Sunday, September 28, 2008

Pioche, Nev.

Another relic I dug up. This one was a piece I wrote after a family reunion near Pioche, Nevada in 1996, I believe. I don’t know why I never shopped it around, but here it is, complete with sidebar.

You can't visit Pioche, Nevada, without thinking that this must be what the west was really like a hundred years ago.

Pioche is often called a living ghost town, and there is something about the place that justifies that reputation. The air is clear and the food is good. The beef tastes like it was walking the range only yesterday, and the antique pump organs in the local museum look like they would still be at home in somebody’s front parlor off Main Street.

Few people visit the sleepy high desert town that claims to have once been the roughest, toughest mining camp in the west. Those who do make the two-hour trek up the two-lane Highway 93 from Las Vegas do not expect perks. This is Pioche, after all, where vigilantes once ruled the streets and the only law came out of the business end of a six‑shooter. Or so goes the legend.

Today there are no gunfights on Main Street. Most of the action has moved indoors to the Overland Hotel and Saloon, where folks gather on a weekend night to party and shoot some pool. The town’s a quiet place now, basking in the glow of its evil past and content with being a remote burg unable to conjure up a major flow of tourists.

It's a town where steak costs $12.95, and does not come with an all‑you‑can‑eat salad bar. Breakfast buffets are unheard of, and if you asked for one, you’d be laughed out of town. But there’s no better place to get a taste of old Nevada without the intrusive kookiness of the big casino culture found elsewhere in the state.

Which is the point. Tourist attractions are fun, but there's nothing like the thrill of discovering a place that's a little off the beaten track, where the people are real, the color is local and the food is solid and good without being pretentious.

If that means suffering through low-rent museums and higher food prices, so much the better. Because never do you doubt that you’re among people who are really doing what they do, instead of putting on a show.

Driving into town from the business loop off state highway 93 is like driving into another time period. The road winds through acres of stark evergreens, then turns the corner and jolts you with a genuine antique, an abandoned wooden tramway that once transported ore from Treasure Hill to the processing plant a few miles away.

Abandoned mine shafts riddle the terrain in and around Pioche, cordoned off with barbed wire and bright red signs warning “stay out, stay alive.” Pale‑pink tailings (mounded refuse from years of mining) dot half the mountainside above Pioche, mute testimony to what was once the town’s bread and butter.

During the boom years of 1870-1877, Pioche acquired a reputation as the roughest, most violent town in the west. Mining companies imported gunfighters to protect their claims, and the more than $20 million in ore they extracted. The law wasn't much use in Pioche, and legend has it that more than 70 men died violent deaths before even one died of natural causes.

Along with the boom years came exuberant graft and corruption, a seedy fact the town seems almost proud of. The old county courthouse is mute testament to that sordid fact of frontier life. Originally planned at a cost of a little over $16,000, mismanagement and old-fashioned corruption brought the total price of the courthouse to $1 million before the town finally paid it off more than 50 years after it was built.

The courthouse and “boot hill” both serve as reminders of a time when law didn't have much meaning, even to the people who supposedly upheld it. Town literature, in fact, claims the sheriff's office was such a lucrative source of bribes that it brought in $40,000 per year to the lucky occupant.

But though it's a living relic of another time, that isn't to say things have not changed. Pioche today is far from the wild mining camp of the boom years. Though the area still supports some mining, Pioche survived where other mining camps failed partly because it was designated the Lincoln County seat in 1871. Mining has been revived through the years, with new developments currently being investigated in the mountains around Pioche.

And there’s no getting around the most obvious change. During the boom years of the 1870s Pioche claimed up to 10,000 residents. Now it has 600. At its most prosperous, Pioche had 72 saloons and two daily newspapers. It now has three restaurants (one former restaurateur told us she switched to selling antiques when she realized Pioche just didn't need four restaurants) and the weekly Lincoln County News is located down the highway at Caliente.

No more boisterous minors paint the town red on Saturday night. Now the crime and corruption that once demanded and tolerated a $40,000 per year sheriff is just a memory among the shadows on Main Street.

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