A reporter in the 1962 motion picture, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, tells Jimmy Stewart "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." The writer of this line may have been reflecting on the final days of Senator Key Pittman in 1940.
Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1872, Pittman was on his way to becoming a lawyer when he was bitten by the gold fever bug. In the early 1900's, he left Mississippi and headed north to the gold fields of Alaska. After failing to strike it rich, he moved to Tonopah, Nevada to try his luck at silver mining. When this did not work out, he returned to practicing law and became a successful attorney before turning to politics. In 1913, his long career as a United States Senator began with he election to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Senator George S. Nixon, a Democrat.
Pittman held his senate seat for the next 27 years, rising to become a mover and shaker in the Democratic Party. He returned to Nevada in 1940 to run for a sixth term. As the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and strong proponent of the silver industry, he was virtually assured of reelection. However, the 68 year old Senator was a heavy drinker and during a drinking bout on November 4th, the eve of the election, he suffered a major heart attack. He was examined separately by two different doctors who concurred that death was imminent. With the election the next day, his doctor released the news that he was in the hospital suffering from fatigue and exhaustion. Voters, assuming that Pittman would recover, reelected him to his sixth term. After the election, rumors began to spread like wildfire that not only had he died before the election, but that party leaders had kept his body on ice in a bathtub at the Mizpah Hotel. What started all this? When Democratic officials were questioned about Pittman's failure to appear in public prior to the election, they responded: "We're keeping him on ice." Given the lack of specific details regarding Pittman's condition, rumors began to spread: eventually the rumors grew into a story that evolved into the Legend of Senator Key Pittman.
According to the legend, Pittman died sometime before the election and the Nevada Democratic Party concluded that if the public knew he was dead, they probably would not vote for him and his Republican opponent would be elected. To prevent this, Pittman was taken to a room on the third floor in the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah, and placed in a bathtub filled with ice until after the election, when his death was announced. Various versions of this story were circulated for years. With the publication of a bestselling book, The Green Felt Jungle (1963), the death of Key Pittman moved from fantasy to believability and a legend was born.
Some say the truth is that Senator Key Pittman died in the Washoe General Hospital in Reno, Nevada on November 10, 1940, six days after suffering a heart attack. What do you think?
Attributed to various authors.
Founder of the Mizpah Mine
Jim Butler's wife Belle was, by all accounts, the one who made sure the claims were filed, the legal and business details were in order, and she even located Tonopah's largest strike, the Mizpah Mine!
Belle made certain that the new settlement was a place of civil order and a modicum of restraint, as much as she could. Women, at least those not of the oldest profession, were to be respected and protected.
She brought in Lottie Stimmler, a Belmont woman who was an excellent cook, to prepare meals for the miners, who otherwise had only what they could rustle for themselves after a backbreaking day in the mines.
And Belle made sure that Jim did not manage to give away their hard-won wealth to the flock of hustlers who always found their way to boom towns in those days.
Belle Butler was a true woman of the wild west, bold and sophisticated, never afraid to get her hands dirty but always ready to help those in need.
The Founder of Tonopah
As the new century bloomed in 1900, the state of Nevada was the subject of jokes and derision. The Comstock Mine had given out 20 years prior, and experts believed there was no more wealth beneath her desert soils.
Jim Butler, the district attorney of Nye County and a rancher of modest means, lived in Belmont with his wife Belle. He befriended the Native Americans in the area, who told him of a place called Tonopah they believed to be rich in minerals. That May, Butler found his way to Tonopah and spent a chilly night. The next morning, legend has it, he picked up a rock to hurtle at his runaway burro and noticed it was unusually heavy.
When it turned out to be silver ore, Butler and his friend (and future Nevada governor) Tasker Oddie filed eight claims on what would become the west's second-wealthiest strike. For the first five years of its existence, the mining camp that quickly became a boom town was known as Butler. It wasn't until 1905 that Tonopah became its official name.
Meanwhile, Jim Butler and his friends extracted what they could from the ground before selling the operation to an east coast conglomerate who brought in modern equipment, and kept the mines prosperous for nearly 40 years.
Jim and Belle lived the rest of their lives in comfort, and are immortalized in bronze statues downtown.
Back in the early boom town days of Tonopah, also known then as Butler City, businesses sought to capture consumer loyalty through the issuance of tokens, each worth a specific dollar amount, which could be purchased for a discount. Many of these tokens are now available for sale on auction sites like eBay.
The Weiland Building - Tonopah's first stone structure
The Weiland Building was constructed in 1901, the first stone structure what was then Butler City. It originally housed a brewery, and was home to several other businesses over the years. Fred and Nancy Cline purchased it with the Mizpah Hotel in 2011 and converted it to a youth hostel.
After the earthquake and fire of 1906, many San Francisco residents - as much as half the city's population - became homeless. But eyewitness accounts say that most everyone found or created shelter of one kind or another, and cared for each other with food, clothes, and kindness. This is the remarkable story of one such woman, and the help she received from a wagon train of supplies and people from Tonopah, there to help just days after the tragedy.
Described by a local newspaper as “middle-aged, buxom and comely,” Anna Amelia Holshouser was a beautician and masseuse in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. She woke up on the floor of her home on the morning of April 18, 1906, having been tossed from her bed by the violent earthquake that was just then beginning its almost-total destruction of San Francisco.
Reportedly donning powder, paint and a hair stick while the walls were still shaking, she walked down the 120 stairs to the street, only to find her downtown shop and other businesses damaged by the quake or on fire. With 3,000 dead and more than half the city’s residents homeless, Anna grabbed what she could from her home and, coming across a gentleman friend, made their way to Golden Gate Park, the final destination for all the earthquake/fire survivors, far enough away from the flames to be safe.
After two chilly nights in the open, Anna stitched together enough material for a tent. She then used a tin pie plate and coffee cup to serve what food she had managed to find to those in need. Within a few days, she had caught the attention of aid organizations and erected a large tent and table to seat 20, with plates and utensils. Food was donated and she spent her days cooking and serving hundreds of survivors. Impressed by her efforts, someone installed a sign that read “Palace Hotel,” after the huge hotel that had been devastated by the quake and fire.
It was not long before a wagon train from Tonopah arrived with food and other much-needed supplies, led by the Tonopah Rescue Committee. Members located family members and friends who survived the disaster and got word back home, and made sure Tonopah survivors were being fed and sheltered by Anna’s efforts. Concerned that the Palace Hotel sign might cause confusion, Anna was presented with a new sign and guest registry that designated her ‘business’ as the Mizpah Café, after the Mizpah Saloon in Tonopah. The registry read:
“This register is presented and gratefully dedicated to Mrs. Anna Amelia Holshouser in cordial appreciation of her prompt, philanthropic and efficient service to the people in general, and particularly to the Tonopah Board of Trade Relief Committee, on the occasion of the great Earthquake and Fire of April 18, 1906. – The Tonopah Board of Trade –
by Thomas R. Banneman, President. Golden Gate Park, tail end of San Francisco, established April 23, 1906 by Mrs. Anna Amelia Holshouser, Proprietress, Manager and Chief Cook. May her good deeds never be forgotten.
One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin
Fell and Stanyan Streets
History doesn’t tell us what became of Anna Holshouser, or if she ever got a chance to visit Tonopah. We do know that the silver mined from the town largely went to the restoration of San Francisco. We also know that two years later the Mizpah Hotel first opened its doors, endowed with the same spirit of hospitality, generosity and good will as that of Anna Amelia Holshouser’s makeshift shelter.
New York Times book review of:
“A Paradise Built in Hell” by Rebecca Solnit
Heroes of the Mizpah
Last month, a elderly guest was traveling alone with her show dogs and suddenly fell ill. The housekeeping staff and managers discovered the problem and immediately contacted emergency responders, who airlifted the guest to a hospital, where she recovered. Meanwhile, the staff took over the care and feeding of the beautiful show dogs, while relatives were notified and came to retrieve the animals. Relatives of the guest were relieved and grateful for the actions of our staff, as are we.
"Big luxury hotel chains boast about the “legendary” service that they provide," said General Manager John McCormick in a note to the staff involved in the incident. "I have worked for some of them and I can tell you that you have truly provided legendary service. These are the things that separate us from the rest of the pack. Moreover, your actions speak to your personal character and caring for our neighbors in life. I couldn’t be more proud of this team."
In the photo, left to right: staff members Krysta Meek, Teresa Gann, Donna Ottseson, Kati Huskey, with the guest's dogs.
We invite our guests to jot down their other-worldly encounters at the Mizpah in a journal we keep at the front desk. We will publish some of these from time to time.
Ghostly History Lesson
Our first stay was about one and a half years ago, staying in room 502.
My wife, retiring for the evening, fell asleep at 10 p.m. as I stayed awake, sitting in a chair, in our room, thinking about the history of Tonopah, and the Mizpah Hotel.
Sitting at the room with the light on a man appeared five feet away from me and floated toward me, stopping three feet away, just staring, dressed in turn-of-the-century attire, Caucasian, light brown hair, 5’8”.
This lasted a few seconds then he vanished and immediately reappeared the same way.
As he stared at me there was writing on the wall inside the room in black – the man disappeared not to reappear again as I tried to figure out the writing on the wall, as the idea came to my mind that the Lady in Red was trying to tell me how she was murdered.
Trying to read this a white dress with red trim vanished through the wall as the writing vanished at the same time.
We were lucky to have songwriter/guitarist Logan Jones and producer Cary Ott join us this summer to collaborate on a song project about the silver mines. The result - 'Silver in Your Veins,' a song they wrote in Tonopah then recorded in Nashville. Here is a great video about the project:
Here is the song: