Coaldale, Nevada – The Ambition of a Prospector in Petticoats

January 12, 2012 at 8:06 am (Black and White Photography, Landscape Photography, Leah McDaniel Photography, Photography) (, , , , , )

What is left of the sign for Coaldale

Warning:  Get yourself a cup of coffee and relax.  This is going to be a long one.

The isolation and decay of the abandoned “modern” buildings at Coaldale Junction, Nevada is a draw for photographers.  Abandoned about 1993, it seems that the people living and working in the area simply got up and left, discarding most or all of the furnishings in the gas station, restaurant (with bar and slots that has since been burned to the ground), hotel, and various other buildings.  Couple that with the scarcity of information about the place and intrigue sets in, spurring curiosity about Coaldale to drive speculation about its failure.

Some information I have come across in the blogosphere is interesting, though incorrect.  Coaldale didn’t spring up and die in a short period of time, as some report, but actually has quite a history to it.

Abandoned at Coaldale, Nevada

Though Nevada presently is probably most famous for gambling, (and prostitution secondly), it really came into being because of the vast amounts of gold and silver pulled, wrenched, hacked and blasted from its unassuming deserts and mountains, and after that, for a rich assortment of valuable minerals.

For instance, I believe that currently there is only one producing lithium mine operating in the world, and it is located pretty close to Coaldale. But I digress… Of all of its subterranean riches, coal has been notably absent, excepting around Coaldale.

There’s coal in them thar hills

William (also identified as both “Uncle Billy” and “Jackass Billy”) Groetzinger/Groezenger, operating under a grub-stake agreement with William A. Ingalls of Candelaria (and later a sheriff of Esmeralda County), discovered the bituminous coalfields in the area in the 1880’s.  A short time later, Clay Peters and William Wilson, along with Groetzinger and Ingalls, secured government title for the location and by 1884 surveyed a townsite, marking the corners with “stone monuments without pits”.  The township was to extend over the low pass between the Monte Cristo and Silver Peak mountain ranges, sitting adjacent to the Columbus Salt Marsh.

As it turned out, it was prohibitively expensive to develop the coalfields on a commercial level, let alone to ship the product, and once the financial parties involved realized that, the plans were abandoned, though Groetzinger held onto his interest in the mines.  It appears that Billy continued to work the coal fields/mines on his own and in 1894 sold 150 tons of coal to the Columbia Borax Works, but it was much work for little profit.

Monte Cristo Mountains named earlier than 1871. Under BLM management, they are a popular rockhounding site with interesting geological features.

A Miner in Corset and Petticoats…

While Groetzinger labored to bring his coal to market, a remarkable woman was making her way in the mining world in the Tonopah and Goldfield area.  Though she didn’t sign the resolutions on the formation of the Goldfield Mining District on October 20, 1903, Dr. Frances Estelle Williams was present at the birth of the city just the same.  Just 9 days later she recorded her Valley View Placer claims in Goldfield, Nevada.

While women in mining camps were not completely unheard of, in the early stages of development if there were any around they were mostly prospector’s wives, and later as the miners prospered, often camp followers and other ladies of “questionable character”.  Not so with Frances, for remarkably she was a woman alone, having left her ailing and elderly husband in the relative comfort of San Francisco in order to pursue a fourth career at the age of 58, in the harsh and unforgiving environs of the Nevada deserts.

Coaldale, Nevada

No shrinking violet, Frances Williams led an extraordinary and unusual life for a woman of the age.  Born in New York in 1845 to English immigrant parents, Frances was responsible for the care of her ill mother at a young age.  Reportedly she married while in her teens, Dr. Peck, a decorated Navy surgeon, who died of heart failure shortly after they were wed.

The 1880 New York census finds her married a second time to Charles P. Williams, 20 years her senior, living with her 20 year-old son, James P. Williams.  The interesting thing about this is that according to the census it listed them as having been married in 1865 and James having a birthdate of 1860.  He may have actually been the son of the late Dr. Peck and later adopted by Charles Williams, though this is entirely my own speculation.  In any event, Francis gave birth to James when she was a mere 15 years old.

Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be bent out of shape…

Frances was a very ambitious and driven woman.  Charles, Frances and James ran a successful varnish business, in which Frances was entirely responsible for the financial success of the company due to her shrewd financial and business skills.  Frances and Charles sold the business and retired to Florida millionaires in 1884 (Frances was then 39 years old and Charles 59 years old), to grow oranges.  Unfortunately, they lost most of that investment when they lost their entire crop in a killing frost.  Never one to be kept down for long, Frances convinced her husband to move to Boston where she would obtain a medical degree (in the now defunct field of Electric Medicine) and open up a thriving practice from 1885 to 1901.

Lenticular clouds forming as the desert sandstorms rise

As her husband’s already delicate health continued to falter in the cold climes of the north, she convinced Charles once again to move, this time all the way across the country to San Francisco.  There, she opened up a thriving medical practice, but wasn’t content to remain for long.  In 1903, she moved to Tonopah, Nevada, and at 58 years of age, began the final career of her life in which she would make and lose great fortunes.

What does all of this have to do with Coaldale, you may ask?  Well, it gives you a bit of insight into the woman with great goals and aspirations; the woman who dreamed of building a city.

Prospector, Promoter, Wildcatter?

Frances had already been successful in the gold mining business.  Though she was a well know promoter, she had hands on experience in prospecting and staking her own claims, and organized many companies.  Among them were the Oro de Play at Long Mountain (1905), The Omega Group at Ray (1905), and a number of others that she organized into the St. Frances Gold Mining Company which she sold in 1906, only to turn around weeks later and organize the St. Frances-Mohawk Mining and Leasing Company in June of that year.  By Jan of 1907 that mine yielded more than two-million dollars and made Frances the richest woman in the territory.

He golden dreams shifted to coal when she overheard that the railroad was interested in Coalfield, as the stage-stop there was soon to become the rail-station of Coal Wells, for the Tonopah Railroad which was stretching south from Mina.  Striking while the iron was hot, she rushed to Coaldale and convinced Groetzinger to partner with her before any other promoters could take advantage of the opportunity.  On July 16, 1904, she and William staked a 1280 acre claim, 320 acres of which they intended for mining and the remaining 960 acres set aside for townsite purchases.

Coaldale, Nevada

She formed the Coaldale Coal Mining Company, the Nevada & Electric Power and Transmission Company and the St. Frances Mining and Smelting Company, which she organized into affiliate corporations.

She immediately began promoting the townsite and promised for an investment of $500.00:  1/4 acre of land at Coaldale, plus 2000 shares in each of the affiliate corporations, plus lifetime employment to skilled artisans, plus a promise of return on the investment within 6 months.

40 of the 960 acres were already plotted around a large central park.

Regular train service was established to Coaldale, in May 1904, though it didn’t yet reach to Tonopah and was met by the O’Keefe stages to transport passenger on that leg.  Ever the promoter, Dr. Williams convinced the railroad to rename the station from Coal Wells, to Coaldale, and to steam up the first engine making the complete run into Tonopah with local coal.

With the promise of a bustling townsite in the works, the post office was established in October 1904.

Monte Cristo Range

Monte Cristo Range

Death of a dream…

Dr. Williams often leapt before she looked.  This bold behavior was responsible for much of her fortune, as she was often able to snatch up opportunities while others were still considering them.  In this case, it did not work out for her.  Though she sold a large amount of stock over the next year, geologists from the U. S. Geological Survey determined that the coal might be good for steaming or the production of coal gas, but that it was not fuel grade.

In September 1905, the Nevada Power Mining and Milling Company extended electrical lines into central Nevada from Bishop Creek, California, obviating the future need for coal as a power source.

Frances saw the writing on the wall, and in 1905 she abandoned the venture.  Because her outrageous claims amounted to nothing, she was branded in the newspapers as a wildcatter, which she vigorously denounced as libel, filing a lawsuit for $50,000.00 against the Tonopah Bonanza, denouncing the “malignity and mendacity of this man” [ referring to William Booth – editor], and threatened publicly to horsewhip him (according to the Sacramento Evening Bee).  Shortly thereafter she was arrested on the charge  (and later exonerated by a Grand Jury) of threatening the life of a Goldfield lawyer over a land dispute.  He tried to eject her, and she drew her gun and ran him out of town, (and out of state as he retired to the safety of California).

Back on the horse…

Though her dream of creating a city turned to ash, Frances put that failure behind her and got back to business as usual.  During 1907 she split her time between San Francisco and Goldfield, tending to her ailing husband and her medical practice.

In January, 1908, her husband died, and she closed up her her medical practice to attend her Nevada interests full time.  In May of 1908 she claimed a lease at Hornsilver and organized the Frances-Lime Point Mine Company and two months later, her  Royal Flush interests  at Gold Mountain, she organized into the Frances Gold Mountain Mining Company.

At the same time, the country was experiencing financial woes nationwide, and Goldfield suffered devastating bank closures.  Frances lost a great deal of her fortune when the banks failed.  She also lost an investment to McKay & Co. in New York, a pair of broker arrested for mining frauds in 1909.  On top of it all, a lawsuit had been filed by another mining titan in Goldfield, against the Frances-Mohawk for improper timerbering.  It seems that it was too much weight for her to bear.  Shortly after the trail began, Frances retired from dinner to her home at the Grimshaw Hotel, and suffered a heart attack.  On March 24, 1909, this bold, business-savvy pioneer passed at the age of 64.

Panoramic of Coaldale

Coaldale soldiers on…

As for Coaldale, the city dreamed of by Frances never materialized, but a small community dug into the desert sands and survived for a time.  In 1907-1908 it boasted a population of 30.  Among them were R. D. Edwards (sold general merchandise and stood as Postmaster), De Remer & Richardson (mining business), H. G. Lower (miner), H. C. Petty (miner), W. R. White (Railroad and Express agent), and of course William Groetzinger, who ended up selling his titles to L. K. Koontz.

In 1907 Louis K. Koontz tried his hand at mining and selling coal at Coaldale after investing $50,000.00 in development.  He sold it to Goldfield residents as heating fuel, but it was such a bad grade that it melted the grates and ruined stoves, and he was nearly run out of town.

In 1911 a second USGS survey renewed interest in the area, as the survey indicated a better grade of coal at depth, making the production for coke or gas for electrical power a possibility.  Herman A. Darms took over Koontz’s interests in 1911, and T. E. Rouvenanck organized the Nevada Coal and Fuel Company the same year.

In 1923 the Reorganized Darms Coal Co. took over, but when Herman Darms died in 1946, coal development was over in Coalfield.

Carl Rieck lived in Coaldale from 1909 and operated a store and service station.

Jewel Parsons and her husband ran the Coaldale inn and Motel since the 1930’s, possibly taking over for Carl Rieck.

Others have come and gone as the years advanced in Coaldale, trying to eke out a living.  But when the EPA decided that the underground fuel tanks were a leaking environmental hazard in 1993, the gas station was closed for good.

With coal mining dried up, and the gas station closed, there was little reason for people to live in Coaldale anymore, let alone stop on their journey to distant destinations in Nevada.  Coaldale now, sees little but ghosts, vandals, and the odd photographer.


Photo Postcard of Coaldale Nevada in days gone past, provided by Ruth Wolf:

Coaldale, Nevada Postcard

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