October 12 14, 2007
By Nan Savage
The Desert Explorers who ventured to Tonopah and environs were: Allan Wicker, Rich and Cathie Kenney, Bob and Kim DeWolf, Richard Brazier, Chuck Classen, Nan Savage, Marilyn Martin, Charles and Mary Hughes, Marian Johns, Bob Younger, Mary Whalen, Ron and Barbara Midlikoski. Most of the members arrived on Thursday. So did Allan Wicker. Earning the prize for attracting the most women during the three day trip, Allan just coincidentally arrived at the Jim Butler Motel at the exact same moment as Marilyn Martin and Marian Johns, who drove together in Marilyn¹s truck. The desk clerk, observing the threesome walking in the door, asked Allan skeptically, "Are you sure it¹s only one person in your room tonight?" (more on Allan¹s adventures later). Marilyn and Marian camped out on the back lot guarded by Marilyn¹s small, but mighty beast, "Solace."
Tonopah is a fascinating town, not large, but, as the townspeople are proud to point out, "centrally isolated" in the Great Basin of Nevada.
Perhaps this is why Howard Hughes chose to marry his love, actress Jean Peters, in the town of Tonopah on Jan. 12, 1957 in a top-secret ceremony.
The bride wore a simple day blouse and skirt so as not to raise the suspicions of the ever-vigilant paparazzi, for when the couple took off in Hughes¹ airplane, it looked like a simple day outing. But when they arrived at the justice of the peace in Tonopah, they took out a Nevada marriage license under fictitious names. This marriage practice is no longer legal in the state of Nevada, but the false marriage license kept the Hollywood event completely off the public radar. Although the union ultimately failed, Jean Peters refused to say a bad word about either Tonopah or Howard Hughes for the rest of her life.
Leader Bob Jacoby treated us to a fascinating historical orientation to Tonopah. Bob conducted much research on the features of the region and even provided photos to back up his informative commentary. For example, in 1903 Tonopah had a population of 3,000 with all of the necessary accoutrements for a town of that size; that is to say, 32 saloons and 2 churches. Mine production during the span of those early years equaled almost 150 million dollars. For those of us staying at the Jim Butler Motel, a fascinating and first-hand account of the area, written by the owner of the establishment, whose family has lived in Tonopah for over 90 years, was available in each room. Allan Wicker and I, the resident academics of the group, promptly read it cover to cover. Tonopah¹s fortunes rose and fell with its mining, and the townspeople assured us that all of the empty storefronts lining Main Street today would soon be filled with thriving businesses as a new "mine is about to open up." One has the feeling here that the old West is still very much alive, from the town¹s original frontier architecture, to its small size, to its ever-hopeful spirit that the next boom is just around the corner. If that mine ever does open up, perhaps the tall and regal Mitzpah Hotel and Casino in downtown Tonopah will sell. Now empty and boarded up, the hotel is a bargain at an asking price of only $1,675,000.00. For those of you looking for a hotel deal, however, a better opportunity might be the palatial and grand Goldfield Hotel. Also abandoned, it is even more attractively priced at less than $500,000.00, or just the amount to cover past due taxes.
On Friday morning we took our first back road adventure to the ghost town of Weepah, a once-thriving mining town that sported, we are told, a full-scale racetrack. Allan Wicker offered to allow me to ride along in his vehicle, as Ding had to remain at home to take a class, and Marilyn wondered, after his adventure at the motel desk, how many other women Allan might try to entertain over the course of the trip. Allan responded without hesitation that, if she could get Marian to drive the truck back alone, Marilyn herself could ride home with him on Sunday.
The big gold rush in Weepah began when a couple of teenagers found a large nugget of gold, making Weepah the site in 1927 of the last great gold rush in America. "Pah," means "water" in two Native American dialects; hence, the town names of Tonopah and Weepah. However, Weepah has no available water, so mining here was especially difficult. While mining promised potential wealth, water equaled life, so one could not exist without the other. The gold rush of Weepah lasted only a total of nine months. During the visit to the old site we saw a number of abandoned mine shafts in remarkably good condition. One, in particular, was uncovered and very deep, with a long ladder that led beyond the eyes could see. Some of us threw rocks down to test its depth. A member noted that there were many planks of wood in the area of the straight old variety of 10-inch widths - not a common lumber sight any more. Dick Brazier found a genuine gold nugget, that is, a rock with a few specks of gold in it, so he qualified as the only bona fide miner in the group. The gold specks sparkled fetchingly in the sunlight. Leaving the old town site, we crested a mountain and beheld a panoramic view of the Clayton Valley. After lunch, we approached the infamous "dry waterfall," described in Roger Mitchell¹s book on the area as a 4 wheel drive Class IV traverse out of a possible Class VI in difficulty.
Our leader, Bob Jacoby, however, pronounced the dry waterfall, "a piece of cake." Indeed, with Dick Brazier spotting, everyone made it through with absolutely no trouble, and Marian Johns wondered on the CB as we drove away when the "rough stuff would start." A side road took us to Lone Mountain Turquoise Mine, where a magnificent vista of multiple mountain ranges greeted us from an overlook above a pristine valley lake below. After crossing over the berm of the once-extant 1904-1944 Tonopah & Goldfield narrow gage railroad, we returned to Tonopah via the historic Tonopah City Dump.
On Saturday, Bob Jacoby led us on a walking tour of Goldfield, another
once booming mining town. In fact, from 1903 to 1910 aGoldfield was the
largest city in Nevada and the most notable stop between Kansas City and San Francisco. Over its mining history, Goldfield produced (in today¹s dollars) close to 18 billion dollars worth of ore. Allan Wicker continued his tradition of offering stranded women a helping hand by inviting Mary Hughes to ride along with him (as hubby, Charles, stayed behind to fix their vehicle). Our first stop was the Goldfield Court House, a memorable architectural treat in the desert - an arts and crafts mission-style building constructed in 1907 and still used.. Although the front doors were locked, an accommodating clerk working on Saturday invited us in through the back doors. We found ourselves immediately thrust back into time in a building preserved very much as it was in its heyday. Upstairs we discovered the large courtroom intact with its stuffed and imposing bust of a bighorn sheep protruding from the wall just above the judge¹s bench. Allan Wicker promptly took up his rightful position as the presiding judge, while the other entire desert explorers filed into and filled the jury boxes. There being no more seats available, the group forced me into the witness box, but I maintained my right to take the fifth. Outside the courtroom a sign admonished the men present: "those who expect to rate as gentlemen will not expectorate on the floor." All obeyed.
We were thrilled to meet up with Matt and Mirjam, our international DEX members from Switzerland, who joined us for the Goldfield town tour and delighted us with their ever-vibrant desert spirit. We then proceeded to Alkalai Hot Springs, a popular resort in the early 1900¹s. We saw two hot-tub sized pools plus a large pool, all with algae growing in them, which we were told is a natural function of the minerals in the water. The comfortably warm water comes from pipes that feed from underground springs.
No one waded in. We returned via a well-maintained and scenic road that took us through a Joshua forest, a pinyon pine forest, and a traverse of Montezuma Mountain. Back in town in the afternoon early enough for more adventure, some members stopped by the Central Nevada Museum for an educational experience, while others headed straight to the alluring jewelry shop stocked with locally-mined turquoise bangles. After dinner, a few of us, beckoned by Allan Wicker, ventured out into the desert night to view the stars above the town, a spectacle voted by USA Today as the best stargazing destination in the United States. We lay on the ground watching the magical shooting stars arc above us and reflected on the origins of the cosmos. With binoculars we marveled at the myriads of clusters of stars filling up all parts of the heavens, even the apparently black and seemingly empty spaces of the night sky.
aOn Sunday we were off to visit the site of Rays. We headed anorth on Radar Road out of Tonopah and soon found ourselves on some semi-rugged roads heading into the San Antonio mountains. Rays was a silver camp that hit its heyday in the early 1900¹s. It was primarily a tent camp with only one permanent structure, but had a population as high as 2,000. About all we could see at the site were some rusty cans and broken bits of glass. After leaving Rays, the road deteriorated significantly and everyone found four wheel drive to be quite handy. We came across what was identified as Ray¹s Well a couple of miles away. All it amounted to was a hand dug shaft filled with stagnant water. We then climbed perhaps the steepest hill of the entire weekend as the road deteriorated even more. However, at the top we came across a guzzler which is designed to catch rainwater, as rare as it is, and channel it into cisterns that birds can use.
With the exception of a flat tire just short of Radar Road there were no mechanical problems for anyone for the entire weekend. When pavement was reached, everyone said their goodbyes as a fun three days of central Nevada exploration came to an end. We saw a lot of new country, uncovered some interesting history and had a great time while enjoying the company of fellow DE members. We will have to do something like this again!