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Western Short Story
Billion-Dollar Beans
An Eventual Billion Dollars in Silver, Gold and Copper begins With a Simmering Bowl of Beans
Dennis Goodwin

Western Short Story

The alchemists of ancient times would have surely flipped over in their graves. For hundreds of years, they unsuccessfully focused their magic formulas on nearly every material on earth - desperately striving to transform each one into precious metal. And now, in eastern Nevada's White Pine Mountains, some rough-cut prospectors had finally stumbled upon the secret ingredient...a simmering bowl of beans.

The enticing scent of those beans wafted through the icy mountain air in late winter of 1867. Three prospectors, Thomas Murphy, Eddie Merchand and A. J. Leathers ran a small silver mill on White Pine Mountain. While they worked, they left a pot of beans cooking on the cabin stove for their evening meal. As the tantalizing aroma blanketed the surrounding area, it found its way into the nose of a nearby Shoshone Indian named Jim.

Never one to turn his back on a prospective meal, Jim followed the trail of the intriguing fragrance. Once he had tracked down the scent's origin, the lure of the bubbling mixture overcame his rather limited social graces. Since there was no one in the cabin to ask him in for supper, he invited himself. Following his pilfered meal, however, Jim's conscience began to bother him. In order to right his wrong, Jim decided, he should bring the cabin's occupants a present in exchange for the food. His selection of that gift would not only soothe his conscience, it would ignite "White Pine fever" and eventually generate over a billion dollars in silver, gold and copper.

Several days after Jim's free meal, he showed up at the cabin with the gift - a chunk of nearly pure silver ore he had found. The prospectors quickly forgave the bean-burglar and, trying hard to stifle their excitement, casually inquired where Jim had found the silver. They were in luck. He didn't realize the potential value of his find and said he would be glad to show the site to the miners. The four of them later trekked over the 10,000-foot summit of the mountain to a ledge on the east side of Treasure Hill.

As the prospectors dug into the area, they found that their Indian guide's lump of rich silver ore had a lot of company. That site, later dubbed the Lost Treasure Mine, was permeated with nearly pure silver ore. Since napias was the Shoshone name for silver, Jim would inherit the name of "Napias Jim." As for inheriting anything else for his discovery, the miners were said to have given him a whopping "five-dollars and a saddle."

Despite the best efforts of the three prospectors to keep the discovery under their hats, rumors about the mine spread across Nevada like the scent of the bubbling beans had swept over the mountainside. The silver rush was on. During the early months of the White Pine silver stampede, many of the newcomers didn't even bother to build cabins. They simply found or dug holes in the side of the mountain. They had better things to do than carpentry - there was silver to mine!

Within a few months, however, enterprising builders got into the act. Even most of the rough-cut prospectors would prefer to live in a town rather than a cave, so a town named Treasure City was constructed on the mountainside at ten thousand feet above sea level. Later, three promoters planned a town-site at an altitude about two thousand feet lower. One of the three, W. H. Hamilton, honored himself by christening the new town "Hamilton." In true western fashion, Hamilton's very first structure was the King and McIver's Saloon. Churches and schools later joined the community but their numbers paled in comparison to the hundred-and-one saloons the town eventually sported.

A number of small communities began to spring up around the area but Hamilton was clearly becoming the queen of the White Pine mining towns. At the height of the rush, the Sacramento Union reported that the Pacific Railroad had sold over 10,000 tickets to the White Pine area in a single month. Six lines of daily stagecoaches to Hamilton dumped off more silver-hungry fortune seekers. Less affluent but equally hopeful prospectors trudged in on foot. The swirling cluster of newcomers pumped the new town full of an untamed energy that prompted the Reno Crescent to claim, "It's a faster camp than the Comstock."

Hamilton took shape with the lightning speed of the silver rush itself. Before long, an opera house, a newspaper and a courthouse graced the scene. The luxurious J. B. Withington Hotel was constructed of lumber hauled from Oregon and stones shipped from England. It was deemed the "most expensive structure built in Nevada." Hamilton was settling in for a long and prosperous life. Although excitement ran rampant in the new town, something else didn't - water. It was extremely valuable - so much so that several far-sighted miners abandoned their unproductive properties to file claims on nearby snow banks. Melting the snow and selling buckets of water seemed more of a sure thing than digging for silver. They eventually deserted their "snow mines" when the town built an elaborate water system that conveyed over a million gallons a day from nearby springs.

While Hamilton was in the process of becoming a rather sophisticated little burg, its loftier neighbor, Treasure City, retained its pioneer lifestyle. The "hill-toppers," as they were called, also had a water shortage but it didn't seem to bother them as much. The reason, according to most reports, was that the majority of them only used the water for cooking anyway, since for drinking purposes, "whiskey was cheaper."

The hill-toppers not only liked their whiskey, they loved to gamble. The daily mail delivery from Hamilton up the three-mile climb to Treasure City became quite a sporting event. As the mail stage rolled into Hamilton, a messenger eagerly awaited from both of Treasure City's two rival express companies – Wells Fargo and Pacific Union. The riders would each grab their mailbags from the stage driver and point their horses up the mountain.

Nell Murbarger, one of Treasure City's former residents, vividly remembered the races and the wagering. "As two dark specks rounded the distant shoulder of Treasure Hill," she reflected, "more gold pieces would make their appearance..." When the two riders and their snorting, foaming steeds neared the town's border, the shouts of encouragement, she recalled, would shake the mountain. Upon their arrival, two men would throw blankets over the horses and walk them up and down Main street to cool off. Meanwhile, a cluster of lucky gamblers hoisted the winning messenger over their heads and toted him to the nearest saloon for free drinks.

The hill-toppers may have been a carefree lot, but they took one thing very seriously - the Fourth of July. As the holiday approached in 1868, they teamed up with the Hamilton residents to officially recognize the occasion. Following a proper amount of head scratching, chin rubbing and whiskey drinking, the celebration organizers announced their plans.

Since at that time Treasure City was still the larger town, it would host the day's festivities and Hamilton would follow up with a ball in the evening. The grand event would be organized by the newly formed committee for the "Flag, Music and Ball of the Evening." The ball, the committee decided, would be held on a platform that had recently been built as a floor for a new frame house. For the music, they settled on a local fiddler named Pike. There was one concern though. Pike had a fondness for the bottle and it didn't take much to put him under. So a subcommittee was formed to keep him relatively sober that day. Yes, the dance plans were taking shape nicely. In fact, there were even a couple of women in the town, so the miners wouldn't have to spend the whole evening dancing with each other.

There was, however, one stumbling block that the Flag, Music and Ball of the Evening committee hadn't anticipated. After they had taken care of the music and the ball they suddenly realized there was no flag - anywhere in either town. They couldn't hold an Independence Day celebration without a flag! Once, again the committee members scratched their heads, rubbed their chins and drank. And again, they devised a solution. They would make one.

So the search was on for red, white and blue material. The white cloth was easy. A local store had white canvas they could use. The red material was a little tougher to find, until the committee members unearthed a quilt with a red calico lining on a fellow miner's bunk. The quilt was immediately commandeered for the common good.

But finding the blue cloth - that was a different story. It couldn't be located in either community. Once again, the event stood in dire jeopardy. Fortunately fate finally intervened to save the day. A Mormon family that had camped at the bottom of the hill, dug a blue veil out of their family trunk. Not only did they donate the cloth, they said their four daughters could attend the ball, except for one slight problem. The girls had no shoes and couldn't dance barefooted on the rough pine floor. No problem - another subcommittee was formed and eventually rounded up shoes to fit the girls.

When the big day came, the event was enough to make the local's hearts swell with pride. The morning began with a parade from Madison up to Treasure City. The homemade-flag bearer led the way. Behind him was, not exactly a professional band, but as close as the miners could come - two fellows who whistled Yankee Doodle. The Mormon family came next, followed by Pike the fiddler, his "bodyguard" and the rest of the Madison townsfolk. From the grand parade to the speeches made atop Treasure City's watering trough to the evening ball, the holiday was a roaring success.

The same untamed spirit that made that celebration successful, however, could also rage out of control. As silver and gold was discovered in other areas of the White Pine Mountains, small towns began to pop up like anthills. Unfortunately, law and order didn't always pop up along with them. South of Treasure City, the little town of Pioche was a vivid example. The secluded area bubbled with greed and violence. The construction cost for their modest little brick courthouse should have totaled about sixteen thousand dollars. When the final costs were calculated, the wide-eyed accountant peered down at a total of over half a million. Worse yet, during its wild days, Pioche was said to have let at least forty murderers go unpunished.

Fortunately, as the towns matured, the crooks and murderers were usually replaced by more sophisticated citizens. Their increased sophistication, however, didn't prevent them from being a colorful lot. Take for example, the folks at the Munro Mutual Mining and Tunnel Company. The director of their mining operations was a lady psychic. "Madame Munro," a New York clairvoyant, wired daily telegraphs to the miners directing them where to dig next. Unfortunately, Madame Munro's powers apparently didn't extend to Nevada. The outfit never found silver and the operation was eventually abandoned.

Another colorful personality of the White Pine boom era was often referred to by his descendants as "Old Gold-Pockets." Sporting a healthy distrust of banks, Thomas A. Rockhill preferred to slit the lining of his old frock coat and deposit gold coins in the hem. As he sauntered around the bustling mining towns, potential robbers had no inkling that between the gold coins in his sagging pockets and those in his coat lining, he was a walking Fort Knox.

Once, according to family memories, he decided to "put his money where his mouth was." On a whim, he arranged to have a set of solid-gold dentures made. Despite his 24-Karat smile, he soon found the ungainly contraptions were simply too heavy to use. As a young man in Indiana, Rockhill became engaged to be married. Like many others of the time, he headed out west to make money to support his future bride. Before he was prepared to return, however, fate dealt him a bitter blow. He received word that his fiancée had died. With no reason to return, he remained in the West.

Many years later, during a visit to Indiana, he was shocked to discover she had actually died while giving birth to their baby girl. Neither of them had realized she was pregnant when he left Indiana. And amazingly, no one had bothered to write him about his new daughter. Rockhill dutifully traced down his daughter, walked up to her family farm and announced that he was her father. Throughout his life, he took care of her and her family. One of his first fatherly duties was to provide his newfound daughter, Naomi Inman, with a set of dentures - not incidentally, of the solid-gold variety.

As colorful as the characters were and as rich as the silver ore was, the wild boom times of White Pine County, Nevada were destined to dissolve into history. Despite the lavish hotels, the costly water systems and all the rest, many of the bustling communities would eventually decay into ghost towns. Mother nature had played a cruel trick. The silver ore was extremely pure, it was true. And it showed up, along with some gold ore, all across the mountains. The problem was, as one mining company after another discovered, it ran very shallow. The jolting news came from all directions - Treasure City, Hamilton, Poiche and the rest - the precious commodity had simply run out.

As the residents learned of the tragic situation, some desperately grabbed whatever money they could and ran. Hamilton's mayor and the White Pine county treasurer each absconded with much of the town's and the county's cash. Obviously this didn't help the financial situation for the remaining citizens. As if this blow wasn't enough, Alexander Conn, the owner of Hamilton's cigar store, decided to set his store on fire to collect the insurance. In order to assure no one would salvage it, he secretly turned off the valves to the city's water supply.

His plan worked perfectly for his store - and unfortunately for nearly every other business in the town. After the inferno raged through the wooden buildings, all but two had burned to the ground. Cohn was arrested and imprisoned but that didn't bring back the already dying town. Hamilton, once the queen of the White Pine mining towns, was all but gone.

Years later, starting off with a total of seventy-five cents in their pockets, prospectors David Bartley and Edwin Gray would set off another boom - the White Pine copper industry. The copper, unlike the silver and gold, ran deep underground. The discovery of copper revitalized the area and by the 1960's had pushed the total made from the three metals - and the simmering bowl of beans - over the billion-dollar mark.

Somehow though, the new boom, with its modernized mining techniques and more sedate company towns just didn't have quite the same sparkle as its predecessor. After all, the residents didn't even bet on their delivery men, wash down their breakfast with whiskey or whistle Yankee Doodle in their parades. The Island Empire captured the essence of the death of Treasure City, Hamilton and the others with its simple headline, "Babylon has fallen!"


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