Not for nothing was Nevada was known as the silver state. The events of a century or so ago hang over the desert landscape as heavy as the unforgiving burning sun.
Many of the boom towns from Nevada’s silver rush have gone away as spectacularly as they arrived. Their story, however, lingers on like the sculpted stone landscape all around.
In the Nevada desert only the hardiest can survive, the crafty creosote plant which poisons its rivals for the sparse water, the forests of Joshua trees, lilies of the desert, and the shy coyote.
But the scramble for survival among the plants and animals is nothing to what happened when the humans came here in quest of gold and silver. The silver state, as Nevada was known, has some of the most spectacular heritage in North America, a reminder of what happens when unconditional greed seizes the hearts and minds of men.
The astonishing beauty of the landscape never fades or tires the eyes, through mile after mile of emptiness.
The story of how this barren landscape became the most coveted property in the west is half familiar to us from the movies. Someone finds silver, an army of hardened desert rats with a dream and a pick arrive on the scene, they fight and they squabble over the pickings, the vein runs out, and everyone goes away to the next would-be El Dorado.
They came from the last workings in Virginia and Colorado. The Irish were among them, men like John Mackay and James Fair in Comstock, who struck in 1859, became millionaires: many more are littered on the graves of Boot Hill or are discarded around Mount Irish, named for the sheer numbers of Irish who came there when it flourished in 1865.
In the 1870s Robb and Douglas made fortunes in Pioche. Nowadays 11pc of modern Nevada claims Irish ancestry.
Every time the roller coaster ride seemed to come to a halt, it restarted somewhere else on another mountain in another God-forsaken part of the desert.
When Pioche was spun out in the 1870s, Goldfield sprung in to action. Then Rhyolite struck it rich.
At the turn of the last century, when they were seriously considering withdrawing Nevada’s statehood, Tonopah got in to the action. They even moved the San Francisco stock exchange to Tonopah after the earthquake.
In its heyday Pioche had a population of 25,000, 100 bars, 60 whore houses, three churches, and accounted for 60pc of the fatalities in Nevada.
They say 75 people died of violent end in Pioche before anybody here around died of natural causes.
“This place made Dodge City and Tombstone look like choir practice,” says the curator of the Courthouse museum, Jim Murphy whose great grandfather arrived from Cork in 1905.
The law was so corrupt that people were being pushed of their claims on a daily basis. The big companies just decided to eliminate anyone who got in their way. At one stage twenty hired guns were arriving in Pioche every day.
The courthouse and grim jail serve as a local museum. The old Mountain View Hotel nearby is a shambolic relic of turn of the century architecture. Here President Herbert Hoover is said to have stayed in 1930.
“They took $120m dollars worth out of that mountain and I don’t see any mansions around here,” says Murphy.
Tonopah, a name meaning small river in the local dialect, was the creation of a Canadian named Jim Butler who found silver here in 1903 and soon it too was booming.
Jim leased his stake to miners and sold out for 300,000. Soon it was a town of 50 saloons and the Kildare born boxer Jack Dempsey was among the best known residents, serving here as a bar tender.
Wyatt Earp also moved in after the OK Corral. It is 400 miles from San Francisco and this is where the San Francisco stock exchange moved after the earthquake. James Eason’s great grandfather came too. Now he is town manager of Tonopah, with a dream to restore the mine in the modern Tonopah, a town of three pubs and 300 people.
They say Tonopah rebuilt San Fran after the earthquake. In a local bar loud music booms as the passers through mingle with locals for a quarter gamble and a few beers.
Next door the visitors are greeted warmly and affectionately and asked if they are really here for the conversation or for other services, which are legal in 11 of the 17 rural Nevada counties,
The massive railway junction of Caliente shipped the stuff out. It at least is still there, thought the miles of empty track show how this place, once the centre of the world, is now at the end of the world.
When the silver ran out they moved down everything that could move, leaving the concrete skeletons of their town behind. Each spent its decade in the sun, or at least the glare of the sun reflected by the array of precious metals that they dug out of the mountain.
At the time when a total of 30 people lived among the semi-abandoned green springs that the Spaniards called Las Vegas, 25,000 each people lived in Rhyolite, Goldfield and Vegas’ regional capital of the time, Pioche.
Now there is nobody left at all in Rhyolite. Here you can wander the carefully staked streets and look at the banks, schools, bars and brothels and imagine what life used to be like here. At Rhyolite they built schools, banks and railroad terminus as if it was to last.
Somebody wanted to turn the railway terminal into a casino, a sad reminder of the last piece of dreaming that went on herearound.
The tracks are gone. The railway is gone, and the whole place looks like a beaten docket, the gambler who had a run of luck and lost.
And low levels of blocks remain of the Rhyolite miner’s union hall, which lived no longer than the poor men who built it to better their conditions.
The miner’s lives were short and painful. By their mid thirties most succumbed to silicosis, or miner’s consumption. And the towns were dying almost as fast as the miners.
Goldfield is surviving as a tourist attraction, a huge collection of empty buildings and 200 hardy souls keeping something of a civic spirit going long after the gold has run out.
One of the great labour battle was fought here by the Irish who moved up from Cripple Creek in Colorado and organised the union only to find the guns of the National Guard turned upon them.
Tough times and a tough landscape called for tough men. On the descent in to Death valley you can hear the stories of the men they called the desert rats live on: Seldom Seen Slim, Johnny Dayton and the alluring Shorty Harris, “a drinking man – he used to believe that he was being followed by a penguin” and the ubiquitous Death Valley Scotty.
Scott’s motto is inscribed on his grave: “don’t say nothing to hurt no-one, don’t give advice because nobody takes any, don’t explain and don’t complain.”
Mike Waymire now guides tours around Scotty’s Castle, a Gothic absurdity built on a desert spring at the entrance to Death Valley. The Johnsons from Chicago built it for Scotty, whose capacity for draining their funds to develop fictitious gold mines was repaid in laughs and good company. Mrs Johnson once described herself as a little desert mouse caught between two large desert rats.
The rat trap proved popular with writers, artists and wanderlusters from the 1930s. It is now a ritual tourist stop on the descent to the Death Valley scenery beyond.
Death Valley got its name because so little seems to live there, the hottest place in the western hemisphere and long the record holder for the hottest temperature recorded on Earth. Some of the 49ers perished here when they tried to take a short cut to the gold fields of Colorado. Now it is a national park with a huge variety of nature’s artworks, salt flats, canyons, sculpted rockscapes and barren desert.
The road back to Vegas is paved with expectations, lined with the optimists who are heading off in quest of a new silver rush.
Many are returning from the legal brothels which have grown up a few hours north of Vegas and south of Reno – The Chicken Ranch in Pahrump is the most famous, Sherri’s, also in Pahrump, the most expensive – more a resort than a brothel with beautiful girls who charge $1,000 for a quickie, and the Shady Lady the best titled.
About 30 legal brothels remain in existence, employing about 300 female prostitutes at any given time. Students of the world’s oldest profession say that one brothel in Elko has been in business since 1902.
The silver miners would have recognised the formula immediately, loose women, strong drink and the nugget waiting to be struck with the right combination of luck and foresight. So many losers, so few winners.
An unlearnt lesson from such a wonderful landscape.
- Kershaw-Ryan State Park, Echo Canyon State Park and Spring Valley State Park.
- Central Nevada Museum, the Tonopah Historic Mining Park, and Otteson’s Turquoise Shop all in the Tonopah area
- Enjoy a Mexican feast at El Marques Restaurant before heading outside to experience what USA Today calls the “Stargazing Capital of the World,” where over 7,000 stars are easily seen by the naked eye.
- Tour Scotty’s castle, a unique oasis that once attracted the Hollywood crowd, and Death Valley National Park
- Furnace Creek Visitor’s Centre. www.usparkinfo.com/deathvalley.html
- Caliente, a historic railroad town with the mission-style Caliente Railroad Depot, a place that used to be at the centre of the world. www.lincolncountynevada.com/caliente
- Goldfield, preserved mining town with a couple of hundred residents who keep the place maintained.
- n Ash Springs, a hot springs area full of endangered pupfish and one the most popular spots in the area www.ashspringsnv.com
- n Cathedral Gorge State Park in Panaca. parks.nv.gov/cg.htm
- The mysterious Extra-terrestrial Highway, named for the many UFO sightings. www.rachel-nevada.com/ethighway.html
- Eoghan Corry flew with Aer Lingus to San Francisco see ww.aerlingus.com
- See www.travelnevada.com for more details
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