Friday, December 25, 2009

Finding the 'Real Nevada'

Several years ago, a Canadian writer asked me to take him on a trip to see “the real Nevada.” In particular, he wanted to see a ghost town and wild horses.

He also said he would like to meet someone who lived in a ghost town—although, of course, if someone lived there it wouldn’t be a ghost town—because he had always wondered what it would be like to live so far from the loud noises, traffic and crowds of cities.

We set out from Tonopah on a cool October morning, driving east on Highway 6, then north on state route 376, before turning northeast onto the road leading to Belmont. We passed no traffic that day; our only companions a handful of bleached, cotton-swab clouds floating overhead.

The land was wide and open, so much so that the writer remarked that he was working on a book about the Trans-Canadian Highway, of which he said the area reminded him.
“Sometimes, you can see wild horses out around here,” I said, eyes scanning the seemingly endless miles of empty, rolling hills. “But probably not today.”

Suddenly, a small herd of seven horses led by a beautiful white stallion, appeared from behind one of those hills and began pacing our vehicle.

"“Do you want me to stop so you can get a picture?” I asked.

“No, they'll be gone before I could shoot it. Let’s just keep driving. They’re very beautiful,” he said.

“I wish I could take credit for them,” I said as I silently thanked whatever higher power had produced these magnificent animals at the moment I needed them.

For another several minutes, we watched in silent admiration as the horses raced across the sagebrush. Then, they disappeared in a hidden creek bed and were gone.

A few minutes later, we reached the outskirts of Belmont. We spotted a stout red brick smokestack and decided to investigate. Parking the car, we walked through the sagebrush to the ruins of the Belmont-Monitor Mill.

As we gingerly stepped around and over the scattered chunks of wood and piles of what appeared to be crushed red bricks, I heard a slapping noise overhead.

I looked up into the cloudless blue sky and saw a bird flying overhead. I realized the source of the strange sound: it was so quiet and peaceful that you could hear the sound of a bird’s wings hitting the air.

We returned to the car and drove to the center of Belmont. Ahead, we could see buildings strung alongside the road and, behind them, other structures—some looking relatively new and others appearing to be very, very old.

We parked the car just west of the buildings and, as we climbed out, a man with a thick, gray beard, wearing a red-checked shirt with suspenders holding up a pair of baggy, gray pants, appeared from a small, green trailer.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. There was the strong smell of sagebrush about him—as if he’d just rolled in the stuff.

“We just wanted to do a little exploring and take a few pictures. We’re writers,” I explained.

“Well, okay, but just don’t touch anything,” he said gruffly, then disappeared into his trailer.

Careful to respect his wishes, we gingerly walked the main street. A handful of crumbling brick and wooden facades stood on either side of us. Most seemed ready to topple. North of the main street was the two-story brick Belmont Courthouse, built in 1876.

We circled the ruins, each shooting plenty of photos, entranced by the mood of the place.

After a time, we both started back to the car. There was a cemetery near the entrance to the town we wanted to visit. I turned the car around and started to head away from the main street when the old man, who appeared to be the town’s only resident, appeared from his trailer and waved for me to stop.

“Excuse me,” he said, after he walked over to my open window. “Could you please tell me what time it is?”

“It’s about four o'clock,” I answered.

He thanked me and turned to walk back to his trailer. I started to drive away, then saw him in the rearview mirror, again waving to get my attention. I backed the car to where he was standing.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Could you tell me what day it is?”

So I told him.

That’s when we both knew what it must be like to live so far away from loud noises, traffic, crowds—and, obviously, clocks.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mysteries and Legends of Nevada News

The Western Illinois University University Relations office put out a nice release on "Mysteries and Legends of Nevada." Check it out at:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nevada's Bawdy Basque Carvings

Bright sunlight filters through hundreds of towering, bare aspen trees. A soft wind shakes the rounded leaves, causing a few more to join the crunchy carpet of fallen plant debris covering the ground.

Then I see what I'm looking for and begin to chuckle. It's a crude, stick figure carving on one of the aspen of a man sitting before a piano on what appears to be a toilet seat. Carved above the foot-high image are the words: "E.M. 1932 . . . Playing the piano."

High above the east shore of Lake Tahoe, near Spooner Summit, is one of those unique places that make Nevada such a fascinating place to live. In this case, it's a grove of aspen trees in a high mountain meadow that once served as a summer range for Basque sheepherders and their flocks.

While not the only one found at the lake—in fact, aspen groves featuring Basque "graffiti" can be found in dozens of mountain ranges in the state—this particular place is one of the older and larger of these outdoor galleries.

The origin of these drawings has to do with the long stretches of time that Basque sheepherders spent alone, tending their flocks.

To pass the time, many would carve initials, dates and other messages in the white bark of the aspen trees. Naturally, like spray-painted graffiti on a building wall in a large city, some of these doodlings would pertain to what was on the mind of the artist.

Wandering through the Spooner aspen grove (as I'll call this area), it's possible to find dozens of carvings. While a few are rather ribald -- and reveal an excellent grasp of both male and female anatomy -- others offer more intriguing information, such as initials and dates going back seventy and eighty years.

My particular favorite, apparently also carved by the multi-talented "E.M.," depicts a man riding on a horse. Dated August 21, 1932, the drawing is detailed enough to reveal the hat and scarf on the man as well as a saddle, whip and reins.

Another interesting carving shows a fairly detailed representation of the flag of Spain, with the words, "Espana, June 25, 1939," followed by words that are difficult to decipher (possibly Basque or Spanish words). Still others simply show carvings of men in striped shirts with cowboy hats.

After weaving for a time through the thickly wooded grove, it becomes apparent that the trees are a veritable white bark chalkboard of designs, words and drawings. In a few cases, the trees have become so old (aspen live to be about 90 years) that the bark has grown around the carvings, making them impossible to read.

The Spooner grove, like others in the Sierra Nevada, were part of a cycle common among those raising sheep in Nevada. In the winter, the sheep would be kept in the desert valleys, which were warmer and more habitable than the higher elevations.

However, in the summer months, the sheepherders would move the flocks into the mountains to fatten on the thicker grasses found in the mountain meadows.

To reach the Spooner grove, travel west of Carson City on Highway 50. At the point where the road splits, heading north to Incline Village and south to Stateline, continue north for about a quarter-mile. Turn left just before the Spooner Summit Nevada Department of Transportation Maintenance Station and drive to the back of the facility.

There, you will find a paved road identified as Road 14N32. Follow the road for about three-quarters of a mile (it quickly becomes a dirt road). At that point, you reach a fork in the road and take the route to the right (you will pass a "1" painted on a tree about a fifth-of-a-mile from the fork).

From here, continue for about a mile, making sure you go left when you reach a second fork in the road (there are orange and black signs with arrows pointing to the left road).

About another quarter-of-a-mile from the second fork, you'll see a large lava rock formation to the right and the Spooner aspen grove on the left.

While the road is passable for vehicles with high clearance, a good way to visit is by hiking in the two miles from the maintenance station.

For more information, contact the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, 1536 S. Carson Street, Carson City, 775-882-2766.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Fading Ruins of the Old Mining Town of Seven Troughs

The site of Seven Troughs is evidence of the temporary nature of mining camps. With only a few stone foundations and a rusting headframe to mark its location, it won’t be long before it is completely unmarked.

Seven Troughs is located about 30 miles northwest of Lovelock. To reach the site, head directly north of central Lovelock on State Route 398 (North Meridian Road), then turn west on SR 399. Continue for 27 miles, following the signs.

Gold was discovered in the Seven Troughs Canyon in 1905 (the surrounding mountain range is also named Seven Troughs). Within two years, the area experienced a boom, which attracted several hundred miners.

The mines were considered reasonably remarkable, producing more than $100,000 per ton (in turn-of-the-century dollars). By 1908, a town had developed that included a post office, saloons, cafes, hotels, a school district, a water company and various shops.

Regular freight wagons carried supplies to and from the railroad station at Lovelock. In 1911, the "Kindergarten Mill," a 50-ton cyanide processing plant, was built at the east end of the town.

Photos from that time (several are featured in Stanley Paher's excellent book, "Nevada Ghost Towns and Mining Camps") depict a substantial community of more than a dozen wooden commercial buildings, lining the canyon, with a handful of homes on the surrounding hillside.

The town prospered for nearly a decade, then began a rapid decline after 1918, when the ore was depleted. By the 1920s, Seven Troughs was abandoned.

Today, visitors must travel a fairly lonely road to reach the remains of Seven Troughs. After first driving about 12 miles on a paved highway (399), you must turn right (there's a sign indicating the way to Seven Troughs) onto a maintained dirt road.

Continue for about 10 miles across the wide expanse of the appropriately named Sage Valley. At this point, you will see a small cluster of buildings under some mature green trees. This is the site of Mazuma, another early 20th century mining town.

The homes and buildings are on private property please so don't disturb the residents.
The dirt road to Seven Troughs continues northwest from here (you'll find another sign). These last few miles are more rugged and a four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended.

You start passing some of the visible "trash" frequently found near these old mining camps, including an old safe, piles of rusted metal refuse and mounds of mineral tailings lining the canyon walls.

About two miles from Mazuma you reach the stone foundations of an old mill site, adjacent to the road. Scattered throughout the area are other fragments, including old wood, tin sheets, brown rusted metal hoops and other materials.

On a hillside, across a deep gully in the center of the canyon, is a rusted headframe, which, upon closer scrutiny, appears to be of more recent vintage (it doesn't, however, look to have been used in at least a few decades).

Next to the headframe is an old metal shack that appears to still contain a generator with cables leading into a vertical mine shaft. Naturally, be very careful when exploring any site, like this, that contains open mine shafts.

Farther up the canyon are a couple of mounds of weathered wood, which, from studying the old photos, seem to be the collapsed ruins of two old miner's shacks.

From the look of the canyon, it was probably fortunate Seven Troughs didn't develop into much of a permanent community. The terrain shows indications of having been scarred by flashfloods that have swept through the area over the years.

For more information about Seven Troughs, contact the Lovelock/Pershing County Chamber of Commerce, Box 821, Lovelock, NV 89419, 775-273-7213.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Visit Winnemucca's Humboldt County Museum

People in Winnemucca like to say their town was the crossroads of early Nevada—-and they’re not wrong.

Winnemucca was founded in the late 1850s by a Frenchman named Joe Ginacca who settled on the banks of the Humboldt River and traded with pioneers heading west on the Emigrant Trail to California and Oregon.

Ginacca also operated a ferry service and transported wagons across the Humboldt. In time, the settlement became known as French Ford, after Ginacca.

By the mid-1860s, French Ford had a small hotel and a bridge over the river. The town began to grow rapidly after gold and silver were discovered in the region, at places like Unionville, and the settlement became the supply center for local mines.

In 1868, the Central Pacific Railroad reached the community, which was renamed Winnemucca in honor of a famous Paiute chief. The railroad brought additional jobs (switching crews were stationed in the town) and linked the town to the rest of the country.

While Unionville was named the first seat of Humboldt County in the mid-1860s, the mining camp’s decline resulted in the county seat being moved to Winnemucca in 1872.

One of the best places to learn about Winnemucca’s role in the development of Nevada is the Humboldt Historical Museum on Jungo Road, just north of downtown Winnemucca.

Established in the 1970s, the museum consists of several buildings housing exhibits detailing various aspects of the region’s history. It hosts nearly 8,000 visitors per year.

The museum’s centerpiece is the historic St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, a quaint whitewashed, one-room church built in 1907. The building—the oldest church in Winnemucca—is jammed with displays ranging from historic Native American objects to vintage furniture.

Wandering through the old church, you can find a large collection of arrowheads and spear points from the area, some more than 5,000 years old. Adjacent is a display describing the Lovelock Cave, an archaeological site that has yielded hundreds of prehistoric Indian artifacts including net fragments, shells and duck decoys made from tule reeds.

Other items displayed in the church include: a nice rock collection with petrified wood and fossils; a 19th century oak desk with an antique Remington typewriter, both of which were used by the railroad for more than 60 years; and a display about Edna Purviance, a silent movie star who hailed from Humboldt County.

One exhibit details the last Indian battle in the U.S., which occurred north of Winnemucca. The event occurred in January 1911 and involved a local Native American known as Shoshone Mike, who, with a handful of family members and friends, attempted to avoid living on an Indian reservation. After being unjustly accused of a crime, Shoshone Mike and most of his band were hunted down and killed during a shoot-out.

The former church altar now contains historic furniture such as an ornate, hand-carved chair made by a Chinese laborer who came to Winnemucca while working on construction of the railroad. It was built for the Episcopalian minister, who added elaborate tapestry cushioning.

Behind the church building is a modern brick structure that houses the museum’s vintage automobile collection. Among the vehicles on display is a red 1901 Merry Oldsmobile, the first auto in Humboldt County.

Other cars in the collection include a 1911 Fearless Cycle Car, a compact car made with a motorcycle engine, 1907 Schacht and a 1910 Brush truck. There is also a large black horse buggy, which dates to the 1860s. A large mural behind the autos depicts Winnemucca in 1912.

Other historical items on display include the first organ in Humboldt County, which was manufactured in the mid-1860s, and an antique Melodian, which was the first musical instrument in the old mining camp of Unionville.

The museum grounds also contain a picturesque 19th century grain shop, which was the first store in the community. Today, the wooden building, which has a classic frontier false front, houses the museum thrift shop.

The Humboldt County Historic Museum is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 1 to 4 p.m. (May through October). There is no admission charge but donations are accepted. For more information, call the museum at 775-623-2912.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Discover Burney Falls: the 'Eighth Wonder of the World'

Nevada’s such a dry place that seeing a waterfall can be a novelty. And while Burney Falls is not in Nevada, it’s located close enough to Northern Nevada to make for an interesting day trip.

Burney Falls are the centerpiece of the McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, 40 miles north of the Lassen Volcanic National Park.

The 900-acre park (with two miles of frontage along Burney Creek) is located about four hours north of Fallon via U.S. 50 and U.S. 395 to Susanville, then northwest on California State Routes 44 and 89.

Located on scenic Burney Creek, which is part of the Pit River water system, Burney Falls deserves being called the “eighth wonder of the world,” a title bestowed on it in the early 20th century by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Standing before the falls, you can’t help but be impressed by its beauty and power. Water falls 129 feet into a pool that is 22-feet deep. More than 100 million gallons of water flow over the falls daily. On sunlit mornings, rangers note that you can often see a small rainbow created by the fall’s mists.

It is easy to understand why the area’s earliest inhabitants, the Ilmawi tribe, believed the falls to be a sacred place. Native American historians note that the tribe, which considered things of beauty to have great power, used it as a place for meditation and visions.

A quarter-mile paved trail takes visitors from a parking area to the foot of the falls. Looking up into the magnificent waterfall, you realize it consists of not just one large flow but of several that pour over the top as well as out of the sides of the cliff.

The handful of smaller ribbons of water that seem to come out of the center of cliff are actually the flow of an underground stream exposed by erosion of the basalt rock face.

This interesting phenomena means that the falls never stop flowing. During most of the year, the water that flows over the top of the fall is snow melt from nearby mountains. In late summer, however, the creek bed will be bone dry about a half mile upstream but the falls will continue to have water because the stream bed is above this underground acquifer.

Like nearby Lassen National Park, Burney Falls State Park contains many volcanic features. The flat landscape of the park is the result of liquid lava-created plateaus. Additionally, the cliffs of the falls are formed of basalt, a volcanic byproduct.

In addition to the Native American inhabitants, the area was attractive to early European explorers, who trapped along the creek, then later attempted to farm the area. In the late 19th century, a pioneer settler, Issac Ray, built a lumber mill above the falls but that proved financially unsuccessful.

In the early part of this century, a number of hydroelectric dams were built on many branches of the Pit River system, including one that created nearby Lake Britton (the park includes the southern tip of the nine-mile long reservoir).

The falls, however, were saved in 1922 when Frank McArthur deeded them and the surrounding 160 acres to the people of California. He was concerned the beautiful falls might be destroyed for a hydroelectric project, as had occurred at nearby Fall River Mills.

In addition to the falls, the McArthur-Burney park offers developed campgrounds, fishing, picnic tables, boat launch (on Lake Britton), and five miles of hiking trails.
One of the latter takes you to the Pioneer Cemetery where some of the region’s earliest settlers were buried. Additionally, the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Canada to Mexico, passes the west side of the falls before heading to Lake Britton Dam and beyond.

There is a day use fee at the park. Campsite reservations are also available by calling 1-800-444-PARK. For more information contact the McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park, 24898 Hwy. 89, Burney, CA 96013, 530-335-2777.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dayton's Buildings Say Much About the Community

It’s been said that the old mining town of Dayton was the site of many Nevada firsts. It was reportedly the site of the state’s first marriage as well as its first recorded dance, which was apparently attended by nine girls or women—and 150 men.

The community traces its roots to the late 1840s, when gold was discovered in nearby Gold Canyon. A small group of miners began working the canyon, including James “Old Virginny” Finney, namesake for Virginia City, who is buried in the Dayton cemetery.

In addition to the prospectors, Dayton was a stop on the Emigrant Trail for travelers heading to California. An early trading post, known as Hall’s Station, after owner Spafford Hall, was one of the first businesses established in the area.

In 1861, the settlement officially became known as Dayton, after surveyor John Day, who plated the community.
Among its residents in those days was a fairly large population of Chinese, who were brought to the region to build a two-mile water ditch from the mouth of the Carson River Canyon to Gold Canyon. The Chinese also reworked placer gold tailings left behind by other miners.

Several mills were eventually built near Dayton, which became a thriving ore-processing region for Comstock mines. Ruins of one of them, the Rock Point Mill, can be found near the entrance to the Dayton State Park, east of town.

In 1866 and 1870, fire destroyed many of Dayton’s original buildings. Yet despite disasters, calamities, neglect, and the effects of time, you can still wander the narrow streets of Dayton and find a number of historically important buildings that help tell the town’s story.

Begin your tour on Main Street in Dayton’s historic downtown. One of the first buildings you see is the Union Market. Built in the 1860s, this one-story stone structure was a butcher shop until the 1940s.

Adjacent is Daniels Millinery, originally a brewery built in the 1870s. Later used as a general store, this building, which has a wooden overhang, was also used until the 1940s.

Probably the most prominent building on the block is the Union Hotel. This two-story brick structure near the intersection of Main and Pike streets was built in 1870 on the site of an earlier hotel of the same name.

Next to the Union Hotel is a building known as “Dutch's Antiques.” This tiny one-story wooden storefront was built in the late 1870s or early 1880s, and has housed a number of businesses over the years, including a post office and a restaurant.

Adjacent, is the distinctive two-story wood frame Fox Hotel building. Built in 1889, this business operated until 1907.

One of the most impressive historic buildings in Dayton, located on Pike Street (a half-block from the intersection of Pike and Main) is the Odeon Hall. Built in 1870 on the site of two earlier halls, this two-story red brick landmark has appeared in several movies and is now a restaurant and saloon.

A half block east of Odeon Hall, is the former jail and firehouse, a brick structure built in 1870 to house a new fire engine purchased after the 1870 fire.

Nearby is the tiny St. Anne's Catholic Church, built in the late 19th century. Originally located in Yerington, this petite church was moved to Dayton in 1937.

Adjacent to the church is the former Dayton High School, now a community center. Built in 1918 on the site of the former county courthouse, which burned in 1909, the school's designers incorporated the courthouse’s foundations.

The former Dayton Public School, built in 1865, is one of the oldest public school buildings still standing in the state. This solid stone building, which still looks like an old school house, was used as a school until 1959 and is now home of the Dayton Historic Society Museum.

Directly south on Shady Lane is the Bluestone Building (it has the distinctive "Tahoe Beer" sign painted on the side). Built in the 1870s, this stone structure was originally constructed by a mining company that produced copper sulfide or "bluestone," which was used in processing gold and silver ore. Today, it has been restored into county offices.

If you continue driving a half-mile west on Cemetery Road (the Bluestone Building is on the corner of Cemetery and Shady), you reach the Dayton Cemetery. In addition to offering a beautiful view of the surrounding valley, the cemetery features historic porcelain markers on some of the graves of early Italian settlers.

For more information, contact the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, 775-246-7909,

Monday, October 26, 2009

Explore Carson City's Overlooked East Side

Historic State Printing Office, constructed in 1885-86, is on Carson City's East Side.

When the historic Kit Carson Trail on Carson City’s west side was created a few decades ago, it gave the mistaken impression that there wasn’t much history east of Carson Street.

Fortunately, a booklet produced a few years ago, entitled “The Charles W. Friend Trail, An ‘East Side’ Historical Driving Tour of Carson City, Nevada,” sets the record straight.

The book describes more than two dozen government buildings, commercial structures, houses, and sites that are as historic as any found on the other side of the Capital City.

The tour, developed by the Carson City Preservation Coalition, honors Charles W. Friend, who was Nevada’s first weatherman.

In 1875-76, Friend built the state’s first weather observatory, which included a six-inch refracting telescope, on what is now the eastern corner of Stewart and E. King streets.

Friend also built a house adjacent to the domed observatory (today, the site of both buildings is known as the Charles W. Friend Park). After 1887, Friend served as Nevada’s first state weather service director and worked with the Army Signal Corps to set up weather stations throughout the state.

The tour begins at the Nevada State Capitol, which is located on the eastern side of Carson Street. Built in 1870 of native sandstone, the capitol houses a number of exhibits including portraits of all of the state’s governors and a display describing the early history of the state.

Other significant east side sites noted in the book include:

• The Nevada State Printing Office at 100 North Stewart Street was erected in 1885-86. Now incorporated into the Nevada State Library and Archives Complex, the historic two-story building was constructed, like the State Capitol, of sandstone quarried at the Nevada State Prison. Today, it houses the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office and a changing art gallery.

• The Old Armory Building at 406 East Second Street was built in 1882. Originally owned by the Dangberg Land and Livestock Company, it served as the Nevada State National Guard Armory (hence the name) from 1905 to 1978.

• Fred Snyder House at 214 South Pratt Street, built in the 1920s, is one of Carson City’s most interesting homes. Constructed of multi-colored stones, it incorporates the style and architecture of the buildings constructed at the Stewart Indian School. Of course, that’s not surprising since its original owner was Fred Snyder, superintendent of the school from 1919 to 1934. Stone used in the house came from quarries throughout the state.

• Vansickle-Lynch House at 311 Pratt Street is a lovely country Victorian that was constructed in 1906 on the site of a horse race track. Over the years, it has had only two owners, both of which took great pride in the home’s upkeep.

• Leport-Toupin House at 503 East Telegraph is one of only three Second Empire-style homes built in Carson City. Constructed in 1879, it boasts a distinctive mansard roof and projecting dormer windows. Original owner, Alexander Leport, was a prominent early Carson City merchant.

• The Railroad Car House at 708 North Walsh Street is just what the name says. Underneath a number of additions and remodels is an 1872 Virginia & Truckee Railroad baggage and mail car. The car was moved to this site in 1938 and converted into a home for the railroad’s railmaster. It continues to serve as a family home.

• The Paul Laxalt State Building at 401 North Carson Street was erected in 1891. The four-story red-brick Victorian was Nevada’s first federal building, originally housing a post office, federal court offices, U.S. Land office and the U.S. Weather Bureau. Among it’s most prominent features is a three-faced clock in a 106-foot tower. Today, the building houses the Nevada Commission on Tourism and Nevada Magazine.

• The Goni House at 108 E. John Street was built in 1883 and originally located on Minnesota Street. In 1896, it was moved to this location by Emanuel Goni, a prominent Spanish Basque sheep rancher. Still owned by the Goni family, it has been used by commercial businesses in recent years.

Copies of “The Charles W. Friend Trail, An East Side Historical Driving Tour of Carson City, Nevada,” can be purchased for $2.95 from the Nevada State Legislature gift shop.

Friday, October 09, 2009

California Had Several Capitals Before Sacramento

California took its time in deciding where to place its capitol. Before selecting Sacramento as its seat of government, California had a number of earlier capital cities.

For instance, while not technically ever designated the state capital, Monterey hosted the 1849 constitutional convention during which a state constitution was drafted and San Jose was selected as the capitol site.

San Jose held the distinction of being state capital for only two years, from November 13, 1849 to May 1, 1851. During that time, a two-story adobe hotel served as the capitol and two sessions of the state Legislature were held in the city.

Legislators, however, were not impressed with San Jose, which at the time was fairly small and had limited accommodations and services. In 1851, they voted to relocate the capitol to Vallejo.

Unfortunately, Vallejo was equally ill-equipped to serve the legislators—during the 1852 session a steam ship, Empire, served as a kind of floating hotel for many lawmakers. After holding portions of the Third and Fourth Sessions of the Legislature in Vallejo, in 1853 legislators voted to move the capitol to Benicia.

While Benicia, which had a grand new city hall building that doubled as the capitol, was an improvement over the previous capital cities, it was also too small for the growing machinery of state government. During the 1854 session, it was reported that “at least one hundred men had no place to sleep except barrooms of saloons.”

So legislators were relieved when a generous proposal to host the state capitol arrived from the city of Sacramento. The city offered free use of the Sacramento County Courthouse, rooms for state officers, fireproof vaults for records, free moving expenses, and free land for a future capitol building.

On February 25, 1854, Sacramento was officially selected as the state capital. During the next four months, the county courthouse served as the capitol.

On July 13, 1854, however, the courthouse was destroyed by fire. Within a short time, construction began on a new county courthouse, which was completed in January 1855.

This second courthouse served as the state capitol from 1855 to 1869 (with the exception of a four-month period in 1862, when the capitol was temporarily moved to San Francisco due to severe flooding in Sacramento).

Work on a permanent Capitol in Sacramento began in September 1860. Construction would take about 14 years because of funding problems and due to the fact that work had to cease during the wet winter months. Additionally, building materials were often scarce during the Civil War years (1860-65). Finally, in 1874, the Capitol building was completed at a cost of nearly $2.5 million.

Looking at it today, it’s easy to say that California’s State Capitol looks like a capitol. With its classic Roman Corinthian design, thick, granite foundation and 200-foot high golden cupola atop a dome, the building is a textbook image of a statehouse.

These days, the structure, which was restored from 1975-81, also serves as a kind of living history museum that offers an opportunity to learn a bit about our neighboring state.

Most of the building’s rooms, once offices for California state officials, have been lovingly restored with antique furnishings. The basement houses a small theater showing a film about the building of the Capitol, a tour office, historical exhibit rooms, gift shop and a restaurant.

The California State Capitol is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free guided tours are offered. The building is located between 10th and 12th streets and L and N streets in downtown Sacramento. For more information call 916-324-0333,

Friday, October 02, 2009

Ghost Town of Metropolis Continues to Fascinate

In the fall of 2008, visitors to the town of Almere, Netherlands, found a remarkable sight in a grassy lot in the town center—an exact replica of the Lincoln School archway found in the ghost town of Metropolis.

Constructed of plywood and high resolution photographs printed on self-adhesive vinyl, the duplicate arch, called “Reclamation,” was the work of American artist Kristin Posehn, who prepared it for the Museum de Paviljoens.

In addition to the full-scale image of the decaying arch—which included chipped bricks, cracks and bullet holes—Posehn’s exhibit featured reprints of front pages of the Metropolis Chronicle, newspaper advertisements and promotional pamphlets.

It also had contemporary and historic photos of the town as well as copies of the original architect’s drawing of the Lincoln School. The Metropolis arch art project was displayed for about three months before being dismantled.

Posehn’s project just goes to show that the community of Metropolis continues to fascinate people. Unlike most Nevada ghost towns, Metropolis wasn’t a town built from the proceeds of gold or silver mines that went bust but rather was an early 20th century land promotion.

In 1909, the Pacific Reclamation Company and the Metropolis Land Improvement Company were formed by Harvey Pierce of Leominster, Massachusetts, to develop 40,000 acres located about 17 miles northwest of Wells, Nevada in Elko County.

Pierce and his staff crafted a promotional campaign that was long on hyperbole and, perhaps, short on total honesty. Posters and brochures were filled with extravagant claims about the area’s fabulously fertile soil, lengthy growing season and abundant water.

The company boasted that the new planned community would house 7,500 people and have convenient rail transportation. At least the part about the rail service turned out to be true.

To further enhance the project, Pacific Reclamation constructed the Bishop Creek Dam on a tributary of the Humboldt River to provide a reliable source of water to the farming community.

As new residents flocked the community, which by the end of 1911 had 700 people, the company laid out a town site and began construction of several buildings including a wooden Meeting Hall that also served as a church, theater and gymnasium (and later as a school) as well as the three-story, 50-room Metropolis Hotel.

Coinciding with the hotel’s opening was the completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad eight-mile spur line between the town and the main rail line at nearby Tulasco.

In June of 1912, as the town was really starting to flower, the Pacific Reclamation Company received bad news. A group of downstream farmers in Lovelock had filed a lawsuit arguing that the company was illegally withholding water behind the Bishop Creek Dam that rightly belonged to them.

It turned out that Pacific Reclamation had neglected to file for proper water rights. A subsequent court decision sided with the Lovelock farmers and the company was ordered to lower the water levels behind the dam so that there was only enough to provide the town with water and to irrigate 4,000 acres.

The impact of the decision was devastating to Pacific Reclamation. The company went into receivership and the community lost its biggest developer and benefactor.

While the ornate Lincoln School, already under construction when the water rights issue flared up, was completed at a cost of $25,000, it was the last major construction project in the town. Before the year was over, the Metropolis Hotel had closed and the local newspaper had ceased publication.

And then came Mother Nature. In 1914, the region entered a prolonged drought, which, it turned out, was normal and typical for the area.

The dry conditions triggered twin disasters for the farmers: an invasion of wild jackrabbits that ate nearly all the crops coupled with an infestation of Mormon crickets, which are ravenous swarms of insects who eat everything, including paint on houses.

The dry spell continued for more than four years, which meant the rabbits and crickets returned every year.

By the early 1920s, only about 100 people still lived in Metropolis and the surrounding farms. The railroad gave up on the town in 1925 and ripped up the tracks.

In 1943, the magnificent Lincoln School was closed and three years later it was dismantled and the bricks sold off. All that remained was solid concrete floors and an elaborately decorated concrete arch entrance—the same one made famous in Posehn’s artwork halfway around the world.

Today, not much remains of Nevada’s first master-planned community. About a half dozen homesteads are still active in the area and trace their roots to the Metropolis development. There are also two cemeteries, one on a small hill east of the town center and a larger one west of the former site of the Lincoln School. Both are still tended by locals.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Finding Traces of the Mining Camp of Como

The old mining camp of Como, located about 12 miles southeast of Dayton, is probably known more for who lived there than for anything that was actually done there.

Gold was discovered in the Pine Nut Mountains, the range directly south of Dayton, in about 1860. Within a short time, a small camp was established, called Palmyra, reportedly after the town of Palmyra, New York.

By 1864, Palmyra had a post office, several businesses, and an estimated 400 residents.
New discoveries about a half-mile away led to the development of another community, which became known as Como, and shifted attention away from Palmyra.

Palmyra’s post office closed in 1866, which pretty much marked the end of the community. Meanwhile, Como continued to grow and by 1864, it boasted a weekly newspaper, the Como Sentinel, as well as a steam-driven mill, a hotel, bars and a meeting hall. The newspaper, however, was short-lived, folding after 13 weeks.

One of Como’s most noteworthy residents arrived during this boom—Alf Doten. In June 1863, Doten sold his holdings in California and rode to Como to make his fortune in silver mining.

Doten didn’t stay long, only a few months, but he kept detailed journals of his time in Como, which serve as among the few records remaining of the town. Doten, in fact, was such a committed diarist that he ultimately filled more than 27 volumes with his reflections of daily life.

In September, Doten, who has also written for the Como Sentinel, accepted a job with one of Virginia City’s newspapers. It was there that he became friends with many of the Comstock’s leading journalists, including Dan DeQuille and Mark Twain.

Another former resident of Como was Captain Truckee, a Paiute leader who was a friend and associate of explorer John C. Frémont. He also served as a guide for several expeditions, including the 1844 Stevens-Townsend-Murphy emigrant wagon train.

It’s reported that in October 1860, Captain Truckee was bitten by a tarantula and died at Como. He is said to be buried on a mountain ridge outside of the townsite.

It turned out that Como's mines did not contain a great amount of ore and the mines began to close in 1864. The camp was able to briefly revive in 1879-81 and 1902-05.

Como, in fact, had its own post office during those revivals (it operated from December 30, 1879 to January 3, 1881, then was reopened from May 29, 1903 to February 28, 1905).

In the 1930s, optimistic investors constructed a large mill near Como, but it was soon abandoned due to a lack of viable ore. In subsequent years, there have been attempts to mine in the Como region but there are no current operations.

Today, little remains of Como besides a few stone foundations and the remnants of the various mining revivals. The drive to Como from Dayton definitely requires a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle as the road is extremely rocky in places.

The road to Como is accessed from Dayton Valley Road. Turn south on the dirt road just before Dayton High School. Ahead is the community water tank. Continue driving on the main dirt road (do not take any of the smaller branch roads) for about ten miles and you will reach Como and the former Como mining district.

After passing the Dayton High School you begin heading south into the Pine Nut mountains. Often, you can spot wild horses grazing in the range. About five miles from the start, the road grows steeper. If you stop to look back, you can get an outstanding view of the Dayton Valley.

You finally reach the earliest mining remains at about the eight-mile point. The first thing you notice is a large wheel perched atop the remains of a concrete and wooden structure. Scattered about are other abandoned mining trash such as storage tanks, pylons, beams and rusted pipes.

Here, you can also find two small ponds fed from a spring coming out of the remains of a collapsed mine. High grass and cattails surround these pools, which are shaded by large trees.

Around the site are the foundations of other buildings. Over there, a rusted iron broiler sits on the ground adjacent to the skeletal ruins of a tin and wooden two-story shed. Up on the hill is the rusted cylinder of a giant water tank.

Elusive mountain bluebirds flit from pinion to sagebrush. All about are the denuded mounds of mining tails; piles of dirt-bleached tan and white and devoid of all minerals and nutrients. There is an eerie stillness.

Hiking around the remains yielded a few surprises. Above the camp is the mouth of a mining tunnel. If you peek inside, you can see two tunnel branches, one heading east to a dead end, while the other gradually slopes down to the north and out of sight.

The rock walls of the shaft are soft and crumble with a bit of pressure—and serve as a reminder that it’s never a good idea to enter an abandoned mine shaft.

About a mile or so up the road are the remains of the townsite of Como. All that remains are a couple of rock walls and some stone foundations and cellars.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reno's Famous Arches

Reno has a thing about arches.

For more than a century, the community has erected various arches over its main thoroughfares to commemorate special events or to promote an image.

Historian Phillip I. Earl has found photographs showing an arch built in 1899 atop the Virginia Street Bridge. The span commemorated Nevada troops returning from duty during the Spanish-American War.

In 1914, Reno erected an arch over Virginia Street, this time greeting visitors passing through the city on their way to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. A third arch was temporarily installed over the city’s main street in June 1920 to promote the Reno Rodeo.

In October 1926, a more substantial arch was constructed for an exposition celebrating the completion of the Lincoln and Victory highways, the nation’s first transcontinental roads. In addition to a welcome message about the roads, the arch also had the city’s name spelled in large letters.

This time, the arch wasn’t removed immediately after the event concluded. Instead, city leaders conducted a contest to select a slogan to be affixed to the sign.

The $100 prize attracted thousands of entries including one from a Sacramento man who suggested “The Biggest Little City in the World.” While not the most original suggestion—Earl notes that the slogan had been used several times before during boxing matches and promotional events—it was selected as the most appropriate entry.

In June 1929, the arch was renovated with the new slogan and illuminated. It was changed in 1934, when the city removed its famous slogan because some business folks thought it sounded obsolete. The arch was revamped again in 1935, when it was given a neon face lift and the slogan returned.

This version of the arch stood over Reno for the next 28 years. It appeared on postcards, in movies and books, and in a thousand tourist snapshots.

In the early 1960s, executives of the former Harolds Club casino spearheaded a drive to raise funds to build a new, more modern arch. The new one, erected in 1964, still contained the city’s slogan and name but was constructed of sleek plastic and steel.

In the meantime, the outdated, neon, 1930s arch was moved to Idlewild Park and later to Paradise Park on the Reno-Sparks border.

In 1987, the city felt a need to update its arch once again and replaced the 1960s version with the present arch. The current arch is contemporary, colorful and bright—and serves as the backdrop for many downtown Reno special events such as the New Year’s Eve celebration, which attracts thousands of visitors.

As for the 60s version of the arch, a few years ago it was given to the city of Willits, California. Today, it has been reconstructed with a new message that welcomes people to “Willits: Gateway to the Redwoods.”

As for the historic 1930s arch, it was removed from Paradise Park in the late 1980s and placed in storage while city leaders discussed its future. Despite discussions about putting it back on Virginia Street—making Reno a “city of arches”—it didn’t resurface until a few years ago, when the city allowed it to be used by a movie company, which wanted to re-create the Reno of the 1930s.

In more recent years, the venerable old arch, pictured above, was refurbished and relocated to a new home on Lake Street in front of the National Automobile Museum.

It looks pretty good there, too.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tule Springs and Early Man

Tule reeds slowly wave in the gentle breeze. Large geese float on the calm waters of a spring-fed lake. It’s easy to see why early Nevadans would have been attracted to Tule Springs.

At Tule Springs, officially known as the Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs, archaeologists have discovered evidence of man having lived in the area about 10,000 years ago, making it one of the older sites of human habitation in the United States.

Floyd Lamb Park is located 10 miles northwest of Las Vegas, via U.S. Highway 95 and Durango Drive. The park is clearly marked from the highway.

Starting in 1933, archaeologists have uncovered fossil remains at Tule Springs that indicate that the water spot was once frequented by large mammals such as mammoths, bison, horses, camels and giant sloths.

In 1962, an extensive excavation revealed that humans used the site about 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, when the entire Southern Nevada region was much cooler and wetter than it is today.

Additionally, the evidence indicated that those early inhabitants were more advanced than scientists had thought. Scientists have found prehistoric hearths, fluted arrows, spear points, scrapers and charred animal bones.

The springs continued to be essential to the development of the west. Later evidence showed that about 7,000 years ago the region was populated by small groups of Desert Culture people, who survived on native vegetation and small game.

A horse-changing station developed at the springs in the early 20th century, servicing horse-drawn wagon and freight trains traveling between the mining camps to the north and the railroad station at Las Vegas.

In 1916, John H. Nay filed for the water rights of Tule Springs and within a few years was cultivating ten acres of land. About a decade later, Nay sold his small farm to Gilbert Hefner, who apparently did nothing with it for many years.

The more modern development at Tule Springs took place after Prosper Jacob Gourmond, a prominent Las Vegas businessman, acquired the site and converted it to a dude ranch for divorcees.

Gourmond offers a swimming pool, lake, tennis courts, shooting range, horseback riding, hayrides, dances and other entertainment to his clients. In addition to providing a place for women seeking a divorce, the ranch expanded to include a hundred acres of alfalfa, cattle, dairy cows and fruit orchards.

Many of the whitewash and green-trimmed ranch buildings of the former Tule Springs Ranch can still be found on the site.

In the 1960s, the ranch was purchased by the city of Las Vegas for a park and renamed in honor of a former state Senator who was one of the longest serving members of the Legislature. In 1977, it became a Nevada state park but was returned to city ownership in 2005.

The park encompasses more than 680 acres, which include nature trails, picnic tables, gazebos and lakes for fishing. Within the park, there is also a state arboretum and nursery.

Standing beside the large spring-fed lake in the center of the park, it's easy to appreciate how important the site must have been to Nevada's earliest inhabitants. The area is literally an oasis in the desert with its green lawns, lush tule reeds and mature trees.

Visitors will find picnic areas with tables and grills as well as fishing (Tule Lake is stocked with catfish during the summer and rainbow trout during the winter).

There is a day use fee for the park, which is open during daylight hours (no camping is allowed). For more information, contact Floyd Lamb Park, 9200 Tule Springs Road, Las Vegas, NV 89131,

Monday, September 07, 2009

Sutter's Fort: Where California Began

Sutter's Fort (Photo by Lee Foster; Courtesy of Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau)

John Augustus Sutter, who is often called the father of California, might not recognize some of what he helped create—such as surfers, lowriders and Hollywood —but he would feel right at home in his old fort.

Still standing on a city block (2701 L Street) in the center of Sacramento, Sutter's Fort has the distinction of being the Capitol City's first building. Erected in 1841, the fort provides a special glimpse into the lifestyles of California's earliest settlers.

The adobe brick building has been carefully restored to most resemble its original appearance. The unfortunate reality is that the fort was allowed to deteriorate and, by the late 1850s, all that remained was the three story central building.

In 1890, the Native Sons of the Golden West purchased the site, and then donated it to the state of California. Reconstruction began in 1891 and in 1947 the fort became part of the California State Park System.

Today, the fort is worth a visit. Standing outside of the whitewashed fort, you view thick walls and small portals and begin to have a sense of how important this place must have been when California was an unknown land.

Once inside, an informative self-guided tour is available. As part of the admission fee, the park system loans visitors a unique plastic guide stick, which is a small, handheld radio that receives broadcast information about the fort at various, marked spots.

Along the way, you find out that John Sutter was born in Kandern in the Duchy of Baden, to Swiss-German parents in 1803. He married Annette Dubeld in 1826 and some time later opened a dry goods and drapery shop. While he did well for a time, the business soured and he traveled to America to escape his debtors, leaving his wife and five children behind.

In 1834, Sutter arrived in New York, then headed west. He stopped in various communities along the way, including Missouri and Kansas, but never seemed to settle. Anxious to reach California, he took a circuitous route, traveling first to Hawaii, then Alaska, before reaching his goal.

Sutter arrived in Yerba Buena (now known as San Francisco) in July 1839. He spent several weeks persuading the Spanish authorities to allow him to start a settlement in California's Central Valley.

In August of that year, Sutter finally received his permission and set out from Yerba Buena in three ships, traveling a waterway now called the Sacramento River. The party landed about a mile from the location of Sutter's Fort and made camp.

A year later, work began on the fort. The walls of the structure were 2.5-feet thick and from 15 to 18-feet high. The entire complex was 320-feet long, 150-feet wide and featured a three-story central building, which became Sutter's headquarters.

Sutter quickly gained a reputation as a gracious host. He welcomed new settlers to the area and, according to records, planned to create an independent financial empire supported by the abundance of crops that could be harvested in the region.

The Spanish Government accepted him as a naturalized citizen of Mexico in 1840 and he received a large land grant of nearly 50,000 acres (he also purchased Fort Ross near Mendocino from the Russian government that year). Later, the Spaniards gave him a second grant of nearly 100,000 acres.

However, in 1844, California became the site of the Bear Flag Revolt, an effort by U.S. citizens to take the state from the Spanish. Caught in the middle, Sutter lost control of the fort for a short time, and then eventually lost his lands.

Of course, the second major event of this period was the discovery of gold in California. Ironically, it was one of Sutter’s employees, James Marshall, who discovered gold on the nearby American River.

Recognizing that the influx of large numbers of gold-seekers might destroy his dreams for California, Sutter first attempted to keep the discovery a secret. But the news spread and, just has he feared, Sutter soon became locked into a struggle with homesteaders and claim-jumpers for control of his lands.

By 1849, Sutter's empire had unraveled. He was forced to sell the fort to pay his debts. In 1865, he and his wife (she had finally joined him in California in 1850) moved to Washington D.C. He would spend the rest of his life unsuccessfully trying to gain compensation from the U.S. Government for the loss of his property. He died in 1880.

In addition to providing background on Sutter, a guided tour of the fort takes you through the structure’s many rooms and chambers, most of which have been renovated in recent years.

Sutter's Fort State Historic Park is a three and a half hour drive from Fallon via U.S. Highway 50, then west on Interstate 80 to the N Street exit. Follow the signs to 2701 L Street in downtown Sacramento.

The fort is open daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for children 6-17 and free for children 5 and under. For more information call 916-445-4422.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Final Resting Place of the Enigmatic "Old Virginny"

Few figures in Nevada history have been the subject of as many conflicting legends and stories as James Finney, better known as “Old Virginny.”

Part of the reason for different takes on the man often called the father of Virginia City is that actual details about his life are sketchy at best.

For example, even his real name is in dispute. In some accounts he is James Fennimore (or even, Fenimore) while in others he is named James Finney. Ronald M. James, author of “The Roar and the Silence,” perhaps the most definitive history of Virginia City, however, refers to him as James Finney.

What is known is that Finney was born in about 1817 in the state of Virginia—hence his nickname, “Old Virginny.” Little is known about his early years but apparently he headed to California during that state’s gold rush of 1849 and ended up in the Kern River area.

Comstock writer Dan DeQuille, who generally comingled facts with fanciful tales, later claimed that his name was originally Fennimore but he changed it to Finney after allegedly killing a man in California.

Wright also said that sometime in 1851, Finney crossed the Sierra Nevada to the Gold Canyon area near present-day Virginia City, where he began prospecting for gold.

However, another source, Mormon Station (modern day Genoa) founder John Reese, reported in his 1884 memoir that Finney was living in Gold Canyon when Reese passed through in 1850.

And Myron Angel’s 1881 “History of Nevada” said that Finney actually traveled to Nevada while working as a teamster for John Reese.

There appears to be a consensus that Finney resided in Gold Canyon during the decade between 1851 and 1861. It was during this time that he worked as a placer miner and encountered many of the other colorful figures in Virginia City’s past such as Henry Comstock, after whom the Comstock Lode is named.

In 1859, Finney moved up the canyon, which had become depleted of mineral wealth, along with a handful of other miners and began working a promising outcropping that was named “Gold Hill.” It’s thought have been the southern end of a rich silver vein that eventually would be known as the Comstock Lode.

A handful of accounts, mostly written years later, generally describe Finney as a well-liked and hardworking miner who was mostly likely illiterate and had a weakness for alcohol.

Ronald James noted that Finney “earned a reputation for having good nose for prospecting. All sources consistently support the idea that he was one of the first to recognized the mineral-bearing potential of the future Comstock Lode.”

But Finney is also often portrayed as a drunkard who didn’t appear to appreciate the magnitude of his discovery. In 1862, Henry DeGroot, a cartographer and writer, said Finney was “honest” but also “ignorant.”

DeGroot also reported that Finney sold his mining claim for an old horse, some blankets and a bottle of whiskey. This tale, which is probably not true, would go on to become accepted dogma with a number of other writers repeating variations of the same story.

An equally apocryphal story is the one about Finney’s naming of Virginia City. The popular Virginia City legend is that an inebriated Finney was stumbling down the town’s main street when he stumbled and broke a bottle of whiskey. According to the myth, he decided to use the occasion to “christen” the community “Virginia City” after his state of birth.

James, however, noted that the earliest source for that story was Dan DeQuille, who presented it in his 1876 book, “The Big Bonanza,” in which, he pointed out, “the author was equally capable of passing off legend as fact.”

James concluded, “Whether this happened or not, evidence clearly indicates that local miners decided in a meeting to name the community Virginia City.”

There are even differing accounts about his death in Dayton on June 20, 1861. In his “Myth of the Month” column, former Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha recounted several versions including one that pegged Finney’s death as happening on April 26, 1861, another that said he died in July 1861 and yet another placed the event in 1865.

The cause of his demise is generally said to have been from a fall from a horse, although the details vary. In one version, he was “thrown from a bucking mustang” while drunk, while another simply stated that he fell from a horse and fractured his skull.

Today, visitors can ponder all the stories about Finney while standing at his grave site, which is located in the historic Dayton cemetery. The spot is marked with an impressive stone marker describing his life that was erected by the Dayton Historic Society.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Take a Spin on Scheel's Big Wheel

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Scheels store that recently opened in Sparks is a typical sporting goods place—on steroids.

Billed as the world’s largest sporting goods store, Scheels in Sparks is far more than just a place to pick up a new pair of running shorts or a soccer ball.

It combines a massive sporting goods retail operation with a full size, indoor Ferris Wheel, NASCAR simulators, a gourmet deli and fudge café, giant fish tanks, a mountain of mounted big game animals and several sports history displays thrown in for good measure.

And that doesn’t include the talking robotic replicas of 14 U.S. Presidents.

The store, located in the new Legends at Sparks Marina shopping complex, is part of a North Dakota-based company that operates about 20 similar sports businesses, mostly in the Midwest. The 248,000 square foot Sparks version is the biggest in the chain as well as the largest sporting goods store in the world.

It’s difficult not to be overwhelmed when entering the store. A giant glass and steel atrium in the center houses the 65-foot-tall Ferris Wheel, which dominates the building.

Originally built in 1921, the amusement ride was refurbished by Scheels and included in the store not only as a promotional tool but also as a tribute to the inventor of the Ferris Wheel, George Washington Gale Ferris, who grew up in Carson City.

Rides on the 16-car big wheel are only $1—and provide perhaps the best overview of the entire store, which is, after all, pretty massive.

Additionally, if you enter from the parking lot side of the store, you pass beneath two 16,000-gallon aquariums, one of which contains freshwater fish found in Nevada. Inside the giant clear tank swims dozens of catfish, sturgeon, largemouth bass, blue gill, crappie and red and green sunfish.

The other tank contains salt-water species such as rare Hawaiian Black Trigger fish, sharks and stingrays. Staff feed the fish in both tanks at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. daily.

The Walk of Presidents attraction, located around the atrium on the second floor, offers 14 motion-activated replicas of Presidents Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and others, who, in recorded voices, tell their stories. The Jefferson and Lincoln models also move while speaking.

The Wildlife Taxidermy Mountain, also on the second floor, is a 35-foot-tall, 800-square foot re-creation of a mountain peak that features more than 200 mounted animals that are found throughout Nevada including Bighorn sheep and mountain lions.

Perhaps the most fun attraction in the store is the NASCAR Simulator, where, for a separate price ($10 per driver), you can sit inside a full-size automobile/simulator and experience the thrill of driving the Daytona 500.

And if you need a break from walking around and checking out all of the stuff in Scheels, there’s Gramma Gina’s, a deli and fudge shop tucked inside the store. In addition to soups, salads and sandwiches, the restaurant offers an amazing array of Italian Gelato and the Scheels Fudge Factory, which sells more than 32 different flavors of fudge (I tried some—-it's quite delicious).

Of course, the main reason to hit Scheels is to shop and there is no shortage of name brand sporting goods spread throughout the place. The store is divided into 85 separate specialty shops selling items ranging from footwear to golf and ski equipment to hunting gear.

The Scheels company was founded in 1902 by Frederick A. Scheel, who opened a hardware store in Sabin, Minnesota (he later moved his headquarters to Fargo). In the mid-50s, he began selling sporting goods and, in 1972, added sports-related clothing. The chain’s first superstore opened in 1989 in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Scheels in Sparks is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Early California History on Display in Sonoma

Few Northern California communities are as quaint, picturesque and historic as Sonoma, a town that traces its roots to 1823.

That was the year that a Spanish priest, Father Jose Altimira, founded Mission San Francisco Solano, the last and most northern of the 21 missions established in California.

In 1834, Mariano G. Vallejo arrived at the mission to oversee the establishment of a military outpost and small town. He laid out an eight-acre plaza, which remains the heart of the modern town of Sonoma.

Today the plaza—the largest town square in California—has more than 200 trees as well as a wide variety of shrubs, picnic tables and a rose garden.

In the middle of the oak-shaded plaza is the former Sonoma City Hall, an elegant Mission Revival style building constructed of local stone between 1906 and 1908. A unique feature of the building, which now serves a visitors center, is that all four sides are identical, apparently to please local merchants each of whom felt it should face his or her business.

The square is also home of a unique monument to California’s colorful history. Atop a massive boulder is a bronze figure holding the Bear Flag. The statue commemorates the short-lived Bear Flag Revolt, an independence movement that in 1846 claimed California as an independent republic.

For 25 days, Sonoma was the capital of this new republic, which was created from land previously controlled by Mexico. On July 7, 1846, an American naval ship captured the Mexican capital at Monterey and claimed the region for the United States.

Not surprisingly, the Bear Flag Party chose to join with the Americans and become part of the union. The monument marks the site where the Bear Flag, which is now the official flag of the state of California, was first raised.

Surrounding the Plaza is a mix of interesting historic buildings, each with a fascinating story.

For example, at the northeast corner of the plaza (114 East Spain St.) is Mission San Francisco Solano, an adobe structure erected in 1840. It is not the original mission, which was a wooden building erected in 1824 and replaced by the present one.

Fully restored, the mission is one of the finest examples of Spanish mission-style architecture complete with an early Indian Mission chapel and rooms containing exhibits that tell of life nearly a century and a half ago.

Nearby, you can find the old adobe Mexican Barracks (First Street East and East Spain Street), built in 1841, which is now a museum and part of a complex of buildings known as the Sonoma State Historic Park. Inside the barracks you can find informative exhibits describing the history of the area and a well-stocked gift shop.

Adjacent is the Casa Grande Indian Servants’ Quarters (20 East Spain St.), built in 1835. The two-story Monterey Colonial adobe building was once part of a larger complex, called Casa Grande, which was General Vallejo’s first home (he built his “Lachryma Montis” estate, west of town, in 1853).

The Hotel Annex (also at 20 East Spain St.) is a two-story blue and white building east of the servants’ quarters that was originally a one-story saloon located in front of the quarters. In 1903, it was moved to its present site and a second floor was added. Today it serves as park offices.

Many of the historic buildings around the plaza now house a variety of businesses including several excellent restaurants, the fabulous Basque Bakery, and the Sonoma Cheese Factory deli.

One of the most impressive downtown buildings is the Sebastiani Theatre (467 First St. East), built in 1933. Featuring a 72-foot tower and elaborate balustrades across the front, the theater was constructed by Samuele Sebastiani, founder of the Sebastiani Winery.

Note the hole in the tower, which was designed for a chime clock. The clock apparently was never installed because of concerns about noise.

The core area also houses several quality small museums such as the General Joseph Hooker House (also called the Vasquez House), an 1855 kit house (it was shipped to Sonoma from Sweden in numbered parts and reassembled), which is now home of the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation.

North of the plaza is Sonoma Valley Railroad Depot (Depot Park Museum), a replica of the original depot of the Sonoma Valley Railroad (the original was located on the same site but burned in the 1970s). The museum contains displays and records of the railroad as well as a handful of restored train cars.

Of course, Sonoma is also noted for its wines and the historic Sebastiani Winery is located only a few blocks from the Plaza. Here you can tour one of California’s largest and oldest family-owned wineries.

The region’s oldest winery, Buena Vista, is located about a mile and a half east of the Plaza. These cellars were founded in 1857 by Count Agoston Haraszthy, considered the father of California’s wine industry.

Sonoma is located 30 miles north of San Francisco (and about four-and-a-half hours west of Carson City). For more information, contact the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, 453 First St. East, Sonoma, CA 95476, 707-996-1090 or go to

Monday, July 27, 2009

San Francisco's Most Beautiful Spot

When most people think about San Francisco, they envision a cosmopolitan, urban place with majestic, tall buildings, culturally diverse neighborhoods and manmade landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower.

And they would certainly find all of that during a visit.

But the City by the Bay has another—more natural—side. Out on the northwestern edge of the city is the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which includes a starkly beautiful place known as Lands End.

Located near the Cliff House (at the end of Geary Street), Lands End is best experienced with a hike along the main Coastal Trail, which begins from a parking lot adjacent to the ruins of Sutro Baths. The mile-and-a half trail retraces the cliff top route of the long-gone Ferries and Cliff House Railroad.

The railroad, which once carried San Franciscans from the downtown to Sutro Baths and the wilds of Lands End, operated from 1888 to 1904, when it was largely replaced by the city’s electric trolley system.

The old rail-bed trail skirts Point Lobos and looks out over the entrance to the San Francisco Bay and, in the distance, the Golden Gate Bridge. It offers some of the city’s most spectacular views of the Marin Headlands (to the north), the bridge and the bay.

Bordering the trail are dozens of cypress and pine trees, many of which have been flattened and molded by the nearly constant ocean winds. Growing as high at 80-feet, the cypress and pine trees were transplanted from Monterey into the area in the late 19th century by city landscapers yet have become signature trees for the region.

Lands End is also home to a handful of birds and other wildlife that manage to survive in such an unusual environment. According to the National Park Service, as many as 140 species of birds, 41 mammals and 14 amphibians and reptiles can be found in the area.

Additionally, the area serves as a refueling stop for migrating warblers, grosbeaks and nuthatches, which, according to Ariel Rubissow, author of “Cliff House & Lands End: San Francisco’s Seaside Retreat,” use its forests to replenish their energy reserves before trying to cross the Golden Gate channel to reach the Marin headlands.

The park service also notes that Lands End is home to several endangered species including the California redlegged frog and the bumblebee scarab beetle.

From the trail and several overlooks you can see the crumbling, steep and unstable cliffs below as well as the treacherous rocks poking out of the bay waters that once seemed to reach out and snag the bows of passing ships.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the San Francisco headlands claimed dozens of ships. The remains of a handful can still be seen near Ocean Beach. Rubissow has written that before the invention of the fog horn, sea captains listened for the loud barks of the sea lions on nearby Seal Rock to guide them away from the rocks.

On higher ground above the Coastal Trail is a parallel track that can serve as a loop trail for those heading back to the parking lot at Sutro Baths. This second trail winds through West Fort Miley, the remnants of a military reservation that once served as part of the country’s seacoast defense system.

While little remains of the fortifications, hikers can still find old gun emplacements as well as a monument commemorating the USS San Francisco, which fought at Guadalcanal in 1942. Additionally, the area boasts picnic tables, grills and restrooms.

For more information about the Golden Gate National Recreation Area go to

Friday, July 24, 2009

Northern California's Kentucky Mine Museum is Worth a Visit

Diffused sunlight streams in through a dusty window, providing just enough light to see. Huge support timbers—big enough to seem incapable of rotting—crisscross the ceiling. Large, oil-covered metal wheels, rods and pistons seem poised and ready to operate.

One of the most amazing things about the Kentucky Mill is that it almost looks like it could operate today. Restored in the mid-1970s, the mill is a remarkably intact example of an early 20th century stamp mill.

The Kentucky Mill is part of the Kentucky Mine/Sierra County Historical Park and Museum, located just north of the historic mining town of Sierra City. To reach it, go west of Reno on I-80 to Truckee. Turn north on Highway 89 and continue to Sattley. Turn west on Highway 49 to Sierra City.

Gold was first discovered in the vicinity of Sierra City in the early 1850s by miners following in the footsteps of explorers Jim Beckwourth and Major William Downie.

In 1853, the Kentucky Consolidated Mining Company was formed to develop the gold resources found north of Sierra City. In the 1860s, a five-stamp mill was built at the Kentucky, a hardrock mine, which was increased in size to ten stamps in 1888.

As with most mines, activity at the Kentucky Mine waxed and waned through the years. In 1920, after several decades of abandonment, Emil Loeffler of Sierra City made another attempt to work the Kentucky. Operating it as a kind of hobby, Loeffler and his son found sufficient ore to continue working the site for the next few years.

In 1928, the Loefflers decided to construct a new mill, using materials and equipment salvaged from other mines. The mine and mill, which took five years to build, operated until 1944, when, tragically, Adolph "Dutch" Loeffler, Emil's son, was killed in the mine. Despite the loss, the family sporadically operated the facility until 1953.

In the late 1960s, the Sierra County Historical Society embarked on an aggressive program to identify valuable historic resources in the region, with the idea of preserving the best.

Because of its good condition—the Loefflers had continued to maintain it over the years—the Kentucky Mine and Mill was selected as the first site for preservation.
In 1974, following the passage of a statewide bond for historic preservation projects, the county purchased the Kentucky from the Loeffler family, and began restoring the site, including the mill, mine tunnel, blacksmith shop and trestle.

Today, visitors will find one of the best preserved early 20th century mining mills in California. A picturesque high trestle, which still seems capable of carrying filled ore carts, connects the three-story mill to the mine on an adjacent hillside.

The mine site is interesting because the blacksmith shop was built at the mine's entrance. Ore carts ran on a track that passed through the middle of the shop. Next door to the mine/blacksmith shop is a restored miner's shack, filled with furnishings and other accoutrements typically used by an old sourdough.

Inside the mill, which you can see during an informative guided tour, you will find a Pelton wheel, an innovative air compressor system for dynamite drilling, and an impressive milling operation that included ominous ore crushers (the gears boast huge spiked teeth) and stamps.

Below the mill, you can tour a nice small museum, located inside of a replica of a 19th century hotel (the Bigelow House, which once stood in nearby Sierra City). The museum contains plenty of Sierra County artifacts, including a fine collection of historic photographs, mining certificates, a school desk, ancient quilts, a safe, piano, phonograph and other objects.

Additionally, in the summer the museum offers a concert series in an amphitheater built a few years ago. Concerts have included jazz, bluegrass, country, folk and classical artists from around the world.

Nearby Sierra City is also worthy of note. While avalanches flattened the town in 1852, 1888, and 1889, enough remains to hint at the town's rich mining history.

Several brick buildings have survived, including the 1871 Busch Building, once a Wells Fargo office, and reportedly the birthplace of The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus. This historic society/social club, founded by gold miners in 1857, was originally created as a parody of several brotherhood organizations, such as the Masons and Odd Fellows.

The Clampers faded toward the end of the century, but were restarted in 1931 by a San Francisco historian. The group continues to thrive and, in addition to being a rowdy drinking society, has erected hundreds of informative historic markers throughout the West.

Sierra City is also nestled below the magnificent Sierra Buttes, among the most beautiful mountains in Northern California.

For more information contact the Sierra County Park and Museum, P.O. Box 260, Sierra City, CA 96125, 530-862-1310,

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tales of Unionville

The mining town of Unionville is rich—but with stories, not silver or gold. In fact, it was famed writer Mark Twain who first dredged up a few tales about this once-promising 19th century mining camp.

Twain arrived in Unionville in the winter of1861 and promptly set out to make his fortune as a miner. In his classic book, “Roughing It,” he described early Unionville as consisting “of eleven cabins and a liberty pole. Six of the cabins were strung along one side of a deep canyon, and the other five faced them.”

He went on to write: “The rest of the landscape was made up of bleak mountain walls that rose so high into the sky from both sides of the canyon that the village was left, as it were, far down in the bottom of a crevice. It was always daylight on the mountain tops a long time before darkness lifted and revealed Unionville.”

After a short time in the mining town, Twain wrote that he discovered a shiny piece of rock that he knew had to be gold. His glee, which he called “a delirious revel,” turned to embarrassment when a more experienced prospector revealed his “find” was only granite and glittery mica.

“So vanished my dream. So melted my wealth away. So toppled my airy castle to the earth and left me stricken and forlorn,” he noted. “Moralizing, I observed, then, that ‘all that glitters is not gold.’”

Later, however, Twain made a more important discovery.

“We had learned the real secret of success in silver mining—which was not to mine the silver ourselves by the sweat of our brows and the labor of our hands, but to sell the ledges to the dull slaves of toil and let them do the mining!”

Of course, Twain’s stories aren’t the only ones told about Unionville. For instance, it began life in the spring of 1861 as a mining camp that was named Dixie by a group of miners who identified with the Confederacy—remember this was during the Civil War.

Soon, however, more people flocked to the boomtown. Most of the later residents were Union sympathizers and, after a brief political skirmish, the town’s name was finally changed to Unionville.

Another tale about Unionville is that even though it was the first seat of Humboldt County, it wasn’t really built to last.

Stanley Paher, author of several Nevada history books, has written that lumber shipped to the town was so bad that one newspaper reported that when it rained the county clerk stacked his papers into one corner of his office “where the rain didn’t come any thicker than it did outside.”

Despite the travails, Unionville managed to grow during 1862-63. During that time, it had nearly 1,000 residents and numerous businesses including ten stores, six hotels, nine saloons, a brewery and a newspaper.

The town experienced brief spurts of mining activity during the next decade before losing the county seat to Winnemucca in 1873. By 1880, the good years were behind Unionville, which slowly slipped into obscurity.

Fortunately, Unionville never completely disappeared. After mining ceased, the local economy shifted to ranching and agriculture and, in recent years, tourism.

In fact, the main thing happening in the town today is the Old Pioneer Garden Bed and Breakfast. The two-story bed and breakfast is located in a former wagon maker’s home (only the stone walls remain of the original building) and offers 11 rooms, six with private baths (775-538-7585 for reservations).

Additionally, there are other ruins of old Unionville sprinkled throughout beautiful Buena Vista Canyon, which is the site of the town. Stone walls and foundations, a few intact wooden houses, tall cottonwoods, old barns and a picturesque one-room school house (not open to the public) are among the historic survivors.

A small creek, which runs down the canyon and through the town, enhances the general sense of peacefulness found here.

And, of course, there are plenty of good stories.

Unionville is located about half-way between Lovelock and Winnemucca. To reach it, travel east of Lovelock on Interstate 80 to the Mill City exit. Head south on State Route 400 for about 15 miles, then drive west for three miles on a good dirt road.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What's Behind Some of Those I-80 Exit Names, Anyway?—Part 2

Continuing with our trip across Interstate 80—and the stories behind the names on the exit signs found along the route—the next stop is Imlay, located six miles northeast of Humboldt. Imlay was a former division point for the Southern Pacific Railroad and once served as an important stop for pioneers on the Emigrant Trail.

The area around Imlay was originally known as Lassen (or Lawson) Meadows and served as the turn off for those traveling north on the Applegate Trail to Oregon. It was also the only place with much grass and water before heading west to Big Meadows (Lovelock).

In 1908, the small hamlet of Imlay was founded by the railroad, which built a roundhouse and shops. A post office opened and the town soon had saloons, a hotel, a church and other services. The town, which grew to several hundred people, also served several local mining camps.

Imlay began to decline after the mines closed and the railroad removed its facilities. Today, about 100 people live in the community. Adjacent to Imlay is a large, strange, man-made mound of concrete, glass and scrap metal known as Thunder Mountain.

This unusual folk art creation was built in the 1960s and 1970s by a self-taught artist who called himself Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain. Today, it remains an interesting roadside oddity that is open to the public.

Four miles east of Imlay is the Mill City exit. While only a handful of houses and a few ruins remain, in the 1860s, this was the site of a mining town with several mills—hence the name. By 1868, the town had become a railroad connection for the nearby mining towns of Unionville and Dun Glen.

From Mill City, the Interstate passes through Winnemucca before hitting the next roadside stop, called Button Point. This site was named after Frank Button, who operated a large cattle ranch in the area in the 1870s. Today, a shaded rest stop offers one of the best views of the bends and bows found along the meandering Humboldt River.

Six miles farther is the Golconda exit. In 1868, the railroad opened a freight station here, which was named after a famous town in India noted for its diamonds (the name apparently signified that it was a place of great wealth).

In the early 20th century, a resort hotel and spa was erected to take advantage of natural hot springs in the area. The resort operated until 1961, when it was destroyed in a fire.

Continuing east, the next exit is Iron Point, a railroad siding built in the late 1870s (it still serves in that capacity for local mines). The name is derived from the reddish, iron-ore rocks found in the region. Iron Point also overlooks the Pumpernickel Valley—surely one of the most descriptive names on the Nevada map. The valley was named for a nearby bread loaf-shaped mountain.

Stone House, located about nine miles away, is the next nowhere exit and gained its name from a stone Overland Stage station, built in the 1870s, that was once located here.

About five miles from Stone House is Valmy, a tiny enclave named after a French battle site. It was said that the local tribes continually fought over springs in the area. In 1910, the railroad established a supply stop for its trains to re-water and re-fuel. Today, the town offers gas, food, and lodging to travelers on the interstate.

About six miles from Valmy is the Mote interchange. What you see is basically what there is to Mote. Nothing. Mote was originally a railroad siding and that’s all it’s ever been.

Next up is Battle Mountain, located 10 miles east of Mote. The community was established in 1867 by miners who found silver and gold in the region. The name is apparently derived from either the fact that Indians attacked a wagon train in the area or they raided a road crew—no one is exactly sure. In the late 1860s, the Central Pacific Railroad established a station at Battle Mountain.

About 13 miles from Battle Mountain is the Argenta exit, a railroad siding established in the 1860s. The name, derived from the Spanish word for silver, also applied to a nearby mining camp which was picked up and moved to Battle Mountain in 1870. Ten miles from Argenta is Dunphy, a rail siding named after a nearby ranch.

The next noteworthy exit is Beowawe, located 7 miles from Dunphy. Beowawe is the site of a once-famous cluster of geysers—including one that rose more than 30-feet-high.
Unfortunately, in the 1960s, the geysers ceased to erupt when a geothermal power plant was built nearby that diverted the underground hot water.

Ten miles from the Beowawe interchange is the Palisade exit. From here, travelers with four-wheel drive vehicles can head 10 miles south to the Palisades, a 12-mile canyon with spectacular rock cliffs split by the Humboldt River.

Additionally, you pass through the ruins of Palisade, a former railroad town on the river that served as the connecting point for the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Eureka and Palisade Railroad.

Ten miles east of the Palisade turn-off is the mining town of Carlin. Originally a railroad stop, Carlin was named after William Passmore Carlin, a famous Civil War officer (Union side). About seven miles from Carlin, you pass through the 1,900-foot Carlin Tunnels and head toward Elko. Along the way, take time to notice the magnificent stone pillars located next to the interstate. These unusual rock spires were formed by erosion.

From Elko, the interstate continues to the town of Wells and along the way passes a handful of other nearly forgotten exits, including: Halleck, named for Camp Halleck, a 1860s fort once located 12 miles south of the highway; Deeth, a small ranching community that was once a railroad station; and Oasis, a roadside stop named after a local ranch.

From Oasis, it’s a straight shot to Wendover, the last Nevada stop before entering Utah, which has its own share of forgotten or unusual exit sign names.