Saturday, December 29, 2007

Art Blooms in the Desert

In 1984, Belgian artist Charles Albert Szukalski found the Nevada ghost town of Rhyolite. A well known artist in Europe, he was attracted to the area's open desert landscape.

He decided to move to nearby Beatty and began fashioning a life-size plaster and fiberglass version of Leonardo Da Vinci's famous "Last Supper" painting. Using shrouds covered with the plaster mixture, he crafted a ghostly re-creation of the work.

The work was built atop a hill overlooking the town but within a short time vandals destroyed several of the figures. Szukalski decided to purchase eight acres on the edge of Rhyolite and relocated the figures to his property.

He restored the work and added other sculptures, such as “Ghost Rider,” a shrouded ghost figure holding a bicycle, as well as “Desert Flower,” a twisted mass of shiny chrome sprouting from the ground.

He invited other artists to join him to create an outdoor gallery on his property. Within a few years, Szukalski’s pieces had been joined by Andre (Dre) Peeters’ “Icara,” a giant wooden sculpture based on the Greek myth about Icarus, and Fred Devoets’ “Tribute to Shorty Harris,” a large metal outline of a prospector and a penguin.

The latter is said to have been included because the artist felt out of place in the desert—just as a penguin would.

In 1992, Dr. Hugo Heyrman added “Lady Desert: The Venus of Nevada,” a massive pink, cinder block woman that looks like a huge Lego creature. Local artist David Spicer offered “Chained to the Earth,” a stone monolith with holes that represents, in his words, “the inseparability of man and woman, and the need for humankind to come back to earth.”

Following Szukalski’s death in 2000, his outdoor art garden and land was donated to a non-profit organization, the Goldwell Open Air Museum (, to maintain the pieces and develop art programs. The museum is located about 4 miles west of Beatty, on the road leading to Rhyolite.

It's all pretty surreal and interesting. Check it out.

Monday, December 24, 2007

When Roads Had Names—Not Numbers

In recent years, Nevada officials have created “the Loneliest Road in America” (U.S. 50) as well as the “Extraterrestrial Highway” (State Route 375). The designation recalls an old custom when Nevada’s highways were named, not numbered.

During the early part of this century, highways, and their colorful names, were promoted by private auto clubs and car manufacturers that helped build the roads.

The highway names—such as Lincoln, Victory, and Coast-to-Coast—provided the roads with a measure of personality and character that is somehow lacking when roads are simply known as “I-80” or “395.”

In the 1930s, however, highway names were thought to be too confusing, so federal officials introduced numbered routes.

Our loss.

The following are some of the more descriptive names once given to Nevada’s highways.

So head out on one of those roads with a boring number--such as U.S. 6--roll down the window, and think back to the time when you would have been cruising the Grand Army of the Republic Highway.

Now that’s a name.

1. Lincoln Highway: America’s first coast-to-coast road was the Lincoln Highway, which in Nevada paralleled the old Pony Express Trail and today’s U.S. 50. The road commemorated President Abraham Lincoln and stretched 3,300 miles from New York City to San Francisco. When the Lincoln Highway was established in 1913, it was declared to be “open to lawful traffic of all descriptions without toll charges, and to be of concrete wherever practicable.”

2. Victory Highway: A rival of the Lincoln Highway, the Victory Highway, as it was named after World War I, largely followed the Emigrant Trail through Elko, Winnemucca, and other Northern Nevada towns. Later called U.S. 40, the Victory evolved into Interstate 80.

3. Three Flags Highway: This north-south arterial followed present-day U.S. 395. The name referred to the fact that the route passed through three countries—Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.

4. Theodore Roosevelt Highway: This highway name for U.S. 6 honored the 26th president. The March/April 1939 issue of Nevada Highways and Parks noted that the “Roosevelt Highway enters Nevada from Delta, Utah, as an earth road.”

5. Grand Army of the Republic Highway: In the mid-1920s, this elegant title, honoring the Civil War-era Union Army, was bestowed on the byway that crossed the state from the California border near Boundary Peak to the Utah line near Baker. The route is today’s U.S. 6.

6. Bonanza Highway: Meandering along Nevada’s western edge, this roadway followed most of today’s U.S. 95. The Bonanza was so named because it passed through many mining towns, including Tonopah and Goldfield.

7. International Four States Highway: Quite a mouthful, this name was given to the Eastern Nevada route that is now U.S. 93. The road, also called the Pan-Pacific Highway, weaved 1,500 miles through Montana, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona.

8. Arrowhead Trail: Crossing Southern Nevada, this highway generally followed what was later known as U.S. 91 and now Interstate 15. Conceived by Las Vegas promoters, it was built by volunteers and supported by chambers of commerce in towns along the trail.

9. National Shortcut Highway: The name said it all. This highway provided a direct link between Omaha, Nebraska, and Las Vegas. Like the Arrowhead Trail, it followed the path of today’s I-15.

10. Winnemucca-to-the-Sea Highway: In the 1960s, Winnemucca citizens revived the custom of naming roads when they gave this sobriquet to the completed highway, via State Route 140, from Winnemucca to the coastal town of Crescent City, California. In commemoration, a sizable redwood-tree slab stands in front of the convention center where the Winnemucca-to-the-Sea route meets the old Victory Highway.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Nevada's Clever Town Slogans

I've always enjoyed those catchy, sometimes-clever slogans that cities use to distinguish themselves. For instance, Gilroy, California is the "Garlic Capital of the World" while Chicago is "The City with Big Shoulders."

Over the years, Nevada's cities, too, have adopted various colorful slogans to help set them apart from other communities. Undoubtedly the most famous is Reno's "Biggest Little City in the World" slogan, which has appeared on several different archways spanning Virginia Street, starting in 1929.

While the art of sloganeering seems to have dried up the following are some of the more interesting town slogans used over the years in the Silver State.

"Cattle Kingdom in the Copper Hills" - This descriptive phrase was used to promote the Western Nevada city of Yerington for several decades. It said everything you needed to know about Yerington, namely that it was a cattle-raising area that also had a thriving copper mining industry. A classic billboard, which carried the slogan, stood at the entrance to the town from the 1960s to the early 1990s, when it was, sadly, destroyed in a wind storm and not replaced.

"America's Valley of the Nile" - The Northern Nevada community of Lovelock used this unusual claim during the 1930s. It meant that the Lovelock, despite sitting in the desert, was an agricultural mecca—ala the real Valley of the Nile in Egypt. Additionally, one of the area's largest ranches was the Nile Ranch—so it was intended as a kind of play on words.

"Rose City of the Silver State" - Caliente in Eastern Nevada began using this nickname after World War II when residents planted rose bushes throughout the town to honor fallen veterans. A Rose Memorial Park was established, which is still maintained by the town.

"Gateway to Hoover Dam" - Just as Reno had its famed arch, in the mid-1930s, Las Vegas' Fremont Street was home of an arch that carried this proud claim. The slogan was concise and direct.

"City of Destiny" - Las Vegas has always reinvented itself and from 1937 to 1938, this slogan found its way into the city's promotional efforts. It meant that Las Vegas was a city on the move—progressive, growing and dynamic. It could still be used today.

"Still A Frontier Town" - In the late 1940s, Las Vegas embraced this term, which appeared on postcards and advertisements. The slogan reinforced the modern-yet-western image the city had adopted, which was best seen at resorts such as the western-themed New Frontier and El Rancho.

"Chicago of the West" - In the early part of the 20th century, the tiny Southeastern Nevada community of Beatty was frequently referred to by this name in newspaper reports because, as the gateway to the booming mining town of Rhyolite, it was served by three railroads.

"Pittsburgh of the West" - In the 1880s, the Central Nevada mining town of Eureka was graced with this less-than-flattering description because of the presence of many smoke-belching mills. The town's poor air quality is a reoccuring theme in many newspaper accounts of that era.

"Loneliest Town on the Loneliest Road" - Showing that the fine art of inventing slogans isn't completely gone, in the 1980s, Eureka (formerly only known for its Pittsburgh-like bad air) adopted this phrase to capitalize on its location on U.S. 50, which is known "the Loneliest Road in America." The slogan appears on billboards outside of the town and in promotional advertising. It appears to have worked since the town hasn't seemed too lonely recently.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Kit Carson Trail - Part 2

"The Shootist" House

Following the distinctive blue line that marks Carson City's Kit Carson Trail, one can't help being impressed by the richness in design and architecture found in the community's historic buildings.

Several years ago, Carson City initiated an innovative promotion called the Kit Carson Trail, which encourages people to follow a 2.5 mile trail, marked on sidewalks with a blue line, through the city's most historic neighborhoods.

The second half of the trail includes many of the most historic and prestigious houses and structures on the tour.

One noteworthy home is the T.B. Rickey house (512 Mountain), which predates the adjacent Governor's Mansion by nearly 40 years. The original portion of this brick and white wood home was built in 1870 by a local banker, who later donated the land for the Governor's Mansion (built in 1909).

Nearby is the Krebs-Peterson House (500 N. Mountain), a classic Victorian built in 1914 by Ernest Krebs Sr., a prominent surgeon, and owned later by State Controller Edward Peterson The two-story home was prominently featured in the movie, "The Shootist," which was actor John Wayne's last movie.

A half block south is the Sadler house (310 N. Mountain), built in 1878. Originally owned by Edward Niles, paymaster and ticket agent for the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, this elegant house was later owned by Reinhold Sadler, Nevada's governor from 1896 to 1902.

A few blocks away is the Stewart-Nye residence (108 N. Minnesota), built in 1860 for William Morris Stewart, first U.S. Senator for Nevada. The sandstone home was sold in 1862 to James Nye, who served as Nevada's only Territorial Governor. Today, it serves as offices for a local law firm.

Another impressive sandstone building is the two-story Edwards House (204 N. Minnesota). Built in 1883 by Thomas Edwards, the home was reputedly constructed by state prisoners, causing a scandal. Despite the allegations of impropriety, Edwards had served as sheriff and county clerk, and later a U.S. Commissioner and clerk to the U.S. District Court. Note the unusual two-story bay windows.

Two fine examples of early 20th century architecture are the multi-gabled Springmeyer house (302 N. Minnesota) and Dr. S. Lee home (304 N. Minnesota). The former was constructed by H.H. Springmeyer in 1908, then was home to former Governor Charles Russell and his family from 1960 to 1975. The latter was built in 1906 by a local surgeon.

Of particular historic significance this year is the G.W.G. Ferris house (311 W. Third), built in 1869. This home was built by famed agriculturist George Washington Gale Ferris, who resided there for many years with his son. The latter went on to invent the Ferris Wheel.

Other noteworthy buildings on the second half of the trail include:

The former Carson Brewing Company building (449 W. King), built in 1864. This fine brick structure was home of "Tahoe Beer" for nearly a century and once housed the Nevada Appeal's offices. Today, it is home of the Brewery Arts Center.

The Roberts House (1207 N. Carson), built in Washoe City in 1859, then moved on railroad flat bed to Carson City in 1873.

The Carson City Auditorium (813 N. Carson), built in 1939. This WPA project served as the library and community center for many years and is now the Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada.

The St. Charles-Muller Hotel (302-304 S. Carson), built in 1862. The hotel was originally the main stage stop in Carson City and one of the state's most elegant hotels. It is also one of the oldest commercial buildings still in use in the city.

For more information on the Kit Carson Trail, contact the Carson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-NEVADA-1.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Kit Carson Trail - Part 1

Bliss Mansion

Several years ago, the Carson City Convention and Visitors Authority developed the Kit Carson Trail to promote the Capital City's rich history. The 2.5 mile walking tour through Carson City's west side passes dozens of notable historic homes and buildings.

Emulating Boston's Freedom Trail, which is marked by a brick trail through that historic community, the Kit Carson Trail's path is a bright, blue line painted on sidewalks through the city's most historic neighborhoods.

A walking tour map, available from the convention and visitors bureau office, describes the trail.

Additionally, several of the houses tell their stories. When you stand or park your car in front of any of them and tune a radio to AM 1020 or AM 1040 you can hear recordings telling the history of the two closest homes. The map indicates "talking" houses.

The first 13 places listed in the Kit Carson Trail brochure include the city's most historic government buildings and landmarks including the State Capitol, built between 1870-71, the former State Printing Building, built in 1885-86, the former U.S. Mint (now the Nevada State Museum), built in 1869 and the Governor's Mansion, completed in 1909.

From the state government complex of buildings, the blue line leads to the city's historic churches, largely clustered in the vicinity of Division Street, between King and Telegraph.

These include St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church (completed in 1871), St. Peter's Episcopal Church (opened in 1868), the First United Methodist Church (1865) and the First Presbyterian Church (1864). The latter is considered the oldest church building still in service in the state while the Methodist Church is the state's oldest religious congregation, established in 1859.

From the churches, the blue line leads into the city's historic residential neighborhoods. The houses range from the modest—such as the 1862 Smail House (512 N. Curry), which is considered a fine example of Greek revival architecture—to the elaborate, like Henry M. Yerington's Victorian home, built in 1863, once home of the superintendent of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad.

Other noteworthy abodes on the trail include: the Alfred Chartz House (412 N. Nevada), built in 1876, and named for a renowned 19th century Nevada lawyer; the Abe Curry House, an unusual sandstone home built in 1871 by the city's founder (using stone from the state prison quarry); and the Frank Norcross House, built in 1906 by a former Nevada Supreme Court Justice (and later owned by former U.S. Senator Paul Laxalt).

One of the most historically significant buildings is the Orion Clemens house (502 N. Division), built in 1863 by the first and only secretary of the Nevada Territorial.
Orion Clemens was the brother of Samuel Clemens, better known as writer Mark Twain. The latter began his writing career at Virginia City's legendary "Territorial Enterprise" newspaper and occasionally stayed in the house in 1864.

The 1886 William Stewart House (503 W. Robinson), named for Nevada's first U.S. Senator, was actually the second home he had constructed in Carson City. It later served as a hospital.

A more recent structure that is architecturally significant is the Dr. William Cavell House (402 W. Robinson). Built by a local dentist in 1907, the house was one of the first in the city to have indoor gas and electricity.

Another striking home is the Bender House (707 W. Robinson), a white, two-story structure with a wonderful round porch. The home was built in 1867 and is named for David A. Bender, a V & T Railroad official, who owned it from 1873 to 1901.

Across the street is the magnificent Bliss Mansion (710 W. Robinson), a 15-room home built in 1879 by lumber magnate Duane L. Bliss. The house is now a bed and breakfast inn.

More about the trail in the next posting.

(For more information about the Kit Carson Trail, contact the Carson City Visitors & Convention Authority, 1-800-NEVADA-1).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Churchill County Museum Has the Goods

It’s amazing how much of Nevada’s history is associated with the Fallon region.

Within a few miles of the community are such historically significant places as Hidden Cave, the Pony Express route, the 40-Mile Desert and the Newlands Water Project.

Fortunately, the Churchill County Museum in Fallon tells the stories of these places and the role each played in the state’s development.

For instance, prior to the arrival of white settlers in the late 19th century, there was a plethora of prehistoric activity in the area. Displays in the 14,000 square-foot building describe these early people as well as the landscape, which was considerably different from today.

Until about 12,000 years ago, much of the region was covered by an ancient inland sea, now called Lake Lahontan. Archaeologists at Hidden Cave have uncovered fossils and artifacts dating as far back as 21,000 years.

The museum offers exhibits detailing excavations of Hidden Cave and offers guided tours of the site on the second and fourth Saturday of each month.

A related children’s exhibit allows kids to dig in sand for hidden artifacts such as arrowheads, spear points, an axe head, and other items.

Adjacent displays focus on the Native American culture of the area with special emphasis on the art of making tule baskets and duck decoys. Some baskets in the museum’s collection were woven more than a century ago.

Additionally, a large hut constructed of tule reeds has been carefully reconstructed to show the traditional Paiute lifestyle.

Wandering through the museum’s main building (the complex consists of several structures), you pass other exhibits describing other important historical events.

One large display is filled with relics from the dreaded 40-mile Desert, a stretch of the Emigrant Trail that was considered the hardest portion of the entire journey because of the lack of water and vegetation.

If you look closely, you can find wagon parts, a rusting waffle iron, horseshoes, wooden roller skates, pans, cow skulls and an assortment of other things left in the desert by pioneers struggling to make the trek.

Fallon was also located on the famed Pony Express route (although the mail trail predates the town by a half-century) and there are displays describing Pony Express stations in the region as well as the development of the Overland Telegraph (which replaced the riders).

The Churchill County Telephone and Telegraph System, which remains the nation’s only county-owned telephone company, eventually absorbed the old telegraph lines.

The museum also contains a display telling the history of the Newlands Water Project, the first federal reclamation project in 1902. This irrigation system created the nearby Lahontan Reservoir, which provides the water for area farmers.

In another part of the museum, visitors can wander by various rooms that recreate early Fallon home life. For example, there is a replica of a typical turn-of-the-century kitchen complete with period stove, table, pots, pans and canned goods.

Glass display cases scattered throughout the building contain a wide variety of antiques such as an extensive old-time camera collection, carnival glass (popular from 1905-30), firearms, rare purple glass, quilts and office equipment.

Outside the main museum building, you can find a number of unique displays that further illustrate the area's history.

There are samples of ancient Indian petroglyphs (rock writings) and the restored Woodliff Novelty Store, once a well-known Fallon business that served the local community over a century ago.

Upon request, docents will open the old store, which has been reconstructed to include portions of the original Hazen post office as well as items preserved from the Kolhoss Store, a general store that operated for many years in Fallon.

Reflecting the area's abundant agricultural roots, there is also a large collection of farming equipment, including a 1903 Case Steam Traction engine.

The museum annex contains a large assortment of horse buggies as well as a replica of a 19th century blacksmith shop, a saddle collection, fire engines and a 1909 steam road roller that was used to build Lahontan Dam.

The museum has a small gift shop that offers postcards, maps, historic photos and a nice collection of historic books about Nevada.

The Churchill County Museum is located at 1050 S. Maine Street in Fallon. The museum is open daily (except Thursday). Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 12 to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information call 775-423-3677.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Lahontan Dam Transformed Nevada

Near the start of the 20th century, the Lahontan Reservoir was looked upon as the way to transform the dry Nevada landscape into a paradise.

Lahontan’s story begins in 1889, when the United States Geological Survey conducted several studies to determine the practicality of irrigating large portions of the American West. One of the regions considered was Western Nevada, near the location of modern-day Fallon.

In 1902, the United State Bureau of Reclamation was created expressly to build projects that would transport water to dry and dusty parts of the West, including Nevada.

Among the first five projects selected for construction by the new agency was the Truckee-Carson Project, which later became known as the Newlands Reclamation Project, in honor of U.S. Senator Francis G. Newlands of Nevada, author of the 1902 National Reclamation Act.

The project was grand in scope, involving the construction of 104 miles of canals, 504 miles of laterals and 335 miles of open ditches—all designed to move water from the Truckee and Carson rivers to a dry spot in the desert that would be transformed into an oasis.

Work began on the project in 1903 with the building of the Truckee Canal and the Derby Diversion Dam, which divert water from the Truckee River (at a point about 32 miles east of Reno) to Fallon.

Construction continued for nearly 15 years, with other elements added such as the Carson River Diversion Dam (1905), the Lahontan Power Plant (1911), the Lake Tahoe Dam sluiceway (1913) and the Lahontan Dam, completed in 1914.

The latter was the most impressive single structure. It is an earthen dam measuring about 120 feet high and 1,300 feet wide. Curving concrete spillways, which look like giant steps, were built at each end and a massive concrete outlet tower was built in front of the dam.

Water from the spillways flows into a 220-foot pool on the opposite side of the reservoir and from there the water falls back into the Carson River, with a portion diverted to a small electrical powerhouse.

Both the dam and the powerhouse haven’t changed much in the past 80 years. The dam has many unique early 20th century architectural touches, such as the row of old-fashion light posts lining the top of the dam and the intricate concrete arch and metalwork on the suspension footbridge leading to the outlet tower.

The powerhouse is a substantial stone and concrete structure on the river’s edge that houses three generators. Completed before the dam, it supplied hydroelectric power for the machinery used to build the dam. Today, it provides power to the surrounding area.

The original supporters of the Newlands Project were extremely bullish about its prospects, predicting that when completed it would irrigate more than 400,000 acres. The estimates proved overly optimistic as only about 70,000 acres are irrigated by the project.

The 100,000-acre reservoir, however, surpassed expectations in terms of recreational uses. At 23 miles long, it has about 70 miles of shoreline and can retain 320,000 acre-feet of water (an acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to cover an acre of land with a foot of water).

Operated by the Nevada Division of State Parks, the reservoir regularly accommodated nearly a half-million people each year—and most of them seemed to be there on the July 4 weekend. It has more than two dozen beaches with picnicking and swimming as well as 50 camping sites with a dump stations, drinking water and boating launching facilities.

The name, Lahontan, is derived from the name given to the prehistoric lake that once covered much of Nevada and honors Baron de Lahontan, a famous 19th century French explorer.

The Lahontan Recreation Area is located nine miles west of Fallon (or about 45 miles east of Carson City via U.S. 50).

For more information, check out

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Forgotten Fletcher

While the tiny community of Fletcher never boasted more than a handful of residents, it played an important role in the development of business and commerce in the region.

The remains of Fletcher can be found at the intersection of Lucky Boy Pass Road and Aurora Road, about 18 miles southwest of Hawthorne.

Fletcher's heyday—if it can truly be said to have had one—was from about 1883 to 1919. The completion of the Carson & Colorado Railroad to Hawthorne in 1881 provided the impetus for the creation of a way station at the confluence of the road from Aurora and the road leading to Hawthorne.

This crossroad location also happened to boast a vigorous natural spring, which was certainly an advantage in this relatively dry landscape. In 1881, a stage stop was established to connect the thriving mining camp of Aurora, six miles to the south, with the rail line at Hawthorne.

A post office was located at the settlement in 1883 and the intersection took its name from H. D. Fletcher, the first postmaster.

The community's fortunes ebbed and flowed with the successes and failures of mining efforts in Aurora. The post office was opened sporadically over the years, then closed for good on November 30, 1918, when Hawthorne was designated the mail address for its patrons.

The small community of Fletcher quietly slipped into obscurity after the loss of the post office. Ranchers continued—and continue to this day—to utilize water from the spring for livestock, but any permanent residents picked up and moved on.

Today, Fletcher is little more than a wide spot in the road. After driving across miles of flat, dry high desert, you can find Fletcher because it's the only green area around. Tall cottonwoods and poplars, lush green grass, marshy ground and thick foliage attest to the life-giving benefits of the spring.

Indeed, water continues to rush from the spring, funneled through a plastic pipe and into a flat, green meadow that is attractive to local cows. Overflow from this stream of water collects in a small pond, which is thick with cattails and grasses.

Remnants of past settlement remain. Crumbling, hand-piled rock walls indicate the former site of a corral while a locked iron door hints at the hidden things within a stone cellar in a hillside—the only real building still standing.

All around is the refuse of the past; warped wooden boards, rusted metal barrel rims, barbed wire and other castoffs. A U.S. Geological Survey marker indicates this was once someplace—but today few would know where and what and why.

And beware of the few remaining residents of Fletcher. In addition to the cows and the occasional wild horse, the rattler is the most prominent boarder. During a recent visit, we spotted one quietly snoozing within the rotted, hollowed center of a fallen tree.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Fairview's Faults

For six months in 1954, central Nevada was violently shaken by a series of earthquakes that literally changed the shape of the land. Between July 6 and December 16, six quakes shook west central Nevada and eastern California.

The biggest of the temblors, which occurred a little after 3 a.m. on December 16, registered 7.3 on the Richter Scale (for comparison, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was 7.8). It was felt over an area of more than 200,000 square miles.

The epicenter of the quake was seven miles west of U.S. 50, at a spot east of Fairview Peak (about 40 miles east of Fallon). Four minutes later, the area was rocked again by an aftershock that measured 6.9.

The effect of the twin quakes was spectacular surface ruptures and cracks in the nearby valley as well as significant shifts in elevation. Nearly 50 miles of faulting was exposed on Fairview Peak and in the Dixie Valley and Clan Alpine Range to the northwest.

Scientists’ estimate that in some places the mountains rose more than 20 feet relative to the surrounding valleys (although rises of six-feet were more common).

Fortunately, the area most affected by the quakes was sparsely populated so property damage was minimal and no one was injured. U.S. 50 experienced some cracking and buckling and, in one fifty-foot section, the roadway dropped more than five feet.

In Fallon, the closest community of any size, there were a few cracked and toppled chimneys. At the Newlands Project, the series of canals and ditches that transport water to the Lahontan Reservoir, there were reports of several breaks and leaks.

Sacramento, located about 200 miles west, the shock wave apparently caused an estimated $20,000 in damage to a large underground water tank at the city’s filtration plant.

Today, it’s still possible to see traces of the tremendous geological shifting that occurred during the 1954 quakes in the vicinity of Fairview Peak and Dixie Valley.

A road sign on U.S. 50, east of Frenchman’s Flat, points you south to a dirt road that leads to an interpretive display describing the quakes. In fact, if you walk a quarter-mile west of the interpretive sign you can find the exposed fault line.

If you continue on the dirt road, you can see additional fault scarps (places where the ground has been pushed higher than the surrounding area) as well as other faults, which resemble crude trenches dug in the hillside.

The interpretive sign explains that earthquakes basically occur when pressure builds under the earth’s crust and is suddenly released. Portions of the crust will bend or, when the stress exceeds the strength of the surface, break and snap into a new position.

As great as the Fairview/Dixie Valley quakes were, they weren’t the biggest in Nevada’s history. The U.S. Geological Service ranks Nevada as among the most seismically active states.

The earliest recorded earthquake in the state occurred in 1851 near Pyramid Lake. According to later newspaper articles, great cracks opened near the lake and water spouted 100 feet into the air.

The strongest recorded earthquake happened in October 1915, when three temblors in a seven-hour period rattled most of northern Nevada. The biggest shock, with a magnitude of 7.75, struck the Pleasant Valley (north of Winnemucca), and caused damage to homes in Lovelock and Winnemucca. More than 100 aftershocks followed during the next few weeks.

An earthquake of about the same magnitude as that of Fairview Peak (7.3) occurred near Cedar Mountain (near Gabbs) on December 20, 1932. Two cabins were reported destroyed by the quake and a handful of chimneys collapsed on homes in Mina, Luning, and Hawthorne.

For more information about earthquakes in Nevada, including tips on how to cope with one, check out the University of Nevada Reno Seismological Laboratory web site at www.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Historic Kingston Canyon

On many road maps, Central Nevada seems to consist of the town of Austin—and lots of empty space. But hidden in the canyons, mountains and valleys, explorers can find dozens of historic sites and natural attractions.

In fact, Kingston Canyon, located 27 miles southeast of Austin, is one of the most beautiful of central Nevada's lesser known scenic gems. To reach the site, travel 17 miles east on U.S. Highway 50 to State Route 376, then south for about four miles to Kingston Creek Road, which leads into the canyon.

At the mouth of Kingston Canyon, you'll pass through a relatively developed area consisting of a dozen ranch homes and a few larger buildings, including a general store and church. Just past the newer development, to the right, you'll spot the last remnants of Kingston, a mid-19th century mining camp.

Perhaps the best ruin is the former Victorine Mill, which consists of fairly substantial stone walls and large timbers. Around the mill site, there are also the scattered foundations and walls of other structures no longer identifiable.

From here, you can start driving up on a maintained dirt road into Kingston Canyon. The canyon walls offer some impressive rock formations and classic Nevada pinion and sagebrush landscape.

The road rises above the surrounding Big Smoky Valley—offering a wonderful view—into the Toiyabe Range. About a mile from the canyon entrance, you reach the rustic Kingston Forest Campgrounds, operated by the National Forest Service.

A bit farther is a pretty, small reservoir, a popular local fishing spot. From here, the road curves around Bunker Hill (the 11,474-foot-high peak to the north) and rides the crest of the Toiyabe range for a few miles, paralleling Kingston Creek.

The scenery here is incredible; to the west you can see the beauty of the Reese River Valley, while to the east is the spectacular Big Smoky. A few miles ahead, Kingston Creek becomes Big Creek and the road reaches the Big Creek Forest Campground, a relatively undeveloped back country campsite.

The road continues northwest from the campground, dropping down into the Reese River Valley at a point about ten miles south of Highway 50 and Austin.

Records indicate that silver and gold were discovered in the Kingston area in the early 1860s. A small camp, originally called Bunker Hill, was established and existed for about two years.

In 1864, Kingston was staked near the entrance of the canyon to be closer to the mines. Several mills were built, including the massive Victorine, and, because of the availability of water from the creek, a number of crops were planted, including grapes (which apparently did not flourish).

By the end of the decade, it became obvious that the Kingston ore wasn't as rich as originally believed and the town began to decline. The mills were dismantled and moved to other locations.

Kingston's mines were reworked several times in later years, including in the 1880s and at the turn-of-the-century. Today, the area remains a sleepy ranching hamlet with a handful of businesses. In recent years, retirees have discovered Kingston and begun moving into the area.

For more information contact the Austin Chamber of Commerce, Box 212, Austin, NV 89310, 775-964-2200,

Monday, October 08, 2007

Sutro's Dream

In the mid-19th century, Virginia City’s mining industry helped spur a number of technological and engineering breakthroughs like square-cut timbering, thick woven metal cable and—perhaps the most audacious—Adolph Sutro’s tunnel.

At that time, one of the industry’s biggest challenges was how to remove scalding hot water that seeped into the mines and made it impossible to work.

To cope, mining companies resorted to ingenious solutions such as dropping giant blocks of ice into the shafts, limiting the amount of time miners could work underground and developing some of the world’s largest pumps to remove the water.

However, a Prussian immigrant named Adolph Sutro concocted perhaps the most ambitious plan. While only 30 years old, Sutro had already operated a successful mercantile business in San Francisco before heading to Nevada in 1860 to improve his fortunes.

After learning about the challenges facing Virginia City mine owners, he had an inspiration—build a long tunnel deep beneath the mines, then link the shafts to the tunnel so that hot water could easily and safely be drained from them.

Additionally, he thought that the tunnel would be an easier and cheaper way to move the ore from the mines to the mills, many of which were located on the Carson River.

His tunnel would stretch more than 20,000 feet from its entrance, located east of present-day Dayton, to the first connection at the Savage Mine. He also envisioned the development of a whole town, named Sutro, to serve as the focus point for the tunnel.

In the early 1860s, Sutro pitched his tunnel idea to the mining companies, who were initially supportive. In 1865, the Nevada State Legislature granted him authority to drill a four-mile long tunnel into Mount Davidson.

He persuaded a number of the Comstock Lode’s largest mines to agree to pay a fee for each ton of ore transported through the tunnel.

But opposition arose, primarily from officials of the powerful Bank of California, who feared his tunnel might break their monopoly on the milling and transporting of Virginia City’s ore. As a result, it would take Sutro another three years to line up financing for the tunnel.

Finally, on October 19, 1869, work began on Sutro's hole. Nearly nine years later, on July 8, 1878, the tunnel was completed. It cost $3.5 million and stretched more than 20,000-feet from the mouth, located just east of Dayton, to the first connection at the Savage Mine.

Unfortunately for its investors, who were mostly European, the tunnel was completed about the time that Virginia City’s mines had begun to decline. While it served its original purpose, it was never the moneymaker that Sutro envisioned and never paid for itself.

Sutro was probably aware of this since he quietly unloaded his stock in the venture—making more than a million dollars in profit—shortly after the tunnel was completed.

He successfully invested his funds in real estate in San Francisco, eventually becoming mayor of that city.

The town of Sutro had a similar fate. Established in 1870, it never lived up to Sutro’s expectations that it would eventually be larger and more important than Virginia City.

Sutro peaked in 1876 when it had a population of nearly 800 people, a school, a church, its own newspaper, and Sutro’s impressive two-story Victorian house. After the tunnel opened, the town’s population actually declined as the amount of business generated through the tunnel didn’t support such a large community.

Sutro’s grand mansion managed to survive until 1941, when it was destroyed by fire.
Today, only a handful of privately owned buildings including several barns, a large drainage pond, a few ore carts, an old wagon, some rusted rails and a handful of houses mark the former site of Sutro.

The foundations of Sutro’s mansion can be found in the sagebrush on the hillside above the tunnel. An interesting aspect of the house was the fact that thick cables, which can still be seen, were attached to the house to keep it from being blown over by the area’s often-fierce winds.

A few years ago, the area around the tunnel’s entrance experienced extensive damage after excessive rain caused a cave-in. While the whitewashed, brick archway entrance remains standing, the stretch of tunnel directly behind the opening has collapsed, sealing off the tunnel from the outside world.

Note that Sutro’s Tunnel sits on private land and is not open to the public without permission from the property owners.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Forgotten Belmont Mill

The mining camp of Belmont Mill in White Pine County (not to be confused with the better-known mining town of Belmont, in Nye County) is often so forgotten that it doesn’t even show up in most ghost town guide books.

Of course, perhaps because of this lack of attention, Belmont Mill has managed to remain one of the better-preserved early 20th century mining camps.

Belmont Mill can trace its roots to the famed White Pine County mining boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1915, the Tonopah-Belmont Development Company began developing a mine and mill in the area, which is about seven miles southwest of the mining town of Hamilton (now a ghost town).

Records indicate that despite the considerable investment—Belmont Mill was set up as a company town—the mines proved to be marginal and the camp was abandoned after about a decade of mining.

Perhaps because the mining company owned nearly everything at Belmont Mill, much of it remains fairly intact.

For instance, the main mining mill building is quite impressive, sitting on a hillside overlooking a narrow canyon. The structure is substantial, constructed of thick metal sheets attached to a sturdy wooden frame. It is obvious that the builders intended for this structure to last.

Peeking inside the main building—be careful not to touch anything or go inside because the wooden floors don't appear safe—you can still see the milling equipment and a variety of other mining paraphernalia.

You can also still find large elevated wooden bins filled with rocks on the south side of the mill. Apparently, these carts served as counter-weights to lift the ore containers to the top of the mill, where the precious dirt and rocks were dumped into the mill for processing.

Also intact is an aerial tramway (which resembles the kind of aerial lift you find at a Lake Tahoe ski resort) that runs through the center of the building and stretches a quarter-mile or so up the hillside to several dig sites. The tram's thick support cable, while rusted after decades of neglect, still looks like it could haul a fair bit of ore.

If you walk alongside the tram, up the hill, you can get a great view of the mill and surrounding area. Nearby are several of the area's once-lucrative mines, which included such colorfully named shafts as the Dog Star, Jenny A. and Mary Ellen.

Again, be cautious about exploring the area because mine shafts are dangerous.
To the rear of the mill are rusted ore cart rails, which lead to an area where the processed ore was dumped into cargo containers and transported to a refinery.

Adjacent to the large mill structure are other metal buildings, including the original office, as well as a boarding house (still boasting metal bed frames) and a machine shop, which contains some larger tools and assorted pieces of equipment.

All of the buildings are posted with signs proclaiming they are federal government property and warning visitors not to touch or remove anything under penalty of law.

While a business district never developed at Belmont Mill, a handful of decaying wooden structures sit on a hill above the mill, which appear to have been residences. Below the abandoned row of houses you'll also find several rusted hulks of cars of more recent vintage.

Belmont Mill is located about seven miles southwest of the ghost town of Hamilton. To reach it, head 37 miles west of Ely on Highway 50, then turn south on the marked road to Hamilton. Drive 10 miles on a maintained dirt road, then follow the signs (adjacent to the Hamilton Cemetery) to Belmont Mill. There will be a fork in the road about two miles from Hamilton, turn left to reach the site.

Despite its relatively short life, the mill is a classic example of a turn-of-the-century Nevada mining camp and has undoubtedly survived better than most.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Vanderbilt Slides Into Obscurity

With a classy name like Vanderbilt, you’d expect that this 19th century mining camp would have had streets lined with gold or at least silver—but they were dirt and mud.

In fact, despite its promoters best efforts to develop a successful mining camp, Vanderbilt, which also went by the name, Vanderbilt City, never amounted to much more than unfulfilled promise.

The town was formed in 1870 after the discovery of promising silver-lead reserves in the surrounding area, which was called Secret Canyon. Within a short time, a small community cropped up near the Vanderbilt Mine (hence the name).

Within six months, Vanderbilt had about 150 residents, saloons, boarding houses and a couple of stores. Additionally, a ten-stamp mill was moved to the area from Hot Creek in Nye County and another facility, called the Sierra Mill, was constructed.

In August 1871, Vanderbilt seemed sufficiently substantial that a post office was opened. The optimism was to be short-lived.

Nearby Eureka was starting to boom and many of Vanderbilt’s residents decided to move on to the bigger camp. Soon, ore from Vanderbilt’s mines was also being shipped to Eureka, so the Sierra Mill was shut down. The mill was sold a few times, then destroyed in a fire in late 1872.

The fire signaled the end of Vanderbilt. The post office closed in summer 1873. Individual miners continued to work the local mines during the next few years and there was a small boom in 1880.

During this latter period, the town’s name was changed to Geddes, after Sam Geddes, owner of most of the local mines. The post office was reopened and Geddes and his partners built a massive 20-ton mill and furnace at a cost of $300,000, in anticipation of great profits.

While Geddes’ company was able to pull more than twice that in ore production, it took more than 20 years.

The camp muddled along through the 1880s, with the post office again closing in 1885, but the beginning of the end came in 1886, when the newer mill and furnace was destroyed in a fire.

Only small scale mining took place in the area after the late 1880s.
Today, Vanderbilt/Geddes is little more than a minor footnote in Eureka County’s rich mining history. The drive to the camp winds on a rough dirt road through a fairly steep canyon, located about five miles south of Eureka.

A few miles from Eureka, you can look up the side of a hill and spot a couple of wooden head-frames and the remains of a large ore bin. A bit further up the road, you come to a large tailing pile and the considerable ruins of the 1880 Geddes mill and furnace.

If you explore the site, you can find well-crafted stone walls, cement foundations and assorted rusted metal chutes, bolts and other mining paraphernalia.

Across the hill from the mill site, you can spot the remains of two stone buildings. The structures, built into the hillside, were made using local shale rock and wood. One still has a small window and frame.

Additionally, if you drive on the dirt road that travels above and behind the mill site, you can find the remains of two more intriguing structures. One appears to be the ruin of a fairly significant house with a brick chimney and interior walls covered with plaster.

The other is a more intact stone structure—although not enough is left to indicate if it was a house, store or storage building—built on the cliff overlooking the canyon. The view is spectacular but, strangely, its builders didn’t put in any windows to take advantage of the location.

To reach Vanderbilt, travel 1.5 miles east of Eureka on U.S. 50, then turn right onto an unmarked, winding dirt road (it’s called Secret Canyon Road). Continue for four miles to the former town site.

For more information on Vanderbilt pick up a copy of Shawn Hall’s excellent book, “Romancing Nevada’s Past, Ghost Towns and Historic Sites of Eureka, Lander, and White Pine Counties,” which available in local bookstores or from the Tonopah Historic Mining Park online gift shop,

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Discovering Prospect

Prospect wasn't the most successful mining camp in Eureka County but it managed to outlast most of its contemporaries. Settled in 1885 by miners working in the mountains south of Eureka, Prospect was a bit unusual in that there were no significant mines in the immediate vicinity of the camp. The town essentially served as a residential and supply center for area prospectors.

As a result, Prospect never had more than 100 or so residents. A post office was opened in 1893 and by the early 1900s, the town had a saloon, a school, several boardinghouses and a small smelter.

Historian Shawn Hall notes that supplies had to be brought in to the town by stage from Eureka three times a week.

An old U.S. Geological Survey photograph of Prospect from 1908 shows a quiet hamlet containing perhaps two dozen wooden buildings—none particularly fancy—with the two-stack smelter and mine buildings in the background.

The camp muddled along for about a decade until the silver ore ran out. The miners moved on and the post office closed in April 1918.

The camp was silent until the early 1980s, when mining started up again on nearby Prospect Peak. Several metal buildings were erected to house mining operations and the Diamond Mine, a horizontal shaft drilled directly into the mountain, was reopened.

The mine ceased operating a few years later and the site remains closed to the public.

During a visit (after asking permission from a local caretaker), we found a ghostly mining camp that still had the appearance of being able to reopen at a minute’s notice.

The Diamond Mine still boasted ore carts on tracks in the tunnel and an extremely cold, refreshing breeze emanated from within—natural air conditioning in the summer months.

Beyond the newer mining buildings, you could find remains of early operations such as the rusted metal and cracked concrete ruins of a large furnace. Additionally, at the base of huge tailing piles, you can see large sections of cable, a huge flywheel and other mining trash on the site.

Below the mine in a flat, you can still see a handful of fairly intact wooden and metal buildings, probably built around 1908, which once housed local miners.

One of the structures still contains a few furnishings, such as tables, cabinets, curtains, scattered cans and other “objects de mining.” Its neighbors, however, show the wear of the years; it’s amazing they remain standing.

If you close your eyes, imagine for a moment that your car isn’t parked nearby, then look out across the old town site at the tailing piles, sagebrush-dotted hills and the mine, it’s not too difficult to evoke a sense of living in this isolated little camp.

There are a fewer buildings than in the old photo, but the shape of the land and general atmosphere remains relatively unchanged. And when the wind picks up, you almost swear you can hear the ghosts talking of better times and how they probably ought to think about moving on.

As with the mine, the town site is on private property, so don’t explore without first getting permission from the caretaker (he resides in a wooden house that is in much better shape than the others).

One thing that old inhabitants of Prospect probably never paid much attention to is the spectacular view. From Diamond Mine, you can look out across Secret Canyon and see the panorama of the surrounding mountains and Diamond Peak in the distance.

Prospect is located in Central Nevada about five miles southeast of Eureka. To reach it, pass through Eureka and continue on U.S. 50 east for 1.5 miles. Exit right on Secret Canyon Road for 2.5 miles to the site of Prospect.

For more information about ghost towns in the Eureka area, contact the Eureka Opera House, 775-237-6006.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Wally World

Since 1993, Wally Cuchine has been bringing culture to the historic mining town of Eureka.

Cuchine, executive director of the Eureka Opera House, has made it his goal to present a diverse menu of entertainers ranging from Celtic pipers to cowboy poets. “It has been my opinion that you should have an eclectic mix of performers,” he says.

Sarah Sweetwater, who teaches at Elko’s Great Basin College, sometimes drives two hours to attend events at the Eureka Opera House. She says she is impressed by what Cuchine has accomplished. “If it weren’t for people like Wally, we in rural Nevada would be starved culturally,” she says.

Originally from East Helena, Montana, Cuchine has been a Nevada resident for more than three decades. He discovered Eureka, the historic mining town located 242 miles east of Reno, in the early 1980s when he was hired to measure air quality in the region.

“While I was here, I fell in love with Eureka,” he recalls. “I always knew I could come back here someday.” His chance to return came in 1993, when he was tapped to run the opera house after two successful years as executive director of the Bristlecone Convention Center in Ely.

Built in 1880, the Eureka Opera House originally served as a miner’s union hall and later as a movie house. By the late 1980s, however, it was in need of restoration. The opera house was acquired by Eureka County, which spent $2.5 million, mostly from taxes generated from the county’s gold mines, to renovate the two-story, red-brick building into a convention center and performing arts theater.

When he was hired, Cuchine says the Eureka County commissioners provided him with a generous budget and told him to bring in performers he thought the community would like to see.

“The opera house has been my vision,” he says. “We’ve been able to partner with local schools so that when we bring in a performer, he or she must do a special performance for the schools.”

During the last few years, the opera house has hosted country-rock performers like Eddie Rabbitt (who was the first performer to appear in the revamped opera house), Western singers such as Don Edwards, Celtic bands, jazz groups, contemporary poetry readings, mystery theater, local school plays, and visiting children’s theater workshops.

Cuchine requests that anyone who performs in the Opera House, including members of children’s groups, sign his or her name on one of the backstage walls. “My dream is someday these kids who do sign the wall will bring their kids to see where they signed,” he says.

One of Cuchine’s passions is Nevada art. His home is jammed with paintings, posters, statues, and prints depicting Western themes and Nevada landscapes. In 2005, a portion of his massive art collection was displayed at the Nevada Historical Society in Reno. His plan is to one day develop a permanent gallery for his artwork in Eureka.

Naturally, Cuchine is proud of the opera house that he’s helped to nurture for nearly a decade. “This is a wonderful, intimate place to see a performance. I like to tell people that we’re the center of everywhere [in Nevada] and everyone should come here to enjoy a performance,” he says.

For information about the Eureka Opera House, including the schedule of upcoming events, call 775-237-6006.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Fading Fairview

A rectangular, concrete vault perched precariously on a crumbling rock foundation is just about all that remains of the old mining town of Fairview, located 40 miles east of Fallon on U.S. 50.

Rich silver deposits were discovered in Fairview in 1905. A major mining boom kicked off a year later when Nevada mining investors George Wingfield and George Nixon (both involved in developing Goldfield and several other Nevada mining camps) purchased several claims in the district.

By June 1906, a town was laid out and lots were sold. During the next year, thousands of people drifted into and out of the camp, which was soon had several hotels and banks, two dozen saloons, and two newspapers (the Fairview News and the Fairview Miner).

Because of its remoteness, basic commodities were expensive in Fairview. Nevada historian Stanley Paher notes in his “Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of Nevada” that a plot of sagebrush and sand sold for $100 a front foot, while ice was $4 per 100 pounds, water was $2.50 a barrel, and wood was $20 per cord.

In 1907, enthusiasm about Fairview was so great that there was widespread discussion about a railroad connection. According to rail historian David Myrick, the most common rumor was that the Nevada Central Railroad, which ran from Battle Mountain to Austin, would go westward to Rawhide, with a spur to Fairview.

But, unfortunately for the town, no railroad was ever built.

Photos from the time show a fairly substantial community laid out in the desert flat below Fairview Peak, overlooking the Fairview and Dixie valleys. The town was several blocks long and wide, with a wide main street lined by about a dozen stores and businesses, including a two-story hotel.

Since there wasn’t rail service, freight, including supplies needed by the town and ore that was sent out of the area for processing, was handled by several auto stages that linked the community to Hazen and Fallon.

Despite the early optimism and the development of a fairly large community, the Fairview area mines began to decline in 1908. The newspapers folded and most of the miners moved to more lucrative districts.

Modest discoveries in 1911—the district produced a total of about $3.8 million in its short existence—spurred another small boom. Much of this new development clustered around the large Nevada Hills Mill built on the mountain behind the original town site.

Mining continued until about 1917. However, by the 1920s only a handful of hardy optimists remained in Fairview.

The original town site, which was in the flat below the mines, began to disappear. Wood from many of the buildings was used in the upper town site or taken for use in other towns. The mill building was dismantled after it was closed, leaving only foundations.

Photos from the 1950s show about a dozen, dilapidated buildings still standing in the upper canyon. But even these didn't have much of a chance of surviving. In the early 1980s, pilots from the nearby Fallon Naval Air Station bombed the wooden structures, apparently believing they were practice targets.

Today, the only noteworthy survivor is the decaying concrete bank vault standing alone on the flat site of the original town. The solid block, open at one end (and definitely not safe to enter), rests on a deteriorating base of natural rock.

Ironically, as you stand on the site of the town, you realize that Fairview also describes the community’s most lasting legacy—the spectacular view of the surrounding valley.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Scotty's Castle

When you first see Scotty’s Castle on the edge of Death Valley, you almost feel like rubbing your eyes to make sure it’s not a desert mirage.

Built in the early 1920s as a vacation home by a wealthy insurance magnate named Albert M. Johnson, the castle might best be described as a smaller version of the famous Hearst’s Castle. Like Hearst’s mansion, Johnson’s castle is filled with antiques and exquisite architectural features.

The story behind Scotty’s Castle is intriguing. Just after the turn of the century, a colorful miner named Walter E. Scott—or “Death Valley Scotty”—who had spent many years prospecting in the Rhyolite-Death Valley area, befriended Albert Johnson.

Stories indicate that Scotty suggested Grapevine Canyon as the site for Johnson’s vacation castle. The location had water and a commanding view of Death Valley. Soon, a massive multi-story Spanish-style stucco and tile mansion was built on the desert’s edge.

Albert Johnson spared no expense in building his castle. Elaborate turrets rise above the dozens of rooms in the compound. Inside, he filled the place with rustic, handmade southwestern furniture, wall hangings and other accents.

During nine years of construction—the castle cost between $1.5 and $2 million in 1920s dollars—Johnson incorporated a few advanced design features. For instance, there is a ceiling to floor waterfall in the front room. In addition to its aesthetic qualities, the purpose of the waterfall is to help cool the house, which was built before the invention of air-conditioning systems.

Additionally, Albert Johnson experimented with a series of fans blowing air across large ice blocks into an underground vent system —an early attempt at air-conditioning—as well as with a crude version of a solar heating system.

When the complex was completed, Johnson and his wife named it the Death Valley Ranch. Albert Johnson, however, had a mischievous streak. Since Death Valley Scotty was a frequent guest, the two would often tell people that Scotty was the owner and Johnson was simply a visitor.

Within a short time, most people referred to the complex as “Scotty’s Castle” rather than its real name (in fact, most folks believed that Scotty was the owner and had built it from his mining earnings).

By the late 1920s, the castle had become a haven for America’s celebrities, with the Johnsons and their official “host,” Scotty, entertaining many of the world’s richest and most famous people.

The castle was never completed because Albert Johnson’s fortune was diminished as a result of financial losses he experienced during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
After Johnson’s death in 1948, Scotty was allowed to live at the ranch for the remainder of his life. He died in 1954.

Following Mrs. Johnson’s death, the massive home was bequeathed to a religious organization, which opened it for tours during the 1950s and 60s. In 1970, the U.S. government acquired the property and incorporated it into Death Valley National Park.

Today, park rangers offer daily guided tours. At several points, you encounter park service staff dressed as famous visitors from the 1920s and 30s, like director Cecil B. DeMille, who act in character to tell you about the place and their personal experiences with the Johnsons and Death Valley Scotty.

You will also see the large multi-car garage, complete with a vintage 1920s auto. It’s easy to imagine it filled with a half dozen or more large vehicles owned by the stars who were frequent guests, such as humorist Will Rogers.

Another special treat is the room housing Mrs. Johnson’s massive pipe organ. The organ, now automated to play dozens of tunes, fills an entire wall of the room.

Adjacent to the main house, visitors will also see a partially built swimming pool as well as a large tower, also not finished, which was to house a power plant for the complex.

Scotty’s Castle is located about an hour northwest of Beatty, Nevada via U.S. Highway 95 and State Route 267. The castle is operated by the National Park Service, which offers daily tours and publishes an excellent map brochure about Death Valley and Scotty’s Castle.

For more information, contact the Superintendent, Death Valley National Park, Death Valley, CA 92328, 760-786-2331.

Monday, September 03, 2007

V & T Keeps on Rolling

On May 31, 1950, the Virginia & Truckee Railroad made its final run. The rail line, which had started operating in 1869, had been on life support for more than two decades.

In the 1940s, the owners began to sell off the most historic equipment, with much of the rolling stock going to Hollywood studios to be used in westerns. In 1949, the state gave permission for the company to cease operating.

Within a few years, the rails had been pulled up and sold for scrap. Many of the former depot buildings and the maintenance facilities were abandoned or neglected. It appeared that the V&T, as it was known, would become a quaint historic footnote.

That, however, isn’t the end of the story. In the early 1970s, a California businessman and train buff, Robert C. Gray, began gradually rebuilding the V&T route downhill from Virginia City.

By the 1990s, Gray operated a tourist railroad with a vintage steam locomotive (not an original V&T engine) that traveled from a small depot on F Street, just south of the St. Mary's in the Mountains Catholic Church, to the Gold Hill Depot, which Gray helped renovate.

The round trip, 35-minute train ride traveled a little under six miles and passed through several reconstructed tunnels. During the leisurely ride, travelers enjoyed an informative talk as the conductor related Comstock stories and pointed out places of historic interest along the way.

In the early 1990s, V&T enthusiasts along with Storey County, Carson City, and state officials began studying the possibility of reconstructing the historic rail line all the way from Virginia City to Carson City.

A financial study indicated that the railroad was feasible and the non-profit Nevada Commission for the Reconstruction of the V&T Railroad was created to raise money for the project, estimated to cost $25 million when completed.

In 2005, the project picked up steam when the Nevada Department of Transportation awarded a $3.8 million contract to extend the railroad south from Gold Hill. The contract included filling in the Overman Pit, which had blocked previous efforts to lengthen the railroad (the large open pit mine had been dug after the railroad was abandoned).

The Nevada Legislature provided additional funds to help keep the project going while the Department of Transportation donated a railroad bridge formerly used in Southern Nevada for a crossing over U.S. 50, once the rebuilt railroad reaches that point.

The reconstructed railroad will closely follow the original railroad right-of-way between Virginia City and Carson City. It will incorporate the Virginia and Truckee Railroad Company’s 2.5 miles of existing track from Virginia City to the Gold Hill Depot.

From there, it will cross the filled-in Overman Pit and continue through American Flat, a former mining mill district near Silver City, before reaching U.S. 50 near Mound House.

The route crosses the highway and enters the Carson River Canyon area, where it winds along the banks of the river, offering spectacular views. It will conclude its 21-mile route in Carson City. Railroad officials hope that the first leg of the expanded rail line, Gold Hill to U.S. 50, will be completed by 2009.

In the meantime, Gray continues to offer rides on the first portion of the route. His train operates from Memorial Day until the end of October. Cost is $6 for adults, $3 for children 5-12, children under 5 free, and an all day pass is $12. For more information call 775-847-0380.

The V&T’s history is intertwined with the story of Virginia City’s mining industry. Built in 1869, the Virginia & Truckee was the brainchild of banker William Sharon, the Bank of California’s representative in Virginia City.

The 21-mile Virginia City to Carson City leg of the railroad was completed in November 1869, with the Carson City to Reno extension finished in August 1872.

Records show that by the mid-1870s, Virginia City’s mines were so productive that from 30 to 45 trains operated daily on the 55-mile-long railroad, which, because of its winding route became known as the “Very Crooked and Terribly Rough Railroad.”

The V & T’s fortunes began to wane with the decline of mining in the Virginia City area in the 1880s. By the turn of the century, the railroad had shifted its focus from transporting ore to carrying tourists and other passengers.

In 1906, the V & T was extended south of Carson City to Minden. The railroad’s financial situation worsened after 1924, when mining had virtually stopped in Virginia City.

The railroad struggled to stay in business during the next 26 years (with the unprofitable Virginia City to Mound House spur shut down in 1938), losing money in each succeeding year. In 1950, the line was formally abandoned.

But, in the words of Mark Twain, who also spent a lot of time on the Comstock, reports of its death were greatly exaggerated.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Bunkerville's Mormon Roots

The development of Southern Nevada is intertwined with the history of the Church of Latter Day Saints. In 1855, Mormon settlers were the first to colonize Southern Nevada with the construction of a small adobe fort in a place known as Las Vegas (Spanish for “the meadows”).

Church leaders had mapped a trail between Salt Lake City and California, and believed Las Vegas served as a good rest stop along the way. However, because of its remoteness and other factors, the Las Vegas mission failed after only three years.

Around that same time, Mormon colonists also settled in Callville on the Colorado River as well as along the Muddy and Virgin Rivers, in areas, which seemed to have agricultural promise.

For the most part, these farming colonies were unsuccessful and, by 1870, most had been abandoned. In the late 1870s and 1880s, a second wave of Mormon settlers journeyed to Nevada to establish communities in Mesquite, Logandale and Bunkerville.

The latter, located about 90 miles east of Las Vegas via Interstate 15 and State Route 170, was one of the most unusual and unique of the colonies. Founded in January 1877, Bunkerville was originally settled by followers of the United Order of Enoch, an offshoot of the main Mormon church that espoused a communal lifestyle.

Town founder and namesake, Edward Bunker, settled on the south bank of the Virgin River with 27 relatives and friends, and set about to create a community in which residents would share equipment, property and work.

The colonists immediately set out to tame the Virgin River, attempting to build an earthen dam and irrigation canal. Within a few months, alfalfa, corn, cotton, grapes and vegetables had been planted.

A flash flood destroyed the dam in August 1877 but it was rebuilt in time to save that year's crops.

Life in early Bunkerville was difficult. The river refused to stay controlled, the soil was alkaline, the water was awful and there was dissension among the colonists over the division of labor and crops.

By 1881, the United Order was abandoned and the land was parceled to individual families. Farming proved viable, despite the hardships, and the area developed into a reasonably productive agricultural district, which it remains to this day.

In addition to the difficulties in developing an agricultural base, other problems cropped up because many of Bunkerville's founders were polygamists, which was acceptable in the Mormon religion but illegal.

During the early years, town fathers were frequently forced to hide from federal marshals, who would periodically raid the town looking for offenders. Things finally quieted down after 1890, when church president Wilford Woodruff banned the practice of multiple wives.

Over the years, more substantial homes were built in Bunkerville. Perhaps the most impressive is the two-story red brick Edward Bunker house. Still standing, the home boasts a two large porches, a pair of fireplaces and fine classic frontier architectural lines.

Driving through Bunkerville, you can find other glimpses into the hamlet's past. Just south of the Bunker home (the largest house in the historic district) is an abandoned (but apparently maintained) one-story brick Victorian home.

Adjacent, you can find the remains of a smaller stone house, while down the street are other historic homes. A pioneer cemetery at the edge of town contains monuments to the town's founders, including Edward Bunker.

State Route 170 is a loop road that runs parallel to I-15 for about 12 miles, between Mesquite and Exit #112. This is a pleasant short drive that runs next to the Virgin River (which still looks pretty brackish) and neat rows of crops. Additionally, the area is home to a number of small dairy farms.

For more information about Bunkerville, contact the Virgin Valley Heritage Museum in nearby Mesquite, 702-346-5705.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Forgotten Olinghouse

While most Nevada mining towns seem to be located in the more remote parts of the state, there is one, Olinghouse, that developed just east of the Truckee Meadows.

Historic records indicate that this little known mining camp, located in Pah Rah Range, between Reno and Pyramid Lake, even advertised itself as “The Biggest Little Gold Camp in Nevada”—an obvious play on Reno’s famous slogan.

The remains of Olinghouse are located 9 miles northwest of the community of Wadsworth, which is located about 20 miles east of Reno. To reach it, head north on Nevada State Route 447 for 2 miles, then turn west on an unmarked but maintained dirt road. The site of Olinghouse is located about 7 miles from the turnoff.

While Olinghouse never grew very large, it produced sufficient ore to support nearly continuous mining from the mid-19th century to the present.

The area’s earliest mining visitors were itinerant prospectors who had spread out from Virginia City in the hope of discovering the next Comstock Lode. A few of the miners headed north toward the Black Rock Desert, uncovering occasional small veins and other traces of minerals throughout the Pah Rah range.

Prospecting continued sporadically for the next four decades, with the first significant activity beginning in about 1897, following the discovery of gold in White Horse Canyon, three miles north of Olinghouse.

Despite the gold strike, the larger mining companies remained skeptical about the district’s potential, leaving it to a hundred or so independent miners, who were able to recover a few dollars a day working the veins.

A post office was opened in 1898 and a small business district developed over the next decade, which included saloons, restaurants and lodging houses.

The town also acquired its name during this time. Elias Olinghouse was a Wadsworth cattle rancher, who had a large summer ranch operation in the eastern Pah Rah range.

While the town was first named, "Ora," it later took Olinghouse’s name, since he had claim on most of the land in the area.

In 1907, the town of Olinghouse’s fortunes began to look up, as investors seeking to repeat the mining successes at Tonopah and Goldfield, began pouring money into almost any Nevada mining camp that showed promise. Several mills were built, including one just north of Wadsworth, and a rail line was constructed to connect the mines to the mill.

Within the year, however, the boom was over (with the investors making very little money) and the mining activity at Olinghouse diminished. The mill and railroad were dismantled and, once again, only a few dozen miners worked the area, making just enough money to survive but never enough to get rich.

Today, visitors will find a string of modest wooden cabins and homes, most still inhabited, some interesting mill ruins, a few old mine shafts, an abandoned ranch house and, to the north, a modern open pit gold mining operation, which opened in the mid-1980s.

As you first reach the site, you will find the collapsed wooden walls of an old miner's shack, on your left. After passing a few of the inhabited homes, you reach the dilapidated remains of what appears to have been a small milling operation.

Climbing up the hill behind the crumbled wooden mill site, you can find an intriguing mine shaft, which has several skeletal wooden walls surrounding the entrance and a fallout shelter sign.

A little farther west from the center of the community, you can find the stone remains of a larger mill site, including some wooden supports and other ruins. Another half mile or so, you find an interesting abandoned brick and wood farmhouse, standing alone in a field of sagebrush and weeds.

In the end, Olinghouse is just another of the hundreds of mining camps that took seed, blossomed for a time, and were slowly reclaimed by the uncaring Nevada desert.

An informative guide booklet about Olinghouse is John Townley’s “Olinghouse Mining District,” which was published in 1985 and can still be found in some local libraries.

Monday, August 20, 2007

City With Big Balls

Several years ago, Reno gained two big balls. In 1995, the Silver Legacy Resort was constructed, which has a giant round dome as its centerpiece, and the National Bowling Stadium opened, which is topped by a big, round domed theater.

At least one local pundit suggested that Reno’s famed slogan, “Biggest Little City in the World,” be replaced with “Reno: City With Big Balls.”

So, what’s inside the big balls? At the Silver Legacy, the 180-foot dome contains a 120-foot, green, faux mining machine with lots of pulleys and giant wheels.

About once an hour, the interior of the dome darkens, the massive wheels and belts on the device begin to pump and churn and there’s a lot of noise. Nothing actually happens but people stand around and admire the big Rube Goldberg-like beauty of the contraption, which gives them a respite from playing the omnipresent slot machines.

The National Bowling Stadium’s four-story globe houses a 172-seat I-WERKS theater (like an IMAX).

This theater in the round—designed to resemble a bowling ball—shows 70-millimeter films and boasts six-channel digital surround sound.

Of course, the National Bowling Stadium itself is somewhat unusual. Called the “Taj Majal of Tenpins,” it’s one of the world’s largest facilities devoted solely to bowling.

The $42 million stadium has 78 bowling lanes, a C.A.T.S. Practice Lane (Computer Aided Tracking System, which analyzes bowler’s games), sky boxes, pro shops, restaurant, sports bar and seating for 1,000 spectators.

The facility is restricted to tournament play (no local bowling allowed) and regularly hosts events sponsored by the United States Bowling Congress, the National Bowling Association and other groups.

And now you know the rest of the story.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Snowshoe Thompson's Story

Every time the Sierra Nevada range is covered with inviting slopes of groomed, packed snow, local skiers should fall to their knees and give thanks to a man named Jon Torsteinson Rui.

Rui, who is better known by the name, John “Snowshoe” Thompson, introduced skiing to Northern California and Nevada. Prior to his arrival in the region in the mid-1850s, no one had ever strapped on a pair of thin, wooden boards and slid down a hill.

Thompson was born in Norway in 1827. His family immigrated to America when he was ten years old and settled in the Midwest. In 1851, however, John joined the thousands of people heading to California to search for gold.

After several fruitless years of mining in the Sierra range, he settled in the Sacramento area to farm. He heard about a lucrative postal service contract to carry mail from Placerville, California, to Genoa, a tiny hamlet in what was then the Utah Territory.

Having skied as a child in Norway, he also had a plan for how to carry the mail—he would create a pair of long, wooden skis, which were called snowshoes at that time. He applied for the job using the name, John A. Thompson, because he felt his real name was unpronounceable to non-Norwegians.

Worried he wouldn't be hired unless he proved himself eager to work, he showed up carrying his pair of handmade, 25-pound oak skis, which were ten feet long and an inch-and-a-half thick. History doesn't tell us if he impressed the postmaster, but he got the job, mostly because he was the only applicant.

Thompson made his first trip (it was 90 miles each way) over the mountains on January 3, 1856. He took three days to reach Placerville and made the return trip in an amazing 48 hours. Word of his accomplishment spread and within a short time, Thompson became a Nevada legend.

Most incredible was the fact that Thompson often carried a pack loaded with 80 to 100 pounds of mail and assorted packages (he even carried, over several trips, much of the machinery and printing equipment used to produce Virginia City's famous Territorial Enterprise newspaper).

According to Lake Tahoe weather historian Mark McLaughlin, one of Nevada’s most important mining discoveries owes much to Thompson. In June of 1859, Thompson was given an ore sample by two miners, Peter O’Riley and Pat McLaughlin, who wanted it assayed in Placerville.

Thompson carried the bluish rock to Professor W. Frank Stewart, a Placerville geologist, who analyzed it and declared that it contained some of the richest silver content he’d ever seen. Stewart asked Thompson to take the sample to Sacramento for additional analysis.

The second assay supported Stewart’s conclusions. The two miners had discovered the fabulous Comstock Lode in Virginia City.

For nearly two decades, Thompson delivered the mail in small towns throughout the Sierra and gave additional meaning to the popular motto about mailmen making their rounds regardless of rain or sleet or snow.

Interestingly, Thompson was rarely paid for his services. In 1874, he petitioned the U.S. Congress for back pay but was turned down, despite traveling all the way to Washington D.C. to make his appeal.

Over the years, Thompson also shared his knowledge about using his “Norwegian snowshoes.” Along the way, he taught dozens of people how to ski and is generally responsible for introducing the sport to the region.

Thompson died in 1876 and is buried in the quiet Genoa cemetery, which is located 15 miles southwest of Carson City via U.S. 395 and Jack’s Valley Road. The gravesite is located at the rear of the cemetery, under large shade trees.

Today, visitors can pay their respects to the father of Sierra Nevada skiing and view his tombstone, which, not surprisingly, has the image of a pair of wooden skies carved into its white marble.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Exploring the Tallac Historic Site

There’s nothing like seeing how rich people live. Exploring a huge mansion or the grounds of a sprawling estate built by a wealthy person offers a vicarious thrill, especially for those of us unlikely to ever live in such a manner.

The Tallac Historic Site at Lake Tahoe is such a place. There, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of the lifestyles of the rich and famous in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Tallac homes—really elaborate summer cottages—were built by some of America’s wealthiest individuals. At one time, the site was also the location of Tahoe’s first casino-hotel. While many of the structures have disappeared over the years—victims of neglect and progress—a few have been preserved and are now managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The Tallac Historic Site is located on Route 89, north of Camp Richardson. A wonderfully scenic two-and-a-half-mile-long bicycle and hiking path winds through the area.

Riding through the historic grounds is an opportunity to pretend that you’ve gone back to a time before automobiles and airplanes, when only the super-rich could afford to build seasonal homes in a once remote place, such as Lake Tahoe.

The setting is remarkably peaceful and very beautiful. The trail is lined with tall pine trees filled with chattering birds and, as you ride along, provides glimpses of the clear, blue waters of the lake.

While the main path is paved, there are several dirt tributaries that snake through the reserve and lead to small, hidden beaches or particularly scenic tree groves.

Development of the Tallac area started in the 1870s, when Yank Clement opened the Tallac Point House on the south shore to accommodate visitors. “Yank’s” inn also offered steamboat rides, a saloon and dancing.

In 1880, "Yank's" was sold to Elias "Lucky" Baldwin, a California entrepreneur and professional gambler. Baldwin transformed the sleepy lakeside inn into a 250-room resort that included a casino, ballroom, four bowling alleys, sun parlors and billiards rooms.

Meanwhile, in 1894, George Tallant, son of one of the founders of California’s Crocker Bank, built a rustic summer lodge adjacent to the Baldwin estate.

Five years later, Tallant’s sold his property to millionaire Lloyd Tevis, who expanded and renovated the home, making it the largest and most luxurious in the area. Tevis added servants quarters, a dairy, stables and a shaded, garden with Japanese teahouse and arched bridges.

In 1923, Tevis sold the compound to George Pope Jr., a San Francisco lumber and shipping magnate. To reflect Pope’s ecumenical name, the estate was nicknamed the "Vatican Lodge."

Also in 1923, another prominent businessman, Walter Heller purchased the land south of the Pope estate. Heller began construction of what would become the last great Tallac mansion, an impressive stone and wood lodge named Valhalla, which is now used for concerts and special events.

The early 1920s marked the heyday of the magnificent Tallac homes but was also the end of "Lucky" Baldwin’s resort. In 1920, Baldwin's daughter, Anita, closed the casino-hotel and demolished the buildings. Later that same year, Dextra Baldwin McGonagle, Baldwin’s granddaughter, constructed a beautiful single-story home on the family property.

Today, the 2,000-acre Tallac Historic Site has picnic tables and several public beaches including Kiva Beach and Baldwin Beach. For more information, contact 530-541-4975.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Blown Away by Lunar Crater

Despite its otherworldly name and appearance, Lunar Crater has decidedly earthly roots. More than three-quarters-of-a-mile wide and 430-feet deep, the giant crater was created by geological rather than extraterrestrial causes.

Scientists who have studied the site believe a tremendous volcanic explosion created 400-acre Lunar Crater, which is located about 77 miles northeast of Tonopah via U.S. 6.

Tens of thousands of years ago, groundwater apparently came into contact with magma or hot rocks near the surface. Steam pressure built underground until an enormous eruption left the giant bowl-shaped hole, which geologists call a “maar.”

The crater sits in a virtual nest of more than a dozen extinct volcanic cones and rock-hard lava flows that is known as the Lunar Crater Volcanic Field.

Early Nye County miners and ranchers considered Lunar Crater an interesting novelty. In 1939, Nevada State Park officials erected a sign on the highway guiding visitors to the site. Later, it became an official U.S. Forest Service attraction.

Part of the fascination of Lunar Crater is the fact that it is part of a much greater volcanic field. From its rim, it is possible to look around and see more than a dozen extinct volcanoes (many are not much more than dark mounds of rock).

Additionally, Lunar Crater has a way of surprising. A visitor will cruise along the seven-mile dirt road leading from the highway to the site, craning his or her neck to see something that looks crater-ish and then, at the top of a small rise in the road, it’s suddenly there.

The crater is big. From its upper edge, visitors look down into a huge, bowl-shaped valley that is difficult to visually measure because it is so large.

Sitting on a wooden bench that overlooks Lunar Crater it is hard not to contemplate the tremendous power of Mother Nature—Lunar Crater was essentially formed by a giant burp in the earth’s crust.

The crater is so massive that it seems to generate its own weather, including fierce winds that scream up its steep walls and blast anyone admiring the view.

Lunar Crater does have a connection with outer space. In the 1960s, Apollo astronauts trained in the 140,000-acre area, which does look like a moonscape, in preparation for a lunar landing. More recently, scientists have tested remote sensing and other technologies for use on future Mars explorations.

In addition to Lunar Crater, a secondary dirt road leads to nearby Easy Chair Crater, a collapsed cinder cone that gained its unusual name because, from a distance, it looks like a giant, overstuffed chair.

Across the highway from the road leading to the two craters is the Black Rock Lava Flow, a more recent formation that covers about 1,900 acres. Visitors studying the dark basalt flow will see specks of green, red, and black glass, which formed because the lava cooled so quickly.

The dirt road leading to Lunar Crater is extremely wash-boarded and a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended.

Lunar Crater is located about 270 miles southeast of Carson City via U.S. 50, U.S. 95 (to Tonopah) and U.S. 6.

For more information about Lunar Crater, contact the Bureau of Land Management, Tonopah Field Station, 1553 South Main St., P.O. Box 911, Tonopah, NV 89049, 775-482-7800,