NEVADA TRAVELER: The story of Pioche’s ‘million dollar’ courthouse
For the Nevada Appeal
The former mining camp of Pioche in eastern Nevada has aged pretty well.
The first settlers in Pioche were miners attracted in 1864 by the 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 Francois 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.
The town boomed and 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.
In fact, several books claim that the town was so violent that 72 men were buried in the Pioche cemetery (which can still be seen east of town) before anyone died of natural causes.
Perhaps the best example of Pioche’s colorful past is the “Million Dollar Courthouse,” which is so named because it cost nearly a million dollars as a result of decades of mismanagement, refinancing and corruption.
Now a museum, the courthouse was originally supposed to cost about $26,400 when construction started in 1871. A year later, when work was completed, the cost had jumped to more than $88,000 because of cost overruns and illegal kickbacks.
Unfortunately, about that same time Pioche experienced a mining slump and the county found itself unable to pay for the building. The project was refinanced with new building bonds – naturally with higher interest costs. This practice was repeated several times over subsequent decades, escalating the total cost of the courthouse.
It is estimated that by the 1880s the debt had risen to about $181,000 and by the end of the century it was more than $670,000.
In fact, when the courthouse debt was finally retired in 1937- ironically, four years after the building had been condemned-the total cost was nearly $1 million, hence its nickname.
Today, visitors can tour the restored courthouse, which has been made into a nice local museum. The building is also used for community meetings and occasional theatrical performances.
Pioche, which is located about four hours northeast of Las Vegas via U.S. Highway 93, remains a quiet, friendly community that has retained much of the flavor of its early days.
Many of the buildings on its main street are authentic frontier structures with white balconies and western-style false storefronts. A few of the buildings, such as the Odd Fellows Hall, have been restored.
In the center of town is the Lincoln County Historical Museum. Inside, visitors will find artifacts from the region’s frontier years, including a nice collection of antique photos, organs, mortician’s tools and clothing.
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 – Pioche experienced several over the years-the tram carried ore from mines on the hillsides south of town to the Godbe Mill and Smelter, located 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.
While exploring, however, keep in mind that there are abandoned, open mine shafts all over the surrounding hillsides. Be careful not to enter any of these old mines because they are not safe.
For more information, contact the Pioche Chamber of Commerce, 752 Main St., Pioche, NV 89043, call (775) 962-5544 or go to http://www.piochenevada.org.