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The Wild West of Nevada

The tramway system in Pioche.
The tramway system in Pioche.

Most people will recognize the names of Tombstone, Arizona or Dodge City, Kansas. These were the iconic cities of the lawless Wild West. But one town in eastern Nevada had them all beat for a time period. Pioche, Nevada, almost three hours north of Las Vegas on Route 93, was a booming silver mining town in the 1870s. It was the Paiute Indians that first mined the hills for silver but it wasn't until they showed their yield to Mormon missionaries that the industry took off. Pioche was named after a financier who never stepped foot in the town that held his name, not that that mattered much to the people of Pioche. What mattered was that the silver mined from the surrounding area was hugely profitable. In 1870, just two years after many of the mines opened, over $1.6 million worth of silver ore was uncovered. In the next seven years, over $20 million worth of silver was mined. It's no wonder that Nevada is named the Silver State.

Pioche's Million Dollar Courthouse
Jeannette Marxen

Approaching Pioche from the south, the first thing a visitor comes across as they descend the top of the hill is the old tram system. The tramway would bring ore from around the valley up to Treasure Hill and the mill where the product was refined. Carts still hang off the rusting wires as if production could begin again at any moment. The Main Street is small compared to what it was in its heyday. In the 1870s, Pioche was home to almost 10,000 people and those people had plenty of choices when it came to their leisure time. At one time, there were 144 saloons to choose from as well as four bordellos. It shouldn't be surprising to learn that Pioche earned itself a bit of a reputation as a lawless place. You can still visit the Overland Hotel today and even belly up to the bar that looks as if it came out of an old Western.

The best place to start a visit to Pioche is at the Million Dollar Courthouse, just off of Main Street. The building was begun in 1871 for the cost of $16,000 but interest and self-interest led the total to climb to one million dollars by the time construction was completed. And by that time, another courthouse had replaced it. Inside the courthouse is a treasure trove of artifacts from Pioche's past. Register logs are stacked high on the desks and you can read for yourself the birth registrations, marriage licenses and criminal offenses. Old mining equipment lines the wooden floors of the lower rooms. Water color prints of the town in its heyday hang on the wall. And in the back, the dingy dark jail looks as if it hasn't changed much from the 1870s.

Along the tour of the Courthouse, you hear more about the lawlessness of Pioche. According to the locals, over 70 men were buried as a result of violent deaths before a single person died of natural causes. Boot Hill Cemetery is where the dead from the booming 70s are at rest and it is well worth a visit. A quick turn down a residential road and past the modern cemetery is a simple row of wooden planks. The tramway runs right above this stretch of the cemetery and the carts hang forebodingly. The splintered wood tells the story of Pioche with lines like "Shot by a coward as he worked his claim no one even knew his name" or "Fanny Peterson AKA Panama Jack Spanish courtesan killed by her lover Lymon P. Fuller Damn Shame"

Pioche began a slow decline is the 1880s and though resurrected many times for short mining booms, it was never able to rival the times of the 1870s. Today it is a peaceful and friendly town that proudly shares its history with anyone who happens to stop by. When the lights and sounds of the big city exhaust you, it is well worth the trip to visit Pioche and step back into time.

Special thanks to Jim Kelly, the guide at the Million Dollar Courthouse, who not only shared his extensive knowledge but also his pride and affection for Pioche.


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