GOLDFIELD, Nev. — A cold wind swept across the high desert valley, blowing dust, tumbleweeds and paper scraps toward the foothills, toward the little town's cemetery.
A wire fence surrounded the scruffy little graveyard, and the wind made the wires emit a low, mournful hum. The wind also made the hundreds of old wooden crosses tremble.
Very few graves in Goldfield's cemetery have headstones. Most graves are marked with wooden crosses. No names, no dates. In Goldfield, people were in a hurry.
There was gold here.
Looking west, Goldfield seems to be in a state of arrested decay now, as it has been since the 1920s, when the gold mines began to play out. Hundreds of decades-old wooden shacks are slowly blowing away, splinter by splinter.
All over town, Model-A era cars lie rusting, slowly being swallowed by the earth.
From the cemetery, one can see the dominant buildings in town: the four-story Goldfield Hotel (1908), the Esmeralda County Courthouse (1907), the firehouse (1908) and the brick high school (1907), which was boarded up in 1957.
To the north of town, two blocks from the hotel, one can see where a flood wash has flattened the earth. On that site, 82 years ago, a Goldfield saloon owner, Tex Rickard, built a 7,000-seat wooden arena around a boxing ring. For nearly three hours one day, Sept. 3, 1906, all telegraph wires in the United States were connected to Goldfield, Nev.
On June 27, 1988, a couple of heavyweights will fight in Atlantic City, N.J., for a total of about $33 million. On Sept. 3, 1906, lightweights Joe Gans and Battling Nelson fought for $34,000 in Goldfield.
Doesn't sound like much, does it? The guy selling the T-shirts at the Tyson-Spinks fight will probably make that.
But 82 years ago, $34,000 was by far the biggest purse offered for a boxing match.
Gans, Nelson, Rickard.
Three men, drawn together to make history, to a place not as unlikely as you might think. Goldfield, you see, had what all three wanted:
U.S. 95 runs through Goldfield, 180 miles north of Las Vegas. At an elevation of 5,690 feet, its summer mornings are cool. In 1906, it was the largest city in Nevada, with about 30,000 people living in wooden lean-tos, shacks and tents. A panoramic photograph of the day, possibly taken from a balloon, shows the little valley covered with small structures and crisscrossed by dirt streets.
Today, Goldfield is stirring again. New cyanide mining technology enables miners to drain gold out of the many ore piles discarded by miners of old.
Ten years ago, Goldfield was closing in on ghost-town status. The population was down to 150. Now it's up to 600. And the Goldfield Hotel, where the last guest checked out in 1946, is about to breathe again. A San Francisco developer, Lester Oshea, has been remodeling the 101-room hotel the past three years, and its reopening is scheduled for Labor Day weekend.
Before 1900, Nevada had been in a 20-year mining depression, and the state had lost one-third of its population. Then, a series of gold strikes occurred.
The first one was at Tonopah. The second, in 1902, was at Goldfield. Two prospectors, Harry Stimler and Billy Marsh, hit a strike in the town's foothills. Goldfield boomed. Between 1904 and 1918, $88 million in minerals came out of Goldfield, and the city's population grew to 30,000.
In one three-month period one Goldfield mine yielded $5 million in gold.
A ton of common surface dirt in Goldfield usually resulted in $100 to $500 in gold. When the Hayes-Monette mine operators sent one ore shipment to a California smelter, they received a check for $500,000.
Prospectors, hardware salesmen, merchants, gamblers and saloon owners flocked to Goldfield. At one point, the city had 53 saloons. One of them is still in business, the Santa Fe Saloon, built in 1904. It's well known to locals for the homemade tomato soup.
Prostitutes operated out of one-room dwellings downtown, simply hanging out signs reading "Jenny," "Mary," etc.
One of the early arrivals was a migrant cowboy/prospector who'd first grown weary of herding steers in the Texas panhandle. After that, he made and lost a fortune in the Klondike Gold Rush.
George Lewis (Tex) Rickard craved action. He yearned to own a saloon and see it filled with drunken men with gold in their pockets.
What this town needed was a major prize fight, Rickard decided. One day in his Northern Saloon and Gambling Casino (an abandoned gas station stands at the site today), he assembled several of Goldfield's wealthiest citizens and proposed a Nelson-Gans world lightweight championship boxing match for the city. And why not? Nevada, in 1906, was the only state in the union where prize fights were legal.
Rickard and his friends formed a corporation, calling themselves the Goldfield Athletic Club.
Rickard first wired Battling Nelson's manager, Billy Nolan, stating:
"Will give you $20,000 fight Gans. Fight (to finish) Labor Day. Money posted J.S. Cooke and Company Bank, Goldfield. Answer immediately.--Rickard."