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In Lonely Eureka, Gold but No Glitter : Nevada: Mining and ranching offer a tough life, but residents treasure town’s old-time virtues.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Plunk in the middle of a state that is reeling from an assault by outsiders, the sublime strength and spirit of Nevada is preserved and nurtured here, a proud little town of several hundred residents, straddling the loneliest highway in America.

The nearest McDonald’s and K mart are 120 miles away in Elko, and it’s a 77-mile drive to the nearest lawyer, doctor or pharmacy, in Ely. For major hospitalization, Eureka’s residents trek to Reno, 240 miles to the west, or Salt Lake City, 320 miles to the east.

But the gold is here, and cattle and alfalfa, and enough work for everyone who’s willing to put on a pair of heavy gloves. People such as 63-year-old Witz Bailey, ranching 17 hours a day in the same treeless valley where his grandfather settled in the 1860s. And 42-year-old Greg Tibbs, drilling 12 hours a night for gold in the same hills where silver and lead were mined 120 years ago.

Welcome to Eureka, where the population waffles between 500 and 800, depending on the latest gold-mining operation, where dogs walk down the middle of Main Street, where the biggest social event in town is the Christmas dinner party at the 1880 opera house, and where the 1879 courthouse--with its original pressed-tin ceiling--is maintained not as some tourist trap but because it’s the only courtroom in the county.

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Along the same street where 125 saloons and a handful of brothels once served a boom town of 9,000 dreamers and diggers, drunks and die-hards, today’s laborers still lubricate their bodies with too many beers and whiskeys, and fetch rides home from the local sheriff to their modern-day work camps--mobile home parks and RV lots.

This is the heart of the “Other Nevada,” a phrase coined by Nevada author Robert Laxalt to describe the immense expanse of land where the sparse population is rough and tumble and has no use for the glitz and ritz of teeming Las Vegas and Reno.

Although Eureka is part of the fastest-growing state in the nation--its environment, its economy, its very essence in a tumult created mainly by transplanted Californians--the town stands as testimony to the old pioneering spirit.

It remains untouched by the influx of outsiders seeking to redefine the state’s storied lifestyle. Old Nevada values are sanctified here and you’d best not tinker with them.

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Bud Lloyd, who was the local district attorney before retiring 24 years ago, says: “We’re the Nevada that the casinos have passed up. We’re the Nevada of mining, and of people caring for each other instead of inflicting themselves on one another.”

Eureka’s resistance to outside influences bodes well for the state.

The real Nevada, Laxalt says, is “disappearing so darn fast. But Eureka, it’s still pure, and if you lose it, you’ve lost the identity of Nevada.”

State Archivist Guy Rocha embraces a romantic view of Eureka:

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“Eureka captures the symbol of individualism and freedom, a closeness to the land, a sense of what Nevada was--but isn’t much, anymore. . . . It’s a sanctuary against this swell of humanity that is spilling over into Nevada and consuming it.

“But Eureka is stable. It’s the most representative of the ‘Other Nevada,’ the places off the beaten path.”

For many, Eureka is too far off the beaten path, and so it has established its own population equilibrium. Although the state’s population has increased 50% over the last decade, no one anticipates waves of Californians reaching here. There’s little reason.

“Probably the biggest complaint we have in town is that we can’t seem to keep a doctor here,” said Eureka native Leroy Etchetaray, a county commissioner. “They’ll come, but their wives can’t seem to handle it, so they leave.”

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Even the high school principal drives every other weekend to Reno--to visit his wife, who does not want to live here.

Living in Eureka was a challenge from the start.

Its first residents were five prospectors who discovered silver in 1864. Within six years, more than 1,000 mining claims peppered the land, but the early mountain men were frustrated in extracting the treasure, stubbornly encased in junk ore.

Pressed to innovation, mining companies engineered revolutionary smelters with an insatiable appetite for charcoal to fire giant furnaces, melting the raw ore and refining the silver and lead.

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By 1879--as Eureka’s population swelled to 9,000--the town’s 16 smelters were consuming 175,000 pounds of charcoal a day; within 50 miles of Eureka, elevation 6,500 feet, the hills were scalped of all pinyon pine, dwarf cedar and mountain mahogany.

A mineralogist noted at the time that “heavy black clouds of dense smoke from the furnaces, heavily laden and strongly scented with the fumes of lead, arsenic and other volatile elements of the ores, are constantly rolling over the town, depositing soot, scales and black dust, so that it resembles very much one of the manufacturing towns in the coal regions of Pennsylvania.”

Eureka became known as the “Pittsburgh of the West.”

Besides foul air, life’s miseries were compounded by harsh winters, the paucity of fresh food, fires and floods. But the townsfolk were a hardy stock--miners from Europe, the British Isles and Mexico, as well as 2,000 Chinese who worked as domestics or laying train track.

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But by 1890, the price of silver had fallen, new boom towns were forming elsewhere in Nevada, and the local hills were considered depleted--a mistaken notion that was righted only in the past 30 years.

Eureka’s population plummeted to close to 1,000 at the turn of the century, but the town never was given to ghosts. For the next six decades, the town sustained itself as a farming community; Basque sheepherders worked the pastureland, and cattle ranching became the primary commerce. Occasional gold strikes created spurts of activity.

By the mid-1960s, new gold extracting technology sparked a resurgence of mining in the northern end of Eureka County, 80 miles away. Mining companies found it financially feasible to chemically leach microscopic bits of gold from the earth. It was profitable--even if the earth yielded only 0.1 ounces or less of gold per ton of mined ore--and the newest boom was on.

The gold breathed new life into Eureka.

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Today, two of the largest gold-mining operations in the United States are in northern Eureka County; although the miners live in Elko, the state’s newest boom town, which is closer, and spend their payroll checks there, it is Eureka County that is reaping the easy money.

This year, Eureka County will get $3.1 million in gold tax revenue--paltry compared to the more than $1.5 billion in gold that is mined annually, but still a windfall for a county with a population of about 2,200 residents spread out over an area twice the size of Delaware.

Indeed, of county government revenues of about $13 million, nearly half is generated by the gold mining industry, through gold tax, property tax and sales tax.

So the county is flush with money; it spent more than $2 million to renovate the old opera house, enclosed the community pool, improved roads and water systems, built an airstrip, developed a fairgrounds, installed a 911 emergency phone system, modernized the Sheriff’s Department and is considering a nine-hole golf course.

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On top of all that, the county has $14 million in cash reserves--an amount that exceeds its annual budget.

The two Eureka schools have benefited from the gold bonanza, too.

Eureka County High School teachers are the best paid in the state, with salaries ranging from $32,500 to $58,000; each year, the school picks up the $25,000 tab for sending the junior class--about 20 students--to Washington for a week, and the $15,000 tab for sending the Future Farmers of America club--about 20 members--to the national FFA convention in Kansas City.

The 130 students in grades seven through 12 share 52 IBM computers that are linked to the Internet; the school’s wrestling and baseball teams are the state champions.

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With enviable teacher-student ratios, scholarship excels. Two years ago, each of the 18 seniors went to a four-year college; last year, 25 of the graduates went to college, one went to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and the other two joined the military.

This month, the town is completing a new, $4-million grade school for its 120 youngsters--paid for in cash.

Such luxury stands in stark contrast to the situation 250 miles south in school-starved Las Vegas, where voters are being asked to approve $905 million in bonds to build 110 new campuses.

“We’re all about gold,” said Michael Rebaleati, the county auditor, sitting in an office adorned with hunting prints. “But we’re very aware that gold is cyclical. It’s on our minds every day.”

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He regularly checks the price of gold on the world market to forecast the town’s future.

“We have to be careful what we build because we’re going to have to maintain it, and we know that things can go bust. In fact, they absolutely will go bust, sooner or later.”

Indeed, Atlas Mining Co. of Denver is reassessing its current open-pit gold mining operation just outside Eureka and has laid off some of its 85 workers. But Homestake Mining Co. of San Francisco has sunk exploratory drills on the town’s edge and has hinted strongly that there is enough microscopic gold in its hills--previously depleted of silver and lead--to warrant a full-scale mining operation in a few years.

Still, Vera Beaumann is helping prepare the town for a no-gold future. As director of the town’s economic development commission, she wants to recruit a large-scale dairy operation to Eureka.

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“We’re already sending our hay to California dairies,” she said. “We’d like to just bring California’s dairies here,” she said.

In fact, any business would be welcomed here; given Eureka’s minimalist attitude toward government, there are no county zoning laws, so anything goes.

Beaumann also wants to promote Eureka more aggressively as a tourist destination, even though it lacks a national chain motel. “Our convention center (the opera house) can accommodate meetings of up to 250 or 300 people,” she said, “but we’ve got no place for them to spend the night.”

Eureka’s visitors eschew the big Reno-to-Salt-Lake-City interstate to the north in favor of the two-lane U.S. 50 as it cuts across central Nevada’s open rangeland. The expanse offers glimpses of deer and wild horses, but is free of billboards.

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Given the paucity of services, the highway was christened “the Loneliest Road in America” in a 1986 Life magazine photo spread. It advised motorists to exercise “survival skills.”

But the travelers are rewarded: state historians say Eureka is the best-preserved old mining town in Nevada. Some local accommodations--including a restored parsonage house--date back more than a century.

So today, Eureka bills itself as the loneliest town on the loneliest highway; adding to the promotion, some European tour books have miscast Eureka as a “ghost town.”

It’s anything but. Lights at the local gas station flicker on at 4 in the morning so early risers can fill their Thermos jugs with coffee and grab a fried breakfast sandwich. And at night, the four bars in town will stay open as long as elbows are bending.

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Early imbibers don’t have to fret, either. Melba Prina, 70, arrives at the Owl Club before the bartender, entering through the adjoining coffee shop, and pours her own Canadian Mist-and-water highballs. She leaves a straw on the cash register for each drink she makes, and when the bartender shows up in midmorning, Melba makes good.

Such honesty permeates the town, where crime is as rare as a traffic jam. For one six-month stretch, one bar owner didn’t even lock the door when he left at night. The last murder occurred in 1988. The town’s one bank has never been robbed, as far as anyone can remember.

And kids don’t dare get into mischief.

Undersheriff Pete Bigrigg said: “It’s a great place to raise kids, because if they get into something, you’ll find out before they’re half-finished.”

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Laura Gaherty, 18, agreed. “This town’s too small. Everyone here knows what you’re gonna do before you even do it.”

Phyllis Stelly, 35, arrived here last year from Las Vegas to seek refuge from a crumbling marriage and said she has few regrets.

Among them? “I wish there was a bit more sophistication, a place where I could wear a pretty dress.” When she wore a frilly blouse, dress and heels for the Christmas dinner at the opera house, she was horrified to see that “dressy” meant fringed denim skirts and Western blouses. She fled home to dress down.

Witz Bailey, the rancher, says there are probably easier places to make a living than here, where he has mortgaged the ranch to pay the fees so his cattle can run on Bureau of Land Management land.

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“Oh, I’ve looked over the fence a couple of times,” he said. “But if you can ride a good horse and have a good dog, life here is good.”

The Loneliest Town

Here is a look at Eureka, Nev., nicknamed The Loneliest Town on the Loneliest Road in America.

Population: Between 500 and 800, depending on influx of gypsy miners

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Founded: 1864, when five prospectors discovered silver

Number of schools: Two

Number of saloons: Four

Number of churches: Four (Baptist, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Mormon)

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Nearest McDonald’s: 120 miles away, in Elko

Unemployment: Virtually none.

Oldest existing structure: Tannehill Log Cabin, 1865

Cost of living: At Rainey’s Market, the town’s only general store, it’s $3.19 for gallon of milk and $4.39 for six-pack of Budweiser beer; $2.89 for a pound of lean ground beef. A gallon of unleaded regular gas is $1.46.

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Sources: County of Eureka, Eureka Chamber of Commerce


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