By Sean Pitts

Sean Pitts is the director of the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Ely, one of seven museums for the State of Nevada.  His career spans 35 years in the history profession.  He is a published in national magazines and trade journals.  He has taught history for twenty nine years at the Ely Center of Great Basin College.  

White Pine County’s original seat of government in Hamilton had passed its heyday.   The once rich silver mines had all but paid out and the earth shaking mills had gone silent with no new ore to process.  Even the bustling streets had become nearly deserted.  The town which once had 24,000 residents and boasted the second highest population in Nevada had dwindled to less than 400 by 1885.  

Fortunately, new discoveries of ore led to the creation of new towns in White Pine County that would maintain the population.  The first to boom was the town of Ward.  Discovered by Thomas F. Ward while Hamilton was in decline in 1872.  A mining district was organized on May 1st, of the same year.    The mines were slow producers until 1875 when the area’s largest discovery was located by Judge Frizel.  The discovery attracted attention of the Martin White Company of San Francisco who gained control of the property.  Within two years the company would invest over $100,000 building a stamp mill (nearly $2.3 million dollars today.)

The production of silver in a remote area became a problem for early miners.  Smelting required intense heat.  Coal, the usual source of heat for furnaces, was not to be found in the area.  Charcoal was known to be a suitable substitute but it had to be manufactured.  Of necessity, six stone charcoal ovens were built and operated between 1876 and 1879.  

The town of Ward developed quickly.  By 1875 it was the largest town in the county with more than 100 residents.  On January 2, 1877 a post office was established.  (It would move five times in the brief history of the town due to multiple fires.)  The same year the town constructed a city hall and Wells Fargo opened an express office.  During that year the town would reach its peak population of 2000 residents.  

Ward was unique in White Pine County, and Nevada for its day.  It attracted a new demographic.  Instead of single miners, families relocated to the town of Ward.  A school district was organized for the town’s many children in 1875 but residents needed a school.  Town officials determined an abandoned brothel could be repurposed and the students had their first school house.  

The lawlessness of other Nevada towns did not sit well with the families who settled in Ward.  In fact, the rough and tumble mining tradition was quickly eliminated.  In 1876 a man named Donohue shot and killed a prominent Ward resident named Lightner.  The next morning, Donohue was found hanging from a tree south of town.  With no town sheriff at the time, the hanging was most likely the work of the 601 Vigilantes.  The name represented “six feet under, no trial, one rope”.  While not operating in a strictly legal sense, the feared reputation of the 601 Vigilantes kept crime low in the town of Ward during its boom years from 1877 until 1879.

It was assumed that Ward would become the new County Seat because it boasted the highest population in the county.  Like its predecessor, the ore gave out and the population began to leave.  By 1879 the production of ore was nearly completed.  Both of the town’s newspapers, the Ward Reflex and the Ward Miner moved or closed.  A fire in 1885 would destroy the school, the city hall, and most of downtown.  

The timing of the fire could not have been worse.  At the very time White Pine County residents were looking for a new County Seat, Ward was a contender.  Unfortunately the fire that ravaged the town removed any possibility of becoming the new center of county government.  A brief revival in the 1930’s and again in the 1960’s were not enough to reestablish the town.  Today visitors can still enjoy the Willow Creek Ranch and the spectacularly preserved Ward Charcoal Ovens State Park.

Next time:  

A New Hope for the County’s Home.