ADVENTURER | MATT BROWN
Turn back the clock a century, and Goodsprings was where residents of Las Vegas went for their entertainment and shopping needs, not the other way around. It’s hard to imagine visiting Goodsprings—located about 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas—today, but that’s the beauty of the majority of Nevada’s small towns. There’s still excitement to be found; you just have to know where to find it.
HISTORY OF THE PIONEER SALOON
In Goodsprings, “it” would be the Pioneer Saloon, the last saloon standing—and continuously operating—from the burg’s glory days of the early 1900s. Like so many Nevada towns, Goodsprings owes its existence to a fortuitous combination of railroads and mining. Cattle driver Joseph Good, for whom the town is named, settled in the area in 1868 with aspirations of milling ore.
But it wasn’t until J.F. Kent, who founded the Yellow Pine Mining Company in 1901, that miners saw the real fruits of their labor. Four years later, Las Vegas was founded as a major railroad hub. By 1911, the lines reached Goodsprings, which set the mill town up for its most prosperous era. Although hard to imagine today, at the height of Goodsprings’ success, it boasted 800 residents, a variety of stores, restaurants, churches a theater and nine saloons.
From 1915 to 1925, local mines produced $25 million in ore, according to the aforementioned 1985 story. Lead was the cash-cow mineral, important to the supply of ammunition for both World Wars, as it turned out. There was even an ice cream parlor and car dealership in Goodsprings at one time or another.
“In the teens it was one of the largest cities in Nevada,” says Tom Sheckells, whose father Noel owns the Pioneer Saloon. As he’s explaining the history of the bar and town to us, Tom points to a few bullet holes in the establishment’s tin walls. Under them is a framed article, “Man Killed at Goodsprings.”
In 1915, the saloon was the setting of a deadly game of cards. According to the coroner’s report, which Tom showed us, an out-of-work miner named Paul Coski was shot and killed by Joe Armstrong, after Coski was “caught gambling crooked,” as stated in the report. “Those were the rules of the West: You don’t steal horses, and you don’t cheat at cards,” Tom says.
As far as lore goes, the saloon is more widely known for its association with the Carole Lombard plane crash of January 16, 1942. Lombard, a famous actress, was selling war bonds at the time. During a cross-country flight gone wrong, Lombard, her mother, and several military personnel died in a tragic crash on nearby Mount Potosi (pronounced “poe-ti-see” by locals).
The search party started at Pioneer Saloon, meaning Lombard’s husband, Clark Gable, spent some heart-wrenching days there. Gable sat at the corner of the bar and waited for the search party to come down with the terrible news. Presently, on the wall of an adjacent room to the bar, a piece of the plane, newspaper articles, and other memorabilia from the crash pay tribute to Lombard. If you look closely at the bar counter at the Pioneer Saloon, you will notice some divets in the countertop. These are cigar burns allegedly left by Clark Gable himself, whose lit cigar made several burn marks in the counter while he nodded off waiting for Lombard's search party to return.
By 1966 Don Hedrick Sr. ran the Pioneer Saloon “starting in the wild and woolly 1960s,” according to a 2009 story published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. For the better part of three decades, Hedrick ruled the town—on one hand notorious for his rough-and-gruff demeanor, but on the other well respected among townspeople for keeping order. Hedrick was even rumored to be a prominent member of the Hells Angels. Hedrick’s son took over the Pioneer in the 1990s and cared for it to the best of his ability through the mid-2000s.
When it went up for sale, Tom still remembers the day his father expressed interest in the historic property. “He grabbed me, and we got in the truck and came out here,” Tom recalls. “I was like ‘What are you thinking?’ All the windows were broken out. He said, ‘No…trust me. This is a good place.’”
Some things are just meant to be. Noel Sheckells took over ownership of the Pioneer Saloon in December 2006, reopened the general store, and has even considered rebuilding a small hotel in Goodsprings (for the record, Sheckells says that at its peak the town claimed seven saloons—not nine—five cafés, four brothels, and two mercantile stores).
In 2007, the Pioneer Saloon was added to the State Register of Historic Places. It was an exciting milestone for the unincorporated town of 200, and the Sheckells family has made it a priority that its history be celebrated, not forgotten.
To truly understand just how historic the saloon is, you actually have to go all the way back to the 1860s. At about the time Nevada was admitted to the union (1864), there was a mahogany bar built in Brunswick, Maine. You may recognize the Brunswick name if you’re a fan of billiards.
This bar journeyed by sea from the East Coast, around Cape Horn (before the Panama Canal existed), to San Francisco. From there, it traveled via ox-wagon to Rhyolite, a Nevada mining town that went bust nearly as soon as it boomed in the early 1900s. “They put it back on the wagon and moved it down here, and it’s been sitting here ever since,” Tom says. “What’s crazy is that might be the oldest bar in Nevada,” he continues, as Friday night bar patrons take turns performing karaoke in the background. “It’s close to it, anyway.”
So, if you ever saunter up to the bar in Goodsprings, you’re sitting in close proximity to the same back bar that served the Bullfrog Mining District in its heyday. On a related note, Tom told us about a National Geographic episode of “Diggers” that debuted February 28. For three days, the crew filmed in Goodsprings. Why?
For all these years, customers had been traditionally throwing change over the top of the historic bar. A lot of the change would land on the top, but there is a couple-inch gap between the back bar and the wall. “The coins that went down there, no one had even touched,” Tom says. “All kinds of coins that date to the late 1800s were discovered.” He said this sort of international press helps draw tourists to Goodsprings and the surrounding area.
There’s no doubt that the old saloon will continue to draw tourists for years to come. As cliché as it might sound, it really is the Old West. You throw open the doors, hear your boots knocking on the wooden floors, and you can’t help but take in the history. “It’s like walking into a movie scene,” Tom says. “It really takes you back. You can’t find anything like it.”