Schlitz beer made Milwaukee famous, but it no doubt helped save the gold camp of Goldfield, Nevada, as well.
Traveling over U.S. Highway 95 through western Nevada is one of the beautiful RV road trips in the American West. A lot of history is visible and accessible on the route, including Las Vegas, Death Valley, and the many ghost towns that prospered and waned during the last gold rush period of the frontier. On Highway 95, you’ll pass through what remains of the last gold rush boomtown, Goldfield, Nevada, about 20 miles south of Tonopah.
Goldfield was the last of the boomtown mining camps but was at one time the largest city in Nevada, with a population nearing 30,000 from 1906 to 1910. The Goldfield boom is credited with saving the state of Nevada from losing its statehood in the early years of the 20th century. Goldfield boasted having 49 saloons, 22 hotels, 40 doctors, and ten undertakers at its peak. There were hundreds of prospectors and dozens of mining companies, with names like Florence, Red Top, the Combination, and Goldfield Consolidated. The mines were producing more than $10,000 worth of gold ore per day, much of which found its way into the saloons, brothels, and opium dens of Goldfield.
One thing the town lacked was an adequate water supply system. Water was scarce in the desert and Goldfield was surrounded by rocky crags and shifting desert sands. The boomtown mentality did not lend itself to a great effort to ensure enough water for its residents’ needs. It was only a matter of time before the hastily built wood-framed, lap-sided homes and commercial buildings were threatened by fire from tobacco smoking, kerosene lighting, wood stoves, and general carelessness.
The beer that saved Goldfield
According to a 1907 report by the U.S. Geological Survey:
“On a windy day in July 1905, a fire was started which destroyed several blocks of tents and buildings. It is a matter of interest that at least one building was saved by using beer to prevent its igniting; the bottles were thrown against the building as modern grenades are used.”
When volunteer firefighters hooked their hoses up to the hydrants in downtown Goldfield that day, barely a trickle of water flowed. There was nowhere near enough water or water pressure to extinguish the rapidly building conflagration. It was at that realization that quick-thinking saloon tapsters saved the day. Goldfield: short on water, not short on beer. They brought out kegs of draft beer and thousands of bottles of brew, which the barmen and firefighters used to subdue the flames. They also applied beer-soaked blankets and tarpaulins to the exterior walls of the town’s stone buildings to keep them cool enough to avoid fires in their interiors. It has been said that if you catch the cool desert evening breeze just right, the bouquet of lager still lingers.
The saloons saved Goldfield that day, but the boom town didn’t last. The great high-grade ore shoots pinched out. There was a catastrophic flood in 1913 that wiped out many structures in the town, as it was already in decline. In 1923 another fire swept through the tinder-dry town and destroyed 53 square blocks of buildings.
Today, 250 people still call Goldfield home, and there are still many historic buildings, mining structures, and a lot of rich Western history to be seen in the American frontier’s last boomtown.