Time was when Hamilton’s streets bustled. The largest of several camps spawned by rich horn silver discoveries on Treasure Hill in 1867, Hamilton served a district population of about 30,000 miners and the usual hopefuls and riffraff lured by boomtowns. Today, Hamilton’s scatter of ruins rising spectrally from the sagebrush and pinyons lure only those seeking glimpses of the Old West.
Hamilton lies west of Ely off U.S. 50, about 285 miles from Las Vegas. Watch for a turnoff toward Illipah Reservoir on the Hamilton Road, 33 miles from Ely. Follow the graded road 11 miles to reach Hamilton, passing its little cemetery about a mile before the ruins marking the town site. Cemeteries are always worth a stop at ghost towns, indicating many an untold tale.
Usually kept in good repair, the road as far as Hamilton can be negotiated by most vehicles driven with care. Road conditions are best in summer and fall. The little tracks snaking off from the area of the ruins, however, require high-clearance vehicles and even four-wheel drive. They lead to several other ruined towns, hidden mines and mill sites in the vicinity. Explore safely, staying out of old mines and watching for unfenced mine shafts. Equip yourself with good detailed maps of the area. Start with a full tank of gasoline and a good spare tire. Carry water, food and blankets. Leave word where you are headed and when you expect to return.
On the way to Hamilton, you pass several areas used for primitive camping, mostly by hunters. Many prefer the Bureau of Land Management’s campground at Illipah Reservoir just off U.S. 50. To reach it, drive one mile from the highway exit to a junction. Turn left and drive 1.3 miles to the campground near the water at about 6,800 feet elevation.
Illipah offers 17 campsites available on a first come basis free of charge. Sites include wind breaks beside tables and grills and centralized water and toilets. There is no size limit for trailers or RVs. The water impounded in Illipah Reservoir fills a canyon behind a little dam. Stocked with trout, the reservoir is popular with fishermen who must have a Nevada license and trout stamp. Anglers try for German Brown and rainbow trout from the shore or from boats.
The excitement over the silver discoveries in Nevada drew 10,000 people before the winter of 1867-68, most with no idea of how cold winters can be at 8,000 feet. Ill-prepared, they shivered through those first months in caves, dugouts, wooden shacks, tents, mud huts and cabins built of hay. There was never enough firewood to cook and stay warm. Scattered springs provided inadequate water. Despite the difficulties, the stampede rivaled the numbers drawn to the earlier California Gold Rush or Nevada’s Comstock Lode.
The ramshackle shelters of Hamilton’s infancy are long gone. The ruins and foundations remaining are from Hamilton’s promising youth, By early 1869, a couple of banks set up branches there. By March, White Pine County had been organized and Hamilton was its county seat. Construction soon began on a brick courthouse. Its commercial district mushrooming, Hamilton boasted several downtown streets lined with buildings occupied by dozens of stores, offices and more than 100 saloons. The whole district thundered with stamp mills processing ore from area mines. Enough bullion was produced that twice-daily stages ran to Elko, and stage robberies averaged two a week.
Hamilton never had a chance to grow old. The mining depression that struck in 1870 dealt the town a death blow. By the time the 1870 census was taken, three quarters of the population had moved on. Fires in 1873 and 1875 devastated the downtown. Another conflagration in 1885 destroyed the handsome courthouse and the seat of White Pine County moved to Ely.
Visitors today see ruins that include the partial walls of a bank, a once-imposing hotel and a few other commercial buildings. The foundations of others delineate a grid of overgrown streets. On a nearby hillside, a lone smokestack stands as a memorial to the many mills that once pulverized and processed the district’s ore. Modern metal buildings, stacked materials and other detritus mark several more recent mining attempts at Hamilton.
Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.