If television had been around 150 years ago, chances are that instead of CSI Las Vegas, our frontier forefathers would have been tuning in to CSI: Pioche.
It may be a sleepy little service town in the high desert 300 kilometres north of Las Vegas now, but in the 1860s, when Sin City was little more than a watering hole for cattle, Pioche was establishing its reputation as the baddest town in the west - this at a time when there was plenty of competition for the distinction.
It was so bad that, according to local legend, as many as 72 locals were killed with their boots on before even one resident expired of natural causes.
It was so bad that a visiting mineralogist reporting back to the state legislature grumbled: "One half of the community are thieves, scoundrels and murderers." He also included a newspaper account of a recent gunfight, adding, "I was in hopes eight or 10 would have been killed at least, as these fights are a pest in the community."
Not surprisingly, gold and silver were at the root of the evil that stalked the dusty streets of Pioche. In 1863, some Paiute Indians naively pointed out an ore vein to one William Hamblin and the rush was on, attracting the good, the bad and, one can safely assume, the downright ugly.
Of course, it didn't last. Eventually the corporate interests moved in, accompanied, as they invariably were, by the law - or what passed for it, the law being a commodity that was typically very much for sale in frontier towns - and the bad boys were run out of town, but not before Boot Hill had a murderers' row estimated to contain the remains of as many as 100 gunslingers.
Luckily, Pioche didn't do what so many boom-to-bust towns did when the veins ran out, which is more or less dry up and blow away. A number of old buildings survive, including the Opera House dating from 1873 and the legendary Million Dollar Courthouse, so called because although it was originally budgeted at $26,400, it ended up costing just shy of a million by the time all the bankers and politicians pulled the last of their fingers out of the pie. This is, of course, a happy circumstance for visitors who can now wander the streets and soak up the Old West ambience without fear of being gunned down. You can even visit the town's famous Boot Hill cemetery with its many infamous residents, among them John Bass, who fell on June 26, 1875, after unwisely and inaccurately opening fire on a couple of lawmen named McKee and Kelley.
Pioche is but one of many Nevada towns, ghostly yet still breathing, that are rich with history and can be explored without congestion thanks to their relative isolation and the ignorance of much of the travelling public to their very existence. A lot of them are in pretty much the state they were left when they were abandoned.
And when I say there are "many," I'm not kidding. According to ghosttowns.com, there are about 230 officially recognized towns in the state where remnants of the past can be explored, and the list is growing all the time as ruins are discovered by modern-day historical prospectors.
They're not all ghost towns, and range from the genuine Berlin in Nye County, an abandoned mining camp that is now a state park thanks to the wealth of old buildings still standing, to the still-breathing city of Ely (population 4,000), which until the 1940s boasted the tallest building in the state, the six-storey "biker friendly" Hotel Nevada.
Towns in the Old West tended to come and go where opportunity came and went, but silver and gold weren't the only things that led to human habitation. Nevada was formed in volcanic fire, and despite the fact that it is the most mountainous state in the union - Nevada means "snow capped" - rivers and streams are rare, precious and often only seasonal. However, what the state lacks in surface water it makes up for (at least to some extent) with spring water that rises up out of the ground, creating rivers, lakes and oases in the middle of nowhere. It's a remarkable thing to be driving along through hell's half acre and suddenly see everything turning green. Lakes appear out of nowhere along the Great Basin Highway, just north of Las Vegas, with giant cottonwoods soaking their feet in the soothing waters. And then just as quickly it's all gone again, the lush grasses replaced by struggling cacti and ground-hugging juniper. A clue that water is upcoming: a name on a sign that starts with "pah," as in Pahrump or Pahranagat. Pah is the Shoshone Indian word for water.
Remnants of Indian civilizations can be found among the fractured and weathered rocks. While staying at the Cowboy's Dream Bed & Breakfast in Alamo, we learned from Jake, one of the boys who worked there, of some petroglyphs nearby. Of course, we wanted to see them, so we piled into Jake's rattletrap old Jimmy, drove about three kilometres into the hills and stopped at an unmarked spot in the road he had committed to memory. I was expecting to find fences and the like, but after a short climb up a dusty slope through sagebrush and creosote, we came to a collection of rocks into which had been etched various animals and symbols. And we had it to ourselves. No other tourists, no souvenir hawkers, no entry fees.
We couldn't help but wonder how many other little-known or perhaps even undiscovered remnants of the past are still hiding in the inscrutable hills - in a state in which history is literally lying around at the side of the road. With Jake at the wheel, we avoided turning around on the narrow road - a long stretch of soft sand will stop a tank - and took a long, circular route back to the hotel. On the way, tossed at the side of the road like a burger wrapper out a car window was a sun-bleached horse collar crudely fashioned out of wood and scraps of metal hammered to suit the occasion.
"Did you see that? Did you see that?" I cried excitedly as we trundled by.
"There's all kinds of that stuff around," Jake replied with his cowboy insouciance.
So there is. If you want to see for yourself, you may want to go sooner rather than later because it's only a matter of time before those fences and entry fees make an appearance.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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