Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rochester Slowly Fades Into the Sunset

A strong wind sweeps across the tumble down buildings in the old mining camp of Rochester. In the fading late afternoon light, they become harder to see and mysterious.

The ghosts are coming to life in Rochester Canyon.

Rochester Canyon was once one of north-central Nevada’s most successful mining camps. In the early 20th century, the region produced more than $6 million in silver, gold, copper and lead.

The ruins of the Rochester Canyon communities are located about 10 miles southeast of Interstate 80 at the Oreana exit. To reach the site, exit at Oreana (14 miles northeast of Lovelock), then travel three miles on a paved road. At a fork in the road, turn right onto a maintained dirt road and continue another seven miles to Rochester.

Rochester Canyon was first explored in the early 1860s by prospectors from Rochester, New York (thus its name). Small-scale mining was initiated but proved largely unsuccessful.

In 1912, Joseph Nenzel discovered large bodies of silver ore in the canyon, which sparked a significant boom. By 1913, more than two thousand miners were working the area and a two-and-a-half mile long ribbon of miner's shacks, commercial businesses and other buildings began to line the center of the canyon.

Several separate town sites were actually laid out in the canyon. Near the top was Rochester Heights, which had a popular local saloon. Farther down the canyon was Rochester, which quickly became the largest settlement with several substantial stone buildings to house hotels, saloons and offices. At the mouth of the canyon was Lower Rochester.

At its peak in 1913-14, the town of Rochester had its own orchestra, regular freight service, dance halls and a 100-ton mill to process the ore.

By 1915, following completion of a shortline railroad that connected to the nearby Southern Pacific line, Lower Rochester grew into the biggest camp. In 1917, an aerial tram system was completed to carry ore from the mines to the mill at Lower Rochester.

Rochester’s mines continued to be productive throughout the 1920s and 30s. The mines were shut down in 1942, as a result of shortages of equipment and supplies during the Second World War.

Efforts to restart the mines continued after the war but none succeeded until the 1980s with the development of a large gold mining operation, the Coeur Rochester Mine, which operates on the mountain above the canyon.

Despite the years of neglect, Rochester, as the whole area is referred to today, offers intriguing glimpses at an early 20th century mining camp. When you enter the former site of Lower Rochester, you will find a handful of impressive wooden mining headframes and decayed buildings on the southern hillside.

Wandering among the ruins, you can spot the mostly intact fly-wheels, cabling and other pieces of equipment on the headframes. Additionally, there are also the partial remains of the ore-cart track and bridge, adjacent to the headframes and buildings.

One note of caution: be very careful walking around any part of Rochester Canyon because there are many open mine shafts. Also, do not touch anything. Most of the buildings are barely standing and probably won’t survive too many more years and any abuse.

Up the canyon from those ruins, you will find a large mill building, mostly intact. The structure seems in fairly good condition, although not safe enough to enter. Opposite the mill building, you can also spot the large concrete foundations of what must have been another, larger mill site.

The road continues up the canyon, with a handful of stone foundations and crumbling, wooden miner’s shacks peeking through the surrounding sagebrush. A commemorative plaque telling the story of Rochester can be found in front of one of the former miner’s homes, adjacent to the road.

From the plaque, the road heads farther up the canyon but becomes rockier and there aren’t any more ruins along the way. About a mile from the plaque, you reach a locked fence and the entrance to the Coeur Rochester Mine, which is closed to the public.

For more information about Rochester, contact the Lovelock Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 821, Lovelock, NV 89419, 775-273-7213.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Nevada Capital Nearly Wasn't Carson City

In honor of the 150th birthday of Carson City, I'd like you to think about this the next time you drive by Nevada’s distinctive silver-domed State Capitol in Carson City.

Imagine how it might look in Winnemucca or American Flat or Boise, Idaho.

Several times in Nevada’s history there have been attempts to locate the state capital in some other location. Even before Nevada became a state, there was debate over where to place the seat of state power.

For instance, Genoa was the site of the original discussions about forming a Nevada Territory in 1857. Later, the town served as the home of the first territorial convention which formed a kind of renegade provisional government (at the time most of Nevada was part of the Utah Territory).

Two years later, however, Congress finally authorized creation of an official Nevada Territory. As part of that act, the seat of the territorial government was moved from Genoa to Carson City.

Historian Russell Elliott notes that Carson City’s selection was aided by influential Carson City attorney William M. Stewart (later selected one of Nevada’s first two U.S. Senators), who cleverly traded county seats to potential rival communities in return for their support.

Additionally, Abraham Curry, one of Carson City’s founders, offered free land for a state capital.

But since the State Capitol building wasn’t constructed until 1870-71, there was still plenty of time for other pretenders to steal away the capital.

Opposition to authorizing funds to build a capital in Carson City came from Lander County officials, who thought booming Austin might be a better site. Lander’s State Senator D.W. Welty went so far as to describe Carson City as “a swamp” and a “mud hole.”

Virginia City also made a few half-hearted tries at snagging the capital. Territorial Enterprise owner Joseph Goodman once wrote—tongue in cheek—of an 1864 attempt to claim the capital for Virginia City:

“It is easy enough to obey a gypsy impulse to go anywhere or everywhere, but when you have arrived at your destination without any purpose a feeling of stultification is liable to confront you and ask what it all means. And so, when we deployed ourselves in the blaze of the capital, and anxious denizens inquired what this sudden irruption of the dignitaries of Virginia City signified, we were confounded and unable to reply satisfactorily. But their insistence speedily begot a purpose. The capital could not be permanently fixed under the Territorial act; its location was at the will of the Legislature, and we determined to remove it to Virginia City.”

Goodman counted heads and found that while the Assembly would go along with the move, there was a tie vote in the Senate. He decided to focus his attention on persuading “Uncle Abe Curry” to switch his vote in favor of Virginia City but was, in turn, convinced to drop his effort by a tearful Curry.

“The jig was up, I honored the old man’s sentiment, though it swept away our brilliant dream of empire,” he concluded.

Of a more serious nature was a handsome financial bid for the capital made that same year by the small mining town of American City (later known as American Flat), which was located a mile west of Gold Hill.

American City’s boosters were so certain of their camp’s future that they offered $50,000 to the territorial government it would relocate there. Despite support from Virginia City newspapers, the offer was rejected. American City faded away within a few years.

Ironically, the same man who helped to locate the capital in Carson City, Senator William Stewart, later tried to move it to Winnemucca. In the late 1880s, Stewart saw that due to depleted mining resources Nevada’s economy was experiencing a severe depression.

His solution was to annex portions of politically weaker territories such as Idaho and Utah in order to expand Nevada’s population and economic base.

In 1888, Stewart proposed adding northern Idaho to Washington and southern Idaho to Nevada and suggested Winnemucca as the new capital of the expanded Nevada because of its location in the center of the new state.

The proposal was shelved after opposition surfaced from President Grover Cleveland and, not surprisingly, residents of the Idaho Territory.

Not willing to drop the matter, Stewart made another attempt at annexation in the summer of 1888. Reasoning that most of southern Idaho’s opposition came from the citizens of Boise, he suggested dual capitals of Nevada in Boise and Carson City.

Idahoans, however, still preferred statehood and Stewart’s proposals died in Congress. In 1890, Idaho was finally admitted as the 43rd state.

A few years ago, there were discussions about moving the capital to Las Vegas, home of most of the state’s population. The state Legislature responded by scheduling more hearings in Las Vegas during its biannual sessions.

Maybe that’s why Las Vegas lost interest.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Sweet Sights of Cherry Creek

You won’t find any cherries at the old mining town of Cherry Creek.

He town, in fact, is named after the small creek of the same name that runs through it. The creek apparently gained its name, according to local legend, because it flows from a nearby canyon that once contained either wild cherry trees or chokecherry bushes.

Located about an hour north of Ely in Eastern Nevada, Cherry Creek traces its beginnings to the early 1870s, when gold and silver were discovered in the area.

Within a few months, more than 1,000 prospectors had rushed into the region to make their fortunes. By the middle of 1873, Cherry Creek had developed to the point of having a post office, a Wells Fargo office, a couple of saloons, and several other businesses.

For much of the next decade, the town had its ups and downs but generally thrived as the mines produced thousands of dollars in gold and silver ore. A couple of large stamp mills were constructed to process the ore in the late 1870s.

Promising new discoveries in the early 1880s created more interest in Cherry Creek and several businesses from other Eastern Nevada mining towns relocated to Cherry Creek, convinced it was going to be the next Virginia City.

Among the businesses to move into the booming mining town was the White Pine News, a newspaper that had formerly been published in the mining town of Hamilton.

Things were looking so good for Cherry Creek that in 1882, the town made an attempt to claim the white pine county seat from Hamilton, which was in decline. Unfortunately for Cherry Creek, it, too, was entering a mining slump. When the county seat was finally moved in 1887, it was the copper mining boomtown of Ely that became the new county seat and not Cherry Creek.

Cherry Creek’s fortunes, in fact, were changing. Less valuable ore was being extracted and, unlike in the past, no new significant ore bodies were being discovered. By the mid-1890s, mining had virtually ceased in the Cherry Creek district and the town’s population had dropped to a couple of hundred optimistic souls.

But it’s hard to keep some mining towns down. In 1905, the district revived with several new discoveries.

When the Nevada Northern Railway was being constructed from Ely to connect to the Southern Pacific Railroad line at Cobre, its builders decided to pass through Cherry Creek. This not only provided a cheap and easy way to ship ore from the town but it linked Cherry Creek to the outside world.

Unfortunately, the mining revival was short lived and, by 1910, the town was again economically depressed. It experienced another brief revival from 1933 to 1940, but then the mines were closed during World War II. To date, most have never reopened. In recent decades, there has been small-scale mining in the area but no major commercial operations.

A visit to Cherry Creek offers a rare opportunity to see a relatively intact old-time Nevada mining community. Newer homes, mostly either mobile homes or plywood structures, are interspersed with the brick, stone, mud, and wooden ruins of earlier economic boom times.

In some cases, newer structures were simply added onto an older building, creating a cacophony of building materials and architectural styles.

Wandering the dirt streets of the old mining town, you can find plenty of long abandoned homes and buildings.

In many places, you’ll find an unusually large number of decaying sod houses, built by the 19th century miners. These habitats were constructed partially into the ground or into a hillside, and had wooden beam roofs, on which panels of grass or sod were placed. The result is a structure that looks a bit like a crude Hobbit house, half-buried in the ground with a wooden door and wooden interior walls and floors.

Other Cherry Creek houses were no more than tiny wooden shacks with corrugated metal roofs. If you peek into the window of one of these now-abandoned buildings you might still see old furnishings, such as a rusted metal bed frame, a worn mattress, a warped wooden table and torn curtains.

The weathered, exterior wooden walls have a wonderful texture to them that seems to say much about Cherry Creek’s rich past.

One of the more impressive ruins is a solid-looking, red brick house at the north end of the town, which, while exposed to the elements because the windows and doors are long gone, still manages to offer a glimpse into the lifestyles of Cherry Creek’s pioneers.

In this case, you can still find the remains of curtains fluttering in the broken windows and inside there is still wallpaper on the walls.

In the back, the old wooden outhouse has fallen over but since it had two-seats—you know someone of substance once lived here.

A handful of Cherry Creek’s buildings show the influence of the railroad. These buildings, which include the old jail, are constructed of large, sturdy railroad ties.

In the center of the town you can find what’s left of the old commercial center, including a large, red freight barn, and the Cherry Creek Saloon, which is still open for business.

Across the street from the bar, are the foundations of several other stone buildings, other remnants of the town’s once substantial business district. An historic marker adjacent to the ruins tells about Cherry Creek.

On the west edge of town is the old Cherry Creek schoolhouse, still in good shape, which now houses a small museum. Inside, you can find an assortment of antiques including old bicycles, mining equipment, clothing, and furniture, all from Cherry Creek’s past. The museum is open on weekends during the summer months.

On a hill just south of town, with a beautiful view of the surrounding Steptoe Valley, you can find the Cherry Creek cemeteries. Divided by religious and ethnic groups, the various cemeteries contain dozens of worn wooden and elegant marble tombstones.

Adjacent to the cemeteries is a rundown, single-story, log cabin structure, which carries a sign designating it as the town jail.

It certainly makes you think twice about a life of crime.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Soaking in Spencer Hot Springs

As one of the most active geothermal regions, Nevada is blessed with dozens of natural warm and hot springs. Throughout the state you can find small pools of warm and hot water, some of which are safe enough for a soothing soak.

However, always check with local folks or refer to a good hot spring guidebook before dipping into one of these holes because some are scalding hot.

One of the more accessible of these natural hot tubs is Spencer Hot Springs, a geothermal swimming hole located about 20 miles southeast of Austin in the northern part of the Big Smoky Valley.

Spencer Hot Springs isn’t much to look at—a crude pool dug in the ground with a partial wooden deck. The pool is surrounded by chalky alkali ground covered with sagebrush and assorted grasses.

Hot water pours from a rusted pipe to a smaller pool above the main dipping pool. A faucet between the two allows soakers to regulate the heat of the water in the lower pool. Another pipe sends overflow water to a swampy area below the pool.

Since the setting is so rustic, don’t expect any amenities at Spencer. This is no resort spa—it’s just you and the hot water. Additionally, always test the heat of the water before climbing into the pool to make sure you can tolerate the heat.

And since many of Nevada's hot springs pools are located in far off places, carry a few survival essentials such as an inflated spare tire (we had a flat tire right after visiting Spencer a couple of years ago!) as well as sufficient gas, water, matches and a sleeping bag or blankets (just in case you have car trouble and can’t drive out).

Interestingly, there are hot springs fans that travel around the West, moving from pool to pool. A couple of years ago, I stopped at Spencer and discovered a retired couple from England camping in their RV at the site.

After awhile, a second RV pulled up, driven by a long-haired, bearded man. As he climbed out of his vehicle, he recognized the older couple. It turns out that they had met at a hot springs in Mexico the previous year.

One of the best things about soaking in Spencer, however, is that most of the time you’re the only person there. You can sit back in the pool, relax in the warm water and enjoy a magnificent view of the wide, open Big Smoky Valley. And it’s free.

To reach Spencer Hot Springs, travel about 14 miles east of Austin on U.S. 50 to the point where it intersects with State Route 376 (the road to Tonopah). Turn south on 376, then after about a tenth of a mile, take an immediate left onto a dirt road (marked by an historical marker for Toquima Cave).

Travel six miles on the dirt road, then turn left onto another dirt road and head toward a small rise. Spencer Hot Springs is located on the eastside of the mound.

Two of the best sources of information about regional hot springs "Hot Springs of Nevada" by George Williams III and "Touring Nevada and California Hot Springs" by Matt Bischoff. Both are available from Amazon books.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

A Little Piece of Heaven?

My wife and I own a parcel of land in the middle of nowhere. It’s not really the middle of nowhere—it just has a remarkable resemblance to the middle of nowhere. And for years we have paid taxes on it.

Specifically, it is ten acres of sagebrush and dirt located in the Dun Glen Flat/Buena Vista Valley region, about halfway between Lovelock and Winnemucca.

The roots of this little piece of virtual nothingness can be traced back to the late 1960s, when my wife’s parents purchased this parcel—generously described as a “ranchero” in the promotional literature.

The original agreement for the sale of the land, located about a dozen miles south of Mill City, off State Route 400 (the road leading to the ghost town of Unionville), officially describes it as: “The E 1/2 of S1/2 of SW1/4 of NW 1/4 of Sec.27, R35E, T32N, MDBM, of Pershing County, Nevada, 10 acres. (13-E).”

In the early 1990s, my father-in-law turned over the title to the parcel to my wife, who later added me to the deed.

For many years, we’ve joked about our little plot in Pershing County. We’ve kidded each other about one day retiring to our hunk of undeveloped dirt that has no water, electricity, or other improvements.

So, one day we decided to check out our humble estate. My wife had actually been out to look over the lot many years ago but I had never had to pleasure of viewing it.

We headed east of Reno on the interstate, traveling about 93 miles to Lovelock (where we stopped for ice cream). We continued east on I-80 for another 42 miles to the Mill City exit. There, we headed south on SR 400.

A crude map in our files indicated that the parcel was about 12 miles south of Mill City, apparently some unknown distance from the highway.

Despite having the helpful and detailed deed description (you know—“The E 1/2 of S 1/2 etc.”), we quickly realized that other than two or three fairly large ranches, there wasn’t much to differentiate one parcel from another in the Dun Glen Flat or adjacent Buena Vista Valley.

In fact, we had a hard time finding our little ten acres tucked in the middle of the tens of thousands of barren, vacant acreage out there.

At one point, a local rancher came along in his truck as we stood by the side of the road scanning the vast open space for some clue as to the site of our land (I guess we were expecting a big sign or a neon arrow or something . . .)and asked if we needed help.

We told him about our quest to locate our land and described what we were looking for. He scratched his head thinking about it for a moment and then remembered that the only ten-acre lots were a few miles north, near what one of our road atlases called the Star Creek Ranch.

He said nearly all the rest of the lots in the valley that weren’t part of larger ranches were a minimum of 20 acres.

We drove back to the spot he had indicated and looked out over the desert. Just beyond a barbed wire fence we could see a series of either power-line or telephone poles stretching north to south, seemingly forever.

All of the land around us was cracked and dry, with the general flatness broken by occasional gray-green mounds of scruffy sagebrush. Here and there, you could see rocks peeking through the thin, yellow-brown grass that barely covered the ground.

In the distance, we could see a large patch of green—apparently the Star Creek Ranch grew alfalfa.

Unable to determine exactly which vacant acreage was our ten acres, we wandered into the desert for a little while—and imagined we were looking at our land.

I tried to envision where we would put the carport, the swimming pool and the satellite dish. A fishing pond might be nice.

In the end, I decided that it was enough just knowing that somewhere out there was ten acres of land that was all our's.

Even if I couldn’t tell exactly where.