Goldfield – Queen of the Mining Camps

Goldfield NV 1906

Goldfield, Nevada around 1906 or 1907. Click for prints & products.

In December, 1902 gold was discovered in the hills south of Tonopah, Nevada by two grub stake prospectors named Harry Stimler and Billy March. In no time, tents began to dot the barren hills in the mining district dubbed “Grandpa,” later named Goldfield.  Just a year later, only 36 people lived in the new town, but that was to quickly change as gold began to be mined in the area in larger and larger quantities.

Dugout House Goldfield

Dugout houses were built by early prospectors in Goldfield, Nevada. Photo courtesy Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs

In the summer of 1903, those miners who had spent the previous winter Goldfield, living in quickly constructed shanties or tents came up with a better solution.

Soon they began to dig new homes along the banks of Coyote Wash. Brownstones from the canyons of Malpai Mesa were hauled in to close the fronts of these hurriedly dug caves, making them more suitable against the harsh winter winds and the heat of the summer desert. Some parts of these old brownstone homes were still evident as late as the 1940s, but today it is almost impossible to determine where these structures once stood.

By 1904, the town supported three saloons, a grocery store, and two feedlots, along with its area mining operations. In the spring of that same year, Virgil and Wyatt Earp arrived in Goldfield, once more chasing the prospect of easy riches. Though Virgil’s arm was atrophied from the bullet he had taken in Tombstone in 1881, he was soon sworn in as a deputy sheriff in Goldfield. In February, 1905, a man named Tex Rickard opened the Northern Saloon, Goldfield’s most celebrated saloon and gambling house. Wyatt, who had met and become friends with Tex in Nome, Alaska, was hired as one of his pit bosses.

On July 8, 1905, Goldfield suffered its first major fire when a stove exploded in the Bon Ton Millinery shop. The flames soon spread to adjoining structures. Without enough water to fight the quickly spreading flames, beer was used as an extinguisher. The July 9, 1905 issue of the Tonopah Daily Sun reported:

The buildings of the Enterprise mercantile Company were saved by the free and unlimited use of beer. Barrel after barrel was used and had a most desirous effect. Had it not been for the liquid the entire stock of goods of the company would have been ruined.”

Goldfield was finally saved when the wind shifted, but not before two blocks of businesses and homes had burned to the ground.

Santa Fe Saloon Goldfield, NM

Santa Fe Club Saloon in Goldfield, established 1905.

1905 also saw the arrival of the Tonopah & Goldfield Railroad, much to the relief of its many residents. It was also this year that the Santa Fe Saloon was built. One of Goldfield’s oldest continuously-operating businesses, the saloon continues to offer four motel rooms as well as being a popular oasis in the desert. Complete with its false front, western wood sidewalks and rough floor planking, inside sports an original Brunswick Bar, dominating the Santa Fe’s back wall.

In October Virgil Earp contracted pneumonia, so sick that his doctor cut him off his favorite cigars. On October 19, 1905, he seemed to rally, asking his wife Allie for a cigar. Believing he was getting better, she gave him one. He then requested that she sit with him, holding his hand. Before he finished the cigar, he had died. Virgil’s remains were taken to Portland, Oregon, where he lies at the Riverview Cemetery. Wyatt left Nevada shortly after Virgil’s death.

In 1906, the town reached its peak with a population of over 30,000, when as much as $10,000 a day in ore was being taken from the mines.

The town was called the “Queen of the Mining Camps” for its luxury and availability of saloons and other forms of entertainment, including its many sporting houses. At this time, building lots often sold for as much as $45,000. In addition to its numerous saloons, the town boasted three newspapers, five banks and a mining stock exchange.

On Labor Day 1906, Goldfield was chosen as the site of the Gans – Nelson Lightweight Championship of the World. Tex Rickard’s Northern Saloon staged the prize fight, building an 8,000 seat arena, but more than twice that many people turned out to watch the fight. The fans got their money’s worth as the bout went 42 rounds, a record that still stands in the Guinness Book of World Records. The winner, Joe Gans, walked away with a $30,000 purse.

Mohawk Mine

The Mohawk Mine was one of the many mines in Goldfield in 1906.

Soon after mining on an extensive scale began, the miners organized themselves as a local branch of the Western Federation of Miners. The Goldfield Consolidated Mines Company, primarily owned by George Wingfield, held a virtual monopoly in Goldfield, which led to an adversarial relationship between mine owners and the unions.  There were several strikes in December, 1906 and January, 1907 for higher wages, with more strikes continuing throughout the year for various reasons. Though there had been no serious disturbance in Goldfield, George Wingfield appealed to President Roosevelt in December 1907 to send Federal troops, on the grounds that the situation was ominous. With no state militia to maintain order, the president ordered a California division in San Francisco to march upon Goldfield with 300 federal troops.

The troops arrived in Goldfield on December 6, 1907 and the mine-owners immediately reduced wages and announced that no members of the Western Federation of Miners would thereafter be employed in the mines. The troops remained in Goldfield until March, 1908, with the contest of wills having been won by the mine owners.

From 1903 to 1910, Goldfield was the largest city in Nevada, and in 1907, the county seat was moved to Goldfield from Hawthorne. Soon the city fathers set about to construct a new courthouse, a two story fortress like building that continues to stand today. The large stone structure opened in May, 1908 with a jail added onto the rear of the building.

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