Jaunt to Pioche a chance to see history, escape heat

Pioche, in nearby Lincoln County, offers Southern Nevadans a fine one-day or overnight trip to a cooler climate. Pioche is pleasant in the summer, because it has an elevation of more than 6,000 feet. Besides its agreeable weather, Pioche offers a great dose of Nevada history. And if you live around Las Vegas, it’s part of your city’s history, for Pioche, county seat of Lincoln County, was ours as well in the pioneer days before our county was split off from Lincoln in 1909. Furthermore, most of that history is more colorful than any taught in our schools, for this town, now quaint and quiet, has a sordid past.

Silver ore was discovered here in 1864, and by 1869 the town was born and became a booming mining town, eventually occupied by 10,000 people. From 1870 to 1877, more than $20 million worth of silver ore was mined here. Doesn’t sound so impressive in these days of multibillion-dollar bureaucracy budgets, but consider that in the 1860s Nevada miners, making $4 a day, were the highest-paid manual laborers in America. Perhaps because of the town’s remote location, there wasn’t effective law enforcement, so murder and other lawlessness were rampant. It is said that 72 people died here by gun, knife and perhaps a few hold-my-beer consequences before anyone died of natural causes. That’s probably a local legend, but even those who dispute the details agree that Pioche was one exceedingly tough town.

There are lots of things to see in Pioche, but highlights that shouldn’t be missed are the “Million Dollar” Courthouse, the Overland Hotel and Saloon, The Lincoln County Museum, and “Boot Hill” Cemetery.

In 1871, when Pioche became the Lincoln County seat, plans were laid to build a courthouse. They contracted out the project at $16,400, plus $10,000 for the jail, and sold bonds at a discount to raise the money. While the two-story brick courthouse was completed a year later, mismanagement of funds and unforeseen costs had increased the expense to $75,000. It got even worse when certificates of indebtedness were issued, the mining boom slowed and payments were deferred. The building was already condemned by the time the final payment was made in 1936, when the total cost was estimated to be about $1 million.

Taking a self-guided tour of the courthouse is fun. Head upstairs to the courtroom, where you will find lifelike mannequins wearing period costumes, and sitting in the correct places to represent a jury and judge. There are a few empty seats you can take while some companion photographs you “serving” on a jury of dummies. Directly behind the back door of the courtroom is one of the most popular places to visit, “The Tank” — the dark and primitive Pioche jail.

Another interesting thing is an early voting booth that has two sides, depending on how one would vote. Very bad information to get into the wrong hands, which it often did. A man might be rewarded for voting the “right” way or beaten for voting “wrong.” Since both major parties hired thugs to “keep order,” it was even possible to be rewarded and beaten for the same vote! Not until the 1890s did Nevada and most states establish our treasured right to a secret ballot. After leaving the courthouse, take the five-minute walk over to the Overland Hotel and Saloon. Even if you don’t care for a drink, it’s worth taking a peek inside. Check out the 1868 mahogany bar and the 1863 solid cherry back bar. The back bar was hand carved in England and shipped to San Francisco via Cape Horn then brought overland to Kimberly, a former mining town in White Pine County, now gone, and then moved to Pioche.

Strolling up Main Street you’ll come to the Lincoln County Museum. It has a wonderful collection of interesting antiques and historic items. You will find American Indian artifacts and items from the pioneer and mining eras. There are antique musical instruments, old photographs and maps, as well as a fine mineral assortment. One of the most interesting items on display is the Chinese laundry. It is a small, cast-iron stove about 3 feet high with different-sized irons at its base.

Before you leave Pioche, be sure to head over to “Boot Hill,” also known as “Murderer’s Row.” This section of the town’s cemetery is where the least respected individuals would be buried during the town’s heyday. Some interesting headstones memorialize those thought to lie here. One marks the grave of gunslinger Morgan Courtney. It reads, “Morgan Courtney, 1844-1873, Feared by Some, Respected by Few, Detested by others, Shot in the back 5 times by ambush.” Another reads “Fanny Peterson AKA Panama Jack, Spanish courtesan killed by her lover Lyman P. Fuller, Damn Shame.”

Deborah Wall’s book “Base Camp Las Vegas: 101 Hikes in the Southwest” ($24.95, Imbrifex) is available on Amazon. She can be reached at deborabus@aol.com.

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