NELSON, NEV. — Long before Las Vegas was incorporated in 1905 -- and even longer before the arrival of casinos -- the desolate, inhospitable and therefore unsettled desert of southern Nevada was known for just one thing: its mineral-rich rock. The land is pockmarked with the remains of old gold and silver mines, most of which petered out almost as quickly as they were dug.
The Techatticup mining camp was one of the exceptions, a place where men "chased the vein" for more than 80 years. From 1861 until the start of World War II, men toiled underground in Eldorado Canyon near the hamlet of Nelson, about 40 miles southeast of what's now the Vegas Strip.
Having operated a canoe rental business along the nearby Colorado River for many years, Tony Werly was looking for a fixer-upper -- a place where he could one day retire -- when he and his wife, Bobbie, bought the dilapidated remains of the Techatticup encampment in 1994.
"Everything had fallen apart. There were no doors or windows," Bobbie recalls, adding that the only residents of the ramshackle, trash-strewn buildings were mice and pack rats.
While exploring the 51-acre property, Tony struck his own pay dirt. Two days before closing escrow, he discovered a long-obscured mine entrance, hidden behind mud and rock.
It took the Werlys and their children five years to clear away the muck and to restore the old buildings. Their labors brought the old mine site back to life, creating an unusual tourist attraction. Here, adults and children can enjoy a tour of an actual gold mine and explore the lovingly renovated buildings.
Bill Ferrence, a visitor from nearby Boulder City, Nev., likes that the attraction -- known officially as Eldorado Canyon Mine Tours -- isn't overdeveloped. Folks in search of a burger and fries will have to look elsewhere; all that's sold here are soda and bags of chips.
"It doesn't appear that they're trying to make a living doing what they're doing. They do, but they don't appear that way," Ferrence says of the business, which attracts about 10,000 visitors a year.
Bobbie Werly gives a tour to seventh-graders visiting on a field trip, beginning with a talk about the area's history before leading the kids inside the mountain.
"Everywhere that you'll see has been hand-drilled and totally done by candlelight," she explains. In the early years -- before dynamite reached these parts -- miners using hand tools could chip away only about 3 feet of rock a day.
The ore was turned into gold bars in the camp's smelter and then hauled to the Colorado River to be moved downstream to Yuma, Ariz., and then on to San Francisco by way of the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean.
"This was Nevada's only ocean port," Bobbie says of the period before the construction of several dams ended steamboat traffic on the river.
That, however, isn't nearly as intriguing to most of the students as the fact that Beyonce did a photo shoot here a few months ago. Jaws drop and eyes widen as they're shown the issue of Cosmopolitan in which the pictures appeared.
Bobbie also shows visitors clips from several of the movies filmed here. They include "3000 Miles to Graceland" and "Breakdown." The place has also provided the backdrop for music videos.
Many visitors -- especially youngsters -- experience a chill once inside the mine, a sensation that has nothing to do with the drop in temperature. They're told about the ghost that haunted the miners.
Tony, who has extensively researched the mine's history, shares that the ghost is apparently that of R.B. Jones, an outlaw who shot a foreman at the mine before being hunted down and killed.
"He would come up and walk beside the miners in there," he explains. "It freaked them out.
"When we take Boy Scouts in there, they'll tell you they're not afraid of the dark, but they won't be the first one down the tunnel," Tony adds, with a chuckle.
He explains that the mine owed its longevity not to the huge amounts of gold inside, but to its remote location, which kept the number of willing workers low.
"They only had maybe 40 men down here at a time. The nearest town was 200 miles away," he says. "Not even a killing was a good enough reason to bring the sheriff out here from Pioche [Nev.], 'cause it's a one-week horse ride."
America's entry into World War II in 1941 brought a shift in national priorities and an end to production in Eldorado Canyon.
But, Tony notes, there still is gold in them there hills. "There's $1 million worth of gold in there," he says. "But it'll cost $2 million to get it out.
"[The price of gold] is going to have to go up a lot more to beat the tourism," he says.
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Tours: Offered year-round. Tickets are $12.50 for adults and $7.50 for children 12 and younger. Because tours are limited to 12 people, reservations are essential.
Info: (702) 291-0026, www.eldoradocanyonminetours.com