Goldfield has always held a special interest for me on several levels. Sunday I was allowed to go deeper into the heart of its history than I ever imagined I would be allowed.
While seemingly everyone else in the world was preparing to watch the big football games, my wife and I, along with her two sons, headed out from our Henderson home for the three-hour 200-mile drive north to meet up with some locals and a landowner from California.
While Goldfield and Pahrump seem on the surface to be worlds apart – one was part of the last big gold rush nearly 114 years ago, the other grew in our lifetime as part of the big people rush – both are striving for similar goals.
While Pahrump has engaged a Las Vegas advertising firm to bolster the town’s image to visitors, Goldfield is a citizen movement from the ground up.
My family pulled into the Dinky Diner in Goldfield around 1 p.m. and were greeted by our host John Ekman, an engineer from southern California who is trying to preserve the town’s history and the crumbling high school stone by stone. If you’ve ever driven through Goldfield, it would be hard to miss the old school.
Sitting a block off U.S. Highway 95, which weaves through the center of town, the building opened in November 1907, the same year the town became the Esmeralda County seat, and hosted students until it closed for good in 1953. Any high school kids in Goldfield today are bused 30 minutes north to Tonopah.
Ekman’s passion for preserving the history of Goldfield is infectious. After lunch, he spent three hours guiding my family around the town, showing us where long ago buildings used to stand, where the railroad maintenance yard used to be (marked only by a big concrete circle in the ground), describing the history of buildings and structures that still stand, some barely.
Ekman, a self-described retired gentleman of leisure, has various properties around Goldfield including the house of the former publisher of the Goldfield News. He is also involved in rebuilding the Bullfrog Goldfield Railroad yard. But his real passion is the high school.
“A lot of these historic buildings are falling apart,” Ekman said. “The high school in particular worries me because it is a large building. Funding is slow to come but we’re still fighting the battle.”
The two-story building was built with 12 classrooms at a cost of $100,000. Ekman estimates it would cost nearly $4 million to restore.
The nonprofit that owns the building has received grants through the years to band-aid the structure. And some big money, including a $300,000 grant, got away during the economic downturn.
To say the building has fallen into disrepair would be an understatement. Ekman took us on a tour of the facility. After looking at the south-facing wall that collapsed a few years ago, he led us up the old wood stairs that creaked under the weight of my steps.
Inside is amazing for anyone interested in Nevada history. Although much of the original fixtures – desks, blackboards, furniture – are long gone, the wood interior is captivating. I tried to imagine the school children decades ago filling those halls with voices and laughter.
With every classroom I entered, I tried to imagine what it was like to attend class in the heat of the summer or the cold of winter. Any reminiscence of those students are gone today, except some names written on some pillars downstairs after that section of the school was closed. Who was Chester Burts, class of 1935, or Kim Goodrich from the class of 1942?
John and I eventually made our way to the roof, up a rickety old wood ladder I was sure was going to give way under my heft. There I was able to see the entire expanse of Goldfield from atop the town’s tallest remaining building. Across the way I could look upon the the more famous, but just as closed and dilapidated, Goldfield Hotel. I tried to imagine what the town must have been like when 20,000 people lived there when the high school opened.
The last census in 2010 counted the town population at 268.
Ekman is not alone in his crusade to rebuild and preserve the high school and the town’s history. I met former Esmeralda County Commissioner Dominic Pappalardo, who owns the Goldfield Gift Shop with his wife Lisa. Also chatted with Carl and Patty Brownfield who run KGFN, the radio station next to the gift shop.
They are all part of a group of people who would like to see parts of the town preserved to promote tourism to Goldfield and improve that town and county’s financial fortunes.
Goldfield is 140 miles north of Pahrump and well worth the drive. Stop by the Dinky Diner, I’m sure you’ll find someone to show you around.
Arnold M. Knightly is the editor of the Pahrump Valley Times, and the Tonopah Times-Bonanza & Goldfield News.