Photograph from the Northeastern Nevada Museum, Elko, files. One of the earliest scenes of Jarbidge, Probably in 1909.
Sometimes called a ghost town, Jarbidge residents do not claim, nor do they want the status. A handful of hardy souls brave the frigid winters in the “Canyon of the Evil Giant” in northern Elko County but the place often takes on the hustle and bustle of a boom town on summer weekends and during hunting seasons. The 20th century gold camp is one of the most picturesque old communities in Nevada. It is said that the legend of a giant cannibal, Tsawhawbitts (tuh-saw-haw-bits), prevented any Indians from settling in the deep canyon. They believed he roamed the forests with a basket, looking for unsuspecting souls to capture and eat. Nothing, though, not even the story of the human eating giant, deterred prospectors in their search for glittering treasure. In the 1870s, when feverish prospecting and mining activity gripped Nevada, several men trekked into Jarbidge Canyon and came out empty handed.
In the middle 1880s, a local ranch worker found a bit of color and his story brought in a couple of men who netted nothing but mysterious troubles on their quest. They found a place guarded by a skeleton but that was the least of their problems. Both became extremely ill and they were forced to leave the canyon. One died, the other could never be persuaded to return and the legend of “The Lost Sheepherder Mine” was born. David Bourne is credited with making the first big discovery. In the spring of 1909 he hit pay dirt and staked out several claims. He called them the North Star Group. By the end of the year more than seventy-five claims were recorded at the county seat in Elko. The boom was on its way.
Newspapers carried reports that more than one quarter of a million dollars in gold was visible. Jarbidge miners predicted a population of 10,000. Many wanted to start their own county. None of this came to pass. Individuals and small companies didn’t have a chance with the nearest railroad many miles away in Idaho. Everything was brought in by horse and mule trains. Freighting costs were sky high. One enterprising man brought in a couple of tons of coal by parcel post which was cheaper than freighting it. The US Post Office soon called a halt to the practice. To add to the troubles there was no electricity to run mills. Then, in 1913, Elkoro Mining Company, part of Guggenheim’s Yukon Gold Company, moved into the canyon leasing and buying claims right and left. A huge mill was built and a water system put in. Elkoro went to work and, before the mines closed in the 1930s, took out most of the total of ten million dollars produced by the district.
Lonely bachelors in Jarbidge, in 1916, appealed to newspapers asking them to help with a serious problem – lack of women. One Reno women showed up and married Robert Knight, a local miner. During the town’s lively life it was like most mining camps, a rough and tumble place, but law enforcement was never much of a problem. The little community does hold one distinction in the annals of crime. It is the site of the last horse-drawn stage robbery in the nation. Note that the word is stage, not stage coach. It was a buckboard carrying letters, packages, supplies and cash.
In December, 1916, the stage from Rogerson, Idaho, was held up on the north edge of town. The driver was shot and killed and a few thousand dollars taken. Ben Kuhl was one of those arrested and convicted for the deed. Kuhl would eventually gain the dubious honor of being the longest resident at the state prison in Carson City. Elkoro brought in power in 1919 and refused to allow the town access. It was a decision that later haunted the company. A barrel of homemade whiskey blew up in the basement of the Success Bar. With the help of open gas lamps and an explosion, the fire quickly spread. Burning tar paper floating in the wind spread the fire to the other side of the street.
There were 22 business establishments wiped out along with several log cabins. Some of those consumed by the flames were the Success Bar, Mint Bar, telephone office, movie house, dance hall, and the Dozier Restaurant. Mrs. McCullock’s barber shop went up in smoke. The men called her Gerty-Gerty and they loved being shaved by Gerty-Gerty and her lady tonsorial artists. Jarbidge residents were bitter, saying that the gas lamps would not have been there to spread the fire if Elkoro had allowed the camp to hook into their power lines. The company relented and permitted the people to connect into their lines. Elkoro closed down its operations in the 1930s leaving 90,000 feet of underground workings. That adds up to about seventeen miles of disappointment for the individual miners but a lot of money for the mining and milling companies. Numbers and dollars cannot tell of the hopes of prospectors when they found color. Statistics do tell of the sweat, long days of back breaking work, and the bad air in the tunnels. Most of the miners had tenacity as hard as the rock they mined, but there is a time to quit and most did when they sold out or leased the claims to the big mining companies.
What a dream! They could see the gold. They could smell the gold. They knew El Dorado was there within reach. It was just dreaming but what fun it was while it lasted. How good was the district? Not bad at all when the big mills churned away all day on a mass treatment basis, but deadly to the little man. About ten million dollars (in today’s prices, that’s about $85,000,000) were produced making Jarbidge the leading gold producer in the state in 1918 and 1919. Hardly any of that, only wages, went into the pockets of the miners and workers. Jarbidge today is a pleasant place to visit. Tall trees and steep canyon walls are a perfect setting for the town. Residents organize several weekend celebrations during summer which brings in so many people that the place takes on the appearance of a boom town again. A few hardy souls live there year round. With a little imagination, while there, one can hear music of the Roaring Twenties and feel the presence of those hardy souls who left a portion of their lives and dreams in the “Canyon of the Evil Giant.” It is a place where one can walk in the past, faintly hearing shouts of the miners, the blasts deep in the bowels of the earth, and a steady pounding of stamps whispering gold…gold…gold…gold.
This story was taken from Howard Hickson’s Histories. Howard is Director Emeritus of the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko and his stories are true about Northeastern Nevada’s colorful past, written with wry humor and keen insight into the sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, sometimes downright eerie lives of cowboys, miners, and gamblers, villains and saints and men and women of both extremes, who’ve inhabited or passed through the region. The collection is a cultural treasure that Great Basin College has generously made available to the world via the Internet, for more information about Howard Hickson or to view more of his stories please visit http://www.gbcnv.edu/hickson/