Sunday, February 10, 2008
Once Mighty Hamilton Fades Into the Desert
Crickets chirping in the tall grass that surrounds the weathered remains of a half-dozen brick and wooden buildings are the only permanent residents in the old Eastern Nevada mining town of Hamilton.
Once the largest city in White Pine County with more than 10,000 inhabitants, the ghost town of Hamilton is now little more than a memory.
The once thriving mining town is now home to only a handful of decaying buildings in the shadow of White Pine Mountain, adjacent to the mining district called, appropriately, Treasure Hill.
Hamilton is located 12 miles south of Highway 50 at a point about 35 miles west of Ely. To reach the townsite, follow the signs from the highway on a well-maintained dirt road.
Two of Hamilton's ruins at least provide some idea of the significance of the town. The tallest is the two-story J.B. Withington Hotel, erected in 1869.
Studying the ruins, you can imagine how it once looked, an impressive structure with several chimneys. Old photographs—some from as recently as the 1940s—show it was once a large edifice made of native sandstone with arched doors and windows.
Over the years, however, the outer walls began to decay (much of it collapsed during an earthquake in the late 1950s) so that today all that remains is a mound of sandstone and red brick.
A few hundred yards away you can find the arched brick front wall of what was once the Wells Fargo building. This leaning slab of molded red clay blocks somehow held together by scraps of wood and mortar likewise hints at a surprising quality of workmanship.
Exploring the scattered mounds of sagebrush and rubble, you can find foundations, stone walls and wooden studs of other buildings. They are spread across a fairly large area, providing an idea of the size of this town, which was also the original seat of White Pine County.
Additionally, the town has a fairly large cemetery, located to the north, which gives you a sense of the kind of place Hamilton was by telling you who once lived there.
Surrounding the remains, visitors will find the evidence of more recent mining operations, including rusted trailers on a hillside above the townsite, large metal buildings, pieces of equipment and the recognizable shallow pool of an abandoned leeching pond.
Hamilton's mineral resources were discovered in late 1867. In May 1868, a townsite was laid out at the base of Treasure Hill and named Cave City because of the presence of many caves in the area.
Within a short time, rich silver discoveries in the region sparked one of the most intense mining rushes in the state's history—it was called "White Pine Fever" in some newspapers—and thousands of people began pouring into the area.
Additionally, as the town began to develop, it was incorporated and its name was changed to honor W.H. Hamilton, one of the town's founders. By the spring of 1869, an estimated 10,000 people were living in Hamilton.
For the next few years, Hamilton boomed as the center of the White Pine Mining District, which also included the nearby communities of Shermantown, Eberhardt and Treasure City. The town had several stage lines, more than 100 saloons, 60 general stores, its own water company, a newspaper and dozens of other businesses.
Despite the fact a fine brick courthouse was constructed in Hamilton in 1870, the boom proved short-lived. The silver turned out to be generously spread across the surface but shallow. By 1871, the town began a rapid decline.
Two years later, a local merchant attempted to torch his business for insurance money and caused more than a half-million-dollars in damages to the business district.
By 1875, the town had been unincorporated and its population had shrunk to less than 500. Another fire, in 1885, destroyed the courthouse and nearly the rest of the town.
In 1887, the county seat was moved to Ely—but there were few people left to care.
In 1916, famed naturalist and writer John Muir passed through Hamilton and later wrote "a few years ago, the population of Hamilton is said to have been nearly eight thousand . . . Hamilton has now about one hundred inhabitants, most of whom are merely waiting in dreary inaction for something to turn up."
Surprisingly, the post office found enough business to stay open until 1931. Unfortunately, Hamilton's accessibility contributed to its demise. White Pine County residents tell of ghost town explorers and bottle hunters who nearly looted it out of existence during the 1950s.
A good source of information about Hamilton is Shawn Hall’s “Romancing Nevada’s Past, Ghost Towns and Historic Sites of Eureka, Lander and White Pine Counties,” available online and in local bookstores.