When you think about the mining boom towns of the old West, Tombstone, Virginia City, and Leadville come to mind, but the roughest, toughest and wildest of the lot was Pioche, Nevada.
How rich were the Pioche mines? An estimated 130 million dollars worth of ore came out of its mines during the 1870’s, second only to the Comstock lode. How big was Pioche? At its height it had a population of six to eight thousand, almost half the size of Virginia city. As for wild. More than seventy men were buried in Boot Hill before anyone died of natural causes. If you visit the cemetery today you’ll find the section for murderers is still fenced to separate them from upstanding citizens, and it holds more than one hundred graves.
In 1864, settlers put down roots in a valley known as Panaca, about 190 miles northeast of Los Vegas and about 50 miles west of the Utah border. During the winter of 1863-64 a few Indians from the Santa Clara Piute tribe offered to show William Hamblin an outcropping of ore in return for some food and clothing. Silver! Hamblin and his the Meadow Valley Mining District and did some location work. However the remote location, lack of financial backing, and the American Civil War stymied development.
In 1868 E.M. Chubard and Joseph Grange reorganized the district and renamed it the Ely Mining District in honor of John H. Ely who had arrived late that year. Investment funds remained a problem. Mr. Ely managed to convince Francois L.A. Pioche, a French financier from San Francisco, to invest a large sum of money. In 1869, when the district began to flourish, the new town was named Pioche. (Mr. Pioche never visited the town named in his honor.)
That year the whisper traveled fast, “It’s boom or bust in Pioche!” About six thousand people descended on the new born town in months. Living quarters were so scarce that the most common kind of residence was a tent house. A tent house was a canvas tent boarded up around the sides about three feet high to protect the resident from the cold. When a man needed to move on he could take this dwelling with him.
Pioche soon became the scene of a wild rush of prospectors and fortune seekers and gained a reputation in the 1870’s for tough gunmen and bitter lawsuits. There were more than 200 victims of fast guns, knife fights and vigilante ropes.
For example, D.A. Myendorff shot George M. Harris for slapping him across the face. Myendorff was tried and acquitted. James Butler was killed by Special Officer Shea because of insulting and threatening language. Once more the shooter was acquitted.
Franklin A. Buck (“A Yankee Trader in the Gold Rush”), a college-educated businessman from California, wrote his sister a letter from Pioche, from which the following was taken:
“November 3, 1870
“About one-half of the community are thieves, scoundrels and murderers and then we have some of the best folks in the world, and I don’t know but our lives and property are just as safe as with you. You can go uptown and get shot very easily if you choose, or you can live peacefully. I will send you a paper with an account of the last fight…I was in hopes eight or ten would have been killed at least, as these fights are a pest in the community.”
A wild life style were not the only problems for Pioche. Fire has plagued the town’s history. On September 15, 1871, while celebrating Mexican Independence, a restaurant caught fire and within a couple of hours the town burned down. Two thousand people were left homeless. Three hundred kegs of powder stored in the cellar of a local store exploded killing thirteen men, and wounding about fifty.
However the mines survived, and mining supported Pioche. The mines themselves contributed to the violence of the town. On December 28, 1872, Thomas Ryan was killed at Pioche in an underground fight between employees of the Raymond and Ely, and Pioche Phoenix Mining Companies. No one was punished for this deed.
The next day Charles Swanson was fatally shot by some unknown person as he was on his way to work in the Raymond and Ely mine. Guards were posted about the works. A reward of $1,650 was offered for the arrest of his slayer but he was never found.
In 1871 Pioche was designated as the seat of Lincoln County, Nevada, bringing government to Pioche, and corruption. The most notorious example of the excesses of the day still stands. The “Million Dollar” Lincoln County Courthouse was built in 1871 at an original estimated cost of $16,400.00. Between broken contracts, inflated material costs, declining mining and tax revenue, interest on bond payment, the building cost one million dollars by the time it was finally paid off in 1937 (66 years later).
On September 17, 1870, the first newspaper came to Pioche. The Ely Record was issued on a weekly basis by W. H. Pitchford and Co. from a canvas tent. Pat Holland (an acquaintance of Mark Twain) bought the paper on October 8, and Robert W. Simpson became his partner the following week. The Pioche Record was born. The paper would survive until 1908.
Even newspaper editors couldn’t stay out of the gun battles in Pioche. In 1877 (according to an account in The Salt Lake Herald) Pat Holland, the former proprietor of the Pioche Record, and then a traveling correspondent for the Virginia Enterprise, became embroiled in a gun battle with George T. Gorman, the current editor of the Record. An article in the morning Record sparked the trouble.
On the afternoon the article appeared, Holland created an elaborate poster with colorful penciling, and more colorful language which he tacked to the side of the Eldorado Saloon. When Gorman returned and saw this poster, he went looking for Holland.
The two men met about eight that evening at the doorway of the Eldorado, both armed with pistols. The Herald reported: “Holland’s pistol fired prematurely while he pulled it from his pocket. Gorman then got in two shots. Holland’s pistol now failed to fire, whereupon he coolly placed it on his knee, rearranged the trigger and it went off, grazing his hand. The two men were within ten feet of each other for the first five shots and did all the shooting around the center post of the saloon door. Holland ran through the back door, Gorman firing one shot after him.”
At the height of the boom Pioche had four different stage lines. Gilmour & Sullivan ran a stage line from Salt Lake to Beaver, and from Beaver to Pioche, with stops at Greenville, Adamville, Minerville, Sulpher Springs, Mt. Springs, Dessert Springs, Clover Valley, Bullionville, and Bennett Springs.
Another route ran from Hamilton to Oceola and down the west side of Mt. Wilson to Pioche. Mr. Gilmour had another route that ran from Hamilton to Pioche. The exact route changed several times, as new silver camps opened. The fourth line was from Bullionville and Panaca to Pioche and back–twice a day.
The stagecoaches carried freight in and out of Pioche, and the silver to the railhead at Milford Utah, seventy miles across the mountains.
It wasn’t unusual for the stage to be carrying $200,000 to $300,000 in silver. Some enterprising people couldn’t resist the temptation. In one case the incoming stage was robbed just outside Pioche. Two hours later, when the stage left Pioche, it was robbed again–by the same robber.
To combat the robberies the mines started to pour the silver into 200 pound bars for shipping. If this didn’t discourage the robber, at least it would tire out his horse.
The railroads sort of came to Pioche. The Utah Central/Utah Southern built a line between Salt Lake City and Milford, completed in 1880. The Utah and Pacific Railroad build a line between Milford and the Nevada state line. By 1888, Union Pacific had purchased these lines and run a line to Panaca, and up to Bullionville.
Bullionville, located about 10 miles south of Pioche, was established in 1870 to mill ore because of its plentiful water supply. A twenty-one mile narrow gauge railroad from the Pioche to Bullionville was completed in 1873 to haul ore. When a water works was constructed in Pioche Bullionville faded away.
As with most boom towns, the silver ran out and the population departed. Since Pioche was the county seat it survived the hard times as a supply and government center for a vast area, but by 1900 Pioche was almost a ghost town.
The town prospered again during World War II when its deposits of lead-zinc were developed. The government considered its mines essential so the miners were given exemption from military duty. Today, you don’t have to take a two day ride in a stage coach to reach Pioche. It’s on a main highway.
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