ADVENTURER | RICHARD MASSEY
Fiddles played, whiskey flowed, and there was dancing in the streets of Belmont on July 4, 1876. Not only was this the 100th birthday of our country, it was a day to celebrate the grand opening of the Belmont Courthouse. At the time Belmont was a prosperous mining town with a population growing into the thousands.
The early mining town of Ione became the first county seat of Nye County in 1864. In 1865, silver, copper, and other precious metals were discovered in Belmont and the rush was on. As the population grew, construction proceeded at a feverish pace. Soon the town had a post office, a school, four mercantile stores, a brewery, five restaurants, a bank, a telegraph office, a livery stable, and two newspapers.
While Belmont prospered, Ione was fast becoming a ghost town. As a result, the Nye county seat was relocated to Belmont in 1867.
During that time, important city and county records were kept in a variety of odd and often unsecured places. The city fathers recognized the need for a central civic building—a place that could house all the government offices, including a jail, and a courtroom.
In 1875, a movement was underway to raise funds to build the Belmont Courthouse with the state granting $3,400. Bonds were passed and additional funds were raised, and a building site was purchased from the Belmont Mining Company just west of Main Street.
Architect J.K. Winchell of Carson City designed the courthouse in an early Italianate style that called for red-brick construction on a stone foundation. It would have two floors, 12 large rooms with tall windows, and the roof would feature a striking cupola. I.T. Benham of Reno was awarded the project; construction began in 1875 and was completed in 1876.
Over the years, the courthouse saw many interesting cases, but none more memorable than the case of Nye County sheep rancher George Ernst. He was tried for tax evasion after trying to pay grazing fees in a nearby county where fees were cheaper.
Prosecutor Peter Breen won the case with this poetic summation: “George Ernst has a flock of sheep/their fleece as white as snow/He feeds them in Nye County/and taxes them in Elko.”
FALLING INTO DISREPAIR
By 1887, the rich ore deposits of Belmont began to play out. Several mines closed and the town experienced a rapid decline in population. By 1900, there were fewer than 100 voters registered there.
As Belmont was in decline rich discoveries of silver and gold were found in Tonopah and it soon became the new boomtown. In 1905, Belmont had its last court case and the county seat was moved to Tonopah where it remains today.
The courthouse stood open and abandoned for decades and had experienced the ravages of time, vandals, extreme weather, and seismic disturbances. Because of broken windows and a leaking roof, serious interior damage had been done. In some areas these destructive forces caused structural damage.
During this time, it was common for locals and visitors to leave graffiti on the interior walls in the form of poetry, names, and drawings. The most notable of these graffiti artists may have been the notorious Charles Manson who masterminded a string of California murders in the 1960s. He and his followers are believed to have visited the courthouse. Carved into a door frame on the first floor is the haunting inscription, “Charlie Manson + family 1969” with a peace symbol drawn in the O in Manson.
Historian Terry Terras has studied the building’s myriad graffiti and has a favorite. It is a poem written to a young lady by a soldier being deployed during WWII.
“When you and I our love must part/may it cause pain in both our hearts/I to some foreign land will go/sleep cold in death as others do/All this and more I have to say but/night calls and I must away/With these lines/you will a hidden question find.”
“It took a while, but I realized it had a hidden code,” Terry says. “Use just the first word of each sentence and it reads: “When may I sleep all night with you?”
PRESERVING THE PAST
On June 13, 1972, the town of Belmont was placed on the National Registry of Historical Places. The courthouse was included as an important part of this historical district.
The building was on the verge of collapse when Nye County deeded it to the Nevada Division of State Parks in 1974. The Parks Department spent more than $500,000 on repairs. The windows and doors were boarded up, repairs were made to the roof, and the structure received a seismic retrofit.
Because of state budget cuts, the Belmont Courthouse State Historical Park was transferred back to Nye County in 2012. It is maintained today by the Friends of the Belmont Courthouse— a nonprofit group that works with Nye County to raise funds to preserve, restore, and protect the Belmont Courthouse.
Thanks to this dedicated group of volunteers lead by president Donna Motis, the historic courthouse is starting to look much as it did in 1876. In the past few years, all the windows and exterior doors have been replaced, a bright red metal roof has been installed, a new flagpole is in place, and the handsome cupola has been completely restored.
“Although plans are underway to restore the courthouse to its original glory, some rooms will probably be left untouched,” Rick says. “This will show the condition it was in before restoration efforts and will give visitors a look at the fascinating graffiti.”
The courthouse continues to make history.
“This is the only courthouse in the country registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles,” Donna explains. “It happened during the meeting when Governor Sandoval signed Senate Bill 121 which transferred the courthouse from the state back to Nye County. Someone in the group thought it would be a great idea to have a license plate to commemorate the courthouse. Sandoval liked the idea and after promises were made to never put them on a vehicle, the plates were made.”
The plates read Nevada 1876. One of the plates is on display in the courthouse.
Rick adds, “Sandoval has been a great supporter and we believe he is the only standing governor to visit the courthouse.”
The Friends of the Belmont Courthouse are always looking for historical photographs—particularly photographs taken in or before the 1940s—of the courtroom or offices in their original state to help the restoration efforts. Terry is also hoping that anyone who has had a relative or friend who may have worked in the courthouse will contact him. The slightest bit of information can be of tremendous value, he explains.
Belmont is a popular destination for photographers, artists, and anyone interested in getting up close and personal with Nevada’s history. The Belmont Courthouse stands out as the center attraction of Belmont and remains a majestic reminder of Nevada’s rich history.
YOU'VE GOT TO HAVE FRIENDS
Friends of the Belmont Courthouse
P.O. Box 985
Tonopah, NV 89049
TAKE ME THERE
Belmont is 45 miles north of Tonopah at an elevation of 7,392. Weather can change rapidly, so be prepared. From Tonopah, head east on State Route 6 to S.R. 376. Take S.R. 82 into Belmont.
Courthouse tours are conducted regularly during the summer. For the latest information, visit belmontcourthouse.org or call 775-482-3968.
There are no gas stations or convenience stores so stock up before you go.
There are no motels but there is one cabin available by reservation by calling 775-482-6218.
Don’t miss Sticks & Stones, Suzie’s Attic, and Barb’s Gifts & Things. These quaint little gift shops are the only retail stores in town.
There is a small public park/outdoor museum in the center of town. It has a picnic table, a bathroom, and a water faucet.
A free semi-developed picnic and camping facility is available at the Belmont Campground, one mile south of town. It has bathrooms, large sites, shade trees, fire pits, massive boulders, and plenty of wildlife. There is no water or electricity. It can accommodate large motorhomes and trailers.
The famous Dirty Dick’s Saloon is just a short walk from the Belmont Courthouse. On weekends (weather permitting) they frequently have something cooking on the barbecue out back. dirtydicksbelmontsaloon.com, 310-779-6004.
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