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Pioche Courthouse

milliondollarcourthouse.jpg

Old Lincoln County Courthouse
W. Bailey, HABS photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

One hundred and fifty years ago, a new courthouse opened for business in Pioche. It had quite a history before its completion, and quite a history since.

In 1866, the area now known as Lincoln County became part of Nevada. Congress passed legislation taking land from the territories of Utah and Arizona. Lincoln County included what is now Clark County. After Crystal Springs and then Hiko, Pioche became the county seat in 1871. It was a mining boomtown, named for the San Francisco financier who bought the place, Francois Louis Alfred Pioche. It was known as a tough town. It was remote, and raids by Indigenous People had driven out earlier settlers. But the town of Pioche was here to stay.

In a lot of communities in Nevada and the West, permanence was hard to come by. After all, mining boomtowns rose and disappeared quickly. But since Pioche seemed to have staying power, it needed proper government, and thus a courthouse for county business. Lincoln County officials signed a contract for a courthouse that was to cost about twenty-six thousand dollars — much of it to the builder, and the rest for a jail to be built behind the courthouse. T. Dimmock and Thomas Keefe designed an Italianate brick building, forty by sixty feet, with rubble stone masonry on the sides and back.

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During construction, the county had to far out parts of the construction. That ran up the costs. The county issued more high-interest bonds, and THAT ran up the costs. The building was completed in 1872, but by then it cost more than seventy-five thousand dollars — nearly three times the original cost.

That was bad enough, but it got worse. Mining around Pioche declined. The county couldn’t keep up the payments on the principal and could barely do anything about the interest. By the mid-1880s, the county owed close to two hundred thousand dollars. It tried to repudiate the debt and failed.

The debt kept growing as Nevada went through a twenty-year depression to close out the nineteenth century. By 1909, it was well over six hundred thousand dollars. Lincoln County’s population had grown, and it included a couple of mining towns Goodsprings and Searchlight, and a railroad town… Las Vegas. Its residents were particularly unhappy about being part of Lincoln County. They couldn’t get to the county seat directly by train. And that county seat, Pioche, was more than one-hundred-and-fifty miles away. Nor were Las Vegans thrilled with the debt from the courthouse. The 1909 legislature agreed to divide Lincoln County. In return, the newly created Clark County would accept part of the debt, based on property valuation. That came out to maybe two-thirds of it at the time.

Finally, Lincoln County paid off the courthouse in 1938. By then, mining had made enough of a comeback for the county to build a new courthouse in the modern Art Deco style. County officials watched their pennies, kept the cost below fifty thousand dollars, and paid off the debt in twenty years. Meanwhile, the old courthouse was in terrible shape. But the county restored, and it still stands as a museum, as a monument to incompetence and corruption, but, more importantly, as a key part of the area’s history. It cost so much that it became known as the Million Dollar Courthouse. Today, it looks like… a million dollars.

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