Goldfield: Once Nevada's Largest Town, its Glory Days Were Brief

By Steve Kanigher

Published 07/05 2012 09:42AM

Updated 07/06 2012 04:40PM

There was a time in Nevada history when Las Vegas wasn't the state's largest city, a time back in 1907 when that distinction belonged to Goldfield.

If you've never heard of Goldfield, it's because the town's meteoric rise and fall spanned less than a decade. Beyond a few historic buildings, not much remains of the Esmeralda County seat along U.S. 95, a three hours' drive northwest of Las Vegas. A fire on July 6,1923 -- exactly 89 years ago -- wiped out much of the town. What once was a community of more than 20,000 people in the first decade of the last century has only a fraction of that today. Fewer than 800 people live in the entire county.

The Goldfield Historical Society said on its website that the town owed its beginnings to Nevada natives Harry Stimler and William Marsh, two prospectors who established mining claims on the north ridge of the Columbia Mountain in December 1902 and named the district "Grandpa." When they and other prospectors and investors returned to the site in October 1903 to establish a town, they changed the name to Goldfield, believing it would be a better way to promote the area.

"The boom years in Goldfield ran from 1905 through 1910," the society wrote. "Goldfield had all the amenities of any large city, with fancy restaurants, hotels, athletic clubs, church and social groups of every kind, theaters, shopping, sporting events, unions, all the general businesses of the day, casinos, red light district, gold, high grading, and all the hopes of prosperity any individual would want to find."

Goldfield in 1905 briefly served as home base for deputy sheriff Virgil Earp, brother of famed lawman Wyatt Earp. But Virgil died from pneumonia in October 1905, just before the town enjoyed the height of its prosperity.

In its heyday as a gold mining haven in 1907, Goldfield had 49 saloons, 27 restaurants, 22 hotels, 21 grocers, 17 laundries, 15 barber shops, 14 cigar stores and six bakeries. The professionals included 162 brokers, 84 attorneys, 54 assayers, 40 doctors and 10 undertakers.

One of the most colorful aspects of Goldfield's gold mining trade was the shady practice known as high grading, a form of thievery by miners who worked in company mines. In a story written for Desert Magazine in November 1942, author John Hilton interviewed county engineer and Goldfield expert Ed Giles on this topic.

"The methods ranged from concealed pockets in the tail of a miner's shirt and oversized boots and trick lunch buckets to such devices as the one in which the company blacksmith went in cahoots with the highgrader in an ingenious scheme that worked fine until it was discovered," Hilton wrote.

"The blacksmith bored a hole in the miner's pick handle. During the underground shift the cavity was filled with gold, corked, and a little mud smeared over the end of the handle. When the pick was sent to the blacksmith to be sharpened he took out the gold and later it was shared."

Many assayers who set up shop did so to take advantage of the illegal trade. But Hilton wrote that they were shut down once the powerful mine owners caught on.

Another author, Arthur Woodward, wrote in the November 1950 edition of Desert Magazine that $37 million in gold was mined from the town at its peak in 1906 and 1907. The biggest producing mines included the Mohawk, Jumbo, Red Top, Combination, Florence, Consolidated, Combination Fraction, Great Bend and Daisy.

But Woodward wrote that labor unrest also set in when mining companies began paying their workers in scrip rather than cash due to a temporary shortage of currency in Goldfield banks.

"Big Bill Haywood, known as the ‘Big Fellow,' organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, also called the Wobblies, moved into Goldfield to direct strike tactics and keep the miners in a constant state of agitation," Woodward wrote.

"Then the companies put in changing rooms where the miners were compelled to change clothes as they went in and out of the mines. This innovation brought forth a storm of protest. It interfered with the highly lucrative business of high grading."

The mining company crackdown on high grading, which accelerated in 1907, put them at even greater odds with the union, which it accused of condoning the theft of gold from the mines. The Mohawk mine was thought to have lost $1 million to high-grading activity in just the final half of 1906.

Law enforcement prosecution of crooked miners and assayers became the norm. At the prompting of Nevada Gov. John Sparks, who acted on behalf of mine owners, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered federal troops in December 1907 to restore order in Goldfield.

The ordeal prompted the Nevada Legislature the following year to establish a state police force so that Nevada wouldn't have to rely again on federal troops to calm a community.

The goldrush soon came to an end. As author Sally Springmeyer Zanjani wrote for the Online Nevada Encyclopedia:

"After the bonanza spirit faded, Goldfield rapidly declined. Although the mines still produced well, the population dived to 5,400 in 1910 and continued to shrink. Worse lay ahead. The Goldfield Consolidated Mill closed in 1919, then a fire that started in a bootlegger's still in 1923 left much of the city a blackened, smoking rubble."

The town has hosted an annual Goldfield Days festival in August and has attracted some interest from film makers. Parts of the 1971 movie "Vanishing Point," which centered on a car chase, were filmed in Goldfield. The town also took bows in lesser-known films such as "Cherry 2000" and "Desert Blue," and the historic Goldfield Hotel was used in the 2007 film "Ghosts of Goldfield."

But the boom days when Goldfield hosted major events such as a lightweight boxing championship and served delicacies such as quail on toast, as Zanjani reported, are long gone.

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