IT’S AMAZING HOW DIFFERENT THE DESERT LOOKS IN THE DAYLIGHT. After spending the night driving and trekking a labyrinth of dirt roads, we thought we had a pretty good lay of the land. But we awakened on the side of SR-306 to a whole new world. We couldn’t find where we had been lost the night before, but we did find an interesting cluster of abandoned mines near the current Gold Acres operation, complete with relics and infrastructure. These shafts were still open- many with rickety ladders leading down into the darkness. We could only imagine the historical treasure that lay below.
As the years have passed I’ve learned to take notes and log waypoints when adventuring. I took only mental note of the location of Tyler’s favorite part of our journey- an abandoned mining camp- completely intact. But by midday every road looked the same to me, and it seemed like we had been exploring in circles. It was definitely in Lander County and definitely off the beaten path, but I’m not sure we’ll ever find it again. The compound included converted mobile homes, offices, dormitories, various equipment, and broken-down vehicles. From the look of the place, I estimated the site had had seen its last human in the ‘80s.
The buildings were filled with animal dung, as most abandoned buildings in the desert tend to be. Most doors were hanging open and many were simply missing. Claim maps hung on the walls of what must have been the mining offices. Desks, chairs, filing cabinets, and shelves filled with scrolls and core samples stood frozen in time. Other than the slight toll the years had taken on this property, it looked untouched. I can only assume that the mines dried up and the camp was abandoned, just like Gold Acres and Cortez.
What blows my mind is that whoever lived here left absolutely everything- tools, books, pots, pans, utensils. The holy grail of ghost-towning is to discover an unknown town so secluded and intact that you could walk into a house and spend the night in a bed. The bunkhouse in this mining camp had beds and chairs, which were strewn with clothing and papers. If not for the animal droppings, a person could stay there quite comfortably. We touched nothing, took nothing, and were quite pleased that nobody else had either. Someday we will return and identify the site. Hopefully it will be in the same pristine condition we left it in.
Ghost Town Defined
The term “ghost town” is defined loosely. When most people think of ghost towns, they think of a western movie set, complete with false front buildings, horse troughs, and spooky cemeteries. Indeed, that Hollywood image is based in truth, and most Old West towns did more or less fit that mold. Some were railroad towns- glorified pit stops on along travel and shipping routes. Many were company-owned mining camps like Gold Acres and Cortez. Some of these towns cheated fate (Dodge City and Hayes in Kansas come to mind). Others died but were preserved, like Bodie and Calico in California. Some coded but were revived, like Park City in Utah. Most, however, died and were long forgotten.
The generally accepted definition of a ghost town is any place that is a shadow of its past glory. Under this definition, a town could have an active population and still be considered a ghost town. Such towns are often classified by ghost town buffs as “almost ghosts,” while towns completely abandoned are called “true ghosts.”
Eureka and Hamilton
It was still early, so we pulled out the map and decided to check out Eureka, a former “almost ghost,” and Hamilton, a “true ghost” before looping back up to Wendover. The most direct route to Eureka was an unnamed (at least on our map) road leading south about 70 miles to U.S. 50. There is a reason that dirt road had no name, and we were glad we were in a Jeep (I was even gladder that it was Tyler’s Jeep and not mine). It was slow going, but that was ok. We were traversing through country rarely seen and we considered ourselves lucky. Every bump in that road was part of the adventure.
Eureka is a sleepy ex-boom town with a long, rich history. It’s Main Street actually does resemble a movie set, lined with original buildings and set against a mountain backdrop. We only spent enough time in Eureka to fill the gas tank and stock up on Gatorade and Slim Jims. After all, we came for true ghosts. And as long as there was still somewhere in town I could buy Gatorade and Slim Jims, there was no reason to stick around.
Hamilton is a true ghost 37 miles west of Ely at the base of Treasure Hill in White Pine County. Hamilton began life in 1868 as Cave City, named so because the earliest settlers lived in caves and dugouts in the nearby hills. The town was eventually renamed after W.H. Hamilton, one of the town fathers. Stories of the great riches discovered in Treasure Hill sparked “White Pine fever” and prospectors flocked to the district.
Between June of 1868 and spring of 1869, the town’s population grew from 30 to over 10,000. Stage lines kept the goods and people flowing in, and Hamilton became the county seat. Soon the valley was dotted with businesses, restaurants, a post office, a newspaper, theaters, and saloons. At its peak, Hamilton was home to 60 general stores and 100 saloons!
But, like most other boom towns, mines ran dry, companies folded, and speculators left for greener pastures. By 1870, the population had shrunk to 3,915. An 1873 fire ripped through the business district, destroying both the buildings and the town’s economy. Only 500 people remained by the end of that year. The county seat was eventually moved to Ely, the post office closed, and Hamilton became a ghost in 1931.
That would have been the perfect time to explore this ghost town- before several mining companies returned to Hamilton in the 1980’s and built large aluminum buildings- only to later abandon them. The most prominent ruins at the town site are those of the Wirthington Hotel and a few scattered wooden buildings.
It’s remarkable to consider the scale of this once bustling mining town compared to today’s remains. Like most true ghosts, little remains of Hamilton. But the beauty of a ghost town lies not just in what buildings remain, but in the history that saturates the crumbling foundations and scattered wooden planks.
Click here to go to Part 4 of this story.
-Hamilton photos used with permission from the White Pine Historical and Archaeology Society. Any reprint or unauthorized use of these photos is prohibited.