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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM GOLDFIELD

Now-Busted City Awaits Next Strike

Mining town bucks state's booming population trend, but loyal residents say good times will come again.

July 07, 2001|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GOLDFIELD, Nev. — The once-splendid Goldfield Hotel and its marble floors stand silent on the main drag here. The town's high school has been shuttered so long, even the plywood is in disrepair. A few weeks ago, the last gas station and minimarket closed too.

Nevada may be the nation's fastest growing state, but none of its casino boom has reached this old gold mining town, which struggles to revive its economy, vitality and dignity.

Since 1990, surrounding Esmeralda County has lost 28% of its population, the most dramatic drop among four Nevada counties that lost population as the state grew by a whopping 66%.

The remaining folks in Goldfield, reflecting the hardened spirit of old Nevada, shrug off the population slide as just another turn in the fate of Esmeralda County.

Like the town's founders, who accepted the capriciousness of booms and busts while mining the local hills of gold, today's residents are confident the good times will return.

"I probably won't live to see it, but I'll bet you a dollar this town comes back," says 86-year-old town matriarch Xniea Baird, who still drives her four-wheel-drive pickup truck for back-country excursions around old mine shafts.

Even newcomers embrace the attitude that this high-desert county, about midway between Las Vegas and Reno along U.S. 95, is their kind of paradise. They revel in the absence of crime. The quiet. The camaraderie.

They don't seem to be bothered that the town is ramshackle, with crumbling old homes and frontyards cluttered with abandoned vehicles and old furnishings. They have adjusted to the lack of amenities--the only restaurant usually closes at 3 p.m., the nearest automated teller machine and doctor are 26 miles away in Tonopah, serious shopping means a 100-mile trip to Bishop, Calif., or a 180-mile drive to Las Vegas.

Itinerant miners and many young families, unable to endure the county's waning economy, have left. But those who can afford to stay do.

Retired truck driver Rocky Fry and his wife, Alice, moved here from Covina 27 years ago and never looked back.

"It's the peace and quiet," he said. "And if you own a business here, it's guaranteed to be the best of its kind in town."

After the first gold strikes here in 1903, the town's population swelled to more than 20,000, making it Nevada's largest city and a prospect for the state capital. But today, in a county with only 971 residents, there is only one gold mine, kept open by a skeleton crew of 12 workers and a superintendent hoping gold prices will rise again.

There's scattered cattle ranching, a lithium mine that is the country's most productive and an operation that harvests talc. But 98% of the county was unclaimed when Nevada gained statehood in 1864, and today that land is controlled by the federal Bureau of Land Management, off limits to private development.

Goldfield, which once boasted every type of business, now has only four motel rooms. They are behind the Santa Fe saloon, which opened in 1905 and brags it is the longest continuously operating bar in Nevada. There's a rock shop, where owner Bob Plock sells gold flakes and dispenses local history lessons; The Dollhouse, where Sandy Howland sells her "concert hall girls" (dolls modeled after Nevada's brothel ladies); and an antiques store that opened on the Fourth of July.

More telling, though, is what historic buildings remain vacant, such as the Goldfield Hotel, opulent when it opened in 1908, and the shuttered four-story brick high school built in 1907, neglected by a state so chock-full of ghost towns it often cannot decide which buildings are worth saving.

A handful of nearly century-old buildings dot the town, including the stone county courthouse where the sheriff maintains the state's oldest jail. They survived the flash flood of 1913 and, 10 years later, a devastating windblown fire sparked by a bootlegger's still that devoured 52 downtown blocks. The town never recovered, despite a spike in activity during World War II, when troops were housed here to operate a bombing range.

Contemporary Goldfield stands as a curiosity, with passing motorists slowing but not stopping.

"We're pushing hard to promote Goldfield as a destination, a vacation place where you can get away from casinos and the rat race," said Benjamin Viljoen, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners.

To that end, the county staged a real estate auction last year that brought 1,000 people to town. Of 137 parcels owned by the county because of unpaid property taxes, 129 were sold--mostly to speculators glad to own a small piece of a historic town and hoping it somehow bounces back. Another auction is scheduled for Aug. 24 to 26, and includes the sale of claw-foot bathtubs and other memorabilia.

Viljoen sees signs of a small economic rebound. A company that stages mock Wild West shootouts is relocating here, and a small variety store and a restaurant catering to tour buses are expected to open in coming weeks.

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