FEATURE — Today, it’s part “Twilight Zone” and part Radiator Springs from the Pixar animated blockbuster “Cars,” but a century and a half ago, Eldorado Canyon was the epitome of what one would consider the Wild West.
Visitors driving through this canyon situated about a mile past the town of Nelson on Nevada’s state Route 165 cannot help but wonder “How did all of this stuff get here?” as they view the vast expanse of outdated items, from a whole host of antique cars to nostalgic signs that advertise products ranging from soft drinks to motor oil.
The feeling is almost eerie, as items that once had a lot of life in them now stand still, weathered by their complete exposure to the elements – chief among them the scorching southern Nevada sun.
Taking a closer look, one can find loose resemblances to Lizzie, Doc Hudson, Flo and Mater of “Cars” fame.
However, there’s more of a checkered past than there are checkered flags, but the only two items that give an indication of this past upon driving into the area are two historical inscriptions on stone installed over 50 years ago. These inscriptions provide a brief snapshot of the canyon’s tumultuous gold-mining history, a history that is legendary today.
Gold fever and lawlessness
The history of Eldorado Canyon starts with its name, which first appeared in the early 16th century as a Spanish name meaning “the gilded one” and was actually two words – El Dorado.
Americans turned it into a compound word and “in time, the name came to mean a paradise of riches and abundance,” according to Helen S. Carlson’s book “Nevada Place Names: A Geographical Dictionary.”
Considering its history, however, the place could hardly be considered a paradise.
Mining in Eldorado Canyon actually predates the mid-19th century, when it was at its height. Before European-Americans arrived, Native Americans extracted turquoise in the area, and Spanish explorers worked what is now known as the Wall Street Mine.
Evidence shows that the Spanish didn’t even name the canyon, as one might expect. Instead it was a steamboat captain making the first foray on such a vessel up the Colorado River in 1857. Captain George Alonzo Johnson wrote about naming the canyon in December of that year, according to the book “Nevada’s Turbulent Yesterday: A Study in Ghost Towns” by Don Ashbaugh.
Ashbaugh noted that Johnson’s trip opened up the river to steamboat traffic and led to Eldorado becoming the river’s busiest port. Steamboats remained a major player in shipping along the river until the early 20th century.
Soldiers camping in the canyon in 1859 struck upon ore samples valuable enough to cause some excitement and staked a claim known as “The Honest Miner” – which an uncovering of the canyon’s later history reveals is an oxymoron.
Soon after, other claims were laid, some of them with interesting names, including the January, Morning Star, and Techatticup, derived from Paiute words meaning “hungry” and “bread” as Paiutes were reported to have frequented the mining camps begging for food.
This flurry of mining activity led to the development of the Colorado Mining District, named for a remarkable fissure through the rocks carved by the nearby Colorado River. When the mines first opened, they were located in the Arizona Territory until 1866, when they became part of Nevada.
Due to its remote location and lack of machinery, only high-grade, easily-worked ore was extracted, and it was done with picks and shovels by candlelight. By 1863, a 10-stamp, steam-powered mill was set up along the river and both gold and silver (gold was the main aim, but silver was an important byproduct) and a little bit later, the Techatticup Mine, which accounted for over half the production of the mines in Eldorado Canyon, erected a 15-stamp mill. The bullion was shipped by steamboat down the river to sea-going vessels in the Gulf of California.
By 1865, Eldorado Canyon’s population was approximately 1,500, and by that same year over 850 mining deeds had been recorded. Ironically, these early mining operations in the canyon seemed to attract little outside notice, partly due to the area’s isolation but also because of overshadowing by larger, more famous mining operations within the state, including the Comstock, Eureka and Ely mining districts.
The bulk of mining production in Eldorado Canyon took place between 1864 and 1900 and, according to some estimates, produced up to $10 million worth of precious ore, with the Techatticup and Wall Street mines the main producers.
Many of the original miners in the area were Civil War deserters, information that is even chiseled in stone at the site. Deserters came from Army contingents at nearby Fort Mohave and Eldorado. Later deserters were described by Ashbaugh as “rough characters seeking a safe place to avoid the dangers of war.”
Carlson went on to further describe the scene in her book:
Filled with both Northerners and Southerners who wished to avoid conscription during the Civil War, it was the scene of claim jumping and murder. Mining law was decided by the ‘Winchester’s amendment to the Colt statute.’
But Ashbaugh reported that the shooting at the mines didn’t begin until the Civil War was over. According to Ashbaugh’s account, the Unionists and the “Rebs” divided into different camps under their respective flags.
“From behind the walls of their stone shelters they carried on a continuous warfare, albeit mostly verbal,” Ashbaugh wrote. “It was about as near as the war ever came to Nevada, although it was several months after Appomattox before the ‘battle’ of Eldorado came to an end – with no fatalities reported.”
There were plenty of fatalities after the war, however.
Stories of the lawlessness of Eldorado Canyon in its early days abound. Fights over gold, women, mining claims and property ownership sometimes resulted in shootouts. Some greedy miners decided the best way to get what they wanted was to eliminate the competition through murder.
The Techatticup Mine, with quarrels over ownership and management as well as labor disputes, became the epicenter of the rowdy free-for-all. There were times murder became an almost nightly occurrence. With the nearest lawmen 200-300 miles away, sheriff’s deputies rarely made the trip to keep the peace or investigate wrongdoing.
“I think there never was another place where, in proportion to the population, so many murders were committed without the criminals being brought to trial or even apprehended,” wrote Eldorado Canyon gold miner John Riggs in 1880.
A military outpost was established in 1867 to protect steamboat traffic and to keep an eye on local Indians, who were beginning to raid the canyon.
Two Paiute Indians in particular – Ahvote (or Avote) and Queho – wreaked a lot of havoc, accounting for nearly 30 deaths between them over the course of about 25 years from the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Ahvote’s demise came at the hands of his own tribe members, who were angry about not receiving handouts from the canyon’s white residents because of the ruckus he had caused. They killed Ahvote and took his head in burlap sack to show that they had truly eliminated the threat.
Queho, responsible for over 20 murders himself, successfully eluded a sheriff’s posse after his final murder in 1919. His remains were found in a cave in 1940, identified easily because one of his legs was shorter than the other.
Questioning the historical reliability and the Las Vegas connection
According to several accounts, stories and statistics of the canyon’s early history are not very reliable. A 1980 Lake Mead National Recreation Area Historical Study by Mike Belshaw used the words of a G.M. Butler in a 1933 Arizona Bureau of Mines Bulletin that succinctly told why that was.
“The pioneer prospectors and miners were too busy overcoming obstacles, struggling against hardships and celebrating occasional periods of good fortune to write about their experiences, even if able to do so,” Butler said. “Few authentic records of most of the earlier camps exist. Available statistics are often far from reliable, and good judgement is required to separate the true from the false.”
Belshaw said the early miners “suffered that primitive, age-old, and ineradicable disease” – gold fever.
“One of its manifestations is that ultimately it’s not the finding but the search that fascinates,” Belshaw explained. “Men have sold obvious bonanzas for pittances to be on their way again.”
Many miners were also delusional, Belshaw said, thinking that in the next wash, the next rise, or the next ridge lay a sure-fire, honest-to-goodness “Eldorado.” And by the same token, Belshaw noted, miners tended to exaggerate grossly the worth of their findings.
“Next to prospectors, fishermen are paragons of truth,” Belshaw concluded.
However, Donna Andress, a native of the area who later wrote a book on its history, told the story of one Techatticup Mine superintendent who actually kept excellent records in the 1880s. One of the funniest things he wrote about was his distaste for a particular brand of margarine that was being sent to the mine, which arrived in a rancid state. Instead of using it for its intended purpose, he wrote about using it to grease the axles of wagon wheels, Andress said.
Interestingly, mining in Eldorado Canyon has a direct connection to the founding of Las Vegas.
One of the pioneers of Las Vegas was a miner-turned-rancher who was first attracted to the area because of its mining interests and did some mining in Eldorado Canyon. Octavius Decatur Gass took over the old Mormon mission and turned it into a fairly successful ranch.
However, he eventually lost it by mortgaging it and some other land to Archibald and Helen Stewart to pay for some litigation he was involved in, said Michael Green, history professor at UNLV and author of KNPR’s segment “Nevada Yesterdays.”
Helen Stewart then sold most of it to Sen. William Andrews Clark for construction of the railroad, which led to the creation of the Las Vegas townsite.
“So, in a way, it would be reasonable to claim that without Eldorado Canyon attracting O.D. Gass, Las Vegas might have turned out a lot differently!” Green said.
Mining in the 20th century
The coming of the railroad in 1905 revived the mining district with a 50-ton smelter developed 7 miles west of Eldorado Canyon. For closer proximity to the smelter and mines, older settlements were moved to the new town of Nelson (which, with Las Vegas, was incorporated that same year), where a new cyanide mill was constructed to process the gold.
A 1916 pamphlet touted the canyon’s mining as “The New Comstock,” but after the turn of the 20th century, the mines didn’t produce as much as they did in their more legendary days.
When World War II began, the U.S. government shut down the mines so most able-bodied young men of draft age could serve their country fighting the war, Andress said.
After the war, a company tried to revive mining by filing for property at the Wall Street Mine location, but once the company found out what it would take to reclaim the land, it gave up. Andress said a few people have mined the tailings in the years since the war and have found some nuggets. Essentially, however, mining in the canyon has ceased.
Ashbaugh corroborated Andress’s account, noting that the only mining going on was by a “few Sunday prospectors with modern metal detectors” still seeking gold in “Eldorado’s sun-scorched hills.”
By the 1950s and 1960s, the main traffic in Eldorado Canyon was made up of those trying to catch “the wily bass of Lake Mohave and the big trout of Black Canyon,” Ashbaugh said.
Modern day: The Werlys
Tony and Bobbie Werly came to know Eldorado Canyon as they transported canoes back and forth through the canyon for trips that Bobbie Werly guided in the late ’90s. The couple began to think that instead of transporting the canoes back and forth from Boulder City, where they lived at the time, they would inquire about buying property in the canyon to make it their canoeing base camp.
The Werly’s daughter, Shauna, said Tony Werly called the owner of the property, which had been in the family since 1929, to see if he could buy five acres, to which the owner refused. A few months later, the owner called back to say he would sell them all 51 acres of property or nothing.
In 1994, two days before the Werlys closed escrow on the property, they found the sealed off mine shafts, Shauna Werly said. It was then that the family decided that mine tours would be in the property’s future, but they didn’t get the tours started until six years later.
When the Werlys bought the property, they also got several mining claims, a store, a stamp mill, a bunkhouse and a few tin miner cabins, most of them in a dilapidated condition. But since then, more buildings have been brought back that were originally in the canyon.
The people of Nelson had moved the buildings to avoid damage to them, Shauna Werly said, and the old timers knew which buildings needed to return to the site. For instance, the headquarters of their operation, which doubles as a museum of historic pictures, mining equipment and other relics, was once the miners’ mess hall. All the buildings they’ve restored have come on their own dime with no grants or contributions from outside organizations.
Old timers also helped the Werlys find out the history of the place they purchased, along with information gained from a Nevada Historical Society book written by John L. Riggs and published in 1912 entitled “The Reign of Violence in El Dorado Canyon.”
Andress said the Werlys have done well at preserving the area’s history and have done a fantastic job at preserving the mine tunnel.
Today, the mine tour is the biggest attraction on the Werlys’ spread, but there is another draw to the area that Shauna Werly said is made possible by her parents’ “hoarding capabilities.”
“They’ve been hoarding for as long as I’ve been alive,” she said.
However, she said, they never intended on doing what they’re doing, which is bringing in a vast array of what some would consider junk in the form of antique vehicles, signs, outdated equipment and more. It’s gotten to the point that the Werlys regularly get calls from people asking if they would take an old vehicle off their hands.
Many people love the nostalgia of the place, Shauna Werly said, and all of the curiosities around have made it popular for photo shoots – everything from scantily-clad models to family photo sessions.
Shauna Werly said the family never knows who they’re going to meet on their property from day to day, but they come from all different walks of life. Lately, she said, there has been an influx of international travelers.
But there is no doubt the Werlys enjoy their gig.
“For me, the history of this place is unreal,” Shauna Werly said. “A lot of people can’t believe the history.”
Visiting Eldorado Canyon
Eldorado Canyon lies approximately 2 1/2 hours south of St. George and can be reached by driving south on Interstate 15 and merging onto southbound U.S. 93/U.S. 95 in downtown Las Vegas. Just before reaching Boulder City, turn south onto U.S. 95 and follow it for nearly 10 miles to the turnoff to NV SR 165. Turn left and follow NV 165 for approximately 11 miles. The Werly’s Eldorado Canyon curiosities and mine tours are located approximately a mile east of the town of Nelson.
Mine tours are offered at 9 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. It is best to call ahead to make reservations. Those desiring a photoshoot should also give advance notice and will have to sign a waiver and pay a fee depending on the number in their party.
Visitor to Eldorado Canyon should speak to the Werlys. They love to tell people about the place’s history and what they’ve done with it.
For more information, visit the Eldorado Canyon Mine Tours website.
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About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.
“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series.
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