Goldfield’s bust was Las Vegas’ boom


They came to Goldfield for the gold, of course. And Goldfield was a grand boom town in its day.

But when the veins depleted and the ore played out, and all that was left was the hot air of the stock promoters and the hard liquor of the saloon keepers, an interesting thing happened.

Many of those intrepid souls drawn to Nevada for the Goldfield boom found themselves headed over rail and rut to the tent town that sprouted in 1905 next to the tracks of William Andrews Clark’s San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad in Southern Nevada.

Early visitors to a booming Goldfield might not have found the idea of a bust possible.

Founded in 1902 with the discovery of gold ore, Goldfield quickly grew from 20 miners to more than 20,000 residents. By 1907, it was the largest city in Nevada. (Its population hovers around 300 today.)

Its prospects seemed limitless, and its boosters’ gift of self-promotion knew no bounds. As the Goldfield Historical Society website enthuses, “Goldfield had all the amenities of any large city, with fancy restaurants, hotels, athletic clubs, church and social groups of every kind, theaters, shopping, sporting events, unions, all the general businesses of the day, casinos, red light district … and all the hopes of prosperity any individual would want to find.”

Three decades before the promise of construction work at Boulder Dam attracted a migration of hungry families to Southern Nevada from across a nation falling into a Great Depression, Goldfield’s glow attracted dreamers and schemers alike — many of whom were destined to make their mark in Las Vegas.

While future Nevada Rep. Walter Baring was born in Goldfield, attorney Thomas L. Foley moved there in 1904 from Chicago. His son, Roger T. Foley, would not only become a U.S. District Judge, but his five sons — Roger D., Thomas, Joseph, George and John — would go on to stellar legal careers in Las Vegas.

If railroad man and water agent Walter Bracken had enjoyed a little better success with his interests in mines in Goldfield and elsewhere, he might not have stuck around Las Vegas to help build the community in its first generation. As recounted by A.D. Hopkins in “The First 100: Portraits of the Men and Women Who Shaped Las Vegas,” Bracken tried to keep his sense of humor about all that glittered in the desert distance. “Through the years I spent plenty of money grubstaking,” he said in 1948, “but have never gotten back a dollar.”

If future Clark County Sheriff Sam Gay had experienced more success digging in a mine outside Goldfield, he might not have had to take a job as a bouncer for Tex Rickard at the Northern Club. And that activity, for which he showed a real talent, led to his storied career in local law enforcement.

When Swiss immigrant Pete Buol arrived in Goldfield shortly after news of the boom reached Chicago, he found the price of everything too high for his meagre pocketbook. So he grabbed a stagecoach and bounced and bumped south until he found an oasis in the desert with a couple ranches and big plans for a railroad line. He stayed on, became a water man and keeper of artesian wells, and eventually was elected the first mayor of Las Vegas.

And if the brick schoolhouse in Goldfield had remained full of children, it might have kept the talented and tough Maude Frazier at the blackboard. One of the most important figures in the history of education in Nevada, Frazier moved to Las Vegas to accept a position that led in 1927 to an appointment as superintendent of what was then called the Las Vegas Union School District.

Some made their fortunes and built their political futures in Goldfield.

Others made their mark, and Nevada history, after moving on and helping to build Las Vegas.

Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Contact him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.