Complete Nevada Traveler Contents
Description and History of
by David W. Toll
From The Complete Nevada Traveler, the Affectionate and Intimately Detailed Guidebook to the Most Interesting State in America. Buy the Book Here
The Eureka Opera House
Neat, clean and prosperous, Eureka is one of the best-preserved mining cities in the American West.
Silver strikes made here in 1864 by prospectors from Austin proved uneconomical to work because of the high lead content of the ores. Ore was shipped to England and Wales for reduction until 1869, when the first of sixteen successful smelters was constructed. Within a decade three mines alone had paid out in dividends more money than had ever been invested in all Eureka County enterprises combined, and Eureka was famous as the "Pittsburgh of the West." Black smoke squeezing out of smelter smokestacks smeared the sky and poisoned the hardy desert vegetation (and the residents).
Eureka is especially beautiful in winter
Eureka produced more than four times the wealth that Austin did, yet its history is rather prim and staid compared to adventurous Austin. Perhaps it was because the principal product of the mines was lead, rather than silver or gold, and drew a less romantic breed of citizen; perhaps it was because, being richer, Eureka was simply less hysterical.
In any case, Eureka overtook Austin in size and mining productivity during the middle 1870s when the Eureka & Palisade Railroad was extended south from the Central Pacific without the necessity of bulging the city limits to meet it. By 1878, when Austin had already begun its decline, Eureka had a population of about 9,000 and had taken second place among Nevada cities. There were dozens of saloons, gambling houses and bawdy houses, three opera houses, two breweries, five volunteer firefighting companies, and two companies of militia as well as the usual complement of doctors, lawyers, merchants, bankers, hotels, newspapers, and other businesses. Fifty mines produced lead, silver, gold, and zinc for the smelters, which could process more than 700 tons of ore a day.
In 1879 though, flooding became more of a problem and economy measures were taken. One of these was to reduce the price paid for charcoal at the smelters. The Carbonari -- members of the predominantly-Italian Charcoal Burner's Association -- answered with a boycott. The smelters shut down for lack of fuel and passions flamed up. Threats and counter-threats raged between all the parties to the dispute. When the Carbonari threatened to make charcoal of all of Eureka, a sheriff's posse ambushed a number of them, killing five and wounding more.
Mining production peaked in 1882 and tailed off rapidly after 1885; by 1891 the major mines had been shut down, and production lapsed into the long snooze that had claimed Austin a decade earlier.
Many of its buildings are impressive, but the city's architectural jewel is the recently refurbished Eureka Opera House. Built in the fall of 1880 on the smoldering site of the burned-down Odd Fellows' Hall, its grand opening was celebrated with a New Year's Eve gala masquerade ball. The Opera House now welcomes small conventions from around the state, performances by nationally recognized artists, even dinner theater, a cosmopolitan touch long unavailable in Eureka. The 1877 Jackson House next door has been restored to its original elegance, with nine Victorian bedrooms upstairs and a bar and gourmet restaurant back in service downstairs. The splendid Eureka County Court House across the street has been restored to original 1879 condition (but with 1995 foundations); visitors are welcome.
The Eureka Sentinel Building a block south has been converted to a wonderful museum, with the old newspaper back-shop as it was left when the last tramp printer finally called it quits. Fully equipped with type cases and working presses await an exoerienced hand, and the walls are papered with posters and handbills dating back to the 1880s. Local area information is available here as well, including a self-guided tour leaflet with information about many of the interesting buildings around town.
Some structures are less remarkable to look at than to know about. The Farmers and Merchants Bank building, for example, was originally a brewery, connected with the hotel across the street by an underground tunnel. The boom days were long over when the bank was organized by former District Attorney Edna Plummer, but it was solid enough to remain open through the National Bank Holiday of 1933. Banks were ordered to remain closed after the conclusion of business on the stated date, but the Eureka Bank avoided the closing by not concluding business, instead staying open day and night until the "holiday" ended.
About those tunnels: the story is that because Eureka's breweries were located on opposite ends of town, the heavy winters (and the availability of skilled miners) prompted the business people to drive tunnels underground from one end of town to the other in order to ensure the prompt delivery of beer to the saloons along Main Street. The truth may not be so prosaic. According to family recollection, Nevada governor Reinhold Sadler (whose two story brick home is half a block north of the Colonnade House) used a tunnel to get to his Main Street store in the winter so that he wouldn't have to meet his neighbors on the street. Much of the old tunneling has collapsed or is unsafe, but in its heyday it was quite comfortable to use, fancy, even, with bricked walls, and arched brick chambers reminiscent of medieval dungeons.
As the city's economy shrank with the closing of the mines, businesses and residences were acquired and maintained by the families (many of whom had come out of poverty in Europe) that stayed. Al's Hardware, to take one example out of many, still looks and functions as it did in 1880 when it was the Eureka General Mercantile store.
There is a small handful of shops and stores at the heart of town and an exceptional range of overnight accommodations, from the Jackson House to the Sundown Lodge motel and the new Best Western Eureka Inn on Main Street, and the elegant Parsonage House hideaway cottage B&B a block to the north. The Colonnade Hotel, a block to the south, is being restored and refurbished.
The Owl Club, a regionally famous restaurant and bar, was recently enlarged to include a gift shop offering Indian and western goods. Its fame rests on the steaks, but the menu includes some interesting variations, and the wine list is first class. The Jackson House also has an ambitious menu and fine wine list and The Pony Espresso Deli serves excellent sandwiches, salads and soups.
There are several cemeteries in Eureka, including one that was set aside for smallpox victims.
Tax money derived from the Carlin gold mine at the far northern end of the county has built a new high school and other modern community facilities in Eureka, including the enclosed pool open six days a week year-around.
And Eureka's mining fortunes may be rising again as the Homestake company has been exploring the historic Ruby Hill property.
The country around Eureka will probably always provide excellent hunting, and simply breathing in the cedar-scented air of the wide open spaces is an act of pure pleasure, utterly unimaginable to the people who lived here breathing its poisonous smoke in the century before last.
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