Friday, April 10, 2015


The Tonopah, Death Valley
and Bridgeport Loop:  Stage 1

Tonopah is a dusty Nevada town perched in the high desert about halfway between Reno and Las Vegas.  Its tired Main Street is rimmed with vacant buildings.  The town is an easy one to pass through traveling north or south on US 95, unless one has a reason to stop. 

I did.

Just out of high school and having dropped out of Cal a half-semester in, Dad had lived in Tonopah, or so I thought.  A visit to retrace ‘the Old Timer’s’ footsteps had long been on the list prompting this journey.

A year ago, I’d driven through, pausing long enough to walk a few yards along the old Tonopah and Tidewater right-of-way north of town and swiping a rusty spike.  Dad and his buddy Ralphie Fairbanks had tamped ties on the T&T as gandydancers, the story goes.  Perhaps he’d hammered the very spike I’d found.

Rolling into town, I took a room at the historic Mizpah Hotel.  Dating back to the earliest tents of this windswept mining outpost, the Mizpah survived Tonopah’s growth, decline, resurrection and yet another decline.  The hotel soldiers on today thanks to the efforts of Sonoma (CA) County’s Cline family.  This winemaking family purchased the vacated and crumbling hulk some years ago, intent on returning the hotel to its days of glory.  They’ve done a nice job.  On the premises they’ve established a great little bar and a fine restaurant called the Pittman Café.

Among the first things I do when entering a berg for the evening is spend an hour or so walking around.  A “city” block back of the hotel, the Tonopah Historic Mining Park’s arched entrance invites.  Entering at 4:55, I was politely shooed out at 5:00, closing time.

Across the street from the Mizpah, I discover that Jimmy Dean’s classic song “Big Bad John” was grounded in reality.  A bronze statue commemorates the heroic actions of a miner named Bill, whose name, sadly, doesn’t resonate musically as well as “John.”

His story:

The used bookstore stays open until 6:00 and there I purchased a copy of the local history.  Reading at dinner, before shut-eye and again at breakfast, I discover tales of drama, grit and despair that the weary buildings hide behind their plywood-boarded windows.

Jack Dempsey fought here twice – though never a championship bout as I’d thought.

The silver in the hills once supported this town, which, for a time was bigger than Las Vegas.

The Army built an air base east of town breathing new life after the silver played out.   
A mural depicts the cavalcade of activity there, but no mention is made of the “Right Stuff” boys training which purportedly happened there.

And the T&T never made it to Tonopah.  The T&T had branched off the Santa Fe at Ludlow, California making it only as far as Beatty some 120 miles south.  Dad hadn’t driven that spike I’d purloined a year ago.  I should have been disappointed.

Instead, I just headed for Beatty.


Note: Prior to my morning departure, I am seated at the Pittman Café counter reading through the final few pages of the book I’d purchased.  Sidling up and taking the stool a couple of seats down, a younger fellow chats up saying: “That’s a pretty good book, idn’t it?”  “Seems to cover the history pretty well,” I reply.   
The engaging young gent shares a little more about the town and the history and I tell him I’d just discovered that Dad hadn’t lived here, although I thought he had.  He chuckles and asks me to crack the book open to page 6.  “The baby in the picture?  That’s my grandpa Al.”  The caption read in part:  Tim Hooper on the left, Jenny Crow Hooper holding baby Albert Hooper.  August 15, 1902.  “I’m still livin’ on the property he homesteaded…”


Resources:  McCracken, Robert D. “Tonopah: The Greatest, the Richest, and the Best Mining Camp in the World.” Nye County Press. 1990.  $20.00.

For info on the Mizpah Hotel, the place to stay in town, check out:

© 2015
Church of the Open Road Press

1 comment:

  1. I totally remember Tonopah from a trip to Death Valley with friends when I was teaching! I love your adventures!