The Goldfield Historic District

Boom towns, Boosterism, Labor, and Disaster

Despite the idea that the frontier closed in 1890, popularized by Fredrick Jackson Turner, the West was not settled. The days of boom towns and quick fortunes continued into the twentieth century. Goldfield saw its fair share of boom and bust, labor strife, and environmental disaster in the early 20th century.

Tucked away in the Middle of Central Nevada on a narrow two lane highway located between Nevada’s two largest populated areas, 200 miles north of Las Vegas and 250 miles south of Reno is the remains of a city that once dwarfed both. If you were to travel to Goldfield today you would be greeted by a small town composed of a collection of turn of the century buildings, one restaurant, and an impressive castle inspired courthouse, but if you blinked you might miss the town all together. From a casual observer’s position many would find it hard to believe that Goldfield in first decade of the twentieth century was the largest city in the state of Nevada and once had a population that exceeded over 20,000.

Prospectors were drawn to the dry, remote Nevada desert in previous decades in search of silver and many mining towns such as Tonopah dotted the landscape. Goldfield alluded their picks because it did not offer silver ore, but gold ore. Prospectors discovered gold at the base of Colombia Mountain (the large mountain seen in the background of the town picture) in 1903 and quickly people began flooding in to the region. This once nondescript piece of desert transformed into Nevada’s largest city in only four years. By 1904 Goldfield had its own post office, telephone and telegraph lines, and newspapers.

The town began as a gathering of tents and adobe buildings because those materials were either light or readily available in the desert, but as the boom moved on more and more modern buildings were added including access to electricity. Businesses included, saloons, hotels, photography shops, and social clubs. Unlike earlier gold rushes many came to Goldfield by car. Early cars had high clearances, solid rubber tires, and could be repaired in the field making them well suited to the desert. This also led to clashes between horse drawn stage companies and automobiles as they fought over who could go on which roads. Rail lines also arrived in town to carry both passengers and ore. The Railroads connected Goldfield to the rest of the country as lines headed out to the north, south and west. Goldfield received water through a combination of local springs from surrounding canyons and local wells dug around the town site. For an added fee to the city you could even have indoor plumbing brought to your home or business. Though, being in a desert and constantly growing meant water supply was always a problem. The water shortage contributed to fires in Goldfield, in 1906 alone there were three hotel fires in the city.

At its peak the city hosted sporting and entertainment events including dances, baseball leagues and the Gans-Nelson world championship fight that lasted a whopping 42 rounds. But by 1907 the boom had begun to slow and labor struggles began to emerge. The struggles between miners (led by the IWW) and mine owners made national news as President Teddy Roosevelt was manipulated into calling troops into the city to put an end to the unrest. Though the growth of the city had ended 1908 proved to be the most productive year in the city’s history, but the city was already in decline. As the ore deposits depleted the city shrunk rapidly by the end of 1909 the population fell to 5,000 from a peak of 20,000 to 30,000 in 1907. The city also began to fall apart physically. In 1913 heavy rains fell in the nearby mountains and a torrent of water came rushing down a nearby canyon and strait through town, destroying the low lying segments of town. The city committed to rebuilding but in 1923 another disaster, this time a fire destroyed much of the city and this time threw was little to no energy to rebuild, by decades end all but one rail line had ceased service and Goldfield had declined to a small town. Today Goldfield still stands and contrary to popular belief it is not a ghost town. It still has a population of 300 and serves and the county seat of Esmerelda County and continues to offer services including a post office, DMV, and the county courthouse. The Goldfield Hotel still stands, as well as prominent buildings, such as the Nixon Building and Santa Fe Saloon, continually operating since 1905.

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