Sunday, November 30, 2008

Nature's Sand Box Offers Plenty of Fun

Perhaps the best way to look at Sand Mountain is as a giant sand box—and even adults get to play in it.

Located 32 miles east of Fallon on U.S. 50, Sand Mountain is actually a massive sand dune that rises about 600 feet above the surrounding desert floor.

The dune was formed from sand from the surrounding flats, which were once part of an ancient inland sea called Lake Lahontan. About 4,000 years ago, the lake dried up, leaving behind the sandy lake bottom.

Over centuries, the dried sand was blown against nearby Stillwater Range, accumulating into a huge mound.

In other words, Sand Mountain is a giant beach without the ocean.

Not surprisingly, the mountain and surrounding area has become a recreational play land.

The mountain is an off-roaders dream. Any day, the dune is dotted with specialized two, three and four-wheel motorized bikes and dune buggies skirting across its sandy surface.

The buggies and bikes race up the steep slopes of the mountain, sometimes appearing to be nearly vertical as they rapidly climb above the valley floor.

If they’re not powerful enough, they lose momentum and begin to fall earthward. But if they’re strong enough, they fly over the narrow ridge at the top of the mountain and descend down the backside.

Of course, if you don't own a sand-friendly vehicle, you can always try to bum a ride off one of the sand jockeys buzzing up the mountain—most are pretty amenable to passengers. The trip up the steep sides of Sand Mountain is at once breathtaking and a bit frightening.

The mountain has also become a haven for extreme athletes participating in the relatively new sport known as sandboarding. Basically, sandboarding is riding down the dune’s slopes on a smooth-bottomed sandboard at very high speeds—kind of like snowboarding on sand.

The mountain, in fact, has become so renowned for its speedy slopes that each fall some of the world’s most experienced sandboarders compete in the Sand Mountain Open. During recent events, boarders achieved speeds in excess of 45 miles per hour during some of their runs.

In addition to hosting all those sand-recreationalists, the mountain has certain other, unique qualities. For instance, it produces a booming sound when you walk on it (the sound is said to be a result of air being pushed through the sand by your weight) and at night when the wind blows across the sand the mountain is said to be singing.

According to some folk stories, the Native Americans who lived in the region believed the booming noise was made by the god of the dune and generally avoided it.

The Sand Mountain Recreation Area encompasses 4,795 acres and is managed by the U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management.

Camping, including in RVs, is allowed in a designated area near the base of the mountain. Services are quite limited although there is a vault toilet and a solar-powered pay telephone near the highway (it’s billed as “the Loneliest Phone on the Loneliest Road”).

Visitors should bring their own water for washing and drinking. While fires are allowed, no wood is available (and there certainly aren’t any trees in the area).

Best time of the year to visit Sand Mountain is in the spring and fall (it can be a little hot and windy in the summer and cold and wet in the winter).

For more information about Sand Mountain contact the Bureau of Land Management, Carson City District office, 1535 Hot Springs Road, Suite 300, Carson City, NV 89706-0638, 775-885-6000.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Searching for Pine Grove

While it once boasted its own newspaper and stagecoach line, the northeastern Nevada mining camp of Pine Grove, near Yerington, is mostly a forgotten historical footnote these days.

Pine Grove is located about 26 miles south of Yerington. To reach it, head 11 miles south on State Route 208, then turn onto an unmarked but well maintained dirt road. Follow the dirt road for 11 miles, then turn right on Pine Grove Mine Road (it’s marked). Continue west for four miles to the remains of Pine Grove.

The town is located in Pine Grove Canyon, a heavily wooded, ruggedly beautiful slash in the eastern slopes of the Pine Grove Hills. The journey up into the canyon passes through scenic, craggy cliffs and gullies.

William Wilson originally discovered gold in the canyon in 1866. A second mine, called the Wheeler Mine, was started soon after and within two years there were two large mills in operation, a post office, a weekly newspaper and a population of about 300.

Additionally, a stage and freight line was established, which connected the mining camp to nearby Wellington in the Smith Valley. By the early 1870s, the town claimed some 600 people and a variety of businesses, ranging from saloons and hotels to a school and blacksmith shop.

By 1893, the Wilson mine had produced more than $5 million, while the Wheeler generated some $3 million, both largely in gold ore with traces of silver. The mines began to decline just before that time although there was activity in 1900 and again in 1910.

While smaller mining operators continued to work the old tailing piles for a number of years, most significant activity ended by 1918. The dirt road leading to the town was built in 1904 during one of the later mining revivals.

Today, Pine Grove is only a shadow of its former glory, but still claims enough to make it interesting. At the east end of the town, visitors will find an informative historic marker adjacent to the stone remains of a former building.

A little farther up the canyon you can find the remains of a leaching operation from the 1960s. Fortunately, the more modern mining work did not destroy a fine wooden and rusted iron stamp mill, still standing on a hill, or the horizontal mining shafts that reach deep into the mountainside.

One hole was particularly interesting because of an intricate stone wall that had been constructed near the entrance (perhaps once part of a building at the opening of the mine).

Of course, as with any abandoned shaft, it's safe to look at from a distance, but never enter the mine. Additionally, the shafts and stamp mill are located on marked, private property.

About a quarter-of-a-mile from the mining area are the best remains of Pine Grove. Here, you will still find two fairly well preserved wooden structures, one apparently an old boarding house or hotel, while the other appears to have been a garage or storage building. Again, look, but don't touch.

If you wander through the high sagebrush around the town's remains, it's also still possible to find the remnants of other buildings, such as partial walls and stone foundations.

Directly east of the center of the former town, you'll also pass the ruins of a more recent placer operation (they appear to be from the 1960s mining efforts). Here, the rusting remains of various mechanical processing machines have become the newest ghostly remains at Pine Grove.

A good map showing how to reach the Pine Grove area can be found in Stanley Paher’s Illustrated Nevada Ghost Towns and Mining Camps Atlas available at Nevada bookstores or from Nevada Publications, 1-775-747-0800.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Time Stands Still in McGill

If you visited the former mining town of McGill two decades ago or three decades ago it would look pretty much like it does today.

Certainly, a few more businesses would be open and there might be a bit more foot and car traffic, particularly if the smelter was still operating, but it wouldn’t appear much different from how it looks now.

And that’s the secret of McGill—despite all the changes in the world, it has remained relatively unchanged.

Located 12 miles north of Ely via U.S. Highway 93, McGill is one of the best examples of a company town in the state. For many years, nearly everyone who lived there worked for the mining company, which was originally called the Steptoe Valley Mining & Smelter Company and later the Kennecott Copper Corporation.

Founded in 1906, McGill was first a tent city that rose in the flats near where the Steptoe Valley Mining Company built a massive smelter. The smelter melted copper ore mined in nearby Ruth and was part of the process of extracting the metal from the rock.

Within a year, however, more substantial houses were erected for the mining company officials and a small business district began to take shape.

To provide housing for workers, the company also began building modest wooden homes for them—hence the identical, cookie-cutter appearance of many of the small, older houses found in McGill.

In 1908, the Nevada Northern Railway was extended through McGill on its journey to Cobre, a transfer point on the Southern Pacific Railroad, located about 130 miles north of Ely.

By the 1920s, McGill had grown to rival nearby Ely as the largest town in White Pine County. Even a disastrous fire in 1922, which destroyed much of the smelting complex, didn't slow McGill, which peaked in 1930 when the town had more than 3,000 residents.

The unusually long life of the Ruth/Ely area's copper mines contributed to McGill's longevity. For much of the next fifty years, McGill maintained a relatively steady population of about 2,000 people, most working for the smelter.

During its more than 70-year mining boom, McGill acquired many of the trappings of community, including churches, a newspaper, a movie theater, a large brick school and a municipal swimming pool—actually an Olympic-size, old-fashioned watering hole.

Additionally, as a result of the mining company's aggressive recruitment of new immigrants, McGill became one of Nevada's most ethnically diverse communities. Large numbers of Greeks, Irish, Slavs and other newcomers to the America found their way to McGill to work at the smelter.

But, as with all mining towns, when the mines closed, the jobs disappeared. In this case, McGill's day of reckoning came in the early 1980s when Kennecott closed its eastern Nevada operations, including the smelter.

Much of the town's population began to drift away during the 1980s. Construction of a state prison in the late 1980s did bring an influx of new people to McGill but not enough to change it.

In 1993, Kennecott cleared away the remains of the old smelter complex, including the giant smokestack. The site is now a graded field.

Today, while McGill hasn't recovered from the loss of the smelter, it is certainly in better shape than a few years ago. Many of the old company homes have been repainted and fixed up by new residents.

The downtown business district, however, remains a mix of shuttered buildings and hardy survivors, including the McGill Drug Store Museum at 11 Fourth Street (U.S. 93).
McGill’s unchanging nature is perhaps best represented by the drug store museum, which opened in 1915 and operated continuously until 1979.

Gerald and Elsa Culbert owned the store from 1950 until it was closed following Gerald’s death. In 1995, the Culbert’s children donated the drug store, which still contained its complete inventory on the shelves, to the White Pine County Museum for preservation and display.

These days, visitors can tour this fully intact, 20th century, small town drug store, which still has an operating soda fountain. The museum is open by appointment (call 775-235-7082).

It's proof that not much has changed in McGill.

For more information about McGill contact the White Pine Public Museum, 2000 Aultman St., Ely, NV 89301, 775-289-4710,

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Aurora Now Little More Than a Memory

“Aurora's gone now, torn down for the bricks not long after the old man and I made our pilgrimage. The buildings are now a row of factory chimneys in California” — David Toll, “The Compleat Nevada Traveler”

No place deserves the sad fate of Aurora. A thriving mining camp with more than 10,000 people in the 1860s, Aurora is one of Nevada’s lost historic sites.

The remnants of Aurora can be found about 30 miles southwest of Hawthorne via State Route 359, Lucky Boy Pass Road and a dirt road marked for Aurora. The road is rocky, so a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle is needed.

Gold and silver were first found in the Aurora area in August of 1860. Within a short time, hundreds of miners were streaming into the region to make their fortunes.

According to early records, the discovery site was named Aurora, meaning “Goddess of the Dawn,” while the mining district was named “Esmeralda,” in honor of the groves of piƱon trees that covered the surrounding hills.

By 1861, the new town had grown to about 2,000 residents. It had tent saloons and restaurants, shops, more than a half dozen stamp mills to process ore and regular stagecoach service from Carson City.

All that development soon attracted the attention of both California and Nevada. In the spring of 1861, California created Mono County and named Aurora as the seat. A few months later, Nevada responded by naming it the seat of Esmeralda County.

The battle over Aurora’s status continued for nearly two years, during which time there were dual county courts and officials. The matter was finally resolved in October 1863, when both states agreed to an impartial state boundary survey. When it was completed, Aurora was found to be four miles inside of Nevada.

Aurora’s fame spread and in April 1862, a young Samuel Clemens arrived in the camp to mine for gold. Clemens stayed in Aurora for several months and during that time did a little prospecting, speculated on mining stock and began sending humorous mining camp letters to Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, under the pen name, “Josh.”

Impressed by his writing, the Enterprise offered Clemens a job, which he accepted. Once at the Enterprise, he began writing under his more famous pen name, Mark Twain.

Aurora prospered during the next few years. By the middle of 1863, it had grown to a veritable city, with nearly two dozen saloons and stores, two newspapers, a dozen hotels, 16 mills and nearly 10,000 people.

Like many mining towns, however, much of the wealth was temporary. Rampant mining stock speculation, overbuilding and overly optimistic projections of the area’s mineral reserves had created an artificial boom. By early 1865, the town had started to decline, losing half its population and businesses.

Aurora experienced a second, smaller boom in the late 1870s, but by 1883 had dwindled so much that nearby Hawthorne was able to take away the county seat. The post office closed in 1897.

But Aurora wasn't finished. Just after the turn of the century, the mines were reopened and the town once again came alive. By 1906, several hundred people had moved back into Aurora, which again had a post office, newspaper and other businesses.

This later boom lasted until about 1919, after which Aurora slipped away for good. In the late 1940s, scavengers leveled the town’s remaining buildings to reuse the bricks in California.

Today, there isn’t much remaining of Aurora. Even the quiet ambiance of the area has been permanently shattered by the presence of large modern mining operations, which have gouged holes in the surrounding hills.

Wandering the townsite, you can still find a few wooden shacks, cement walls, the remains of an 1897 stamp, foundations, cellars and a couple of stone walls.

The best testimonial to the town’s prominence is found in the large cemetery grounds, located on the hills to the north. There, you can find the impressive final resting place of a Nevada State Senator and a handful of other obviously noteworthy folks.

There are extensive mill foundations adjacent to the town site, overlooking one of the many huge open pits.

Additionally, you can find the picturesque stone and rusted metal remains of an old smelter or kiln in the canyon, alongside the road leading into Aurora. Wooden troughs show where a small creek was diverted to provide water.

Across the road from the smelter ruins, half hidden in the trees, you can also find some beautiful clay cliffs that resemble those found at Cathedral Gorge State Park in Eastern Nevada.

Aurora is only 13 miles from the ghost town of Bodie, now a California State Park. You can drive between the two, along the Bodie Creek, but the seasonal road, which parallels a creek, is extremely primitive and requires a four-wheel drive vehicle.