[Caution for data-challenged readers: this post contains a heap of fascinating photos, so don’t click on the “-more-” link unless you’re feeling invincible. The photos are very small, but they do add up.]
If you’re driving about in sprawling suburbia and want a change of pace, like something to readjust your familiar assumptions that the entire world consists of huge malls connected by long strings of badly-timed traffic lights, Pioche is just the cure. I counted just one traffic light in town, and that was a single yellow caution light at one four-way intersection – and that wasn’t blinking because it wasn’t turned on. There’s also one yield sign downtown. Pioche tends to use those instead of stop signs. In the downtown area, unmarked diagonal parking is the rule, and long pickups like the Mighty Furd stick out into the two-lane Main Street, A.K.A. Business Route 93. No matter – cars idle around easily, since traffic here is defined by one or two cars, with nothing in sight in the opposing lane. There are no crosswalks – you saunter where you need to, in order to get where you want to get to.
Pioche pretty much started rolling when silver was found there in 1864. At that time, it was part of the Utah Territory, and when the border with the Nevada Territory was later moved, Pioche came with it. Didn’t matter much, since Pioche remained in the middle of nowhere. Its remoteness attracted opportunists along with the miners. In those days, it was sink or swim. If you could not find a way to put food on the table, you starved, so wandering out West was no picnic. Things in the East were often tough, what with streams of immigrants overwhelming the supply of available jobs. People headed west because of the potential of finding land that could be harnessed to support them, or perhaps minerals that could be sold to make them rich. A new life. Unfortunately, criminal types also recognized the budding opportunities to live like parasites off of those trying to make a living, and the more remote the location, the less law imposed on their behaviors. People who have no sense of accountability act only a notch or two worse than those whose innate misbehavior is endorsed by policy. They are freelancers, of a sort.
Pioche was named for its benefactor, a Frenchman who took full advantage of the Land of Opportunity to become very wealthy by means of banking and land speculation. Unlike most such entrepreneurs of the time, his conduct appears to have been largely above board, and he had a philanthropic bent as well as a justifiable enthusiasm for the West. Unfortunately, when he overextended his holdings and economic ups and downs took their effects, he put a gun to his head to solve his problems.
Long before that point however, Pioche pretty much resembled an unsupervised schoolyard packed with lethal bullies. The perception at the time was that over seventy people died of rapid lead poisoning before a single one could have the luxury of dying from natural causes. True or not, the point was made. Without the threat of law enforcement or legal investigation and punishment, murder became the norm, and when possible, so did retribution. Not a pretty story, but one reflective look at Pioche even today explains its distant history. It’s a hard-tack little town in that’s relatively out of reach of everything. Supplies are hard to come by, its 6,000’ elevation guarantees difficult winters, and there’s a sense of it being more of an outpost than a town.
How it has managed to avoid becoming a ghost town is hard to discern, except that a good chunk of its population simply refuses to give up and leave. Pioche contained 6,000-7,000 people in its heyday, depending on which account you read. By 1900, the silver had played out and the place was practically a ghost town, but mining for different ores useful to industry began to pick up, and a portion of the hustle returned to Pioche in a more organized form. By the 1920s, things hopped along nicely, peaked during WWII, and finally played out in the 1950s.
I think that it’s worthwhile to mention here that what we view today as the wasteful plundering of the various resources of the West was at that time viewed as using them to their best advantage. The vast infrastructure of the East needed feeding, even down to the ever-changing fashion dictates in the larger cities like New York and Boston. Thus the forests were cleared of fur and feather-bearing creatures by mountain men first, then of trees. The grasslands of the vast plains awaited being plowed under for raising grain and cattle. It was all there for the taking in unfathomable quantities. The common attitude was that anything not yet harnessed and put to use answering the people’s needs (and lining pockets) was a literal “wasteland” so long as it lay undeveloped.
In fact, the man who successfully lobbied the Federal government to legally abscond with area water rights to supply the new city of Los Angeles viewed Teddy Roosevelt’s protection of Yellowstone as an absurd enforcement of utter waste. Surely people would admire and benefit from a dam across it more than merely gazing at any waterfall. Even today, our ecological preservation tendencies are understandably limited by the potential to earn a living. I am continually surprised that the state of Colorado, which pretty much came into being solely due to mining barons and even used the state militia to exterminate striking miners and their families, has evolved into a sort of Mini-California in all respects – except mining. There, you can poison the drinking water supply for hundreds of miles around with little more than a “sorry for the inconvenience”. There doesn’t seem to be much public outcry, since no mining = no jobs. No mining = radically reduced state government income from a host of sources. We tend to see preservation through a financial filter, so we need to be careful about turning our noses up at those unenlightened barbarians of the past. When push comes to shove on an individual basis, us is still them.
Pioche’s more recent population is difficult to discern from poorly-resourced data, but it appears to have been under 800 souls in the year 2000, rose to 1,000 by 2010, and returned to its earlier level by 2014. Looking at its recent losses of critical support businesses like banking and groceries, no hardware, auto parts, clothing or general department stores, and only the most rudimentary auto repair facilities, I have to think that the impracticability of living there will prompt a further exodus. The only healthy businesses appear to be two bars, of course. A couple of gas stations also qualify, as well as a historical hotel/bar/gift shop catering to tourists. A jeweler is still kicking, somehow. And a small restaurant is still viable but is up for sale by its owner, as a telling indicator of which way things are going. Everyone else still technically in business has been relegated to operating hobby businesses with very limited day/hours that do not impose much of a burden or conflict with day jobs. The remaining businesses, I’d guess about half of the total, are defunct, whether empty or still stocked with items. Yet no properties other than the live restaurant have for sale signs on them. By appearance, the owners of many seem to be waiting for better times. Many residences have been abandoned and left for dead, yet again, only a couple of for sale signs are out. Many others are in very poor shape and are unoccupied, but show signs of being in the midst of rehabbing. Many have vacant spaces for RVs, indicating only seasonal occupancy.
Yet at the same time, my tour showed one guy out completing his new home, built from scratch, pretty stained wood, and modestly-sized. Most homes are fairly compact, older structures placed close to each other because of the limitations of the surrounding terrain. A telling feature of the age of the town is the rarity of driveways alongside houses. This isn’t from mere small parcel sizes, but is a result of the town being laid out in its boom times, which happened long before the advent of the automobile (especially it’s appearance here) and the complete absence of any need to commute elsewhere for employment. Who would need an automobile to cover what is a twenty-minute walk, at most? Any thinking person would live next to where they worked. For that matter, who would need the even higher expense of keeping a horse, with buggy or wagon in such a compact town? Where would the space for a stable come from? What would be the point? People didn’t load up on seventy pounds of groceries at a time, they bought what they needed for a day or two, as fresh as they could get it, and carried it home. Big items were delivered by the store. Everything they could possibly need was right up the street. The tendency was for everyman to walk, and for commercial enterprises to need the transport and be able to covers its costs.
So naturally, the homes here are small, clustered together in spaces that the sloping ground allows, and close to downtown. It may be hard for us today to conceive of a world that does not revolve around the automobile, but at one time, a town’s layout revolved around people, water, waste, closely-accessible stores offering products and services and, ideally, main streets having enough width to allow turning a horse and wagon around to head back out the way they came. That’s one of the tiny treasures of places like Pioche, where you look around and maybe half an hour later, realize “Hey, how come none of these places has a driveway and a garage? That’s really odd!” Too late to add them now!
And, considering that keeping a home warm through bitterly cold winters was no mean feat, size worked against you. Bigger meant more stoves and fireplaces, with attendant expenses, and for what? How much room do you need to live comfortably, really? Beds, table, chairs, kitchen, and maybe a room big enough to seat the people dropping by. What would your life then need to center around if you had more space than you really needed? Just as the automobile has completely redefined cities, towns, where we live and how we live since about 1920, the advent of the furnace and the fuels that fire it has redefined what we live in. I have a sneaking suspicion that while our transplant to the functional past might be initially accompanied with a sense of hardship and deprivation, a citizen of early Pioche transplanted to our ways of life today would be overwhelmed by both the modern conveniences, along with a great deal of deep confusion about exactly how this sums up as slam-dunk superior. They would immediately spot the trade-offs, while we remain unaware that such ever existed. No aspect of what they would gravitate toward building for themselves would be permitted today, and there’s the rub. What we view as adhering to minimum acceptable standards would be to them an unthinkable encroachment of their most basic freedoms as citizens. Different time, different culture, different perceptions, different values. My own perception is that “progress” is a trade, not a pure gain.
Pioche is worth it for the average drive-through tourist, thanks to the authentically-themed hotel, the eclectic nature of the town, its county museum, Boot Hill, the abandoned mines and mining equipment, and the preserved architecture. For a camper like myself, it’s a joining of extremes. The town itself is not to be missed, impressively rich in history, and altered only a little by time and modern needs. On the other hand, you can be here only as long as you are provisioned for. Propane refills, or food more sophisticated than cans of chili, frozen pizza and burritos are 25 miles away. You can eat and drink to your heart’s content downtown, but you’d better be budgeted for that extravagance. Food is not cheap. One tiny and one small commercial RV park are right in town for $20/day and up, and the city maintains a donation campground on its southeast edge offering water and sewer hookups only. Trees wipe out much of a rooftop solar installation’s output there, but it’s workable if your system can deal with it. Based on the town’s dire straights and its genuine welcome of visitors, I’ll find it most difficult to stiff them on that donation box when I depart. Not too many burgs still offer “free” places to camp any more, and this one is most deserving of anything that a budget-restricted visitor can cough up. I did see a couple of massive motorhomes with toads and trailers parked in a pull-off a few miles north of town off 93, so that is one option, I suppose.