Historic, remote Pioche retains much frontier charm
The former mining camp of Pioche in eastern Nevada has aged gracefully.
The first settlers in Pioche were miners attracted in 1864 by news of silver discoveries at Panacker Ledge on the northeast side of nearby Ely Mountain.
The camp was originally called Ely after John H. Ely, owner of one of the earliest stamp mills. In 1869, financier Francóis L.A. Pioche of San Francisco purchased most of the area’s mining claims and had a town laid out, which was named for him.
Pioche boomed. By 1871, it had 7,000 residents and had taken the seat of Lincoln County from nearby Hiko. Because of its remote location, the town also gained a reputation for lawlessness.
Several books claim the town was so violent that 72 men were buried in the Pioche cemetery (east of town) before anyone died of natural causes.
Pioche’s notoriety was perhaps permanently cemented – at least in legend – following the construction of the so-called “Million Dollar Courthouse.”
This two-story stone hall of justice gained its moniker because, it is said, over the years, the building cost nearly $1 million due to mismanagement, corruption and cost overruns. Although the courthouse was built in 1872, it wasn’t paid off until 1937.
Wandering the streets of Pioche is an opportunity to see dozens of historic homes and buildings – many still in use – that date to the last two centuries.
For example, adjacent to the Million Dollar Courthouse is the Mountain View Hotel, built in 1895. Originally owned by the Ely Valley Mines to house its guests, the three-story wooden structure incorporates the early-1900s Classic Box style of architecture with the Shingle style. It awaits restoration.
Nearby is the St. John Masonic Lodge, a restored brick building, originally erected in 1873, that is one of the state’s oldest fraternal chapter houses.
Across the street are the Pioche Livery Stable and Tin Fabrication Building, from the early 1870s, as well as the Pioche Fire House and the Amsden Building, both built in 1865.
Behind the firehouse, on Main Street, is the Orr Garage, a stone building from the early 1870s, believed to have once been a blacksmith shop, and the Brown/Thompson Opera House, built in 1873.
The opera house is noteworthy because of its classic Revival architectural style and age – it is one of the oldest mining town opera houses remaining in the state.
South of the opera house on Main Street is Pioche’s main commercial district, which contains a number of historic buildings, The Stockham House, at the south end of the district, was built in 1866. Originally a boarding house, it houses the Francois L.A. Pioche Art Gallery.
The Lincoln County Museum on Main Street is housed in the A.S. Thompson building, built in 1900. It was originally a clothing and mercantile business. The museum contains a fine collection of 19th century morticians’ tools, several organs and lots of mining artifacts.
Beyond the downtown core, Pioche has a handful of other historically significant structures, including the Pioche School, built in 1909. Except for the Caliente Depot, the school is the only Mission-style building in Lincoln County. It is also the oldest continuously used school building in Nevada.
Of more recent vintage is the Overland Bar and Hotel, built in 1940. The club originally had a bowling alley in its basement and is now a popular local restaurant and watering hole.
Another intriguing landmark in Pioche is an aerial tram system that runs over the mountain that overlooks the town. Constructed during a short mining boom in the 1930s, the tram carried ore from mines on the hillsides south of town to the Godbe Mill and Smelter, the ruins of which are just north of the community.
If you climb to the top of the hill overlooking the town, you can get a closer view of the tram, which still has ore carts suspended from its thick, rusted steel cable. Additionally, you will find an outstanding overview of the area.
n Richard Moreno is the author of “Backyard Travels in Northern Nevada” and “The Roadside History of Nevada.”