Hoping to Become Tourist Haunt, Nevada Town Finds Boost in Spirits

Wall Street Journal, July 30, 2015 5:26 p.m. ET

TONOPAH, Nev.—Jerry and Etta Burch were looking for some new and different things to see on their cross-country trek this summer. The retirees weren’t quite expecting what they found in this desert outpost.

Checking into the 108-year-old Mizpah Hotel in early July, the Portsmouth, Va., couple discovered that it, as well as several other sites nearby, is supposedly haunted. At the nearby Tonopah Historic Mining Park the next day, a sudden blinding dust storm enveloped their all-terrain-vehicle tour of silver mines that have been closed for more than half a century.

“We have not been to anything like Tonopah,” said Mrs. Burch, 69 years old, a former government contract employee.

That could serve as the quintessential review for one of Nevada’s newest—and most unusual—tourist destinations. Tonopah (pop. 2,757) sits halfway between Las Vegas and Reno, about 100 miles from the next closest gas station. After enjoying a long period of boom and bust based on mining and the military, in recent times it has been primarily a pit stop for motorists passing through on U.S. 95 to fill up.

“Tonopah has been a place to stop—and get out as soon as possible,” said Mizpah Hotel co-owner Nancy Cline, whose great uncle helped settle the town.

But now, tourists drawn by ghost stories and other curiosities are taking a longer look around. The 48-room Mizpah is fully booked most weekends. Business is up at the Clines’ Tonopah Brewing Co., where Frail Sister Pilsner and Half-Life Hefeweizen are on tap. And local historian Allen Metscher finds himself leading tours of the Tonopah area’s literal haunts, including graves of miners killed in accidents and saloon fights.

“People are saying, ‘I’ve got to see it to believe it,’ ” said Mr. Metscher, 70, who shows as many as 20 visitors at a time his seemingly mystical trick—locating bodies in unmarked graves using brass welding rods.

“Look, there’s one!” he said recently, as the two rods he held in front of him suddenly crossed as he tramped through a cemetery in nearby Goldfield, Nev. Mr. Metscher, advisory board president of Tonopah’s Central Nevada Museum, says he is trying to help restore graves that have fallen into disrepair, using a technique that he describes as akin to “water divining.”

Other oddities include the Clown Motel, where rooms decorated with clown pictures and an office festooned with 600 clown images draw the curious but creep some out. “A few people have anxiety in here with clowns, so I have to take them outside to fill out the registration,” said owner Bob Perchetti. The motel adjoins the Tonopah Cemetery, where men killed in a century-old mine fire are interred.

Also nearby is the International Car Forest of the Last Church, another graveyard of sorts, where two local residents embedded some 40 cars, trucks and buses—mostly nose down—in the desert sand outside Goldfield, a town about 25 miles south. Subsequent “artists” have added their own touches, in the form of graffiti that includes some crude slogans, an annoyance for some locals.

Tonopah’s new popularity parallels a rise in tourism across rural Nevada. Visitors were up by 14% in the fourth quarter compared with the same period a year earlier, versus a 3.3% increase for Las Vegas, according to the Nevada Commission on Tourism.

“Why people like to go out there is you get that authentic Western experience,” Gov. Brian Sandoval said in an interview.

According to local lore, a prospector discovered silver in what is now Tonopah in 1900 while chasing a wayward mule. Over the next two decades, as mines produced $121 million worth of ore, Tonopah grew to as many as 10,000 residents, according to historical accounts.

The mines eventually played out. Military training nearby helped keep the town going until the early 1990s, when part of it shifted elsewhere.

In 2011, Fred and Nancy Cline, vintners from Sonoma, Calif., reopened Tonopah’s five-story Mizpah hotel, which had been closed for 12 years. Construction of a solar plant nearby also brought in business.

The hotel operators hoped the location would attract the “adventure traveler,” said Ms. Cline, 58. “It is in the middle of nowhere, and you literally feel like it is 1910.”

And there are the ghosts. The most well-known is the so-called Lady in Red. A “naive and relatively inexperienced member of the world’s oldest profession,” according to the 2015 book “Ghosts of Goldfield and Tonopah,” she was strangled by a jealous lover on the hotel’s fifth floor. Her spirit is said to shake the chandeliers and leave pearls in rooms.

The Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures” profiled the Mizpah during its renovation in 2011, saying construction crews were “stirring up dust as well as the spirits.” That helped prompt a spike in “ghost hunters,” said Eva La Rue, curator of the Tonopah museum, where Mr. Metscher estimates monthly attendance has jumped to about 250 from about 150 a few years ago. Other visitors include star gazers, genealogists and the occasional UFO buff (Nevada’s famed Area 51 is two hours southeast.)

Sports Leisure Vacations added Tonopah this year as part of its “Ghost Towns of Old Nevada” tour, said Mark Hoffmann, owner of the Sacramento, Calif., company. “No matter whether you believe in it or not, it is fun to go out in the desert and talk to ghosts,” he said.

[A local artist created this outdoor exhibit of about 40 old cars and buses, near Tonopah, Nev.]

Hotel guests can recount paranormal encounters in a ledger at the front desk. “I stayed in Rm 406 last nite,” 67-year-old Betty Greinerof Gresham, Ore., wrote on March 12. “About 5:30 am this morning, I heard a group laughing and visiting. Got up—no one in the hall or around. How strange, huh?”

The eerie ambience isn’t for everyone. “One couple checked in and two hours later their 12-year-old son was talking to someone” unseen, Ms. Cline said. “It was freaking them out and they checked out.”

Others are disappointed if they aren’t spooked. Rachael Gross, 23, a waitress from Reno, and a friend stopped on their way to Las Vegas recently “to take some pictures and just snoop around” the outside of the long-shuttered Goldfield Hotel, where ghosts, including one dubbed “The Stabber,” are said to prowl.

Sadly, Ms. Gross said, “We didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.” But she plans to return one day to the 1908 building in hopes of a closer encounter. “It’s definitely a life goal [that] I get in the actual hotel.”

Write to Jim Carlton at jim.carlton@wsj.com