Long before the white man, even before the Native American existence in the Meadow Valley of present day Panaca, stood a towering structure of limestone, which today is known as Court Rock.
Just how long it has been there, or even why, is a matter of speculation for geologists. Some have said eons ago it was the site of a large spring, and the hard water lime deposits formed the rock that is seen today.
For the early travelers, and the later settlers of Panaca and the Meadow Valley in the 1860s, it was just something in the way. A landmark to look for, but they did nothing with it, except maybe climb to the top occasionally for a fine panoramic view of the valley.
Meadow Valley, apart from being good farmland, was gold and silver country, too. Settlers came and started a permanent community in 1864.
But not all who flocked in, after the town of Panaca was established and Nevada became a state, were law-abiding citizens. When the mining fields of Colorado and California played out, eastern Nevada is where many went, looking for a fresh start.
Pioche and Bullionville, and others, were the mining towns. And those who came seeking quick riches were not necessarily of American stock. About 25 percent were foreigners, from Europe, Australia, even China. They represented all classes — laborers, professionals, farmers, as well as some of a more undesirable element – drifters, card sharks, gamblers, gun totting outlaws, claim jumpers, on-the-run criminals, Army deserters and more.
Saloons, gambling halls, brothels, and mining supply stores sprang up rapidly, and eagerly accepted the miner’s gold dust as money.
Law enforcement came into existence in the valley after a while, but it had many flaws and drawbacks. When a person was arrested, and before going to before a judge or going to trial, a place was needed for the prisoner to be housed. The jail at the Lincoln County Courthouse did not come about until 1871.
Panaca, in those very early years did not have a proper jail, but it did have Court Rock. Sunk into the face of the rock, predominantly on the west side, with some on the north, are natural caves. With a little effort, and an iron gate, the rock was a fine place to keep the prisoner until their appearance before the county court, or whatever judicial there was at the time.
It is difficult today to know which of the caves were actually used as the jail. There may have been more than one. In one instance, a large room appears to have been hewn out from a cave, with straight, somewhat smooth walls and perpendicular lines. One even has an iron gate on it, that may have served as a cell door.
Nevertheless, in whichever cave, the accommodations were totally rustic. No water or toilet facilities, and no heat in winter. One can only imagine what winter night were like, when the temperature was well below freezing. On the other hand, in summer, it’s possible the coolness of the cave was quite comfortable.
Somewhere in the past, the jail was opened at the County Courthouse, the old Million Dollar courthouse was opened and Court Rock ceased to be used.
In our day, Court Rock is just there, silent to the past it once had, and as it sits right above high school football field, is occasionally still used by some of the locals, and maybe adventurous visitors, as a place to climb and watch the Lynx football game.
It is still a fine place to get an overview of the whole valley, but few do. It can be dangerous, so why try? People have fallen off, although maybe not for a long time, therefore, it is best not to climb the rock anymore and remain safe.
But there is no harm in seeing in your mind’s eye the days when Court Rock did serve as a jail and wonder about the stories it could tell.