13 WAYS TO CASH IN ON THE STORIED GLORY OF THE MILLION DOLLAR COURTHOUSE | SYDNEY MARTINEZ
So does it really live up to its hefty price tag of a name? The answer in short is YES. You see, most states have beautifully elaborate county courthouses—a nod to hard work and benchmarked successes of our past. But Nevada manages to up the ante ever so slightly because of one teeny tiny factor: majorly lucrative mining activity that resulted in unimaginable wealth. Some of these courthouses are still in operation as official county courthouses, and feature historic, lavish qualities, like original Tiffany and Co. lamps, gilded ceilings, mahogany handrails, and other features that were unthinkable in the era they were constructed in, like indoor drinking fountains. While some Nevada residents are lucky enough to renew their driver's licenses, or apply for a marriage certificate in these immaculately preserved offices, the others are there for us to peruse as a full blown museum… as in, taking all the dang time we want walking up and down the corridors without worry of interrupting an official meeting. When it comes to Pioche’s renowned Million Dollar Courthouse, the exploring is yours for the taking... you might just have some company while you're at it. But, what good is a Nevada adventure without a little ghost story up in the mix anyway? Alas, here are 13 reasons to stop everything and bask in the storied glory of THE Million Dollar Courthouse. #NVHistory
1. TOMBSTONE, SCHMOOMB-STONE
Though it may not look it, Pioche used to be one fiercely lawless, true blue Wild West of a town. Sure, when rolling through town you can totally can grab onto some lasting remnants, like the Thompson Opera House—or hey, Million Dollar Courthouse—that are a legitimate window into this period of Pioche’s past, but there’s just no ifs ands or buts about it. Today, Pioche is a quiet community with some amazing nods to heritage (seriously, zero in on that supercute main drag,) but is nothing what it was like in the height of its rough and tumble glory.
Pop quiz: picture your best example of a true-grit, spaghetti western sort of old west town? Tombstone? Maybe Dodge City? Thanks to Hollywood, yes, that’s probably what comes to front of many a mind. Pioche is left in the dust, but in reality squashes places like Tombstone—when it comes to bloodshed and lawlessness, anyway—in a hot little second. What once was a calm agricultural community in this southeastern section of Nevada became serious gun slingin’ territory, thanks to a silver strike that catapulted Pioche into one of the largest mining boomtowns in the state. And boy howdy, are there some pretty wild stories to go along with this six shootin’ situation. Like the story of a newlywed couple traveling to Pioche where the groom’s new job awaited, but the second they arrived and he stepped foot outside their carriage, he was gunned down. She never even got out of the carriage, just bounced. Or people getting shot in a dispute over a dog. This was such a common thing that, within one year, nearly 70 people were buried in the now-infamous cemetery before a single person died from natural causes—that’s how next level this place was. Tombstone on the other hand, only had three.
2. PIOCHE SILVER MINES BECOME AS FAMOUS AS ITS LAWLESSNESS
I think it’s safe to blame this famed criminal activity on a couple things, like the explosion of amounts of wealth people could only distantly dream of was happening, plus the fact that it was tucked away in an undeveloped part of the state (and country) led to such famed criminal activity. However, as mining progressed, so did infrastructure in this burgeoning boomtown. Though Pioche got its start in 1864—the same year Nevada became a state—it quickly became one of the most—if not THE most—important silver mining towns in the entire state. When you’re hot on the trail to the Million Dollar Courthouse, be sure to pay attention to the state’s only lasting aerial tramway, which transported silver ore from the mine site to the stamp mill down the mountainside, as well as the old firehouse (half is still remaining,) the Gem Theater, Thompson Opera House, and Mountain View Motel, which was built in 1895 and built to host uppity-up mucky-mucks while visiting Pioche on business.
3. A COURTHOUSE IS NEEDED... AND IN A SERIOUS WAY
So silver is discovered in and mining explodes in the late 1860s, and we know that violence is at an all time high. What makes most logical sense? A courthouse of course. In 1872, construction began for a modest, two-story courthouse. The original budget for this thing came in right around $26,400, but basically from the get-go, this thing goes totally sideways. You see, the construction contract was broken, and the building ended up being built from several different separate contracts at a MUCH higher-end cost. That, and last minute construction alterations, overprojected costs, and general mismanagement of money were all factors. What started at $26,400 snowballed to over $88,000. Yeah. Someone got fired over that one. But how did we land way up at our 1 million dollar grand total? While this construction snafu was going on, the county had simultaneously issued a $75k scrip—which is basically a line of credit—that was designed to cover other random county expenses. Good idea guys… NOT.
4. THE PLACE IS COMPLETED, BUT SURPRISE! LOCAL SILVER MINING TOTALLY TANKS
So the courthouse gets completed and is beautiful, but in comparison to other county courthouses is pretty modest—I’m lookin’ at you Goldfield. Not to mention, the place is over budget by a LOT, and now there’s this weird line of credit attached to it for random expenses, with BONUS: a ridiculously high interest rate. What happens in the meantime? True to form, like most stories associated with Nevada cities and towns, the mine dries up and silver production plummets. So what does that mean? County tax assessments also drastically drop, and now the county can’t even keep up with interest charges and made NO PAYMENTS AT ALL. Like zip, zero, zilch on principal. Not on interest, not on principal, a big. Fat. Goose egg. And that my friends, is how this thing ended up costing one million buckaroos. By the 1880s, the debt had risen to $181,000, and by the year 1900 had reached $670,000. The final payment was made in 1937—sixty five years after it was built—but the building had already been condemned. ‘Cause guess what? By now, a new courthouse had been built—one that was stable and safe to conduct meetings in. Talk about going from bad to worse...a load of debt that kept it from being paid off until it was actually condemned. After all was said and done, what started at a projected $26,400 ended up costing taxpayers $1,000,000 big ones.
5. TRUE TO NEVADA FASHION, THE BUILDING SURVIVES DECADES OF ABANDONMENT
Like many other Nevada greats—think Mizpah Hotel, friends—the Million Dollar Courthouse didn’t escape a sad run of abandonment… at least for a brief period. After the final payment had been made and business was up and running in a newer courthouse in town, the place sat abandoned for about 40 years before someone said, “Hey, wait a minute...” and saved it. By the 1970s, the courthouse was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and turned into the endlessly entertaining museum you can peruse today.
6. FIRST THINGS FIRST: MAKE IT A TWO 'FER
Before heading to the Million Dollar Courthouse, take the extra few minutes to swing through the Lincoln County Museum, right on that lovely little main drag—and, conveniently, on your way, so you have no excuses. This place is packed to the brim with tons of local artifacts, and a museum on staff that makes history come alive in ways I hope to someday harness. It’s especially important to stop here if this is your maiden voyage to Pioche. The place will give you an appreciation for the American West you didn’t realize you had, give you all sorts of context for what you’re about to unleash at the Million Dollar Courthouse, and give you the lay of the land for other places you might want to check out (hint hint: Boot Hill Cemetery and Overland Hotel & Saloon if you can bear the ghost stories.)
7. THAT MASONRY, THOUGH
Let me just say this: you will KNOW when you’ve arrived… this is just one of those buildings. The place totally has a presence, and I’d think that since you’re this far, you’re probably into history. By the looks of it, if these walls could talk, I’m sure they’d have some serious doozy’s to tell—it just has that sort of ambiance going on. It looks old, and everything about it makes you want to go inside that much more. Apparently the courthouse was originally designed by T. Dimmock and Thomas Keefe (too early for DeLongchamps, to take a whack at it I guess), and follows Italianate style with a brick front with “rubble stone” masonry on the sides and back of the building. But to me, nothing about this looks anything like rubble—I can only imagine the hours logged to build imperfectly shaped stones and rocks into something this grand. Before stepping through that threshold, take a look at the mere construction of this thing, it’s a beaut.
8. THE ARTIFACTS? MOVIE PROP WORTHY FOR SHO'
Out of all the photo ops to snag in this great and amazing state, this is one, you better not walk away from lovahhhs. One has to assume that the sign was once “in the wild,” so to speak, serving a real directional purpose. Could’ve been used to navigate between the mines, could’ve been a highway marker, who knows. But now? Now it’s yours to get up close and personal with, appreciate and maybe even snag a few selfies with. While you’re here, notice mining relics original to the Pioche area, like cars that once hung from the aerial tramway and an old engine that was part of the Pioche and Bullionville railroad.
Oh, and definitely try to see if you can find the “1871” etched into one of the stones on the front steps, too. See? Look how much fun you’re having and you haven’t even stepped in the dang building!
9. GUYS, THE LIBRARY IS COMPLETELY INSANE
Once you’re in the door, be prepared to be overwhelmed in all the right ways. ‘Cause if you’re anything like me, the anticipation has been surging and everything does in fact, seem too good to be true. The mere fact that you’re inside a still-standing building from the 1870s that’s lasted—despite forty full years of abandonment—is one thing. The original hardwood floors, fixtures, staircase and banister, all of it is pretty incredible. The first floor features a TON of relics like the solid wood counter and window that belonged to the old Pioche post office, typewriters, tons of old mining equipment, and stories about local legends, but the LIBRARY. Guys, whoa. You’re on artifact overload, and then round a corner and bam. When else have you honestly seen books from the 1800s, just sitting there like it’s no big deal? I’m talking floor to ceiling, cinema quality lighting, original furniture, the whole gamut. It’s pretty picturesque, and pretty amazing, in the same sense you have when searching for something. Like you’re feasting your eyes on a subject, and aren’t really satisfied until you’ve really seen all of it. Good stuff.
10. GET THE COMPLETE LOWDOWN ON THE OCCUPANTS OF LEGENDARY BOOT HILL
If you’ve never had the chance to hit up Boot Hill—perfect. Here’s your golden opportunity to really dial this place in, before going, to have an even more bang-for-your-buck time in the thick of it. Remember all that gun slingin’ stuff I was talking about earlier? And how 70ish people were buried in the cemetery before a single person died of natural causes? Cause of all the guns? And murders? Well listen here friends: they’re all entombed in one really freaking cool historical cemetery. And lock this one in your thinkubator: the name of the cemetery is Boot Hill because they were burying these poor unfortunate souls at such a quick rate their dang boot tips were sticking out of their graves. Best yet, all of the murderers are lined up in one convenient row—Murderer’s Row—the baddest of the bad, baby. It’s most certainly fun to peruse this historical cemetery because back then, you can betcha booty they wrote exactly how the person met their maker.
Plan on finding graves with epitaphs like, “MORGAN COURTNEY: RESPECTED BY FEW, DETESTED BY OTHERS—SHOT IN BACK 5 TIMES FROM AMBUSH” or “DIED IN DISPUTE OVER DOG.” But, you can get ahead of the game a bit by checking out the Million Dollar Courthouse before heading over to Boot Hill because here, they have loaaaads information on all the occupants of Murderer’s Row, and probably even hosted a few of ‘em in the jail cell out back to boot.
11. THE LAW WASN'T THE ONLY THING CORRODED 'ROUND THESE PARTS, EITHER
You’ll know what I’m talking about after a visit—it’s stupidly difficult to decipher which exact mementos belonging to the Million Dollar Courthouse are worth mentioning over others, the items that were part of the Pioche Fire Department somehow manage to pull forward. How, I don’t know, they just do. Maybe because, although only one of the two buildings remain, the original location is still standing… and only about 100 yards down the street from the Million Dollar Courthouse. It’s tangible, and real, and this set of artifacts make learning about Pioche’s history that much better.
Like, take the Chief Engineer’s Fireman Cap—which, like the Courthouse, is from the 1870s. Devastating fires were a common occurrence in these days... it didn’t take much to knock over a kerosene lamp and poof—the whole town was gone. Not even Pioche managed to escape that common Nevada tale, but with this exhibit, you may get a whole new level of clarity as to why it was so hard for them to put out those dang fires...
12. THE COURTROOM IS A REAL MIND BLOWER... IF YOU CAN GET PAST THE CREEPY MANNEQUIN SITUATION, THAT IS
Ever been to a historic courthouse? Suggesting that maybe sounds cuckoo to some of yous, but there all over the flipping place, you just have to open your eyes, and go in. Goldfield, Belmont, Eureka, Genoa just to name a few. Truth be told, there are some others found throughout the state that are in a bit better shape—maybe because a few of these were lucky enough to never have been abandoned. But, the Million Dollar Courthouse still has that sauce because of this little detail: they stage the entire thing—along with, surprise! the rest of the museum—with life-size mannequins. That are, in this room, posed in position as if a real case is going down. These things were made in the 70s and, though they’re impressively detailed and totally intact, they are, without a doubt, creepy. Like really creepy. Like “Holy Mother of God, I was not expecting this to be going down in here,” sort of a level.
Travel Nevada PRO TIP: Word on the street is that this room is where the majority of paranormal experiences have gone down. Makes sense—maybe even some spirits who are entombed in Murderer’s Row were persecuted in this very room. The mannequins are weird, visitors are rightfully surprised, and like to pose for photos with these things. BUT, story goes that any time a woman approaches the jury section to pose for a photo, she gets scratched. As in, some angry ghost guy doesn’t like the idea of a woman—who would’ve never been able to be part of a jury in these days—coming near the jury section. Other reports of growling, unexplainable shadowy figures, and other ominous tales have also stemmed from this room.
13. LIKE MOST GOOD THINGS BEGGING FOR THE TAKING, THE BEST COMES LAST: THE HISTORIC JAILHOUSE OUT BACK, BABY
Ahhhh, the main event is finally here, my history-loving babes. The best part of this entire experience is, if you’re like me, you’ll be totally floored by the experience that awaits in the Million Dollar Courthouse, and thinking that the whole thing is done and over by the time you hit mannequin city upstairs. But what you don’t know (and what differs from other Nevada county courthouses) is that the Courthouse is built adjacent to a giant sloped hill, and hidden behind it is the original jail. What would normally be a door that swings open to nothing, or what was formerly a balcony of some sort (sound familiar to any Belmont Courthouse, lovers?) opens to an actual walkway and JAIL. It’s too good to be true; really it is. (Travel Nevada PRO TIP: Before stepping inside these historic digs, glance to your right, where you’ll see the original outhouses. Didn’t want you to miss it!) As the gargantuan, eight-inch-thick door to this thing swings open, your adrenaline is likely to swell—there are no lights inside, but instead, an extremely dingy, dark and kinda scary jail cell. But, once you’re inside those lookin’ balls will adjust and you’ll get your bearings... just in time to put together that this is really the last place you’d want to end up at. Don’t let the darkness intimidate you—it’s too good to not go inside. But, I also don’t have any guilt about unveiling this spoiler alert—there are MORE mannequins inside—just don’t want ya’ll gettin’ spooked on me.
In a town where some of the West’s most famed criminals and highest paid gunslingers hung around, you can bet ya booty that, second to the courthouse, the jail was one hot commodity. The place was in use from 1871 all the way up to 1938 when the new courthouse and jail was built. Inside, count on finding everything as it would’ve appeared when prisoners were behind those doors. Original cots, floorboards, bars over the windows, locks and doors, and even shackles bolted to the floors. Yeah, I told ya it was good.
Like everything else found at this museum, the jail ties the whole day up in one big, shiny red bow because it’s not a replicated display. It’s all the real thing, baby. Exactly how it would’ve been used in 1871 when the thing first opened for business. Like most things found in Pioche, there are no gimmicky tourist traps. All the “attractions” in town are the real stuff, the good stuff, and totally yours for the taking. You just gotta go get it—but hey, aren’t you abouts overdue for a good ol’ fashioned #NVRoadTrip?