Pioche, Nevada (pronounced Pee-O-Shee) isn’t much of a ghost town any more. Today it now has about 1,000 residents thanks to the boom in gold and silver prices. Forty years ago, however, it was a near empty relic. Lying along the Western edge of the state and abutting the Northern Slopes of what was, of course, later named the Pioche Hills; an eastern spur off the southern part of the more impressive Highland Range, Pioche is easy to find. It lies along US93 as it winds itself South towards Las Vegas 165 miles away. These days Pioche is a more somber town than its glittering neighbor to the South. It didn’t used to be that way. It used to be Hell on Earth.
The town got its start in1863 when a bunch of Mormon farmers, lead by William Hamblin, settled the valley. The original town site was called Panacker after what they named the valley floor; the “Panaca Flats” (Hamblin and his kin were thought to be the first white people to settle here). Shortly after settling the area Hamblin is then credited with the discovery of lead-gold-silver ore (the Panaca lode), but this is not entirely true. In reality Hamblin convinced some Paiute Indians friends, who had no use for such glittery things, to show him where said metallic rocks could be found. His staked claims resulted in $40 million in ore (to put this into perspective, in modern dollars this is about $2 billion!). Don’t we all wish we had friends who could basically hand us $2 billion in gold and silver?
Hamblin was poor and bit too incompetent to develop the mine himself, couple this with the delays caused by the Civil War and the fact that the Paiutes were no longer his friends and were sick of all the white men invading their territory, and he was essentially forced to sell the claims to a French banker from San Francisco by the name of Francois Louis Alfred Pioche in 1869; hence the town changed its name to “Pioche”. Hamblin eventually died in awful desperation to return to his original hometown of Gunlock, Utah, this was part in thanks to the awful, violent reality that was Pioche (more on this later).
By the time Francois Pioche bought the mines Nevada had already become a state, yet law enforcement was a little lacking (and what law there originally was had been corrupted by bribes and threats), so violence ruled supreme. Tombstone, Dodge, and Deadwood have nothing on Pioche. By the time the town had experienced its first natural death some 75 people had died via “lead to the head” or beatings. Violence was so ubiquitous that the mine owners and foremen imported their own muscle to protect the mines from encroachment, bandits, and poachers at the rate of 20 men a day. These hired guns were basically assassins and their death rate was so high that they quickly filed the cemetery on Boot Hill at the top of town. This cemetery even has a section known as “Murderers’ Row” with over 100 executed men (most of whom were executed without trial).
The story of a bartender just known as “Faddiman”, as reported by Lambert Florin, was typical of the town. When a job for an opening in a saloon was posted in Pioche Faddiman jumped at the chance for work that didn’t involve being underground. Friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers alike told him not to go: “You’re as good as dead if you go to Pioche.”… “No bartender ever lasted longer than a year in Pioche.”…
Feddiman told everyone to get bent, “I need a job and I don’t care where it is. I can take care of myself.” He made his way to the then mining camp and stayed there. His second week on the job he cut off an intoxicated customer.
His last words: “You don’t need another drink.”
The customer promptly shot him in the face, stepped over his body and emptied the till. He went next door to the butcher shop where the curvaceous “N-word Liza” worked, raped her, slit her throat, and stripped the till. When he proceeded to leave he was met at Liza’s door by the Sheriff who shot him in the head. The killer’s name was never known, but was pretty typical of how the rows of unmarked graves that line the cemetery at Boot Hill grew so long so fast.
Violence was such a way of life that in 1873 the Nevada State Mineralogist reported to the State Legislature “About one-half of the community are thieves, scoundrels and murderers […]. You can go uptown and get shot very easily if you choose […]. I will send you a paper with an account of the last fight…I was in hopes eight or ten would have been killed at least, as these fights are a pest in the community. Peaceful! Sure, if you stayed out of the way of the bullets.”
The town at its peak in the mid 1870s had 6,000-10,000 residents, 72 saloons, and 32 brothels. it was drunk, gun-fueled mess. The local paper wrote: “Some people do not hesitate to fire off a pistol or a gun at anytime, day or night, in this city. Murderers who shoot a man in the back get off scot free but the unfortunate devil who steals a bottle of Whiskey or a couple of boxes of cigars has to pay for his small crime.”
September 15th, 1871 a structure containing over 300 barrels of blasting powder went *boom* during a town fire killing 13 people, injuring 47. The fire ultimately resulted in over $500,000 in damage ($25 million in today’s dollars), and left upwards of 3,000 people homeless.
A mini war between the Raymond & Ely and the Hermes Mining Company over control of the main lode claim in 1872 broke out resulting in dozens of murders. William Hamblin was tapped as a key witness in the subsequent trial over the claim rights. Just before he was set to testify one of his drinks was poisoned. In a frightful terror upon the realization that he was going to die he rode for his family in his hometown of Gunlock, UT. He only made it as far as Clover Valley, UT before succumbing to the poison’s inevitability. He is buried in Barclay, UT.
The town had its own awful stupidity too. It was made the county seat of Lincoln County and in 1871 an $88,000 courthouse was erected which far beyond the original estimated costs budgeted at $16,000. The courthouse became known as the “Million Dollar Courthouse” due to the public being swindled by financing, refinancing, and the issuance of public bonds for the building totaling more than $1 million. On a note of awesomeness, the building was condemned in 1933; three years before it would have finally been paid off. It has since been restored.
A curious thing happened in 1876 that is unique to Pioche as far as I can tell. For some reason women began to flood the town and men began getting married in droves. This was due in part to the strong will of the women as much of that of the weak will and decision making abilities of the alcohol inside the men. The bachelors were so scared of waking up married that they formed a men’s liberation movement. I shit you not.
The July 8th, 1876 edition of the Pioche Daily Record reports:
“An association is being formed in Pioche amongst the unprotected male sex, the object being to protect themselves from the encroachment of the female sex, which of late have become so dangerous, that the poor male is getting to be the object of pity.
“Many lately have been caught up and married before they hardly knew it. Females are arriving from all directions by stages, by private conveyances… In consequence of this frightful state of affairs, that men are getting so timid that they hardly venture in the streets for a short walk for fear that they will be married me before they return. This association proposes to ameliorate the condition of affairs.”
The Single Men’s Protective Association held its first meeting in a small, smoke-filled room. The idea was to devise a plan to protect the men from the “tricks” of the women who were apparently thirsting for the hand of these miners. The new organization elected a president, vice president, treasurer, secretary, and one Joseph R. Hoag as Sargent at Arms. Hoag’s role was to ensure that no females enter the secret meetings. The men agreed to $5 dues and a pledge that none of the men present would get married for the rest of 1876. This was when the doors were broken down and the women of the town trampled Hoag in outrage. The men scrambled falling over chairs and diving out of glass windows to escape the women. Again, I shit you not.
The influx of women and the rash of marriages in 1876 did have an upside: the town went almost two months that summer without a murder!
By the late 1870s the gold and silver lodes began to dwindle and the town was nearly empty by 1900. Pioche had a resurgence during WWII when the need for Zinc and Lead for the war effort took precedent. Today the old town has many historic buildings restored and is one of the great ghost towns to visit and explore. The next time you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, NV swing on by Pioche and relive the weirdest, most violent days of the frontier.