Last Saturday, a gorgeous day sandwiched between two storms, seven of us took advantage of this "spring-like" day, loaded up the quads and headed for Aurora. I had always wanted to see what was left of this mining boomtown that had once boasted a population of 10,000. I always loved going to Bodie, having been there many times, I always wistfully looked at the signs pointing the direction to Aurora but the additional 17 miles from Bodie had always been a little beyond my vehicle's capabilities. We wouldn't be going through Bodie this time, which is located at over 8,000 feet in elevation, instead we would be going in from the northeast side of Aurora. Now I had the chance to go exploring. I was excited.
We came down Highway 208 out of Wellington and entered Highway 338 heading toward Bridgeport. Soon we were off on a dirt road where we unloaded the quads. I was the only woman in the group of seven and an absolute novice rider as well. I was afraid I would be considered a wet blanket in the group but all the guys were wonderfully patient with me and I was very appreciative. To my riding buddies, James Smith and James Anderson, Brian Hardy and Brian Sierakowski, Bob Mendenhall and BJ Strauser, thanks for taking good care of me on my first big ride.
We were on the dirt road that led to Hawthorne over Lucky Boy Pass. After crossing a wide creek at Nine Mile Ranch, we made a stop at Four Corners where we would be taking the road to the right. Heading in a southwesterly direction, we then continued on another road off to our right. It wasn't long before the wide dirt road we had been traveling on got narrower and more rocky and muddy with patches of snow. I was beginning to wonder if we would be able to make it to Aurora on this trip. If it had been a normal winter, the snow depth would have stopped us from going any farther.
Aurora is at an elevation between 6-7,000 feet so, even in this mild winter, possibility of snow at that elevation seemed fairly certain to me. The road got even more narrow and more washed out to say nothing of steeper. It was a little intimidating to me on some of the sidehills but I wasn't going to admit it. I stayed right behind my friend, second in line, knowing that the first quads through some of the mud and snowdrifts would have an easier time than those in the back. I mimicked the path he took and the speed he took it at. A couple of times I almost lost it in the snow drifts but I regained control and before I knew it we were at the top and viewing the remains of what had once been a major mining town. I had seen a few pictures of Aurora before and outside of a few geographical landmarks still visible, it was hard to imagine the metropolis that once covered these hillsides. Now, nothing more than sagebrush, piñon trees and a few foundations remained to attest to its existence.
It was August 25, 1860, when Jim Corey, Jim Braley and E.R. Hicks discovered gold in Aurora. The three had been camped in the area when Hicks, while hunting, broke off pieces of a quartz outcropping and found gold. This became the Winnemucca Lode located near the west crest of Esmeralda Hill. The same afternoon several more claims were located. Corey, being well read, named their discovery site Aurora, meaning "Goddess of the Dawn." He called the district Esmeralda, Spanish for emerald, because of the deep green color of the surrounding piñon trees.
In April of 1861, the California Legislature passed a bill forming Mono County and made Aurora the county seat, but, in 1863 surveyors were to discover that Aurora was actually three miles over the border into Nevada so the county seat was moved to Bodie and then later to Bridgeport where it remains today. Aurora became the county seat for the newly formed Esmeralda County in the Nevada territory.
The Esmeralda Star newspaper began publishing on May 17, 1862, and reported that by August of that year, Aurora's population had grown to 3,000 and the camp boasted 22 saloons. By 1863 the population had grown an additional 1,000. There were 761 houses, 64 of them brick, 22 saloons, two churches as well as Masonic and Odd Fellow organizations. Lots were going for $2,500 to $5,000 and at the time there were 200 women amongst the population and a school had to be built for the 80 children living in the town. Sixteen mills were built with a total of 200 stamps crushing ore. The population eventually peaked at between 6,000-10,000 before its decline.
The boom was not to last. The original veins were shallow and were exhausted at a depth of 94 feet. The mines were mismanaged and several expensive mills were often idle or did not successfully extract rich metals. Water in the mines was also a real problem.
There was a story about George L. Albright, described as a timber man, being lowered into the Del Monte Mine where a shaft of 1,000 feet had been planned. Water came into the shaft at 500 feet so copiously that the largest pump obtainable was installed to handle it. Unprofitable work went on for a couple of years when the depth reached 800 feet. The inflow of water increased beyond the pump's capacity and the foreman and others went down to see what could be done about it. The engineer lowering the cage saw something wrong and hauled the cage back up in time to save its passengers from a watery death. Stopping at the next level he took out the miners and what machinery they could save. A car, left at the last level at which the cage stopped, is still in the mine with 500 feet of water between it and the surface.
Aurora was in decline by the turn of the century. By1883 the county seat was moved to Hawthorne and by 1897 the Aurora Post Office closed. By 1920 Aurora took her last gasps of life. With only a handful of residents and closed mining operations, the mills, plants and buildings were dismantled and sold. The town was eventually deserted and stripped. Brick buildings were torn down and the bricks, most made right there in Aurora, were hauled away to be used elsewhere. All that remains is a few foundations, mine sites marked by tailings and a sprawling cemetery.
Next week I will take you on a little tour of the cemetery and a lot of fascinating history. So until then ... just keep on keepin' on.
-- Jonni Hill can be reached through The Record-Courier at email@example.com or by calling 782-5121, ext. 213, or after hours at JHILL47@aol.com