids and were trying to raise a family there. As I was listening to her story in short snippets, broken up by her tending both the bar and casino floor guests, Ramsey approached. He was young, neither over or under dressed, and he had a presence that said he was confident but not overly judgmental. Still I was unsure as to how he might react to some stranger who has been asking for him all day but he made me feel at ease right away. We talked for a short time, I explained my project and what I was hoping to get from him. He told me that he had only been in Tonopah for a short time but I assured him that his family’s presence there was enough for me. He gave me his number and suggested I call the following day to set something up. I thanked him and sat back at the bar.
The plan was to finish my beer and call it a night but as I sat still chatting with Crystal a younger guy sat down a stool away from me. It seemed Crystal knew who he was and after a moment he was given $650 he had just won on the slots. I was intrigued by his quick earnings and we started talking. His name was Craig and I leaned he had moved from Las Vegas for a job at the Crescent Dunes solar energy project just outside of town. The project was a CSP (concentrating solar power) plant that was operational since 2015. It used thousands of mirrors to concentrate the sun’s heat on a tower over 600 feet tall and filled with seventy million pounds of molten salt. The movement of the salt through the tower produced energy for up to ten hours each day, much of it being reserved. Craig told me his dad had some type of ties to the project and helped him get the job. Apparently it paid well because in just the time it took me to drink another beer I watched him dump the full $650 back into the slot machine on the bar in front of him. He told me it didn’t matter because of the money he made and that he also felt bad taking money from Ramsey even if it was just business. After finishing my beer I said my goodbyes and returned to my room with a nice buzz and content with the day’s progress.
The next morning I texted Mike from the mining park and confirmed our meeting. I returned to the Mizpah for breakfast before trekking to the park. Mike thought that he would be free for an interview at the time we planned, but just before I arrived the park got busy. He apologized and called Sherrie, another worker there who was born in Tonopah. She said she would come right over and meet with me. My first interview! After about twenty minutes she arrived and we decided to go to one of the old buildings in the park to talk. The interview went well. She explained that she grew up in Tonopah but went to university in Reno and moved to upstate New York for several years before returning with her family. She shared why she loved the area but also the fears she had as a mother in a town with bad schools and no medical facilities. Although we didn’t talk for long, I felt I had a better understanding of what kept people in Tonopah, and what pushed them out. When we finished we returned to the welcome center and she insisted I meet with an older gentleman named Alan Metscher, a local historian who worked with the Central Nevada Museum in town. She called over to the museum to see if he was in and sure enough he answered the phone. Alan told Sherri that he was on his way back to Goldfield but if I made it over there quick enough he would meet me. I thanked her again, told Mike I would try and make it back to interview him, and then rushed back to my hotel to get the car.
I made it to the museum in less than ten minutes and went in. Just inside the door Alan introduced himself with enthusiasm and asked me what I was doing there. I explained the project and why I was hoping to sit down and meet with him. He told me he didn’t have time at the moment but if I wanted to meet him the next morning in Goldfield he would be glad to talk and give me a tour of the town. I told him I would be delighted and we set a time. Before I left I was given a tour of the museum’s impressive archives and I could tell from the way Alan glowed that it was something he was more than proud of. Before I left we reconfirmed the time and place and I thanked him. I lunched next door at the Tonopah Station, another hotel and casino, and then drove back to my hotel.
One of the other tips I had gotten from the mining park was that there was a family named the Ottesons who ran a turquoise shop in the Mizpah. They also owned a majority of the Royston mining district north of Tonopah that produces some of the world’s premier turquoise. After lunch I went over to the shop and talked with Donna Otteson, explained my project, and asked if she might be interested in siting down and sharing her story. She explained she was busy but if I came back tomorrow at noon her husband Dean would likely be interested in talking as he loved to tell stories of his childhood in Tonopah. I thanked her and assured her I would be there at noon the following day. I went back to my room and shot Ramsey a text to see if he was still interested in meeting. He quickly replied and we also set up a time to meet the following day. Everything was working perfectly. It was still early in the day, I had one interview done and three set up for the next day. With nothing else to do I decided to look into something I was curious about since my drive to Tonopah a couple of days earlier.
Nevada is the only state in the country where prostitution is legal and although much of the trade done in the state is illegal, there are somewhere in the range of nineteen legal brothels, all in rural parts of state. As I was driving to Tonopah I passed the nearly abandoned town of Mina with a population of 155. Just outside of Mina was the Wild Cat Brothel. The main building sat on a dusty lot and was a one story shack surround by gaudy Romanesque pillars. There was a limo out front, an entrance sign shaped like an arrow with Wild Cat printed on it, to the back a large double wide, and out front a sign that simply read “Brothel, Free WIFI, Drinks, Girls”. As I passed it the first time I was intrigued. I had to know what the inside of this place looked like, who worked there, and how it survived in the middle of nowhere. With these questions in mind and curiosity driving me, I jumped in the car and took an hour drive back.
I left for the brothel not realizing it was further than I imagined, yet by the point I recognized the distance, I was already committed. Finally I came upon the ludicrous looking pit-stop. I pulled in, got out of the car and rang the doorbell out front. A buzzer sounded and I went in. To my right were some couches, and straight back was a small bar with porn playing on a T.V. in the upper right hand corner. To the left was a hallway and past the couches to the right another. Everywhere the walls were covered with nudes. I went up to the bar where a sleazy looking, late-middle aged white guy asked me if I wanted a drink. I ordered a beer (only three dollars), and he told me the girls would be out soon. Within a minute I was approached by a beautiful light-skinned black woman who introduced herself as London. We talked a short time and she told me she was visiting from Atlanta and had only been there a week or so. Within five minutes of me being there the buzzer rang and a potential client was let in; kind of a scrawny looking white guy, he gave me the impression of a trucker. At the same time another woman, darker in complexion but also pretty, came out and London left me to go talk with the new customer. The other woman introduced herself as Charlie Rea and told me her and London came from Atlanta together. While Charlie, the creepy owner, and myself talked, London took the other guy off somewhere. Charlie informed me of the fees for spending time with the ladies and I politely explained I wasn’t interested. After finishing my beer I was feeling a bit uneasy and ready to go, but Charlie Rae assured me that even if I didn’t want action I didn’t have to rush off. She made me feel more at ease so I order another beer and we kept talking. Among other things I learned the owner had recently taken over the business with his Jamaican wife. He told me the brothel only employed two girls at a time and it always rotated. I learned from Charlie Rea that her and London met each other back east while working as private dancers, Charlie Rea was a vegan and quite the entrepreneur, and the two of them loved Nevada and thought of possibly opening a business in the area. By the time I was done with my second beer London was back out and sitting with us at the bar. I thanked all three of them for their time and told them I had to go. I exited the place satisfied that I took the time to check it out and no longer curious. I drove back to Tonopah, ate once again at the brewery, and called it night.
The next morning I woke early, got ready, and took the thirty minute drive to Goldfield where I met Alan. The town is twenty seven miles south of Tonopah, also a boomtown, but as the name implies it was founded on gold. Also like Tonopah it was established and peaked in the very early 1900’s, but Goldfield once reached a population of over 20,000 people, nearly seven times what Tonopah ever grew to. Today the town is no more than three hundred people and exploring it with Alan was surreal. We met outside of the Goldfield Hotel, and it may have just been the ghost-town setting but the looming edifice, boarded up in places and clearly abandoned, had an eerie presence. We interviewed outside not far from the hotel and at one point Alan motioned toward the structure and told me a story about how his grandmother was once a maid there and had a conversation with a man hours after he had hung himself. I didn’t doubt the place was haunted.
After an hour of chatting he told me he would give me a tour of the town and proceeded to drive me all over explaining in detail the often scandalous histories of local buildings, some long gone, other still remaining. He told me how Virgil Earp, Wyatt’s brother, died there: how the founder of UPS, Jim Casey, once was a messenger boy in town and witness to a murder of a friend: and how the world’s longest prize boxing match (42 rounds between Jon Gans and Battling Nelson in 1906) took place there. As interesting as everything Alan told me was, nothing topped our visit to the Goldfield cemetery. When we got there he pulled out two bent lengths of iron that acted as divining rods, he showed me how he could hold them lightly in his hands and when passed over graves they would cross. I was skeptical and he may have sensed my doubt as he handed me the rods to try myself. I let them lightly rest in my hands just as he showed me and I was shocked when over and over some subterranean presence pushed the two pieces of iron together when I was above a grave, and let them rest apart when it was passed. He went on to explain that he actually mapped out the entire Tonopah mining cemetery using this method and later found a plot map that confirmed what he had suspected. I asked him what he believed made the rods cross over the graves but he could only answer that this was his same question. We left the cemetery and he dropped me back off at my car. I left Goldfield wishing I had more time there, a chance to get to know Alan a bit better.
After leaving Alan, I took a few photos of the town and raced back to Tonopah and the Mizpah. There I found Dean Otteson waiting for me just as his wife had promised the day before. We went to his turquoise shop to chat. As soon as we sat he told me I couldn’t film the conversation because he was under contract for a new T.V. series that was being made about his life as a turquoise miner. I assured him no filming would take place and was a bit impressed that I was sitting down with a possible future television celebrity. Dean was quite a personality and I could see how someone might choose him for a reality show. The conversation wasn’t long but he told me how his family came to be some of the most important turquoise miners in the country, how valuable the mineral was, and filled me in on what it was like to grow up in Tonopah. When we finished I thanked him and went to grab a bite to eat before the last interview of the day and trip.
After lunch I returned to the Mizpah Casino once again and Ramsey was there waiting. We stepped into the restaurant that was connected to the casino and talked for about 20 minutes. He shared his story, how his family came to invest so much in Tonopah, and what it was like for him living in such a small town. As he mentioned to me earlier, he didn’t have a deep connection to the town due to the limited time he lived there, however I felt like his and his family’s investments in Tonopah anchored him to the town more than he imagined. We finished by mid-afternoon and I had time to make one last excursion outside of town.
I stopped back at the hotel to grab a few things, filled up on gas before leaving town, then drove north along Hwy 376 for 50 miles to Manhattan, NV. On the way to the tiny town of just 124 people, I passed through a small chunk of the Humboldt-Toiyabe national forest that practically surrounds Manhattan on all sides. I marveled at the beauty of the untouched high-desert landscape as I drove through it. In town there was not much to see and after a quick pass I turned around and stopped at one of the two bars there, The Manhattan Bar. While chatting with the bartender I learned that the location was another owned by Jim Marsh and that the next town I was going to visit, Belmont, had a deep connection to Manhattan and was even smaller. I finished a beer and made my way east to Belmont. The majority of the short trip was again through the national forest and I was in heaven as I drove into the high-desert forest and its truly unique flora. A storm was brewing on the horizon looking east so I stopped and jumped out of the car to take in the gorgeous show Mother Nature was putting on.
By the time I arrived into Belmont it was raining pretty hard. I stopped at what looked like the only functioning business in town, a bar called Dirty Dick’s Belmont Saloon. Inside the bar I grabbed a drink and started talking with the owner/bartender and the three other patrons. Two were women who were passing through like me. The third was a younger guy who spent every summer in town with his grandparents. As we all sat and talked the kid offered several times to take us on a tour of town. Finally when the rain died down a bit I took him up on his offer. We jumped in a Polaris sitting outside the bar and he proceeded to drive me around the mostly ghost-town and a few ruins from the once prosperous mining industry. It is said that Belmont may have once had as many as 15,000 people but according to my tour guide there were no more than a twenty year round residents at the time. When we finished we returned to Dirty Dick’s and I bought him a beer for the tour. I returned to Tonopah for one last dinner at the Brewing Company and called it an early night.
The next morning I left early having decided the night before that I would use a different, longer route to get home. I went directly west along the 95 and eventually to Hwy 120 through the Sierra Nevada. The drive home was stunning and as I rode along enjoying the scenery I recounted the time I had in Tonopah. Although it was a town starkly different from the two I had previously visited, I found similarities that I guessed I would continue to find as the project progressed. The love that some residents had for their little town, the closeness that was felt in a small community, and the friendliness that is often less common in bigger cities were just a few of those similarities. I also realized Tonopah, like Lone Pine and Seward, was unique in a way that would set it apart from any town I would visit as I continued to traverse this vast country. Next town is Hart, Michigan, the area where my grandmother called home.