Alpine County: 150 Years Staying Small

Nevada is celebrating its Sesquicentennial this year, but just over the border, a little over a thousand residents of Alpine County, California are marking a similar milestone.

Markleeville, California. Population 200 or so. Alpine County Seat

MARKLEEVILLE, CA - In 1864 prospectors inspired by Nevada's Comstock Lode believed they'd made a similar find. in the Eastern Sierra.

Population quickly grew into the thousands at what became Silver Mountain City, enough people to petition state officials in Sacramento to create a new county out of parts of three or four others. Alpine County was born.

As it turned out, the new strike did not rival the Comstock. Within a few years the mines gave out and most of the people left.

There were, in the years that followed, other smaller booms and busts, but today Alpine County counts about as many residents as it's had through most of its history. Somewhere around 12 hundred souls, give or take a birth, death or departure.

That works out to about two people per square mile, less crowded, they like to say here, than the state of alaska.

You won't find too many of them in any one place. Markleeville, the county seat, claims 200 and may have less. Nearby Woodfords has 150 and the county's only traffic light.

As you might imagine that small population is the central ingredient in the character and charm of the place.

Rush hour in downtown Markleeville may see minutes pass with nary a car or pedestrian.

It's been pretty much like this through most of Alpine County's 150 years. and people here kind of like it that way.

"It's a great place to live," says Don Jardine, who's lived here since the 1950's and now serves as Chairman of the Board of Supervisors. "it's just wonderful to go outside and look on god's creation. it's just a blessing to live here."

It is, the kind of place where a stranger might stop in the middle of the main drag to ask for directions and chat.

Its courthouse, designed by famed Nevada architect Fredrick De Longchamps and made of local stone, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The general store next door should be.

Rebuilt after a fire in 1885, it still serves its town. If they don't have it here, you don't need it or at least can do without until your next trip down the mountain.

And yes, everybody here pretty much knows everyone else.

"You can't get away with anything in Markleeville," jokes lifelong resident Gary Coyan. "If you go out and get a girlfriend, everyone in town knows about it."

None of this should imply this place is anything but welcoming. Well off major roadways, it's not a place you'd stumble upon, but many seek it out.
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Its colorful Cutthroat Saloon, which once drew crowds of bikers and day trippers, has, to some locals dismay, been gentrified by at outside developer.

It's more sedate these days. No longer a destination itself, but people still come here for the quiet, the scenery and the fishing.

Kirkwood draws skiers in the winter. Grover hot springs just out of town is a year round attraction. And every July 3,500 or so cyclists crowd the town for the annual Markleeville Death Ride.

And today at least they once again had the attention of their representatives in Sacramento and Washington in the form of proclamations marking their 150th anniversary.
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The hope is, in the coming year, a lot of others will come to visit.

A few might even stay awhile, but change is something few here seem to worry about. Incredibly, Gary Coyan is feeling a little hemmed in.

"I wouldn't mind moving somewhere else where it wasn't so crowded," he says.

You live in a town with a hundred people. that's crowded?

"Yeah," he answers.

He's joking, we think, but in Alpine County, it almost rings true.


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