|Arts, Books & Culture
Elko County's Golden Oldie
n July 24, 1911, the men of Jarbidge, Nevada left their mines and shops and set out to finish a road. The gold rush which had brought thousands of adventurers to their region during the previous two years had been hampered by, among other things, inadequate access to the town. And when Elko County abandoned the road it was building into Jarbidge from the south, citizens undertook the do-it-yourself government services the region was (and still is) known for. Women provided meals, men brought their tools, and by sundown the job was almost complete. These people didnt have time to wait for a reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.
Jarbidges famous "road day" is just one manifestation of the spirit that has kept the tiny villagelocated a few miles south of the Nevada-Idaho borderalive for almost 90 years. That spirit runs through much of A Place Called Jarbidge, a self-published book about the "wildest and most primitive region of northern Nevada." Authors Donald E. Mathias and Valerie S. Berry compiled a copious historical record of Jarbidge, and along the way captured a sense of the grit it took to make something out of one of the Silver States most desolate locales.
A legend about a lost sheepherders mine in Jarbidge Canyon produced more than a few prospecting sorties into the area at the turn of the century. But in 1909, highly publicized discoveries by David A. Bourne and John Escalon instantly produced the Silver States newest boomtown. Life in boomtowns was never easy, but Jarbidge offered unique challenges. Roads into the rugged area were largely nonexistent, winters were harsh, and cutting the timber needed for permanent structures was outlawed by the newly formed U.S. Forest Service. (It wouldnt be the first time residents clashed with the agency.)
Hardships notwithstanding, people came and things got interesting. Unlike most Western writers today, Mathias and Berry appear to appreciate the glorious chaos that often resulted from mineral-based entrepreneurial euphoria. At its peak in 1911, Jarbidge had about 1,500 residentsfar more than the mining opportunities there offered. So the deluge of prospectors quickly slowed to a tricklethen a mass exodus took place. A sort of boomtown natural selection took hold whereby only the strongest minds and bodies remained. And in the next few decades, those fit souls extracted a tremendous amount of mineral wealth. Along the way, Jarbidges mines created jobs for many non-miners including farmers, ranchers, factory workers, storekeepers, and phone and power-company linemen. The authors also recognize the debt todays hikers, campers and anglers owe to the gold-grubbing ought-niners: "Although gold is no longer being taken from the Jarbidge Mountains, [the miners roads] and communications systems provide modern visitors with an opportunity to enjoy things that today are more elusive than goldpeace, solitude, and a personal relationship with the natural environment."
It never grew to the size some imagined it would, but for several decades Jarbidge was a vibrant small town. Little or no government was the norm. Privatization was embraced right from the startin year one of the rush, prospectors chipped in to hire a man to carry mail in and out of their camp once a week. The Jarbidge Commercial Club assumed many of the functions of a city council, including acting as citizens representatives before county, state and federal officials. "Clearly," the authors write, "the Commercial Club was the driving force in the little mining camp, and its successor organizations have been and still are important to the community. Even today, civic meetings and social activities are held in the old Commercial Club building."
In 1932, when Elkoro Mines Company shut down operations, Jarbidges salad days ended. During the 1940s, it was estimated that the whole town could be purchased for $10,000. Today, only a few Nevadans have even heard the towns name, probably because of the ongoing feud between Elko County and the USFS over the need for repairs to Jarbidges flood-damaged South Canyon Road. (Its an unfortunate coincidence that Mathias and Berry published their book just as this standoff, the most significant event in half a century in Jarbidge, occurredit has potential long-term consequences for the West.)
Like any self-published work, A Place Called Jarbidge is a bit rough around the edges. And due to their love of and experience with the town that "may be all that remains of the Old West," the authors delve a little too deeply into relatively minor points. Yet in a time when Silver State elected officials want to tax, regulate, and (worst of all) "plan" citizens into virtue, A Place Called Jarbidge provides a refreshing glance at an era when naturenot manerected most of the obstacles Nevadans faced. NJ
D. Dowd Muska is a contributing editor of Nevada Journal.