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Step into the history of Goldfield, Tonopah, and ghost towns such as Rhyolite.
Photo: Mike Polak (all)
During a lunch break in 1975, a fellow employee and friend, Ed Erickson, had just returned from a trip to a town in central Nevada named Tonopah and was showing his pre-1900 whiskey and medicine bottles, tokens, coins, and mining-related artifacts he had found while digging in the town’s 1900s trash dump. The more we talked, the more I wanted to explore.
A month later I loaded the family into the station wagon and headed for Tonopah. I found the trash dump, and then I found a Tonopah Drug Co. bottle, and my adventure into the hobby of bottle collecting officially began.
As I began to further explore the mining ghost towns of central Nevada, my appreciation for the pioneer spirit continued to grow. When the Central Nevada Museum opened its doors in 1981 in Tonopah, my education and adventures into the past evolved into many new trails and discoveries.
The Museum’s Mission
and the Legacy of Central Nevada
I recently met with Eva La Rue, curator of the Central Nevada Museum and treasurer of the Central Nevada Historical Society. La Rue has been involved with the museum for 13 years and is a fifth-generation central Nevadan with a family legacy rich in Nevada politics. She currently resides in Goldfield and has a strong appreciation of Nevada’s history and culture.
La Rue says that the museum’s mission is to “collect, preserve, and educate everyone about the history of central Nevada. We want to preserve everything for our children and grandchildren and keep it safe and accessible for the future.”
To understand the museum’s mission, it’s helpful to know about central Nevada’s rich and colorful history and the legacy left behind by its numerous boomtowns, now ghost towns or near-ghost towns such as Rhyolite, Bullfrog, Manhattan, Aurora, Candelaria, Belmont, and Silver Peak. Goldfield and Tonopah hang on as shells of their former selves. Rhyolite, Goldfield, and Tonopah had the most significant historical influence for central Nevada.
Throughout these towns, there were many saloons, gambling halls, hotels, and business establishments visited by thousands of thirsty miners, accounting for many rare and valuable collectable bottles and other mining artifacts. While “ghost town” might not truly apply to Goldfield and Tonopah, the traces of the past are still seen and felt everywhere.
The Museum Yesterday
William Metscher formed the Central Nevada Historical Society in December 1977 to promote the preservation of central Nevada history, including Nye and Esmeralda Counties and other surrounding areas. In order to accomplish this huge task, Metscher, along with his brothers Philip and Allen, and their mother Alexandria, established the Central Nevada Museum in Tonopah in 1980 thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Fleischmann foundation in Reno. The museum officially opened its doors to the public in 1981.
William and Philip are now retired, and Allen is the current president of the Central Nevada Historical Society. The museum is operated under the direction of the Historical Society, which owns all of the collections, and Nye County, which is responsible for staffing and utility expenses. The Historical Society is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
The Museum Today
Since the museum’s 1981 opening, I have always been impressed with the variety of the displays and mining exhibits. These well planned and organized displays and exhibits have become more detailed and varied over the years, allowing visitors to view a variety of subjects that depict every aspect of the early days of Nevada mining. In addition, the museum has a gift shop with an excellent selection of detailed historical reference books, periodicals, videos, and maps, as well as bottles and insulators from the surrounding area.
The displays featuring the various collections of antique bottles from the region, and the exhibits of Tonopah “Queen of the Silver Camps” and Goldfield “The Greatest Gold Camp Ever,” always draw my attention. The Tonopah display features many great items, but the one item that stands out is a large “Tonopah Drug Co. — Tonopah-Nevada” bottle with an approximate value of $1,500. The Goldfield display features an amethyst “G. B. Co.” (Goldfield Bottling Company) bottle with an approximate value between $800-$1,100.
As you enter the museum, there are two large cabinets of bottles on the right featuring a large selection of glass items from the region, specifically amethyst-colored (purple) bottles. In the large display area, behind the large selection of reference books and periodicals for sale, there is an extensive miniature bottle collection exhibit, along with other artifacts, found and donated to the museum by William Metscher.
All of these items were found in Tonopah, Goldfield, and the surrounding ghost towns in the area. If you like spooky stuff, walk to the middle of the museum, and you will see a very unique exhibit of the Tonopah Mortuary (actual sign), including the bottles with the contents and embalming equipment.
Toward the back of the museum is the Tonopah Army Air Field display. After the United States entered World War II, the Tonopah Bombing and Gunnery Range was created. Most visitors are not aware of the important contributions and impact that this training base had not only for Nevada, but the entire war effort. The Tonopah Army Air Field was Nevada’s dominant military installation during World War II with a staff of 6,000 personnel training P-39 and B-24 pilots. The isolation of the Tonopah Bombing and Gunnery Range still continues to contribute to the development of our nation’s defensive hardware. From 1983-89, extensive secret testing of the F-117A Stealth Fighter was conducted in the area.
In addition to the many indoor exhibits, there is an extensive outdoor exhibit in front of the museum that includes a replica western town with authentic miner’s cabins relocated from the surrounding area, displaying a typical saloon, general store, and sleeping quarters. The saloon and general store exhibits have impressive displays of hundreds of whiskey, beer, and food bottles along with other food containers. With antique items gathered from the surrounding towns, there are additional exhibits featuring a blacksmith shop, railroad yard, and early antique mining equipment complete with ore cars.
The museum also offers the collector an excellent facility for research with a large conference room and extensive library with photo collections, archival materials, albums, books, newspapers, maps, videos, DVDs, and genealogy files.
The Museum Tomorrow
La Rue says the museum directors would like to implement an expansion to accommodate additional exhibits and displays. Since there is a continual flow of donations of physical items, there is a need for additional storage space. In addition, there is the need for a new room with special climate controls and fire proofing to accommodate items such as historic documents, glass negatives, rare books, and official county records.
The museum offers memberships starting at $20 per year, which includes a historic photo postcard with descriptive caption and an issue of Central Nevada’s Glorious Past. Lifetime members ($250) receive a commemorative plaque.
The museum and research library are open Tuesday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.