In what is now Clark County Nevada, Spanish surveyors in 1775 discovered a canyon along the Colorado River teaming with gold, silver, and lead. Many years after the Spaniards left, United States soldiers from Fort Mojave found placer gold (loose, displaced gold such as those found in riverbeds) almost a century later in 1858. They appropriately named this area along the Colorado River the Eldorado Canyon, or the Golden Canyon. Mining efforts in the region exploded with the attempt to extract all mineral wealth.
In 1861, Mojave Chief Irataba directed a man named John Moss to a silver vein in Eldorado Canyon, who then quickly opened a mine 55 miles north of Fort Mojave near Nelson, Nevada. News spread across the Pacific coast, and the town’s population grew. This mining boom was one of the largest and most successful in Nevada’s history, with mineral wealth valuing tens of millions of dollars extracted in just the first few years.
The Eldorado Canyon quickly gained a reputation for lawlessness and villainy. Disputes over ownership of the mines, management, and hours of labor often turned bloody. A significant journey from major coastal cities in California, the relative isolation of the town further compounded the crime rate by attracting outlaws. A flat bottom river boat occasionally resupplied the town with necessary materials and manufactured goods from southern Arizona, but shipments were sporadic and unreliable. In addition, the nearest sheriffs stationed themselves in Pioche and Hiko, almost 220 miles away. The treacherous route to Eldorado Canyon, prone to Indian and robber attacks, dissuaded sheriffs from patrolling that region, causing locals to form their own posses to enforce justice.
These violent tendencies turned the canyon territory into a hub of disorder with a reputation for crime. The most prominent murder occurred in 1897 when the future namesake of the town, Charles Nelson, was killed by a Paiute Indian named Ahvote after he learned that “a couple of Nelson teamsters were after his squaw.”
In 1905, Nelson, Nevada became the center of mining operations in the canyon. With the construction of a 50-ton smelter, mining boomed more than ever. After lagging for a few decades, mining reemerged in the late 1930s to provide ore for the U.S. military during World War II. By the war’s end, increased labor costs resulted in large layoffs and the eventual closing of the mines. Today, only 35 people live in Nelson.