The rise and fall of Metropolis, Nevada
May 24, 2018
Like many Nevada communities, optimists founded Metropolis.
But Metropolis wasn't settled by folks seeking gambling riches or mineral wealth but by farmers seeking a better life.
Located 15 miles northwest of Wells in Northeastern Nevada, the community of Metropolis was founded in 1909 by the Pacific Reclamation Company, a New York land development firm. As with later more notorious real estate scams — think swampland in Florida — the company made plenty of promises that it ultimately could not keep.
For one thing, Pacific Reclamation's promotional materials spoke of Metropolis' long growing season as well as the region's plentiful sun and water. Unfortunately, that region of Nevada has an extremely short growing season and very little water — although the part about plentiful sunshine was true.
To solve the water problem, in 1912 the company constructed a 100-foot dam and a canal system on a tributary of the Humboldt River. It proclaimed that water from the dam would support 40,000 acres of cultivated farmland and a modern city with a population of 7,500.
The developers opened an office in Salt Lake City and targeted Mormon farmers. Their ambitious plans showed that an impressive townsite would eventually include paved streets, fountains, streetlights, schools, a hotel and a couple of parks.
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By the end of 1912, the town had been parceled into lots, streets and sidewalks had been installed and a four-block business district was under construction, which included a three-story brick hotel, built at a cost of $75,000, and a large, two-story brick school building.
The Southern Pacific Railroad was so bullish on Metropolis that in 1912 it constructed an eight-mile spur from its main line and erected a small depot in the community.
In the town's first year, more than 700 people, most Mormon farmers who had been sold on the town's potential as a farming area, relocated to the area. Hundreds of acres of crops were planted and dozens of head of cattle were put on the range.
The Metropolis Chronicle, a town-boosting newspaper established by Pacific Reclamation, printed editorials suggesting that someday Metropolis might be large enough to snatch the Elko County seat away from Elko.
But even though things appeared rosy, Metropolis was already in trouble.
In 1913, farmers from Lovelock filed a lawsuit against the Pacific Reclamation Company. In it, the upstream farmers pointed out that the company had never sought approval from state or federal authorities to build its dam nor did it seek to obtain sufficient water rights for the community.
In a dry state like Nevada — where every drop of water is claimed — it was a major oversight. The court ruled that Pacific Reclamation was only entitled to a portion of the water behind its dam — enough to irrigate about 4,000 acres.
At the same time the court decision was made, Metropolis found itself at the beginning of a terrible three-year drought. Desperate farmers switched to dairy products and dry-farming crops, both of which proved only moderately successful.
For Pacific Reclamation, however, the end came quickly. In late 1913, the company filed for bankruptcy protection and by 1920 it was out of business.
All of the difficulties caused some families to start to abandon Metropolis. Others stayed and a few had some success raising wheat and potatoes.
But the bad omens continued.
The next year, hordes of jackrabbits invaded the region, consuming everything in their path. That was followed by a six-year infestation by giant Mormon crickets, which stripped the fields and even ate paint off houses.
By 1925, the Southern Pacific Railroad had removed its track and sold its depot. The elegant Metropolis Hotel burned in 1936 and the post office was closed in 1942. The impressive Metropolis School was closed in 1947.
A handful of brick foundations and walls are all that remain of the dreams of those who attempted to create an agricultural paradise in the sagebrush. The ruins seem out of place — huge Stonehenge-like shapes standing alone in a vast, open valley.
Most impressive is the solitary stone arch of the old school. The rest of the brick building has disintegrated or been removed, but the intricate design of the arch illustrates the care and work that went into the construction of Metropolis.
The ruins of the hotel, now almost completely reclaimed by the sagebrush, are about a quarter of a mile away. A cemetery and other foundations can also be found in the area. A few miles north you can also still find the dam that provided water to Metropolis.
A stone monument at the site briefly tells the story of Metropolis and is dedicated to the hard-working people who were the victims of what might be described as Nevada's first real estate scam — and, sadly, they would not be the last.
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