The Strange Burial of “Sport” Watkins

Photo: Nevada Historical Society
Photo: Nevada Historical Society

By Dave Maxwell


Today you would call Sport Watkins an alcoholic. And he was, a confirmed alcoholic, quite serious about it, too.

Sport, which was his nickname, his real first name is lost to history, lived in Pioche around the turn of the 20th century. He was an eccentric character to say the least, the kind who might sit at the bar and drink his whiskey with a spoon.

In the official 1976 Nevada Bicentennial book, Effie Read writes about Sport. “He lived among the hills in Lincoln County,” she notes. “He wasn’t homeless, because he did have an old log cabin at Rose Valley where he was a hired hand for the Devlin Ranch.”

Sport also became a fixture around the streets of Pioche. Read says, “He had a slouch hat to shelter his straggled locks, hat and locks that seemed to have weathered and bleached together. He wore a faded blue shirt and his worn Levis covered a somewhat pointed posterior which someone once described as “So pointed, one could almost hang something on it.”

The days of the gunslingers in old Pioche were long gone by Sport’s time, but he had one anyway. Tucked into the leather belt around his waist to hold his pants up. He had a wooden leg, too, and with each step, his baggy britches would slip up and down, because the wooden leg was a bit shorter than the real one. This in turn, let his red flannel underwear show a little bit and bunch up around his waist.

Sport was not one to work much very long. Did a little mining in the early days, fed cattle in the wintertime, and pumped water for cattle at Fifteen-Mile. One thing, he did do
for a long time, Read writes, was act as night watchman at the Bristol Mine. What made Sport so eccentric was his alcoholism, and he was good at it, yes he was.  Much of the money Sport made, he knew just where to put it. Mrs. Read writes in her article that he would work for a while, but soon, yet again back into his familiar habits, seen wandering the streets of Pioche, going from one saloon to the next. Sport was a very good customer of the saloon, many of them.

He was one of those fall down drunks That’s a skill you have to work at, and Sport did so with great enthusiasm. But it also has it’s drawbacks, and there were times in the winter, Read writes, when Sport, “was so passed out drunk in the gutter with his coat so frozen to the ground it had to be torn from the ice. Every holiday saw him dead drunk.”

He might be a fall down drunk, but he could be a friendly drunk, too, and was known to visit people who lived on the lonely, out-of-the-way ranches, for example, the Fogliani’s in northern Spring Valley.

Knowing Sport’s reputation when each holiday came around, one group of young men, some of whom Sport knew, decided to play a prank on him one 4th of July. The idea was when Sport was dead drunk again, they would have a burial for him.

They got a big crate to serve as a coffin. They gently picked up Sport and laid him in, with a nice pillow for his head. Then they reverently sang, “Nearer My God to Thee.” Sport didn’t move. Next, the men thought they would get some ropes and lower him over an embankment. There are several good ones around Pioche that could serve the purpose. However, as Read writes, “someone decided they should have a grave, or at least a hole for the coffin. So, they delayed the burial long enough to find a nearby outhouse, push it aside a few feet, and lower the coffin into the hole.”

This they did, including putting a few planks over the coffin and dropping a few pebbles on it now and then, “to give Sport a good scare.” And it worked, because Sport woke up and came up out of that coffin with a bang! Read says, “He was screaming, “Get me out of here, I ain’t dead yet. By Gad, Loui!”

Of course, the young pranksters were all over to the side laughing raucously at the success of their scheme. But Sport was still spewing profanities like a veteran miner, or cattle wrangler, or whatever. “You’ll see…” he said. “You, you…You’ll be sorry for this. You’ll see. I’ll live to see every one of you buried. By Gad, Loui!”

And he was right. Sport Watkins did outlive every one of the fellas who pulled the prank on him that 4th of July. One might say, it was a sporting gesture.