Long after their mining boomtowns went bust, these rural bars still serve brews and burgers — and a hair-raising ghost story or two
Whether you’re into high-concept mixology, fine wine or cheap suds, Vegas is a worthy drinking town. But you can hit your favorite watering hole only so many times before you start to miss a certain sense of adventure. Luckily, there’s plenty to be had at one of Nevada’s many old boomtown bars. Their mining glory days may be well behind them, but they still serve cold beer, juicy burgers, and great atmosphere.
Where stargazers, history-lovers, and ghost-hunters become good friends
The Pioneer Saloon is perhaps the state’s most notable haunt in more ways than one. For starters, the 103-year-old saloon has a killer atmosphere, enhanced by the bullet holes pockmarking the walls — the result of an infamous card game gone fatally bad. In fact, the coroner’s report from 1915 hangs next to the punctures. According to owner Noel Sheckells, the shooting was ruled a justifiable homicide by Goodsprings’ justice system, since card shark Paul Coski was caught cheating. Just about every Wild West story you can conjure likely happened here.
“It was a rip-roaring town with up to 8,000 miners at one time,” Sheckells says.
Goodsprings was the No. 1 lead-producing area during World War I, frenetically delivering materials for bullets. At one time, Sheckells says, an entrepreneur supplied more than 200 prostitutes to the workers, which proved another source of town friction: A scrap over the affections of a working girl spurred another saloon death. Today, the atmosphere in one of the oldest stamped-tin structures in the U.S. is much more amiable, starting with Sheckells himself.
“It’s the friendliest place on earth,” he says. “People come in not knowing each other, and by the time you leave, you have more friends than you know what to do with. It’s magical.”
The saloon had cast a spell on Sheckells when he first ventured inside in 1991. Long fascinated by its history, he snapped up the property in 2006. Since then, he says, he’s invested more than $2 million in preserving the building, and has launched a full-service restaurant, gift shop, and expansive outdoor area with fire pits. Karaoke (on Friday), live music, keg parties, haunted lock-ins, and astronomy nights (with 18 commercial telescopes) fill the calendar. However, Sheckells’ favorite is Thursday, which is fine dining night (complete with acoustic music) in the Clark Gable-Carole Lombard Room. It is bedecked in memorabilia from the Hollywood power couple’s 1940s heyday. Gable left his own mark on the saloon: His cigarettes burned holes in the bar in 1942 as he anxiously waited three days for word of the fate of Lombard, whose plane had crashed on nearby Mount Potosi.
Film buffs, history lovers, bikers and ghost hunters from around the world are drawn to Goodsprings, whose population has shriveled to just 200. It’s hosted movie shoots, truck commercials, and, perhaps the oddest, a gathering for Swatch aficionados. (Every year, the company takes its biggest spenders to an exotic locale, one year choosing Pioneer Saloon.) Sheckells’ sons have also enjoyed the saloon’s ever-growing notoriety: One now runs the bar, and the other is a chef who directs the restaurant. Along with the familial atmosphere, Sheckells most enjoys entertaining travelers from around the world who discover this rough-cut gem of Nevada mining history. “All the people I get to meet is fantastic,” he said. “I love to engage with people and give them a free tour.”
Plus, he’s committed to preserving Pioneer Saloon’s history as the oldest continually operating saloon and restaurant in Clark County and, perhaps, the state. Sheckells even refused entreaties from the show “Bar Rescue” to revamp the building, which was originally ordered and shipped via train from Sears, Roebuck & Co. For Sheckells, the past is his present to patrons.
“It’s one of Southern Nevada’s nicest treasures,” he says. “It’s something that should be here for a long time. The younger generation gets to come and experience the Old West.”
(In Goodsprings, 310 NV 161, 702-874-9362, pioneersaloon.info)
Happy Burro Chili & Beer
This old Beatty haunt has a spicy secret
While a taste of Wild West lore is the most celebrated aspect of the Pioneer Saloon, Happy Burro has garnered its fame from its storied, award-winning chili. Conveniently situated outside of Death Valley (and the ghost town of Rhyolite), Happy Burro Chili & Beer is a must-stop for famished hikers. It also serves as a daily gathering place for some of the most welcoming residents of Beatty (population 1,000). Owners Patti and Fred Summers had been competition chili cooks looking to retire, when they eyed a former mining district office dating to 1906. Upon moving from California, they promptly stripped the inside to its original appearance, while living in the former hotel they purchased next door. “My husband is quite good at building things,” Patti Summers says. (That includes the one-of-a kind urinal in the men’s restroom, which flushes via actual motorcycle handle bars.)
While the restaurant is rather simple inside (four barstools and a table), the Summers found that mastering the art of chili can be a complex science. “It took me a year to come up with a recipe that I like,” says Summers, who’s been cooking chili for nearly 25 years.
Their passion was first stirred when Fred entered a small cookoff where he met an official from the International Chili Society. Since then, they’ve satisfied their craving for competition, crisscrossing the globe with their chili. After years of traveling, they’ve settled comfortably into the small-town charms of Beatty. They’ve also grown fond of “Sarah,” a benevolent ghost they share their historic home with. Their introduction was swift: “I was falling one day, then all of a sudden I had a hand on my arm to steady me and hold me up,” Summers says. The tight-knit community they’ve become a part of plays an equally supportive role. “I have a lot of friends who come over, have a beer and visit,” Summers says. “There’s a lot of camaraderie between everybody.” (In Beatty, 100 W. Main St., 775-553-9099)
Overland Hotel & Saloon
Steeped in history, this Old Nevada hotel and saloon attracts spirited company
If you’re seeking something truly otherworldly, you’d be hard-pressed to saddle up somewhere more steeped in spirits than the Overland Hotel & Saloon in Pioche, about two and a half hours northeast of Las Vegas. In fact, when checking in, you’re advised to tell the front desk if you are looking for a “ghost-free stay.” That’s because Pioche quickly earned a reputation as one of the most cutthroat towns in the Old West: According to local lore, 72 men were killed in gunfights before the town’s first natural death occurred.
One of the men murdered was the great-grandfather of retired bartender Jim Kelly, who is also a noted local historian. “There were almost 100 saloons here during its heyday, and almost as many houses of ill repute,” he says.
Silver was discovered in Pioche in 1864; the deposit ranked second only to the Comstock Lode. The population then swelled to more than 10,000, peaking in the 1870s. The town’s fortunes fluctuated throughout the years, according to Kelly, as the area became the second-largest producer of zinc and lead during World War II. (Now, Pioche only boasts roughly 700 residents.) Kelly moved to Pioche from Las Vegas 15 years ago. It was a homecoming of sorts, with two of his great-grandparents hailing from Pioche. He was giving tours at the town’s famed million-dollar courthouse (built in 1871 and not paid off till 1936) when he was called to fill in at the saloon. “I had never bartended before in my life,” he says.
But he poured himself into the job and the history of the Overland, which was erected in the early 1900s, but succumbed to fire in 1947 and was rebuilt. Highlights of today’s incarnation include 12 themed hotel rooms (from Anasazi to Victorian) along with the antique, three-part bar. Portions of it were shipped from McGill and the Mt. Wilson Ranch, while one section originating from San Francisco dates from the 1850s. Also still standing on the property is an old miner’s rock house from the 19th century. That relic is a reminder that the town’s Wild West ways are now permanently retired, as are many of the saloon’s patrons. “There’s a gathering of guzzling geezers almost everyday, and I’m one of them,” Kelly says.
(In Pioche, 662 Main St., 775-962-5895, overlandhotelnv.com)
Bonnie Springs Ranch
The drama of the Old West lives on (also, feel free to pet the llamas)
While many decaying desert towns mine their boom-and-bust history, Bonnie Springs’ attractions are of a more recent vintage. Bonnie Levinson bought the property near Red Rock in 1952, when it comprised a restaurant, bar, and small house with no electricity. In 1974, she and her husband opened Old Nevada, a mock-1880s Wild West town featuring staged hangings, gunfights, and melodramas. Later they expanded to include a 50-room motel as well as a petting zoo with more than 20 species of animals, including more than 70 peacocks, a lynx, and an emu. And those sights include the panorama of Red Rock Canyon, towering above the town, as well as a night sky that’s light years away from the obscuring Vegas haze. Ensconced in its sylvan surroundings, the ranch offers horse rides and rock climbing, while the saloon showcases karaoke on Fridays and live music on Saturdays. (That’s not to mention the newest attraction, Zombie Paintball Express, held the last Saturday of the month, where visitors duel zombies from the confines of a bus.)
Beneath the modern amenities, however, are layers of history. “That’s due to the fact that this place used to be a stopover for wagon trains going through the Old Spanish Trail,” explains events manager Tim Harrison. “They would resupply themselves here with water.”
Plus, a Paiute Indian burial ground is nearby. Often, Harrison is the last one to depart the ranch following conventions, weddings, and other special events, which can make for eerie experiences. “There’s a little girl by the school house, several apparitions at the opera house,” he says. “You hear all kinds of stuff.”
Nods to the area’s history can be also be found in the museums, one featuring 1800s-era wax figures and the other housing turn-of-the century artifacts. The modern history continues as well with two of Levinson’s children running the ranch. Few could have envisioned what it was to become when Bonnie was fortuitously shown the property after arriving in town to sell her California-bred turkeys.
Today her dream of a family-friendly Western town keeps one boot planted proudly in the past, even though it’s just a few paces from Las Vegas. “You can’t get that unique character in many places,” Harrison says.