[Floodgap Roadgap presents the Summer of 6]

Floodgap Roadgap's Summer of 6 -- U.S. Highway 6, Part 2: US 6 in Nevada (State Line to Tonopah; Mineral County, Esmeralda County, Nye County)

Go to: Part 1 | Main US 6 page | Part 3

[A lightning strike at a mining cap near Tonopah, 1904.] US 6's routing in Nevada today is a very long one, over 305 miles (although the champion is of course Colorado), but for many years was a route given shorter shrift than US 40 and US 50 because it served no major city and very few minor ones (Ely the shining exception), and several portions were not sealed for some time. Thus, I dispute US 50's prize as awarded by the state as the Loneliest Highway in Nevada -- I think US 6 is far lonelier and passes through more isolated areas, but this is sort of a hard crown to win in what even in the present day is a sparsely populated region except for Las Vegas-Henderson (US 95) and Carson City-Reno-Sparks (US 395) in the west.

This is a shame, because the highway serves some of the wildest and more historic places in Nevada no one has ever heard of, and makes a tremendous road adventure through the western Great Basin. Nothing makes this more obvious than the 1904 photograph at right, taken during a furious desert storm by Senator Key Pittman at one of the mining camps near Tonopah. In this first part we will explore up and through that famous settlement of Tonopah on our way into the deserts, and from there the long, interminable space of true isolation and miles of road through almost nothing.

Nevada until 1976 used a nearly completely different set of route numbers, converting almost all of them (except certain historical exceptions) to three-digit grouped numbers instead of the former quasi-sequential system. For historical purposes we will give the former NV state route number, where known, to the modern highways we reach. US 6 itself covered several old route numbers: from California to Basalt, it was former NV 10; from Basalt to Coaldale Junction, NV 15; from Coaldale Jct to Tonopah, NV 3 (later co-signed, see below); Tonopah to Ely, NV 4; Ely to Majors Junction, NV 7 (with US 93); and Majors Jct to Utah, NV 14. Most of these routes were removed in 1939 except NV 3.

Distance signage at the border as we cross into Nevada.

Mineral County, NV

Mineral county, of course, is named for the rich mineral ore mined in the region. Like most of the routing of US 6, few people live in it; in 2000, the Census reported 5,071 residents but the state in 2005 estimated only 4,910. The majority inhabit Hawthorne, the county seat, which is served by US 95. We will see almost none of them on this relatively short trip through.

Grand Army of the Republic Highway signage. I have not, to date, seen any of the traditional smaller signage in Nevada, just these greenies.
"Welcome to Pioneer Territory" and first US 6 shield. I miss the California cutouts already.
Not sure what it's 6 miles to (east), but they do miss us already (westbound).
Although we technically enter the Inyo National Forest, there's not a lot of forest along our route.
Very shortly over the border we pass by Boundary Peak, the highest point in Nevada at 13,143' (the sign is spelled wrong). Although nearby Montgomery Peak in the same range is 13,441', Montgomery Pk is in California. In this picture, Boundary Peak is properly the tallest mountain visible.
PM 4. Nevada uses postmile markers similar to California's, installed after the renumbering.
Curving up the hill to Montgomery Pass.
Crossing the Pass, 7,167'.
Starting the downgrade. (Six percent! Get it?)
This casino used to siphon off truck traffic to Tonopah and Ely, but was long closed by the time I drove by in 2006. It made a (possibly phony) appearance in Highway 395 as the tweekers' hideout, back around 1999 when the movie was filmed, but doesn't seem to have seen much activity since then.
Down into the valleys of the Excelsior Mountains.
Leaving the National Forest.
Various alkali flats are visible from the road where rain and flooding collect during inclement weather, and then bake in the sun.
Advance signage for NV 360 and the "settlement" of Basalt. NV 360 is a cutoff from US 6 to US 95 at Tonopah Junction, south of Mina, on the way to Hawthorne for traffic heading on US 95 towards Fallon and I-80/old US 40. It is the continuation of former route NV 10.
And ... that's all there is for Basalt.
Distance signage leaving Basalt, now as old NV 15.
PM 13.
Esmeralda county line, and final Mineral county postmile (PM 15.20).
Esmeralda County, NV

Esmeralda county was one of Nevada's original nine territorial counties in 1861 (Mineral county was actually derived from it in 1911). Tradition indicates the name came from early prospector J. M. Corey, who named the local mining district for Esmeralda, the gypsy dancing girl in The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. Originally, its county seat was Aurora (see US 395 Part 16 for some of the contentious history of that town) until 1883, then Hawthorne in modern Mineral county until 1907, and finally the town of Goldfield (along US 95) in the present day. Boundary Peak is actually part of Esmeralda county, even though we saw it while driving US 6 through Mineral.

Esmeralda county is the least populated in the entire state, which for Nevada is really saying something -- only 971 [2000], and by 2007 the estimated population had shrunk to 695. It has the second-lowest population density of any county or county-equivalent outside of the famous Loving county in Texas, which has 67 people. Goldfield, once the largest town in Nevada due to its eponymous gold strikes during the turn of the 20th century, today maintains roughly half the county's residents for a 2000 population of merely 440. That's quite a fall for a town that had nearly 30,000 inhabitants during the peak of gold production in 1906, and that ultimately produced almost $90 million of the precious metal from the initial 1902 strike until the cessation of most commercial mining operations around 1940. Wyatt Earp was once a sheriff in Goldfield, in 1904.

BLM signage entering Esmeralda county.
Junction NV 264 from Fish Lake Valley and Dyer.
NV 264 passes through some very lonely territory, Dyer being the only settlement of note, before crossing the California state line and becoming CA 266. CA 266 is one of California's most remote state highways, serving only as a loop route through Oasis (and the modern eastern terminus of CA 168) before becoming NV 266 on the other side through Lida to US 95 south of Goldfield. The route is not advised for gas guzzlers because there is none until you do in fact get to Goldfield, which from here is almost 100 miles away.

NV 266 was originally the southernmost leg of the circuitous former NV 3, the old Bonanza Highway (we will actually reach that highway further north in a moment); NV 264 was originally NV 3A (south of NV 773).

PM 4.
Descending another 6% grade as we leave the Excelsior Mountain range completely.
Into the desert plains.
Junction NV 773. This otherwise nondescript short state highway connects to NV 264 on its south end, and functions as a cutoff for traffic from the Fish Lake Valley heading east to Tonopah. It was the original routing of NV 3A, but does not appear to have been designated until rather later.
PM 16.
These colourful, striated low hills are typical of the low terrain.
Advance signage as we approach the junction with US 95 at Coaldale Junction.
Notice that US 95 is signed south to Las Vegas (which it enters), and north to Reno (which it doesn't, connecting ultimately via I-80 [former US 40]). There is a historical reason for the Reno signage; read on.
Looking at the separation.
Distance signage looking west on US 6, with 78 miles to Bishop (Part 1).
Curving around to join US 95.
US 6-US 95: Bonzanza Highway

[NV 3 between Coaldale and Tonopah, 1939.] At this point, we join the Bonanza Highway proper. The name likely harks back to the mining strikes, and referred specifically to old State Route 3 which ran from the state line east of Oasis, CA to Goldfield (intersecting and terminating NV 5), then up to Tonopah and west to Coaldale Jct. From there NV 3 went up to Schurz, split west to Yerington and Holbrook Junction, and then north through Gardnerville to Carson City. A curious split routing went west to Lake Tahoe, CA, or north to Reno, terminating at old NV 1 (US 40). In 1935, US 395 was extended and NV 3 was truncated at it in Holbrook Jct, south of Gardnerville, in 1939. US 6 did not bisect NV 3 in 1937, however, instead being co-routed with it until US 95 was extended south in 1940 mostly along NV 8, NV 1A, NV 2 NV 3 and NV 5. This routing did split NV 3 into two parts, the southernmost section to Goldfield and the northern section from Holbrook Jct to Schurz (which became US 95 ALT between Schurz and Yerington in 1941). The remaining sections were renumbered to NV 266 and NV 208, respectively, during the Nevada Great Renumbering.

Modern US 95 is (with US 93) one of Nevada's two major north-south plumb line routes and today is best known to outsiders as the second of Las Vegas' major through freeways (even though the southern leg is co-signed with I-515 and US 93). It services most of Nevada's significant population centers (except, of course, Reno and Elko) and much of the western Great Basin, unmolested by most Interstates; you can see its southern reaches in Floodgap's US 95: Vegas to Blythe.

After all that, we mentioned that the Reno on the sign may be a historical holdover, and now you know what it is: the Bonanza Highway did in fact go to Reno, and US 95 inherited most of it, so it's possible US 95 is still signed for there for that reason even though it doesn't go there. Or, it's a giant coincidence and it's just because Reno is a major city, but I like my story better.

US 6/US 95 cosignage, but notice both the distance signage (248 miles to Vegas -- remember this number -- and 208 miles to Ely) and the postmile, which only shows US 6 (because this alignment is legislatively US 6).
That's about it for Coaldale Jct.
Daytime headlight zone due to the long stretches and high speeds.
PM 20.
Curving around and between the small groups of mountains through the wash valleys.
PM 25 and NV 265 [NV 47], a "one way" route terminating near Blair and Silver Peak.
EB US 6-US 95.
Distance signage. Halfway there.
As we get closer to Tonopah, the lower hills become replaced by the Monte Cristo Range and the southern Silver Peak Range.
PM 45.
Miles of sand and asphalt.
Finally, the end of the headlight zone must mean we're approaching civilization, or at least a slower speed limit.
Right of way marker beside us, and a fine local accommodation.
Nye county? Aren't we in Esmeralda county? Well, we are, but not for much longer ...
... because we are about to enter Nye county and its seat, the famous Tonopah.
County line and final postmile for Esmeralda county (PM 57.74).
For some reason (looking back at the other side of the Tonopah sign), US 6/US 95 is signed as the Veterans Memorial Highway, which is the name for US 95, but US 6 was here first (as the Grand Army of the Republic Highway).
Nye County, NV and Tonopah, NV

Nye county was not one of the original 1861 Nevada counties, instead created in 1864 and named for James W. Nye, governor of the Nevada Territory and later Senator. First established with its seat at Ione City, the seat moved to Belmont in 1867 and then finally Tonopah. Nye is not as grossly unpopulated as Esmeralda county was, but it's close: the third largest county by area in the continental United States, behind Coconino county, AZ, and of course the gargantuan San Bernardino county, CA, 46,308 [2007] people inhabit its 18,159 square miles, most of them in Art Bell's famous Pahrump to the south. There are no incorporated cities in Nye county, but there are prostitutes, and I didn't visit any. Ninety-two percent of Nye county is owned by the Feds, in some cases controversially due to the presence of the nuclear Nevada Test Site and the Yucca Mountain waste repository, and Nevada's portion of Death Valley National Monument.

[Tonopah in 1950.] The town of Tonopah is significantly smaller; while Pahrump has 24,631 [2000] residents, Tonopah is roughly a tenth of that size at 2,627 [2000]. The name probably originates from an Indian (Hohokam?) term for springs, and was apparently known in antiquity to them but was otherwise virtually uninhabited in the territorial days. Today the small settlement of modern Tonopah has changed little from the 1950 Nevada Highways and Parks picture at right, but in the early 20th century was a mining hotbed when sometime prospector Jim Butler stormed out angrily in search of a wayward donkey. Finding the creature wandering in the distance and looking for a stone to hurl at it in frustration (goes one apocryphal story), Butler found the heavy rock he had picked up was actually high quality silver ore, and forgot all about the fortunate animal. Ironically, his initial assays were underwhelming, but Butler stuck to it and his strike turned out to be the second-richest in the state. Butler's original 1900 claims led to a massive boom town (named for him), becoming the county seat and adopting the name of Tonopah in 1905, and peaking during the 1920s when the gold and silver strikes in the region finally ran out. Most of the 10,000+ residents moved on to try their luck elsewhere in the intervening decades, leaving a small background population working their own local mines and small farms, and, of course, the remnant local bureaucracy. In 1957, the Department of Energy opened the nearby Tonopah Test Range (a/k/a Area 52), which housed several weapons projects and classified development operations. We will see one famous product of Area 52 presently. Here is a thorough local history.

Entering Tonopah.
Only-In-Nevada Department.
Main Street and downtown Tonopah. Compare this view with this enlargement (85K) of the NHandP photograph above. The Shell station was still there, at least in 2006 (slightly to the left of the frame), and the landmark Mizpah Hotel is still present, which in the 1950 image did not yet have its famous sign.
[Mizpah mine, ca. 1960 (Library of Congress).] The Mizpah Hotel is a longtime local fixture, named for the famous Mizpah mine, operated by the Tonopah Mining Company and the richest mine in local history. An image of the exterior frame is shown at right. Long after most of the other strikes had faded, the Mizpah was still actively producing ore into the 1940s until the local railroad finally tore up its ties in 1947. In 1968, Howard Hughes picked up several local claims, including the Mizpah, and started exploration and some limited reconstruction. None of the claims paid off, and the total production of the Tonopah district remains today a still-astounding $150 million. Hughes donated the mines to form a local historical park and wrote off the investment, and then went looking for manganese nodules on the bottom of the ocean.

The hotel itself started in 1901 as, of course, a saloon. Popular hooey holds that Wyatt Earp himself kept bar and Jack Dempsey bounced out undesirables, and there is not a scrap of evidence to support this. The saloon was replaced by the hotel in 1908, and was Nevada's tallest building until 1929 when the Hotel Nevada in Ely replaced it. We will visit this hotel as well. The modern hotel is still in operation.

The post office.
Area 52's biggest export: the F-117A stealth fighter. One of the US Air Force's most famous skunkworks projects, the entire fleet during the early 1980s lived at the Tonopah Test Range airport while it was still classified. Revealed as the Nighthawk fighter in 1988, the F-117A fleet moved to New Mexico, which also ended the passenger air flights running between Nellis and Tonopah. When the Stealth Fighter program ended in 2008, the F-117s flew back to Tonopah and were retired there, literally stripped of their wings, in their original hangars. At a total cost of $111.2 million, only 64 were built, and they are no longer used for USAF operations.
Approaching the US 6-US 95 separation at the east end of town.
Separation. US 95 continues from here to Las Vegas along old NV 3. Don't forget Vegas, however, as we will recall it for Ely when we reach US 93.
US 6

This begins the former routing of NV 4.

Now, again, US 6 alone.
Leaving town.
Continue to Part 3
Summer of 6 main page | Read the "roadblog"

Copyright © 2006-2014, Cameron Kaiser. All rights reserved.
Send me your comments on Floodgap and the Summer of 6.

[Available in RSS]

[Return to Floodgap Roadgap]