One of the few signs of this mining town’s most celebrated resident sits out on its lonely eastern flanks, disappearing into the desert like a dusty after-thought.
Harry Reid Road is paved for just a few hundred yards before it turns to dirt, on its way to the town cemetery, where many of its namesake’s family members are buried. There’s an elementary school in his name nearby. When it comes to his obvious mark on this town, Reid’s legacy is scant, and that’s how the U.S. Senate majority leader has apparently always wanted it.
Born and raised here, the miner’s son who became one of Washington’s most powerful figures and an ally to President Obama recently announced he was selling his 110-acre homestead here and moving to nearby Las Vegas.
Some here yawn at the news: Conservatives say they’re tired of watching the lawmaker extolling his humble roots for political gain. Many don’t care if the door hits the back bumper of Reid’s limousine on his way out of town.
But not everyone. Jane Overy will be sorry to see him go.
For the well-coiffed founder of the Searchlight Historical Museum, who knows this town’s past like her own family tree, Reid will always be the local boy who made good, her go-to guy when she needs help getting things done in this isolated dot along U.S. Route 95, with its scattering of smoke-filled casinos and a solitary McDonald’s — a town that’s home to just a few hundred residents.
“We’re just a small town in the middle of the Nevada desert,” said Overy, 77, who moved here three decades ago. “There’s a saying here that if you get drunk in Searchlight, you can crawl home on your hands and knees and not worry about getting run over.”
Overy knows well another small town that produced famous men. She grew up in Russell, Kan., hometown of two senators, Republican Bob Dole, who represented his home state, and Arlen Specter, who represented Pennsylvania. “I knew Bob; he was one of us,” she said. “I never thought of him as a ‘very important person.’ It’s the same with Harry Reid. To us, he’s just Harry from Searchlight.”
Inside her one-room museum, Overy honors not only Reid but the town’s other historic notables. There’s airman John Macready, who made the first nonstop flight across the U.S. in 1923. And Edith Head, who won eight Academy Awards for costume design. Cowboy actor-turned-state politician Rex Bell and his wife, onetime Hollywood “It Girl” Clara Bow, once lived here.
And aviator William Harrell Nellis, for whom Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas is named. The museum also includes an ode to composer Scott Joplin, who once wrote a ditty called “Searchlight Rag.”
Overy has researched them all. While a casino office manager, she collected artifacts for the museum she opened in 1989 to celebrate this gritty survivor of a community, a former mining camp that has refused to crumble into a ghost town like so many of its contemporaries.
Searchlight, supposedly named for a brand of matches popular among miners, became a boomtown in 1898, when most of the homes and buildings were made of cloth tents. By 1907, Searchlight boasted 1,500 residents, a place with brothels and saloons but no jail. Legend has it that prisoners were tied to a Joshua tree.
Overy isn’t just interested in the rich and famous. A visitor once told of how his father abandoned him and his mother and two siblings in Searchlight. Local prostitutes known as “soiled doves” took in the family and helped them save enough money to leave town. “He was just 5 when he lived here,” Overy said of the visitor, “but he’s part of this town’s history, too.”
Reid’s connection to Searchlight is higher profile. The 74-year-old routinely boasts his hometown pride during his Senate floor speeches, on his website and even on his office answering machine, which greets callers: “Hello. This is Sen. Harry Reid of Searchlight, Nev.” Reid’s office contains mementos of his childhood here, and he wrote a book about the town, called “The Camp That Didn’t Fail.” When he comes to town, he eats at the main casino and makes an effort to support local businesses, Overy said.
But some question Reid’s public bugle-call over Searchlight. Some criticized his plans to bring wind-generating plants to town, saying they would ruin the desert view. Others blame him for the bridge built near the Hoover Dam that, they complain, directed traffic away from Searchlight.
“In my opinion, he doesn’t know what he’s doing and should have been voted out of office eight years ago,” said Marie Stowers, manager of the El Rey Motel. “It’s safe to assume that we’re not all Harry Reid lovers in this town. We never see him anyway.”
Overy dismisses the critics. “If someone says something I know isn’t true — if they’ve just listened to some talking head and have taken things out of context — I’ll try to set the record straight.”
She added: “I don’t agree with all the things Harry does, but then I don’t agree with half the things they do in Washington.”
In announcing his move to Las Vegas, Reid said, “Searchlight will always be my home, my favorite spot in the world where I can look at the desert for miles at end.”
That’s fine with Overy.
“How can anyone ever say the name Searchlight without also saying Harry Reid?” she said, pausing. “He’s our biggest promoter. He mentions the town every other day.”
The way Overy sees it, Reid has a soft spot in his heart for Searchlight. When her campaign to install signs on the nearby highway honoring veterans of foreign wars was blocked by state transportation officials, she called Harry. The signs were soon erected.
She says Reid never seeks credit for his work. He donated money for a “welcome” sign for the town’s borders but didn’t want the inclusion of the phrase “The home of Harry Reid.” Overy said town leaders didn’t ask Reid’s permission to name a road after him.
They just did it.