On this bright, sunny Sunday afternoon, David Toll makes me one of his unpatented cocktails, a Manhattan made with fine Irish whiskey. We sip and chat. Fifty minutes later I shut off the recorder, having captured several stories from the foremost Comstock raconteur himself.
David is 83 years old and hasn’t lost a step. He gets up every morning around 3 am, (an old Navy man habit he refuses to break) to wash dishes from the previous night’s festivities, a frequent occurrence at the Jones Mansion, home to him and his wife Robin Cobbey in Gold Hill. He then sits down to write in his cramped office he calls The Sweat Shop in the original part of the old house.
David has always worked. He was an original member of the Nevada Department of Tourism. He freelanced with the Arizona Highways magazine and the Territorial Express just to name just a few. He reminds me that he also worked in radio as an all-night DJ at KGO in San Fransisco in the sixties.
In 1974, he and several buddies revived the fondly-remembered Gold Hill Daily News, last published in the 1880s as the Gold Hill News. Mustang Ranch brothel owner Joe Conforte advertised in the paper. Conforte gave the Gold Hill News the first interview when Oscar Bonavena was shot and killed at the Mustang Ranch. The Gold Hill News lasted for five years. David shut it down on Nevada Day in 1978, holding a big party afterward.
In the ’70s, David won press association awards for feature writing for both daily and weekly writing. During that time, he wrote and published “The Complete Nevada Traveler,” now in its 12th edition, and for many years the best selling book ever published in Nevada.
Listen to the entire conversation with David Toll:
Listen to a sound-rich feature with David Toll on the Wild Hare podcast, a mix of words and music.
For David, the Gold Hill News was a glorious, special experiment.
What can you tell us about it?
“…it took everything, took everything we had … when it was started. There were four of us. Buckeye Blake, the artist who grew up in Dayton. Peter Laufer, who had by that time already done a bit of radio in San Francisco, went to Germany and did a talk show in German, and is now the James Wallace Chair in the School of Journalism at the University of Oregon. He was living in Silver City at the time. There was Travus T. Hipp … real name Chandler Loughlin … the four of us, we just put our hands on a hot rock and looked up at the sun and said, we are journalists … our first edition had an editorial asking that Jim Miller (the sheriff) be fired and return to his job behind the grill … because he was a great grill cook. He could make a burger.
That venture led me to publish small editions of other Nevada books. Squaw Tom‘s stories had been one of the most popular features of the Gold Hill News, so I gathered them into a book.”
Later on, David wrote and published his popular bio of Joe Conforte, Breaks Brains and Balls.
“And I was lucky in my choice of great-grandfathers, Harry M. Gorham. He was an exceptional man and had played an important role on the Comstock. He knew everyone above and below ground and wrote about them years later. His book had been out of print for 50 years when I republished it.
“This book completes a trilogy of sorts: three authentic Nevada voices, each from a different background, each in his own time, and each expressing a unique aspect of the Nevada adventure.”
Give us a snapshot of David Toll.
“He’s an old guy who lives on a pile of rocks on Gold Hill. I’ve been here for 60 years, and I’m getting to like it.”
“It came to be because back in about 1970, Bob Laxalt, who was then the director of the University of Nevada Press, gave me a call and asked me if I’d like to do a guidebook to the state. And guess what I did … it was published six years later. And it’s been out there ever since … the linchpin for our new website, which we launched in 2001, called Nevada Travel Network.
“The NevadaGram, a little teaser to promote the website … developed over time into having a personality all of its own. Now they’re the two websites. NevadaTravel.net is all about highways, routes, and destinations, highway cities and events around the state. The Nevada Gram is more about things that are going on here, what people are doing. We have correspondents around the state reporting on a dozen different communities. Put both together, it’s a compendium of information about the state of Nevada, and especially if you’re going to be traveling.”
Tell us about your new project, a virtual Nevada Hall of Fame.
“It’s really a big difference because it doesn’t focus on a specific area of activity, like boxing, or motorsports … but never has anyone thought to put the whole thing together in one project … the idea has been lingering in my head for the past 10 years or so. One day, I just woke up with the determination to do it. Stop thinking about it, just do it. So I did.”
Who decides who gets in the Hall of Fame?
“I’ll never tell you who they are. Because of course, they want to be anonymous. They depend on their anonymity. Because after all, this is a very important job that they have, and they don’t want to be influenced by anybody at all. That was one of the conditions of setting it up this way is that they would be anonymous, and not ever have to worry about being lobbied by anybody … this way of honoring people who have done exceptional things … some (people) that folks have never heard of before.
“They’ve been cogitating all this time … there is one (future) member of the Hall of Fame they’re not finished quite vetting his life story … because he did the bravest thing any man ever did in his life … he was a miner … he was in a crew working underground … the mine flooded … filled the shaft and it filled that tunnel up … there was an air bubble in there … seven guys had been trapped at the end of that tunnel when the water came in … nobody knew if they were alive or dead and they didn’t know quite how to deal with it…it was terrifying … it was hysterical and hectic and frantic … one of the workers, the plumber, made a bucket that had room for ice. This guy named Yank put the bucket on his head, submerged under the water into the dark … walked 1500 feet through that tunnel, passing the corpses of the boys who had drowned and came upon that air bubble. And there they were … he then walked back out … and they eventually got them all out safely. If you can ever imagine being down in the middle of a mountain that is just filled up with hot water, putting a bucket over your head and submerging into the dark. There’s a little preview for you.”
Give us a picture of the Comstock during the time you’ve lived here.
“It’s a lot harder world now than it was then … from in the 60s … until about 1980. This was a golden age where there was no money. This was the end of the world … nobody wanted this broken-down old dump of a place. There was nothing in your way. You could enjoy yourself every day. And we did. We did it without money … somehow, someway we managed to survive. I was a freelancing man. And that was a period at which the freelance market changed from being decently okay to be very tough.”
What about the political atmosphere on the Comstock over the years?
“The Comstock is now a different place. Then, it was broken down, old, everything run down and worn out and crummy and they were still foreclosing properties on C street because people couldn’t make the tax payments in 1960. There was no outside world here … we would go down to Carson City for groceries and stuff just like we still do … it was a different world … the politics of the Comstock was so primitive and crude … it was almost no politics.
I was willing to take a chance.”
What is it about Comstock Mining, Inc that drives you to talk about them in your publications?
“It’s happening in my front yard. And nobody else is (writing) about it. So I’m doing it. It’s a laughable story, really, if you don’t live here, because it’s the story of a bunch of scalawags that got together and with some money to work with. They put together what looks like from the outside like a mining company. It’s accepted by the Nevada Mining Association as a mining company. But it’s really just a game. It’s a game to keep money flowing into the right pockets … these guys, of course, are in it for the money … yes, there’s gold in the dirt … but there’s not enough to make it profitable. These guys have been working for 10 years without making one nickel of profit. Their stockholders have put up nearly one quarter of a billion dollars for nothing. Now, is that a scam? Gee, I don’t know. It’s the biggest loser in the history of the richest place on Earth.”
Added bonus. David talks to MacAvoy Layne in 2016 when David turned 80.
Nevada Capital News’s Arts Beat interviews explore the roles that art plays in contemporary life, and the intersection of art and pressing social issues. We explore artists’ work in relation to the dimensions of art’s power and potency.
Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so the conversation can flow back and forth and we can be influenced by each other. ___W.E.B. DuBois
Joe McCarthy is a contributor to Nevada Capital News. He reports on the arts, the environment and politics. His life’s work includes economic development, redevelopment, education and arts administration.