Extreme Isolation in 1870s Ophir, Nevada

Highway 50 across central Nevada is known as “The Loneliest Road in America”, and for good reason. The route crosses vast stretches of empty desert with nothing but a few old mining camps to fill the void. Anyone that has been to Austin, Nevada must have left with the impression that they just visited America’s remotest town.

The degree of remoteness, however, is framed by the time we live in. Although Austin is still an isolated outpost in the Nevada desert, it is connected to civilization by a modern highway, and by phone and internet service.

View of Ophir Canyon from the valley below
View of Ophir Canyon from the valley below

In the 1870’s Austin didn’t even have a railroad. The town was connected to the rest of the world by a rough wagon road and the only communication was by frontier mail service. As remote as Austin was, it was where miners of frontier camps would “go to town” to access goods and services.

Fifty miles south of Austin, deep in the Toiyabe Range, and near the top of Ophir Canyon, sits the ghost town of Ophir, Nevada. The road to Ophir is a long and rugged, even for modern 4×4 vehicles.

Route from Austin to Ophir Nevada
The blue line shows the route from Austin to Ophir, Nevada. Today this drive is over 50 miles – mostly on improved roads. In the 1870s this would have been rough wagon road the entire way

The remains of a few stone structures and log cabins can still be seen at the site. Large sections of hand hewn stone walls of old stamp mill are still standing, a testament to the skill that went into the construction of this impressive structure.

Ophir Nevada - The End of the World in 1870
Ophir, Nevada – the end of the world in 1870

Imagining what life was like in an extremely isolated location like Ophir is difficult. Early structures and mines were built with equipment and materials that were hauled in with pack trains that traveled on primitive wagon roads and trails.

The climate and altitude were too harsh to grow much food, so food had to be shipped over great distances and at high cost. Nevada is known to be desert, but the mountain ranges of Nevada can still get significant amounts of snow, further isolating already remote camps. Ordering goods and materials would need to be done weeks or months in advance.

Remains of the stamp mill at Ophir
Remains of the stamp mill at Ophir

Despite the seemingly impossible circumstances that many of these mining camps were up against, the towns sprang up in remote locations all over the west. Many men and woman would spend their entire lives in one or several of these remote towns.

Some camps would only last a few years or a couple decades. When a town died out, its citizens would often move to the closest town that still had some measure of prosperity, and life would continue much as it was before.

Ophir was the last stop for some pioneers
Ophir was the last stop for some pioneers

In the context of our modern world, life in remote mining camps seems impossibly difficult. However, in some ways frontier life seems much simpler and somehow romantic. If only there was a way to go back in time and see how people lived, and experience it for ourselves – even just for a little while.