Lincoln County was formed from part of Nye County and a slice of the Utah Territory in 1866 and named for President Lincoln, who was assassinated the prior year.
In 1867 the western end of the Arizona Territory was added to southern Lincoln County. Most of that land was used to create Clark County in 1909.
The county seat was first in Crystal Springs and then Hiko, before being moved to Pioche in 1871.
The first white people known to have explored what is Lincoln County were Mormons from Salt Lake City, according to Thompson and West’s “History of Nevada” (1881). “As early as 1849 a company, in quest of a shorter route into southern California, crossed the lower part of this county through the then unknown desert. They wandered about over this dreary, desolate waste of land for several weeks in search of water and forage for their animals, and finally perished of thirst and hunger in Death Valley. In the winter of 1865-66 the tire and other irons from the wagons supposed to have belonged to them were found and brought to Pahranagat, and used by the miners there. In 1852 the Mormons obtained the contract for carrying the mail over the route which Congress had that year established from Salt Lake to San Bernardino. A station was established at Las Vegas, and Brigham Young located a settlement at that point, partly for protection to the route, and partly for smelting lead from the Potosi mines near by. The Mormons occupied this place till the time of the Mountain Meadow massacre in 1857 …” which took place in nearby Utah.
At the time, tensions between the Mormon Church and the U.S. were tense and church leaders feared an attack by federal troops.
Though the motives for the massacre have been largely lost to history, on September 11, 1857, 50 or 60 Mormon militia and their Indian allies killed about 120 Arkansas emigrants who headed for California by wagon train. Only 17 children under age 6 were spared.
Though the Mormons abandoned the area in 1858 to return to protect Salt Lake City from attack, Mormons returned in 1863 and sent out small colonies to Meadow, Eagle and Spring valleys.
That winter the local Indians were cold and hungry and offered to show one of the settlers where he could find silver.
The silver attracted thousands of prospectors and lead to disputes that were often settled by pitched gunbattles.
An historic marker on the edge of Pioche reads:
“Silver ore was discovered in this range of mountains in 1864, but no important development took place until 1869 when mines were opened and the town of Pioche appeared. Pioche soon became the scene of a wild rush of prospectors and fortune seekers and gained a reputation in the 1870’s for tough gunmen and bitter lawsuits. Over five million dollars in ore was taken out by 1872, and by 1900 Pioche was nearly a ghost town.
“Designated as the seat of Lincoln County in 1871, Pioche survived hard times as a supply and government center for a vast area. In later years, notably during World War II, profitable lead-zinc deposits were developed.”
Pioche gained a reputation as one of the roughest towns in the Old West. According to local lore, 72 men were killed in gunfights before the first natural death occurred in the camp. This legend is immortalized by the creation of Boot Hill, now a landmark.
According to an article by A.D. Hopkins in a 1986 edition of Nevada magazine, the term gunfighter was first coined in Pioche.
Hopkins, a retired newspaper reporter and a member of the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame, writes:
“’I’m Cemetery Sam, and I’m a gunfighter from Pioche.’ Those words mark the entry of the term ‘gunfighter’ into the American language. They were written in 1874 in a humorous newspaper story about a frontier blowhard.
“It was natural for Cemetery Sam to claim Pioche as the scene of his exploit, for Pioche in the 1870s suffered as sanguinary reputation as any town in the West. Despite the current tendency to discredit romantic exaggeration about frontier gunfighters, in the case of Pioche the romantics are closer to the truth than the de-bunkers. The town attracted, and even created, real gunfighters as proficient as the fictional creations of Clint Eastwood. And Pioche was not satisfied with mere pistol duel between antagonists; there were at least two pitched battles with 10 or more participants shooting away at each other.”
As for the lore about no one dying of natural causes, Hopkins rebuts that by noting pneumonia and typhoid took their share of victims. But between 1870 and 1875, there were more than 40 killings and only two men brought to justice.
Perhaps that lack of justice was due to the rampant corruption. Hopkins recounts that in one trial both sides bribed the jury by lowering a boot stuffed with cash to the jury’s window.
Historians take particular glee in describing in considerable detail the scandalous building and financing of the Pioche Court House and Jail, today dubiously dubbed the Million-Dollar Court House. Though built in 1871, the last payment on the approximately $800,000 cost was not made until 1938.
Thompson and West described the Court House as a two-story brick building — 40-foot-by-60-foot — which, along with the two-story — 20-foot-by-30-foot — jail was supposed to cost $75,000.
“The history of the construction of these buildings is sufficiently remarkable to justify a relation of it here, the history book notes.
“The contract was let in August, 1871, to build the Court House for $16,400, and the jail for $10,000. Up to this time the finances of the county were in good condition. … But schemers, who saw their way to profit, determined to absorb this increasing revenue. By some unaccountable plan, after the work of building commenced, the contract was broken, and the work completed by the piece at the most extravagant price for each. Rude stone steps, leading from the Court House to the jail, cost several hundred dollars each; $8,000 were allowed for water-closets, and the whole work was done in this extravagant way …”
Area that is now Caliente was first settled in the early 1860s by two escaped slaves, according to Lincoln Communities Action Team (LCAT).
Ranchers Charles and William Culverwell purchased land in the area and called it the Culverwell Ranch.
“A dispute between two major railroad companies began when E.H. Harriman of the Oregon Short Line and Union Pacific, pushed track from Utah to the site of Culverwell. Even as Harriman’s crews worked on the line, the newly formed San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad owned by Senator William Clark, claimed the same territory …” according to LCAT.
“In 1901 William Culverwell ended the Harriman-Clark battle with his shotgun. As owner of the land, Culverwell allowed one railroad grade to be built through his property. The two factions eventually reconciled, Union Pacific assumed control of the project. Culverwell became ‘Calientes’ (the Spanish word for hot) after the hot springs found in a cave at the base of the surrounding mountains. The town was surveyed, and on August 3, 1901, a post office opened and postal officials renamed the town Caliente, dropping the ‘s’. The railroad line was completed in 1905, and by 1910, Caliente was the largest town in Lincoln County with 1,755 residents.”
The Caliente Train Depot, a classic Mission-style building, was built in 1923. Today it houses a museum, library city government offices.