To a lot of people, Nevada is synonymous with Las Vegas. Las Vegas is and has always been the big draw when it comes to the state and its tourism industry, from the days of Elvis and the Rat Pack to now, the era of UFC and Cirque du Soleil. But, beyond the neon signs, loose slots, and free drinks, there is a expansive desert, full of legends and ghost stories that have inspired, frightened, and intrigued those who go in search of them.
Tonopah is home to some of these ghosts.
These days, Tonopah is known as a stopping point between Las Vegas and Reno. Interstate 95 is the path of least resistance to get to either town, and the isolation between them is hard to ignore. In a state with so much land and so few people, it’s to be expected. But the moment you pull away from the bright lights of the city and the details of the mountains come in to focus, it becomes readily apparent the city that you’re leaving is nothing like the journey ahead of you.
Once you leave Las Vegas, Interstate 95 the is the quintessential open road. It is quiet, it is long, and for the most part, lonely. Along the way you’ll find abandoned vehicles, dilapidated buildings, the occasional hitch hiker. Some of the buildings you pass look like occupied homes, although you wonder who would live so far away from civilization. Others look like fronts to businesses and homes that have disappeared. You’ll find the occasional gas station, some still in business and some not. Along the way, if you’ve got enough gas, you’ll run into the sleepy little mining town called Tonopah.
Tonopah is everything Las Vegas isn’t. It’s a small and unassuming township tucked away in the desert, a town you might pass by if you’re not paying attention. Tonopah was once known as Queen of the Silver Camps, a mecca for miners in search of great fortunes. The mountains that surround Tonopah are picturesque in the winter months, draped in a light blanket of snow that is never cumbersome but always present. Tonopah is small enough to still have a street that cuts through its heart, a township mostly untouched by modernity. Visitors can see most of the town driving straight through it, and its isolation away from blinding lights makes it prime ground for star gazing. The former mining town is a silhouette of what it was in its glory days, but like the rest of the state, Tonopah has withstood harsh climates, changing demographics, and the passage of time.
Part of Tonopah’s charm is its past. It’s one of a handful of mining towns to survive the 20th century, and a lot of that has to do with its ghosts. Tonopah Army Air Field was abandoned after a rash of accidents and crashes killed over 140 men. The Clown Motel, a popular stopping point for clown lovers and ghost hunters, is within walking distance of the Old Tonopah Cemetery, both of which are said to be haunted. But the biggest tourist attraction, the most famous landmark in this little mining town, is the Mizpah Hotel. The Mizpah’s infamous guest of honor is the Lady in Red.
The Mizpah Hotel, like Tonopah, has endured some trying conditions in the century it’s been around. Open since 1907, the Mizpah has closed and reopened only once in the time since. Surviving for over a century is no easy feat in a town that the world at large knows nothing about, but the Mizpah’s key to staying alive is staying true to its past.
The Mizpah is hard to miss; the six-story hotel and former bank stands tall among her neighbors, and the giant red letters on its roof act beckons weary travelers in search of a good night’s rest. The current owners have gone to effort into maintaining the hotel and it’s evident the moment you step through its heavy wooden doors. By modern standards, especially Vegas standards, it’s a quaint operation but the Mizpah’s history and its famous lady have kept the heart of this old Victorian hotel beating. Room 502, the place the Lady met her untimely demise in, is now named in her honor. It is one of the rooms employees refuse to enter.
I went looking for the Lady once. I took the three-hour drive from the light and the comfort of Las Vegas, out the dark and snowy mountains, to find a woman that so many people talk about, but no so little of. She’s been written about on Buzzfeed, and she’s made an appearance on the Travel Channel, but no one knows much about her, not even what her real name was. People speculate her legal name was Evelyn Mae Johnston, but others believe she went by the name Rose. A photo of the Lady hangs in the lobby of the Mizpah, as well as outside the room that she died in, but these are the only photographs known to exist of her. Some say she was killed by her husband, others say by a jealous lover.
As legend has it, she frequented the Mizpah as a call girl. During one of her visits, she was killed on the fifth floor and hasn’t left the hotel since. The details surrounding her death are thin at best; there are no surviving records regarding the Lady; most of the information that lingers regarding her comes from eyewitnesses and/or secondhand knowledge, recorded for posterity in the time since. As a result, the legend of Lady in Red has since become an extension of the hotel itself, so much so that people flock to this hotel in hopes of seeing her. I wanted to stay in her room, but it’s the kind of thing you have to plan for days and weeks in advance and I’m rarely, if ever, that kind of planner.
The Mizpah’s greatest achievement besides its longevity, is its attention to detail. The vault on the lobby floor is original to the hotel, as is the roulette wheel on display. Some concessions are made, like the addition of slot machines in the lobby and televisions in the guest rooms. In the lobby, guests sit in Victorian-era sofas, with intricate hand carving and rounded edges. The halls on each floor and the lobby are covered in wallpaper that fit with the time period, as do the carpet and brass light fixtures. Around the corner, the bar and restaurant look like the same where Jack Torrance sold his soul to the Overlook Hotel.
When you make your way to the floors of the hotel, the lack of music makes every creaky step send a chill to your bones. Little reading nooks are set up on each floor, preserved perhaps for the children that are said the roam those halls. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator, you’ll notice dark shadows cast by the sculptures and plants in the recessed displays. The sculptures themselves are enough to inspire nightmares, but they pale in comparison to the elevator, where the Lady in Red is said to make her presence known.
Since I couldn’t stay in the Lady’s suite, I went looking for her in her other favorite haunt – the one-car elevator that is another original fixture to the hotel. There are mirrors on every side of the elevator car, and guests have reported to see her face reflected back at them, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them. I took the elevator all the way to the top floor, and back to the lobby multiple times during my visit, and the Lady never showed herself to me.
The Lady in Red, like most of her paranormal counterparts, is benevolent. She prefers to show herself to male guests over female guests and is said to leave a single pearl behind when she does make an appearance. She’s not the only resident ghost of the hotel; others claim to have seen children roaming the halls, as well as the ghost of Senator Key Pittman. Other guests report hearing children running through the halls or seeing miners in the basement.
Most people leave the Mizpah never seeing the Lady in Red, but they take her story with them wherever they go. I didn’t meet her when I went to visit, but what I found was perhaps more interesting; a time machine of sorts, a building beating with a heart of days gone by. The Lady in Red may not be around anymore, but for long as the Mizpah remains standing, she will never truly die.