GOLDFIELD, Nev. -- It was the most important boxing match of the year, maybe the decade, and thousands of people poured into Nevada to watch Joe Gans and “Battling” Nelson fight for the Lightweight Championship of the World.
But instead of walking under the neon lights of the Las Vegas Strip, visitors took in the sights and sounds of Goldfield. The year was 1906, and the mining town was the most prosperous and populous in Nevada.
Nearly 100 years later, the streets that were seemingly paved with gold have turned to dust. Nelson’s 42-round loss is a faded memory, and the industry that mined such riches has all but disappeared.
“It’s an area that looks back on its past with great pride, but in terms of looking toward its future, it’s dying a slow death,” said Guy Louis Rocha, Nevada’s state archivist.
Devoid of shopping malls or even a supermarket, Esmeralda County is filled with remnants of the past, including the town of Goldfield, where boarded-up buildings greet those passing through. The town’s biggest motel is shuttered, along with the Green Parrot Saloon.
In its heyday, Goldfield had more than 20,000 residents, overshadowing Las Vegas and its 1,000 settlers in 1907. Today, Goldfield has one gas station, four motel rooms and a population that hovers around 350.
Likewise, Esmeralda County has seen an exodus, so much so that it was the fastest shrinking county in the United States in 2002. U.S. Census Bureau data released in April shows only 884 people call Esmeralda County home, down from 951 residents in 2001. Those remaining are spread across an area about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.
More than 98% of the county’s 3,588 square miles is under federal government control, and only a handful of tiny towns dot the sparse landscape. Silver Peak mines lithium, Fish Lake Valley is mostly agricultural, and Gold Point is a living ghost town with a population of 7.
For people in rural Nevada, the last five years have been tough, said John Dobra, economics professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “They board up the windows and they leave,” he said.
Goldfield was one of the world’s great boomtowns in the early 1900s. After gold was discovered in 1902, the town’s mines produced $15 million in 1906 and 1907.
Two of the town’s most prominent buildings, the Goldfield Hotel and the Esmeralda County Courthouse, were under construction in 1907 and together cost nearly $500,000 to build. With its Tiffany lamps, brass trim and a rack for Stetsons underneath the seats, the courthouse stands as testimony to the town’s gilded past.
A “golden mountain of allure” was how Rocha described it, adding, “In a very short time, it becomes a great town, but almost as quickly it fades from the scene.”
One of the original nine counties when Nevada became a territory in 1861, Esmeralda County is thought to be named after the dancing gypsy in Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” One of the area’s founders, J. M. Corey, took the name because it aptly described the area, which was a “wild dance of death and disappointment to thousands,” according to a writer at the time.
Esmeralda’s mineral production peaked in 1983 at $40 million, comprising 6.9% of the state’s total production. But by 1997, production had fallen to a little more than 0.5% of the state’s total, to $17 million -- and it has continued to slip.
From 1990 to 2000, Nevada grew by 66%, fueled largely by growth in the Las Vegas area. Esmeralda County’s population dropped 27.8% during the same period, although local officials dispute recent census estimates, saying head-counters missed about 90 people living in an apartment building on the county line.
Halfway between Las Vegas and Reno on the California border, the county had the second-lowest median household income in the state at $35,309 in 1998. County government is one of the largest employers.
“When the price of gold dropped so bad, everything pretty much shut down,” said Kelly Jo Eagan, 44, chief deputy county clerk who has lived in Goldfield 12 years. “A lot of it was lack of work. People would hold out as long as they could.”
Benjamin Viljoen, an underground miner who is chairman of the County Commission, says that with little more than 1% of land privately owned, there is no room to expand.
“We’re trying to entice industry into the area,” he said, but blamed federal bureaucrats’ red tape -- “rigmarole,” he called it -- for costly delays.
As a result, many in this town, where a draw of cards recently settled a county election and 9% of the population lives without a telephone, have pinned their hopes on tourism.
Crucial to that plan is the Goldfield Hotel.
Shuttered since 1936, the hotel will be put on the auction block later this year. County officials say a Las Vegas entrepreneur spent millions fixing the place up, but declared bankruptcy before renovations were completed.
“We’re steadfast in that whoever comes in, we want the area to stay authentic,” Viljoen said. “The money is in the real McCoy. That’s what makes Esmeralda County so attractive and we hope they don’t want to destroy what brought them here.”
Gold Point sees the past as its future too.
Two of its residents, Herb Robbins and Walt Kremin, are renovating Gold Point’s ramshackle buildings and turning it into a bed and breakfast for out-of-towners wanting an Old West experience.
“I hate to see anything go away that could be preserved,” said Sandra Johnson, 54, who along with Robbins and Kremin runs the Gold Point Ghost Town Bed & Breakfast & More.
In 1908, 225 tents and buildings and about 1,000 people occupied Gold Point. Major mining operations ceased in 1942 and, by the 1960s, a ghost town was all that remained. The town’s nearest neighbor is the Cottontail Ranch brothel.
“Out here, we’re just interested in having a lot of fun and trying to preserve some of the Old West,” said Pat Miles, 48, a miner and self-described caretaker of the town.
Robbins and Kremin have spent about $170,000 to gut the interiors of the turn-of-the-century structures and turn them into comfy cabin rooms. Some of the money came from a casino jackpot won by Robbins, the town’s mayor, sheriff, bartender and historian.
Back in Goldfield, townsfolk continue the tradition of meeting at the Santa Fe Saloon, where they can still get a drink at the bar built in 1905 and catch up on the news.
For locals like Nora “Tootsie” Adams, 61, who has lived in Goldfield for most of her life, there is an eternal optimism about the town.
“It’s been feast or famine for years,” Adams said. “It could be another feast; you never know. You just plug on and hope for the best.”