No roads lead to the town of Aurora
October 18, 2011
No highway leads to Aurora. The daily stagecoach from Carson City ended long ago, but people visiting Aurora today travel on seasonal roads over the same rough terrain. Unlike well-preserved towns like Virginia City, where tourists can feel the wooden sidewalk planks and step inside the rustic architecture of the old west, the planks and bricks of Aurora’s streets were stripped away to create new buildings in new cities in Nevada and California. The rush of prospectors to the city began in 1860, but by 1870 $30 million of silver and gold had been mined out of the region and the tide had turned. The city’s foundations have crumbled in the mountain soil, along with a few standing walls; the best preserved part of town is the cemetery. Among those markers are the graves of Nevada Sen. W.M. Boring, who began in his life in Tennessee, along with James Marden, 7, and his sister Hoddie, 18, who lived their short lives in the bustling town.
Gold and silver boomtowns were built and abandoned repeatedly throughout Nevada and the Southwest, and often followed a similar pattern. In 1860, three prospectors from California, E.R. Hicks, J.M. Corey and James Braley, staked their claim to the Aurora mine, in what was to become known as the Esmeralda Mining District. Located in modern day Mineral County, the silver and gold deposits of Aurora brought treasure seekers from Nevada, California and beyond. By 1864, Aurora had about 10,000 residents. The defunct mines and dwellings of Mono Lake, Calif., were dismantled and reassembled in Aurora, just as the remains of Aurora would later be recycled to form new towns.
In the rough terrain of the Sierra, a battle quickly developed between California and Nevada over which state owned the mineral wealth of the Esmeralda Mines. For a time, Aurora was the county seat of both Mono County, Calif., and Esmeralda County. In September 1863, voters in Aurora held elections for officers in both states. Finally, the two states sponsored an impartial boundary survey, which determined that Aurora was located in Nevada, three miles from the California border. The officials of Mono County quickly scampered out of town, along with the taxes they had levied from Nevada residents.
The life of mining shaped the city of Aurora. Prospectors would find a promising location and post their claims at the local assayer’s office. As with boomtowns all over the world, most miners toiled without reward, eventually giving up their claims. A few would get rich, some would return to their former occupations, while the more determined would pick up news of the latest boomtown and head off for new territory.
The anonymity of the prospectors is almost uniform. In Aurora, however, one of the prospectors was a former riverboat pilot from Missouri named Samuel Clemens, later to take up the pen name Mark Twain. He and two partners were haunting the taverns of Carson City when they heard of the great wealth to be earned in Esmeralda. They arrived by coach, and staked their own claim:
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We the undersigned claim three claims, of three hundred feet each (and one for discovery), on this silver-bearing quartz lead or lode, extending north and south from this notice, with all its dips, spurs and angles, variations and sinuosities, together with fifty feet of ground on either side for working the same.”
The work was hard, and their first stake gave little reward. As Clemens wrote in Roughing It, “So, for a week we climbed the mountain, laden with picks, drills, crowbars, shovels, cans of blasting powder and coils of fuse and stove with might and main… One week of this satisfied me. I resigned. Clagget and Oliphant followed. Our shaft was only 12 feet deep.”
Abandoning his first claim, Clemens began searching for a more hopeful prospect, eventually believing he had found it with a new stake, which tapped into a mineral vein abutting the established Wide West mine. The new site was a miner’s dream, an easily explorable vein which Clemens said gave him “an opportunity to simply stretch forth his hand and take possession of a fortune without risk of any kind and without wronging any one or attaching the least taint of dishonor to his name.”
Along with two new partners, Clemens posted a sign marking their claim and arrived at the county office first thing in the morning to file their papers. Word of their success spread quickly through the town of Aurora and they were immediately heralded. Calling themselves “the three millionaires,” Clemens and his partners were serenaded in the taverns and offered easy lines of credit. Clemens wrote “I found abundant enjoyment in being rich.” Their new stake seemed easy pickings.
Caught up in their excitement, the three forgot the basic laws of mining. While staking a claim held their rights to the mine, the law gave them 10 days to begin their mining operations. If no activity had begun after 10 days, the mine was considered abandoned and open to any new claim. Returning to his cabin one night, Clemens was forced to face the loss of his dreams. It was a hard lesson for Clemens who met his friend, already mourning their loss of their claim. “I sat down sick, grieved – broken-hearted indeed. A minute before, I was rich and brimful of vanity; I was a pauper now, and very meek.” Clemens’ adventure was artfully told, but ended the same as most.
Giving up the chase for wealth, he took a job as a millworker for $10 a week plus room and board, and tried to chart a new course. During his time in Nevada, Clemens had written a few stories of his experiences for publication in the Virginia City newspaper, and it was a great relief when the editor of the Territorial Enterprise offered him $25 a week as a regular reporter. Trading in his dreams of mining for a career as a writer, Clemens found a vocation more suited to his temperament.
While Clemens launched his literary career in Aurora, the city’s other residents struggled with the common problems of boomtowns. The dream of easy wealth brought many transients to Aurora, as well as many who sought to prey on the dreams of others. Rival owners of the Pond and Real del Monte mining companies brought in hired guns to protect their claims, and the gunmen became a force in their own right. The businessmen and shop owners of Aurora were dismayed by the gunfights and common violence of a mining town.
When local miner W.R. “Billy” Johnson was shot down by a band of hired guns, the citizens of Aurora decided to force their own justice. Branding themselves the Citizens’ Safety Committee of Aurora, the mob arrested Marshal Dan Pine, along with deputy sheriffs Demming and Teel, to stop them from halting the action; then seized four men believed to have been involved in the killing. In Carson City, Territorial Governor Nye heard of the extrajudicial proceedings and sent a string of telegrams to Aurora demanding an end of the violence. The reply came shortly: “All quiet in Aurora. Six to be hanged tomorrow.”
True to their word, the Citizens’ Safety Committee of Aurora hung John Daley, William Buckley, John “Three-Finger Jack” McDowell and James Masterson at noon on Feb. 9, 1864. One town leader, Sam Youngs wrote in his journal that night, “A trying day for Aurora. Gov. Nye telegraphed me there must be no violence, but the people are the masters.”
Shocked by the murder of Johnson and the vigilante justice which followed (and worried that news of the lynching would hurt Nevada’s chances for statehood) Gov. Nye sent a detachment of troops from Fort Churchill to restore order, and left for Aurora himself the next day. After the two-day stagecoach ride from Carson City, Nye arrived to find the city quiet, and the townspeople unabashed. One member of the committee, Van Bokkeleyn, explained he had been part of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance formed in 1851 to counter the violence in that burgeoning city. Though there were no repercussions for the hanging of “The Daley Gang,” the committee was ordered to disband a month after the hangings.
While the residents and business owners of Aurora were undoubtedly making plans for a long stay, the geography and geology of Aurora were against them. In 1864, some estimates placed 10,000 people in Aurora; by 1880 only 500 remained. Cities like Virginia City, Reno and Carson City were accessible and open to commerce and transportation, but Aurora and towns like her were far off the path to anywhere. The only roads to Aurora went to the mines. When the mines were gone, the city faded. In 1883, the County Seat of Esmeralda County was moved to Hawthorne. On Sept. 15 of that year, the Esmeralda Herald wrote the town’s epitaph, commenting “There is no star that sets, but that will rise again to illuminate another sky.”
Those words proved true. After standing abandoned for decades in the Sierra, Antelope Street and Silver Street were busy again, as the brick buildings of Aurora were dismantled. What remained of The Exchange Bar and Hotel, the Telegraph Office, the Wells Fargo Offices and even the Esmeralda Herald were taken down brick by brick. The bricks themselves were transported to Reno, where they sold at auction for $65 per thousand.
Visitors to Aurora today must take their imaginations. The cemetery is still largely intact, but few markers of the buildings of Aurora remain today. Like visitors to historical battlefields, the traveler’s imagination must color the scene, matching the grassy hills and stony outcroppings to old photographs of the town’s building and streets, ghosts of another century.
David Anthony is a freelance writer living in Reno.