Friday, August 15, 2008

The Sweet Sights of Cherry Creek

You won’t find any cherries at the old mining town of Cherry Creek.

He town, in fact, is named after the small creek of the same name that runs through it. The creek apparently gained its name, according to local legend, because it flows from a nearby canyon that once contained either wild cherry trees or chokecherry bushes.

Located about an hour north of Ely in Eastern Nevada, Cherry Creek traces its beginnings to the early 1870s, when gold and silver were discovered in the area.

Within a few months, more than 1,000 prospectors had rushed into the region to make their fortunes. By the middle of 1873, Cherry Creek had developed to the point of having a post office, a Wells Fargo office, a couple of saloons, and several other businesses.

For much of the next decade, the town had its ups and downs but generally thrived as the mines produced thousands of dollars in gold and silver ore. A couple of large stamp mills were constructed to process the ore in the late 1870s.

Promising new discoveries in the early 1880s created more interest in Cherry Creek and several businesses from other Eastern Nevada mining towns relocated to Cherry Creek, convinced it was going to be the next Virginia City.

Among the businesses to move into the booming mining town was the White Pine News, a newspaper that had formerly been published in the mining town of Hamilton.

Things were looking so good for Cherry Creek that in 1882, the town made an attempt to claim the white pine county seat from Hamilton, which was in decline. Unfortunately for Cherry Creek, it, too, was entering a mining slump. When the county seat was finally moved in 1887, it was the copper mining boomtown of Ely that became the new county seat and not Cherry Creek.

Cherry Creek’s fortunes, in fact, were changing. Less valuable ore was being extracted and, unlike in the past, no new significant ore bodies were being discovered. By the mid-1890s, mining had virtually ceased in the Cherry Creek district and the town’s population had dropped to a couple of hundred optimistic souls.

But it’s hard to keep some mining towns down. In 1905, the district revived with several new discoveries.

When the Nevada Northern Railway was being constructed from Ely to connect to the Southern Pacific Railroad line at Cobre, its builders decided to pass through Cherry Creek. This not only provided a cheap and easy way to ship ore from the town but it linked Cherry Creek to the outside world.

Unfortunately, the mining revival was short lived and, by 1910, the town was again economically depressed. It experienced another brief revival from 1933 to 1940, but then the mines were closed during World War II. To date, most have never reopened. In recent decades, there has been small-scale mining in the area but no major commercial operations.

A visit to Cherry Creek offers a rare opportunity to see a relatively intact old-time Nevada mining community. Newer homes, mostly either mobile homes or plywood structures, are interspersed with the brick, stone, mud, and wooden ruins of earlier economic boom times.

In some cases, newer structures were simply added onto an older building, creating a cacophony of building materials and architectural styles.

Wandering the dirt streets of the old mining town, you can find plenty of long abandoned homes and buildings.

In many places, you’ll find an unusually large number of decaying sod houses, built by the 19th century miners. These habitats were constructed partially into the ground or into a hillside, and had wooden beam roofs, on which panels of grass or sod were placed. The result is a structure that looks a bit like a crude Hobbit house, half-buried in the ground with a wooden door and wooden interior walls and floors.

Other Cherry Creek houses were no more than tiny wooden shacks with corrugated metal roofs. If you peek into the window of one of these now-abandoned buildings you might still see old furnishings, such as a rusted metal bed frame, a worn mattress, a warped wooden table and torn curtains.

The weathered, exterior wooden walls have a wonderful texture to them that seems to say much about Cherry Creek’s rich past.

One of the more impressive ruins is a solid-looking, red brick house at the north end of the town, which, while exposed to the elements because the windows and doors are long gone, still manages to offer a glimpse into the lifestyles of Cherry Creek’s pioneers.

In this case, you can still find the remains of curtains fluttering in the broken windows and inside there is still wallpaper on the walls.

In the back, the old wooden outhouse has fallen over but since it had two-seats—you know someone of substance once lived here.

A handful of Cherry Creek’s buildings show the influence of the railroad. These buildings, which include the old jail, are constructed of large, sturdy railroad ties.

In the center of the town you can find what’s left of the old commercial center, including a large, red freight barn, and the Cherry Creek Saloon, which is still open for business.

Across the street from the bar, are the foundations of several other stone buildings, other remnants of the town’s once substantial business district. An historic marker adjacent to the ruins tells about Cherry Creek.

On the west edge of town is the old Cherry Creek schoolhouse, still in good shape, which now houses a small museum. Inside, you can find an assortment of antiques including old bicycles, mining equipment, clothing, and furniture, all from Cherry Creek’s past. The museum is open on weekends during the summer months.

On a hill just south of town, with a beautiful view of the surrounding Steptoe Valley, you can find the Cherry Creek cemeteries. Divided by religious and ethnic groups, the various cemeteries contain dozens of worn wooden and elegant marble tombstones.

Adjacent to the cemeteries is a rundown, single-story, log cabin structure, which carries a sign designating it as the town jail.

It certainly makes you think twice about a life of crime.

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