Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Gold Rush History Found in Auburn

When it comes to California gold rush history, the city of Auburn has an impressive pedigree. Precious ore was discovered below the town site in May 1848, making it among the earliest gold discoveries in California.

Located about 35 miles east of Sacramento, Auburn is one of the best-preserved Sierra Nevada foothills mining towns.

When you visit Auburn, one of the first things you notice is how it seems to hang on a mountainside. The town was built in levels—the area at the base of the mountain is the oldest section, with the newer areas built higher up.

The original tent town was erected near the first gold strikes in the bottom of a ravine below where the freeway is located today. Like many of these temporary towns, a disastrous fire destroyed the original town and the site was abandoned as the city crept up the hillside.

Gold was uncovered by Frenchman Claude Chana, a miner who was a friend of James Marshall, the man who discovered gold at nearby Sutter's Fort and triggered the California Gold Rush.

Chana and his companions decided to try their luck panning on the river and found three gold nuggets. Within a few months, a shantytown called North Fork Dry Diggins (and later Wood’s Dry Diggins) had grown up in the ravine. Eventually, more than $75 million was reclaimed from the riverbed and surrounding hillsides.

The lowest level of Auburn is called Old Town and is the most historic part of the community (most of it is registered as a national historic landmark). Streets lined with the authentic western false fronts of a frontier town veer off in various directions in the old section, following the original miners' trails.

Walking Auburn's streets is a chance to study classic old west architecture. Over on one street is a row of two-story shops lined up like dominos. Steps lead by the fronts of the stores which are all chock full of curios and antiques ranging from vintage furniture to old toys and magazines.

Other streets boast atmospheric saloons, candy stores and restaurants. One particularly impressive building is the Bernhard House, which was built in 1851. The house is furnished with period Victorian furniture and is part of a larger museum (called the Bernhard Museum Complex). It’s located at 291 Auburn-Folsom Road. Admission is free.

The Gold Country Museum is another excellent small museum which is located at 1273 High St., Gold Country Fairgrounds. Inside, you will find some informative displays about the Gold Rush era, Indian objects, the role of the Chinese in the local mining operations and many old photographs. The museum is open daily from 11-4.

A local landmark is the four-story red and white Hook and Ladder Company Firehouse. Built in 1893, the firehouse is actually a tall, narrow tower of a building capped by an interesting cupola. Inside is a vintage fire truck that was California’s first motorized fire engine, and adjacent is a small park with picnic tables.

Of course, the building you first notice in Auburn is the stately domed Placer County Courthouse that sites atop a nearby hill and overlooks the town. Constructed in 1894, the courthouse was constructed of local materials.

Inside the courthouse is the Placer County Museum, housed on the first floor. Visitors to the museum will find an overview of the county’s history and an Indian art gallery. Additionally, several of the original offices have been restored to their 19th century appearances.

Down the street from the courthouse is the Pioneer Methodist Church, built in 1858 and one of the oldest structures in the town. The U.S. Post Office in Auburn is also considered the oldest in California.

The Auburn Chamber of Commerce offers a free walking tour of the town every Saturday morning at 10 a.m. The tour begins at the Courthouse at 101 Maple Street and runs about an hour.

Auburn is located about 120 miles west of Reno on Interstate 80. For more information, go to

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Comstock Spirit Survives in Virginia City's Saloons

“The saloonkeeper held a shade higher rank than any other member of society.” – “Roughing It” by Mark Twain

“There are in Virginia City about one hundred saloons, all of which have their customers.” – “The Big Bonanza” by Dan De Quille

Barkeeps and saloons have long held a special place in the history of Nevada. It’s been said that the first business to open in every 19th century mining town in the state was a saloon.

Naturally, the Queen of Nevada's mining camps, Virginia City, was no different. If Dan DeQuille’s estimate regarding the number of saloons in Virginia City in the mid-1870s is remotely accurate—and according to some sources, it’s a bit conservative—that would mean there was roughly one saloon for every 200 people.

While that’s certainly not the highest concentration of saloons in the state—at its peak, the mining town of Goldfield was estimated to have one bar for every 132 residents—it is an indication that saloons were common on the Comstock.

These days, there aren’t a hundred saloons in Virginia City, but there are several that have bloodlines that stretch back to the Comstock’s colorful past.

Most of the Comstock’s saloons can be found on C Street, the town’s main artery and business district (also called State Route 341).

While each serves basically the same kinds of refreshments, what makes them unique is their ambiance and, in some cases, quirky gimmicks to make you want to visit. These can range from an allegedly deadly card table to a mural made of thousands of silver dollars.

Among the oldest and most colorful is the Delta Saloon, said to have been in operation since 1876. The Delta, at 18 South C Street, is the largest bar in town and a bit boisterous with its rows of clanking slot machines. But it has a comfortable honky-tonk atmosphere with wood-paneled walls, Victorian lamps and a nice brass bar.

A visit to the Delta should also include a visit to the famed Suicide Table, a 19th century faro table (a card game) that allegedly was responsible for the deaths of several men. Apparently, the deceased were unlucky gamblers who lost heavily while playing at the table and committed suicide.

Across the street from the Delta is the Bucket of Blood Saloon. The Bucket of Blood, which claims to also date back to about 1876, features live music as well as a great view of nearby Sugar Loaf Mountain and the Dayton Valley.

Up the street is the venerable Silver Queen which is notable for its wall-size painting of woman whose dress is composed of 3,261 silver dollars (with a couple of dozen gold coins for a belt). The Queen also offers slot machines, an upstairs dance hall and a wedding chapel (where entertainers Toni Tennelle and the Captain were married).

An entirely different experience can be found at the Ponderosa Saloon, located in the former Bank of California building at 106 South C Street. In addition to the usual libations, the Ponderosa is the only bar to offer a mine tour. A shaft has been dug from the rear of the building that leads to a portion of one of the old Comstock mines.

Another Virginia City establishment with an historic pedigree is the Old Washoe Club. This old time saloon, said to have been built in 1875, traces its origins to a Virginia City drinking society whose members were millionaires. The club, at 112 South C Street, has an unusual spiral staircase, listed as the world's longest circular stairs without a supporting pole.

There are, of course, a dozen or so other Virginia City saloons, each with some type of claim to fame, so feel free to check them out.

For more information about Virginia City’s classic saloons contact the Virginia City Chamber of Commerce,

Monday, December 06, 2010

Silver State Makes a Lasting Literary Impression

Over the years, a variety of writers, some famous and others not so well known, have spent time in the Silver State and departed affected by the experience.

While Mark Twain is perhaps the best known of these literary lights who was changed by staying here for awhile, there are others who have been equally touched by a close encounter with the broad expanses of Nevada.

Twain, who spent about two years in the state in the early 1860s, wrote a book about his Nevada experiences, “Roughing It,” which was published in 1872. The writer poked fun at many aspects of the state and in particularly the inhospitable nature of parts of Nevada.

For instance, he wrote, “some people are malicious enough to think that if the devil were set at liberty and told to confine himself to Nevada Territory, that he would come here and look around, while, and then get homesick and go back to hell again.”

Even the first history book written about Nevada noted that the state wasn’t quite like any other place. The Thompson & West’s History of Nevada, published in 1881, noted, “Nature was in her eccentric mood when forming this region, and turned out some strange results from the store-house of time.”

More than a century later, a couple of other writers spent time in the southern half of the state and were equally amused by what they saw. Blackjack players and authors Lance Humble and Carl Cooper described Las Vegas as looking “like somebody took one of Lberace’s jackets and made a city out of it.”

However journalist Chuck Palahnuik viewed the glittery city and came up with a slightly different take: “Las Vegas looks the way you’d imagine heaven must look at night.”

In the mid-20th century, it was Reno—not Las Vegas—that fascinated many writers. For instance, in 1945, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, author of “The Oxbow Incident,” penned “City of Trembling Leaves”about his adopted hometown. In it he wrote affectionately about downtown Reno and noted, “The trees of the Wingfield Park-Court Street region dispense an air of antique melancholy. You become sad and old as you walk under these trees, even on a bright, winter day when all the leaves are gone and the branches make only narrow shadows across homes covered with sunlight.”

Of course, not everything written about Nevada has focused on Las Vegas and Reno. Nevada writer David Toll, author of “The Complete Nevada Traveler,” has spent decades exploring the state’s byways and backroads. In the 1976 edition of his book, he wrote “the mountains of Central Nevada are like sleeping women, sprawling languorously across every horizon.”

Similarly, Richard Lillard, author of “Desert Challenge,” wrote in 1942, “Seen by a Californian or a New Yorker, Nevada is unorthodox, impious, backward, and undeveloped, and yet hospitable, individualistic, romantic. It is the home state for extremes.”

In the late 19th and early 20th century, naturalist John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club, hiked through many of Nevada’s remote mountain ranges. In 1918, he wrote a book describing his travels, “Steep Trails.” In it, he noted, “Nevada is one of the very youngest and wildest of the states; nevertheless, it is already strewn with ruins that seem as gray and silent and time-worn as if the civilization to which they belonged had perished centuries ago.”

Later, another naturalist, Nevadan Sessions S. “Buck” Wheeler, who penned several books about the state, described what he liked most about the landscape: “It has a spectacular beauty—great, jagged mountains of banded limestone rising high above desert valleys; vast basins sparsely dotted with the green of the creosote bush and the silvery tint of the burrobush on the gray, desert soil; dry stream beds; Joshua trees; dunes of white sand; and endless, sunbright space. To some it is austere and frightening; to others it has a lonely grandeur, which is friendly and comforting.”

But when it comes to having the last word on the Silver State, few have ever said it as well as Carson City’s own Robert Laxalt. In his 1977 book, simply titled “Nevada,” Laxalt wrote: “It is in the hinterland that one finds the old heart of Nevada. The hinterland of Nevada is a country of far horizons broken only by mountain barriers lost in the haze of distance, and unexpected green valleys that break upon the traveler's eye with the breathstopping impact of a mirage.”

Is there anything more that could be said?

Friday, December 03, 2010

Strolling Winnemucca's Streets to Find the Town's History

Shone House, Winnemucca

Many Nevada communities have discovered that visitors love to hear about a town’s history and folklore because it helps to make the place come alive.

One of the most popular ways that towns are telling their stories is with historical walking and driving tours that guide visitors through neighborhoods, pointing out commercial buildings, public structures and houses of historical significance.

Among the Nevada communities that have produced an historical walking tour guide in recent years is the central Nevada town of Winnemucca, located about two hours north of Fallon.

“Take A Walk Through History,” is the title of an informative walking tour guide brochure available for free from the Winnemucca Convention & Visitors (call 1-800-962-2638 to receive a copy).

The brochure offers a brief history of the community, which started out as a trading post on the Humboldt River in the early 1860s. In 1868, the Central Pacific Railroad helped establish a settlement there, which was named Winnemucca in honor of a local Paiute leader.

A well-designed map depicts the streets of downtown Winnemucca and traces a one-and-a-half to two-hour walking tour of the community’s most historic treasures.

The tour begins at George Nixon’s First National Bank (352 Bridge St.), which was the site of Winnemucca’s most famous bank robbery. It’s generally believed that in September 1900, members of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch gang robbed the bank—although the crime was never solved.

Other downtown structures on the tour include:

• The Turin Brown Mercantile (355 Bridge St.), which was built in 1898 by the Brown family and served as the town’s first hardware and home furnishing store. It has been restored in recent years and remains in use as a business.

• The Shone House, built in 1906. This quaint two-story wooden hotel escaped a disastrous fire that destroyed much of Upper Winnemucca in 1919.

• Humboldt County Courthouse (5th and Bridge St.), erected in 1921. The classical, pillared hall of justice was designed by noted Reno architect Frederick DeLongchamps.

• Winnemucca Fire House (5th and Bridge St.), which was completed in 1935. This sleek, streamlined structure—it has a very 1930s look—remains in use as the town’s fire house.

• Winnemucca Hotel (95 Bridge St.), which was erected in 1863 by Louis and Theopile Lay and Frank Baud. The hotel is the oldest structure in Winnemucca and is still in operation as a Basque hotel and restaurant.

• St. Paul’s Catholic Church (4th and Melarkey St.), constructed in 1924. This fabulous church boasts Old Spanish mission style architecture with Romanesque features.

From the commercial district, the walking tour heads into neighborhoods filled with historic homes. For instance, the Legarza Home (451 W. 2nd St.) was originally owned by local banker George Nixon (later an U.S. Senator from Nevada). Nixon sold the house in 1908 to prominent local sheep ranchers Juan and Florenzia Legarza, after whom it is named.

Nearby is the magnificent Reinhart Home (343 W. 2nd St.), which was constructed in 1909 for Simon Reinhart, part owner of the Winnemucca Bank and Trust Company. Built in a Greek Revival style, the house was one of the most impressive and expensive houses erected in the town at the time it was completed.

Across the street from the Reinhart Home is the two-story, bungalow-style Turin Brown Home (322 W. 2nd St.), which was constructed in 1913 by the owner of the town mercantile.

The W.C. Record Home (146 W. 2nd St.), which the brochure describes as having been built in the “Victorian, vernacular gothic revival-style,” was erected in 1874 and is one of Winnemucca’s oldest houses. Listed on the national register of historic places, the two-story house has largely retained its original appearance and is used by a commercial business today.

Around the corner from the Record Home is the Gables Guest House (124 Lay St.), which was completed in 1903 and originally used as a sanitarium. It served as the town’s main surgical hospital until the community opened its own hospital in 1908. Apparently, sometime during the next decade it was converted into an apartment house, which it remains today.

A few doors down is the Schmidt Home (82 Lay St.), a solid redbrick house built in 1911 by the Schmidt family, which operated a boarding house on Bridge Street. A fire destroyed the house’s second floor in 1969 but it was rebuilt as a one-story structure and today is home of a graphic arts studio.

In Winnemucca, there's history on nearly every street.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Historic Columbia Offers Fun Look at Old California

One of the most picturesque of Eastern California’s 19th century mining camps is Columbia, once called the “Gem of the Southern Mines.”

Located off historic Highway 49, Columbia was one of hundreds of small enclaves that cropped up in the Mother Lode region during the Gold Rush of the early 1850s.

Columbia was founded in 1850 by Dr. Thaddeus Hildreth, who found placer gold in the area. The spot became known as Hildreth's Diggings, then later was called American Camp, before becoming Columbia.

During its productive mining years, roughly 1850 to 1870, the area mines produced more than $87 million in gold, making it one of the richest gold strikes in the state.

Like most western mining towns, Columbia was originally a tent city—within a month of the discovery of gold it boasted 5,000 residents. By the mid-1850s, Columbia had more than 15,000 residents and was the largest town in the gold country's southern mining region.

Just as Virginia City nearly burned to the ground in 1875, Columbia had its share of disastrous fires in its early years. In 1857, following the second fire in three years, Columbia was again rebuilt of brick and stone with wrought-iron doors and window shutters to prevent future fires.

Columbia began to decline after its mines ceased to produce in the 1870s. Within a few decades, the empty buildings outnumbered those in use. Also like Virginia City, Columbia was never completely abandoned and over the years claimed at least a handful of residents.

Fortunately for Columbia, the California state park system acquired the crumbling town in 1945 and began to restore many of its buildings. Today, you can walk its hard-packed dirt streets, wander by more than three dozen restored and renovated historic structures and get a true feeling for life in the mid-19th century.

The state park system has peopled Columbia with the kind of businesses you would likely find in an 1860s town. There are saloons serving beer, a working blacksmith shop, the oldest barbershop in California, stagecoach rides and a photography studio offering old-fashioned sepia-tone photos.

During the summer months, the restored Fallon House Theater (originally the Fallon Hotel), built in 1860 offers plays performed by the visiting repertory company. The town has a rich theatrical history with many famous frontier-era performers having appeared there, including Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree.

Perhaps the oldest and most famous building in Columbia is the 1858 Wells Fargo Express Building, a two-story brick structure that features the classic iron shutters and lacework balcony so prominent in Columbia's architecture. Inside, you can find the offices have been restored with authentic period furniture including the huge gold scales that history tells us measured some $55 million in gold dust.

Additionally, you can find an excellent museum describing the area's past and a schoolhouse, built in 1861, that was one of the state's first public schools.

The museum features informative displays describing the town history and showing how various buildings have been restored. The school has been faithfully restored with desks, seats, a pump organ and period books.

Other interesting historic sites include D.O. Mills Bank Building, built in 1854; the Cheap Cash Store, built in 1854, and the Livery Stable, which houses several old-time wagons.

Stagecoach rides are offered from the front of the Wells Fargo Office. For a nominal price, you can take a 15-minute ride through the town.

In addition to the town, visitors can also tour the 1855 Columbia cemetery, located behind the schoolhouse, or wander along a one-mile nature trail, which starts at the schoolhouse.

Columbia is located about three-and-a-half hours west of Fallon via U.S. Highway 50, Highway 49 and Parrotts Ferry Road. For more information contact Columbia State Historic Park, 209-588-9128, or go to

Monday, November 08, 2010

‘Til Death Do Us Part—or Not

A dark-haired woman, perhaps in her early 30s, strolls through the glass and bronze double doors of the majestic Washoe County Courthouse. She pauses next to one of the massive columns that support the courthouse’s portico and then leans over to plant a kiss on the pillar.

She heads north toward the Riverside Hotel, where she had spent the previous six weeks dreaming of the moment she would finally be free. She pulls off her wedding ring and then throws it as hard as she can into the river. She is about to begin her new life.

Or at least that’s how it happened in the famous Reno legends.

From about 1920 to the early 1950s, Reno was the Divorce Capital of America. Between 1929 and 1939, some 32,000 marriages were dissolved in the Biggest Little City in the World. A Reno divorce was known as “Taking the Cure” or getting a “Reno-vation.”

Fortunately, a handful of places still remain in Reno with ties to that period. The most obvious symbol of a Reno divorce is the Washoe County Courthouse, where so many divorces were granted and on whose pillars so many kisses were allegedly planted. The courthouse, completed in 1911, was designed by famed Nevada architect Frederick J. DeLongchamps in a Classical Revival style.

Another longtime divorce industry landmark is the Riverside Hotel, erected in 1927 by Reno powerbroker George Wingfield. Built with wealthy divorce-seekers in mind, it had 40 corner suites with refrigerators, kitchens and connecting rooms for children and servants (it also had 60 smaller, single rooms for guests of more modest means).

Other structures still found in Reno that were connected to the divorce trade include:

• The El Cortez Hotel (239 W. Second St.), which opened in 1931. Designed by the Reno firm of George Ferris and Son, it was the tallest building in the city when it was completed. It quickly became a popular place for divorce-seekers to stay; business was so good that it was expanded a year after it opened.

• The Nystrom House (333 Ralston) was a Gothic Revival style home built in 1875 for Washoe County Clerk John Shoemaker. It served in the 1920s as a boardinghouse for Reno’s divorce trade.

• The Glass Gallery/Dow House (935 Jones Street) was built in 1907-08 by Lisle Jamison. By the early 1930s, the lovely Colonial Revival/Queen Anne style home had become a popular rooming house for divorce seekers.

• The Twaddle Mansion (485 W. Fifth Street) was built in 1905 for local rancher Ebenezer “Eben” Twaddle. The elegant house boasts fluted posts with Ionic caps, which support a frieze and pediment. Starting in the early 1930s, it, too, became housing for divorce-seekers.

Additionally, in the 1930s a thriving “Dude Ranch” business bloomed in rustic areas around Reno, including Washoe Valley’s famous Flying M E Ranch and the Pyramid Lake Ranch. While many had private cabins for divorcees (60 to 70 percent of which were women) waiting out their six weeks, others consisted of large ranch houses with dining rooms and living quarters shared by guests.

Closer to Reno, the Frey Ranch (1140 West Peckham Lane) was built in 1870 by Enoch Morrill and, after it was sold in the 1890s, was owned by Joseph Frey and his family. In the 1920s and 30s, the ranch, which includes a Folk Victorian main house, was used as a dude ranch for divorcees seeking the “Reno cure” (as a divorce was called in those days).

Reno’s divorce trade peaked in 1946, when 19,000 divorces were granted. By the 1960s, Reno was no longer America’s divorce capital, having been eclipsed by much larger Las Vegas, and ultimately done in by looser divorce requirements in many other states.

Still, it was a good ride while it lasted.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Clark County Museum Showcases the Las Vegas Story

The Las Vegas area has been many things in the past century-and-half—a Mormon outpost, a ranch, a railroad town, a suburb of Hoover Dam, a bedroom community for the atomic bomb test site, and, of course, an adult playground.

Fortunately, there’s the Clark County Museum, a place dedicated to preserving and telling all that rich and colorful history. Wandering through the museum, it’s easy to envision all the various pieces of the Las Vegas story.

Following the displays chronologically, you learn that the Vegas tale began long before the arrival of white settlers with the establishment of the Mormon Fort in 1855. Originally, prehistoric Native Americans populated the Las Vegas Valley.

Often known as the Anasazi, these early residents left a few reminders, some of which are on display, including hand axes, arrowheads, tools and petroglyphs (rock writings).

To help tell each part of the story, sensors triggered by your movement cue audio recordings that bring alive the dozen or so exhibits. For example, Native American chants and drums begin while viewing a diorama recreation of a Southern Paiute encampment.

You also can read about the period of exploration and settlement, including visits through the region by Jedediah Smith and John C. Fremont in the early 19th century. The display includes an 1840s flintlock musket, maps and farming tools.

Another exhibit describes the attempts to develop commercial mining operations in the area, including the Potosi mine (worked in the 1850s) and the nearby mining camp of Searchlight (about 90 miles south of Las Vegas). A mineshaft filled with antique mining equipment helps illustrate this period.

A pioneer life display (accented by steamboat sounds) tells about the efforts to operate steamboats on the Colorado River, and settlements in the southeast part of the state.

Nearby, a fun exhibit (highlighted by cricket sounds) recreates the tent city of Las Vegas at the turn of the century, when the Union Pacific Railroad was auctioning lots to encourage development of a railroad town.

Photos and artifacts talk of the legalization of gambling in 1931, the first casinos, the building of Hoover Dam, the arrival of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and development of the Las Vegas Strip in the 1940s, and entertainers who performed in the hotels.

An exhibit on the 1950s, shows the financial impact of the establishment of the Nevada Test Site (where the nation tested atomic and nuclear weapons).

Of course, there’s a lot more spread over the museum’s 20 acres. Adjacent is the restored Boulder City Depot, built in 1931. Inside, you can find some fine railroad artifacts.

A Union Pacific caboose and railcar, restored to working condition, are parked adjacent to the depot, giving the place the appearance of still being in use.

Adjacent to the depot, is Heritage Street, a row of restored historic homes and buildings representing various eras in Southern Nevada's past. About a half-dozen buildings have been moved to Heritage Street and returned to original condition with period furnishings. Entering any of the structures triggers an audio self-guided tour.

The oldest building is the Giles/Barcus House, a home originally built in the mining town of Goldfield in 1905 and moved to Las Vegas in the early 1950s. It served as a residence and, later, a retail store.

Nearby is the Beckley House, built in 1912 by Will Beckley, a pioneer Las Vegas businessman. The California-style bungalow is representative of the type of homes common in Las Vegas during the first few decades of this century.

The adjacent Henderson Townsite House is representative of the kind of “company town” homes constructed in the 1940s to house workers at the giant Basic Magnesium plant in Henderson (which was originally named “Basic,” after the facility).

Another historic building is the Tudor-style Heritage/P.J. Goumond House, which was built in 1931 by one of Southern Nevada’s gaming pioneers. There is also a replica of a 19th century newspaper office, complete with authentic turn-of-the-century newspaper presses and equipment.

The museum has an interpretive trail that winds through displays of antique mining equipment, a prehistoric Paiute camp and buildings moved from several Nevada ghost towns, including a few from Tuscarora (located north of Elko).

The Clark County Museum is located 10 miles southeast of downtown Las Vegas, at 1830 South Boulder Highway in Henderson. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is $1.50 for adults and $1 for children and seniors. For more information go to

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

What's a Wabuska?

Visitors to the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City are often puzzled by the name—Wabuska—on the yellow depot sitting near the front of the facility.

While it may sound like some kind of sausage, once upon a time there was a town called Wabuska, which was an important junction for the Carson & Colorado (and later Southern Pacific) Railroad.

The depot is one of the few reminders of this town with the unusual name. In the 1980s, so little remained of Wabuska that its depot was moved to the museum and restored.

The community’s story began in the early 1870s, when a small settlement and freight station popped up near the northern end of the Mason Valley. In 1874, a post office was established in the tiny hamlet under the name, Wabuska, which is Washo for “white grass.”

The town experienced a bit of a boom in 1881 when it became the location of a Carson & Colorado Railroad station. Along with gaining a railroad, the town saw construction of a small general store and hotel, where rail workers could take meals.

The station was built by railroad agent Edward Lovejoy, who perhaps more than anyone who ever lived in Wabuska, earns the town a place in Nevada history.

Lovejoy was the only son of one of the 19th century’s most famous abolitionists, Elijah P. Lovejoy, who was the first white person to die for the anti-slavery cause.

Additionally, the younger Lovejoy was a friend of Sam Davis, colorful editor of the Carson Appeal. Davis created a fictitious newspaper, the Wabuska Mangler, and named Lovejoy as its editor.

From 1889 until Lovejoy’s death in 1891, Davis frequently poked fun at his friend in print, quoting from fictional editorials allegedly written by Lovejoy and concocting a feud between the two newspapers.

Wabuska’s high point occurred after 1900, when the Carson & Colorado was absorbed by the Southern Pacific Railroad and the town became an essential junction for central and southern Nevada mining camps.

In 1911, the Nevada Copper Belt Railroad was completed, connecting the railroad line at Wabuska to several new copper mines near Yerington. For the next few years, Wabuska boomed and soon had a large railroad station, a school, grocery stores, saloons and nearly 60 families.

Additionally, the town benefited from the construction of two large copper smelters at Thompson, located only a few miles north. Ore processed at Thompson was transported through Wabuska.

The copper industry slumped in the early 1920s and Wabuska began to shrink. By the 1950s, the town consisted of a half dozen houses and a two-story grocery store and bar.
Today, while the train still passes through the area, Wabuska has nearly disappeared.

Wandering the former site of Wabuska, you can see how the place earned its name. The soil is layered with a white alkaline crust and there are thickets of yellow-brown sagebrush and greasewood.

Behind the grocery store, just beyond a decaying truck, are the ruins of three or four homes. One appears to have at least partially burned down while the others seem to be victims of abandonment and neglect.

Pushing through the thick underbrush, you can find a few brick walls, concrete foundations, old stoves, nails, wood scraps, wires and the other remnants of civilization. A partially collapsed barn—now little more than a frail skeleton of warped, worn boards and chicken wire—peeks out of the sagebrush, behind one of the more intact houses.

In a few places, beware of what appear to be outhouse, septic tank or well openings, where the wooden coverings have rotted away, leaving only holes.

Wabuska has become another Nevada shadow town—still more than a memory but less than what it was once.

The site of Wabuska is located about 40 miles southwest of Fallon via U.S. 50 and Alternate U.S. 95. The nearest town is Yerington, located 11 miles south.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Fabulous Valley of Fire

The late afternoon sun casts a mutating light on the Valley of Fire’s sandstone cliffs and boulders. Rocks that were benign oranges and browns earlier in the day gradually assume more dramatic shades, becoming angry and red.

The sun reshapes the rocks. Sandstone that an hour before—under bright light—seemed to be nothing more than pitted rock takes on new appearances.

A giant rock arch becomes a massive elephant. A sandstone bowl formed by rain becomes a bottomless pit, and a perfect hiding place for a renegade Indian. Stone towers along the road are transformed into huge icons resembling the pillars at Stonehenge.

At this time of day, it is easy to see why Valley of Fire was designated as Nevada’s first state park more than 60 years ago. The park, located on the banks of Lake Mead, is truly one of the most unique Nevada desert landscapes.

The special sandstone designs found in the area were formed from great shifting sand dunes found more than 150 million years ago. The sand eventually turned to stone, which over the years has been sculpted by the wind and rain into a wide variety of evocative shapes.

For example, at one place the rocks have been eroded in such a way as to form a giant archway that when viewed from the right angle looks just like a giant elephant with four thick legs and a wide trunk (hence its name, “Elephant Rock”).

Not surprisingly, the area has long held fascination for man. Archeological evidence indicates that many prehistoric people were attracted to the valley. Among the earliest inhabitants were the Basketmaker people and the Anasazi Pueblo farmers from the nearly Moapa Valley.

Proof of their presence in the valley can be found among the many petroglyphs (which are prehistoric Indian rock writings) on the valley walls.

Petroglyph Canyon, north of the visitor center, is lined with glyphs of a different sort, such as kachina figures (considered a rare image), drawings of dancers holding hands, footprints and curved lines.

The canyon trail leads to another landmark, Mouse’s Tank, a large rock catchment called a “tinaja.” This particular catch basin provided a regular source of water for birds, animals and, at the turn of the century, an outlaw Indian (named Mouse) who hid in the area.

Additionally, at Atlatl Rock you’ll find a large collection of petroglyphs carved high on the side of a stone formation. Metal walkways lead to the carvings, which include an atlatl, an ancient spear-throwing stick, as well as bighorn sheep and a variety of other symbols.

The visitor center (open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) is a good place to begin a tour. In addition to being the only place to find a water fountain in the park, the center offers exhibits about the geology and animal life of the region, including the rare and protected desert tortoise.

The center also has good information about desert flora and fauna. Because of its location, the Valley of Fire is one of the best places in the state to watch wildflowers bloom. In late March and early April, depending on rainfall, the park roads offer good places to spot the springtime blooms of desert marigold, indigobush and desert mallow.

There are plenty of places to explore in the park. Near the entrance from State Route 169, you can find the Cabins, which were sandstone structures built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The buildings are now part of a picnic area.

Additionally, you can view the Seven Sisters—seven huge sandstone towers that also serve as a picnic area or follow interpretive trails through a forest of petrified stumps that are more than 200 million years old. The park also has several interesting landmarks, including the Beehives, which are round sandstone formations that resemble their namesakes, and the White Domes.

At Rainbow Vista and Fire Canyon, both north of the visitor center via a paved road and a short hike, you can find two excellent sites from which to photograph the park.
The Valley of Fire also has two campgrounds (both just off the main road, west of the visitors center) with 73 campsites. The sites are equipped with shaded tables, BBQ grills, water and restrooms. There is also a recreational vehicle dump station near the campgrounds.

The Valley of Fire State Park is located about 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas. To reach it, travel south to Las Vegas on U.S. Highway 95. From Las Vegas, travel east on Interstate 15 to State Route 40. Head east for 24 miles to the park. For more information, go to

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Belleville's Brief, Colorful History

Belleville: "Beautiful City"

In 1877, it would have cost you seven bucks for a whole year’s subscription to the Belleville Times.

Unfortunately, the newspaper didn’t last a whole year.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of Belleville, a once thriving mining camp located about 53 miles southeast of Hawthorne. And like its newspaper, Belleville wasn’t particularly long-lived.

According to ghost town historian Stanley Paher, the community of Belleville was established in 1873 following construction of a stamp mill on the site to process ore from mines in nearby Candelaria.

In December 1874, a post office was opened in the settlement, which derived its name from the mill, owned by the Northern Belle Mining and Milling Company (Belleville is French for “beautiful city.”

A second mill was opened above the town in 1876. By then, Belleville had grown to house about 400 residents and had several hotels, restaurants and saloons as well as blacksmith shops and stables.

Paher also notes that the town, which became a kind of playground for Candelaria’s miners, had an amateur magicians’ club, a jockey club offering horse-racing, and a newsstand that sold papers from throughout the country.

In fact, because of its proximity to the booming mining town of Candelaria, located about six miles south, Belleville continued to grow, adding a couple hundred more people during the next two years. It was during this period that the Belleville Times began publishing.

In 1882, Belleville seemed well on its way to permanency when the Carson and Colorado Railroad reached the town, linking it by rail to other communities.

The town’s optimism, however, proved premature as later that year the Northern Belle Company built a 27-mile water pipeline from the White Mountains. The pipe meant that Candelaria could begin processing its ore closer to where it was mined, thereby eliminating the need for Belleville.

The end came rather quickly and by 1894, Belleville’s population had so dwindled that the post office was closed. Eventually, the mills were dismantled and Belleville was abandoned. There was a brief revival in the area between 1915-1918 (during that time the post office was reopened) but there has been no activity since.

Today, little remains of Belleville. To reach the site, travel about 40 miles south of Hawthorne on U.S. 95, then continue west on Nevada State Route 360 for 11 miles. An historic marker indicates the site of the community, which is south of the highway.

Wandering the site, which is adjacent to a dirt road that leads to Candelaria (now also abandoned), you can find plenty of rusted metal scraps, a few weathered pieces of wood and lots of field mice hiding in tufts of wild grass.

There are also large and impressive stone and brick foundations tucked into the hillsides, remnants of the mills that once operated in Belleville. Depressions in the ground indicate the former cellars of several homes and buildings that once stood in the area.

As for the Belleville Times, after it ceased publishing in June of 1878, it was sold to a man who relocated all of its press equipment to the mining camp of Aurora.
I guess that if you’d purchased that one-year subscription to the Belleville Times you would have had to move to keep getting your paper.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Goldfield Walking Tour - Part 3

Finishing up with our walking tour of Goldfield, we head off the main boulevard (Crook Street/U.S. 95) and wander the side streets of this historic mining town, which is located about 240 miles south of Reno via U.S. 95.

For example, on the corner of Ramsey and Euclid avenues is the former Goldfield High School, built in 1907. Sadly, the school has been vacant since the 1940s and has deteriorated in recent decades (although efforts have been made to stabilize the building).

The school is a two-story stone and brick Georgian Revival-style building that sits atop a half-story full basement, which makes it seem even larger. The entrance is enhanced by wide wooden steps leading into an elegant archway and vestibule. During the town’s boom, the high school accommodated more than 400 students.

Down the street, at 206 E. Ramsey Avenue, is the Southern Nevada Consolidated Telephone-Telegraph Building, once part of the town’s commercial district. Constructed in 1906, the building is a one-story, stone structure, which has a full basement containing much of the phone company’s original wiring and relays.

The building is significant because the Southern Nevada Consolidated developed the first communications systems in Goldfield. It extended its telephone and telegraph lines from Tonopah to Goldfield in 1904.

By 1907, when Goldfield was teeming with more than 20,000 people, the phone company was bursting with activity as it tried to keep up with the demand for communications services (records indicate revenues in excess of $250,000 in 1906).

The town began its long decline after 1913, but the phone company managed to survive for another five decades before finally closing its doors. Today, it is in fairly good shape (it was used as an apartment for a number of years) and is one of only seven commercial or public buildings made of stone that are still standing.

Adjacent to the phone company building is the Goldfield Consolidated Mines Company Building, also known as the Nixon and Wingfield Block.

This three-story stone structure is probably the third-most impressive building in Goldfield (after the Goldfield Hotel and the Esmeralda County Courthouse). Built in 1907, this was the nerve center of the Goldfield mining empire of Senator George Nixon and financier George Wingfield.

Nixon and Wingfield dominated Goldfield’s mining industry during its early boom period. By 1907, they had purchased controlling interest in nearly all of the productive mines in the district.

A year later, Wingfield acquired Nixon’s share in the company and virtually ruled the town’s mines until 1932, when he suffered financial setbacks as a result of the Great Depression.

Directly next door to the Goldfield Consolidated Building is the Curtis and Ish Building, also erected in 1907. The Curtis and Ish is a three-story concrete and stone structure that utilizes a Neo-Classical Revival style.

The impressive commercial building was constructed by two successful Goldfield businessmen, Loren B. Curtis and Marvin E. Ish.

Curtis was owner of the Nevada Power, Mining and Milling Company, which supplied electrical power to Goldfield and Tonopah. Ish and his brother were mine developers, who made nearly $1 million from the Mohawk Mine (later acquired by Wingfield).

Across the street from the Goldfield Consolidated Building is the less auspicious Elks Building, built in 1925. This was one of the last substantial structures erected in the town, having been built on the foundations of the former Tonopah & Goldfield Railroad Building, which was destroyed by fire in 1923.

A couple of ruins worth noting are the former sites of the Montezuma Club and Sideboard Saloon.

The Montezuma Club (on Columbia Street) was once the most influential and powerful social institution in the town’s history. Its members included the richest and most successful businessmen in Goldfield.

The original structure, which was three-stories high and one of the largest buildings in town, was destroyed during the 1923 fire. Today, all that remains is a shallow pit, stone foundations and the original cornerstone, which is inscribed: “Montezuma Club - July 1907.”

The Sideboard Saloon ruins are noteworthy because of the unusual 12-foot, round, stone arch—once the entrance—that stands in an empty field. The original building was erected in 1907 but destroyed in the 1923 fire.

The last building of significance is the Santa Fe Saloon, built in 1905. This modest wooden drinking establishment is located well outside of the main commercial portion of Goldfield but adjacent to the town’s mining fields.

The Santa Fe is one of a handful of businesses that have managed to stay open in Goldfield for the past century. It’s a classic frontier-style saloon with a wooden false front and sidewalk.

Inside, it boasts a century-old backbar, uneven floors and plenty of authentic, old Goldfield character (or characters, depending on who’s there).

For more information about Goldfield, contact the Goldfield Chamber of Commerce, 165 Crook Ave., P.O. Box 204, Goldfield, NV 89013, 775-485-3560,

Friday, June 04, 2010

Goldfield Walking Tour - Part 2

This week, we’ll continue our walking tour of the mining town of Goldfield, once Nevada’s largest and most influential community.

Wandering the dusty streets, and seeing the dozens of building foundations and decaying, abandoned structures, it’s clear that Goldfield was once a substantial place.
Founded in 1902, it had more than 20,000 residents by 1907, then declined almost as rapidly as it rose.

Across the street from the magnificent Goldfield Hotel (on U.S. 95, which runs through the center of town) is the impressive Esmeralda County Courthouse. Built in 1907-08, this two-story, stone structure is perhaps the best-maintained building in town.

The courthouse, which is still in operation since Goldfield remains the seat of Esmeralda County, is an outstanding example of an early 20th century hall of justice.

The building’s exterior is composed of course, rockface stone. It has a tall, stepped parapet at the roofline above the entrance and notched walls at the four corners of the building—all of which give it a dramatic castle-like appearance.

Inside, the courthouse has finely crafted wood staircases, ornate light fixtures and expensive courtroom furnishings, including original Tiffany lamps.

The courthouse reflects the political muscle once exerted by Goldfield. When gold was first discovered in Goldfield, Hawthorne, located 125 miles north, was the Esmeralda County seat.

As Goldfield grew, its community leaders became unhappy with the expense and inconvenience of having to deal with such a distant county seat for business transactions. So, in 1907 Goldfield wrestled the seat away from Hawthorne (which later was able to regain its status as a county seat when Mineral County was created from part of Esmeralda County).

Adjacent to the courthouse is another of Goldfield’s better preserved survivors, the First M.E. Church of Goldfield. With architecture that echoes the courthouse, the church was built in 1912, just as Goldfield was beginning to slump.

The church is a single-story structure with an articulated, square bell tower that rises 30-feet. While its facing resembles the courthouse’s stonework, the church was constructed with rusticated blocks, which is concrete that is cut and molded to resemble stone.

Across Crook Street (U.S. 95) is the E.A. Byler house, which has the distinction of being one of the few bottle houses remaining in Nevada. This residence, built in 1905, was actually constructed of used beverage bottles that were covered with adobe. In places, some of the adobe plaster has worn off, exposing the bottles.

Continuing down Crook Street, there are several other significant structures to be seen, including the 1908 Goldfield Fire Station No. 1, still used as a fire station.

This simple, rectangular, two-story stone building was paid for by the people of Goldfield, who raised half its cost by donations (the county paid the rest) and erected it using donated land and labor.

Near the firehouse is the ornate G.L. “Tex” Rickard house, probably the finest of the original boomtown homes still to be found in Goldfield. The flamboyant house was built in 1906 by Rickard, co-owner of the Northern Saloon and promoter of the 1906 Gans-Nelson championship boxing match, held in Goldfield.

Rickard is one of the more interesting persons drawn to Goldfield during its boom. The publicity he generated for the Gans-Nelson fight catapulted Goldfield into the national consciousness as an up-and-coming mining community, which helped its mines attract eastern investors.

Rickard later built and managed the first Madison Square Garden in New York.

Another unusual house is the Charles S. Sprague home, a one and a half story structure located at the intersection of Crook and Sundog avenues (at the place where U.S. 95 turns sharply south).

The Sprague place, built in 1907, was one of Goldfield’s most substantial homes. Sprague was owner of the Goldfield News and a prominent Goldfield businessman, who served as Esmeralda County’s state senator during the 1920s.

The house has a steep, gabled roof that extends the length of the house and is noteworthy for its large size and unique design, which architectural historians describe as Craftsman Bungalow style. Over the years, it has been used a residence and commercial business, most recently as a restaurant.

Still more on Goldfield next time.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Goldfield Walking Tour - Part 1

Goldfield Hotel (Photo courtesy of Vivaverdi)

Years ago I stopped in the historic mining town of Goldfield when an elderly woman carrying a bag of groceries walked up to me as I climbed out my car and practically demanded that I give her a ride home.

Amused by her boldness, I consented and drove her to her house, which was an old, tumbled-down, stone building covered with a red, rolled asphalt roof.
“I live here during the summer,” she said, adding, “It’s the old brothel—come on , I’ll give you a tour.”

I followed her inside. She placed her paper sack on a wooden table near the door and began to describe her unusual house, which seemed to consist of a long hallway lined with doors on either side.

Customers entered through the front door, as we had, she said, paid their money to someone sitting behind a desk near the entrance, then went into the room of their favorite working girl, if she wasn’t already occupied. There were six small rooms, three on each side of the building. In addition to the hall door, each had an exterior door with window.

“Know why there are so many doors?” the old woman asked me. I shook my head. “It’s so that you could leave without any of the other customers inside seeing you. It was more private that way.”

She took me down the hall to a small room in the back of the building. She pointed up to a bucket on a hinge that was attached to a wooden beam in the roof. A rope hung down from the bucket. She explained that this was where the girls took showers.

We walked outside and she told me that the area around her brothel had once been Goldfield’s red light district, home of the town’s houses of prostitution, dance halls, and seedier saloons.

I don’t remember much else of what the old woman said that day but I thought of her recently when reading in Sally Zanjani’s book, “Goldfield,” that at one time 500 girls worked in the city’s red four-block light district.

Of course, Goldfield, which is located about 200 miles south of Fallon via U.S. 95, was much more than a large tenderloin section. At its peak in 1907, the town had a population of more than 20,000 and a developed area that covered more than 50 city blocks.

Wandering the streets of Goldfield, you can find that the ghosts still speak loudly.

They talk of better times—when Goldfield was the largest community in Nevada and the hub of the state’s political and economic power. And they murmur of bad breaks, like the tapped-out mines, fires and floods that hastened the city’s demise.

Goldfield traces its beginnings to two miners, Harry Stimler and William Marsh, and a Shoshone named Tom Fisherman. Just after the turn of the century, the latter apparently discovered gold in the mountains south of Tonopah. In 1902, he led Stimler and Marsh to his find and within months a small mining camp had developed.

The site was originally called “Grandpa,” supposedly because Marsh declared it was going to be the granddaddy of all mining camps. Interest in the camp was modest until 1903, when additional gold discoveries were uncovered. The following year, a townsite was plated, which was named Goldfield.

Goldfield boomed from 1905 until about 1910, when it entered an extended period of decline. Despite its relatively short time at the top, a great number of substantial buildings and homes were constructed in Goldfield.

A disastrous flood swept through the town in 1913, destroying dozens of buildings and accelerating the town’s depression. The coup de grace, however, was a major fire in 1923, which burned most of the town’s commercial district.

Today, Goldfield remains one of the most vivid reminders of Nevada’s early 20th century mining boom period. In spite of disasters, neglect and decay, more than 100 historic structures have survived more or less intact.

Walking its dirt streets (the only paved road is U.S. 95, which runs through the middle of the town), you can still find plenty of buildings that help tell Goldfield’s story.

Starting at the north end of town (driving on U.S. 95 from Tonopah), you pass Columbia Mountain (on the left), site of the area’s most significant gold discoveries. The first ore found there was apparently extremely rich—which helped generate the initial enthusiasm for Goldfield—but the deposits were not particularly deep, which is why the mines had such a limited life.

Just beyond the mountain, the highway curves east and enters the town, where it becomes known as Crook Street.

For a half mile or so, you pass other ruins and dilapidated structures on either side of the road before reaching the center of Goldfield, which you recognize because its the location of the town’s most significant survivor, the Goldfield Hotel.

Constructed in 1907-08, this massive four-story brick building rises 56 feet high and can be seen from miles away. The hotel was once the most luxurious in the entire state with an elevator, overstuffed, leather lobby chairs, crystal chandeliers and other elegant features.

The hotel was financed by one of Goldfield’s largest mining consortiums, the Hayes-Monette Syndicate, at a cost of more than $250,000. Shortly after is completion, it was sold to George Wingfield, who controlled most of Goldfield’s mines and was an influential political and business force in Nevada during the first quarter century.

While the hotel managed to stay open until the 1940s (and avoided serious damage during either the 1913 flood or 1923 fire), it has not operated for several decades. In the mid-1980s, the structure was partially restored by a San Francisco millionaire, who hoped to reopen it, but the work was never completed.

More on Goldfield next time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Nevada's Most Historic Dams

Bishop Creek Dam

Hoover Dam is easily Nevada’s most famous dam. But did you know there are others that are equally historic? In honor of Hoover Dam’s 75th birthday this year, I’d like to take a look at some of the Silver State’s most noteworthy and historic dams.

Bishop Creek Dam—Originally called the Metropolis Dam, this structure was built in 1912 to provide water to the farming community of Metropolis, 20 miles north of Wells. But downstream farmers won a lawsuit contesting the dam and it has never been used to its full potential. Fill in the dam included brick rubble from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. More recently, the state has begun work to replace this decaying concrete dam with an earth fill dam so this historic wedge will soon be gone.

Wild Horse Dam—There are actually two Wild Horse dams. The first one was built in 1937 to store water to irrigate hay meadows on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, 60 miles north of Elko. Poor construction rendered the dam unsafe, so in 1969, a second, larger dam was built upstream from the original. The first dam still stands beneath the waters of Wild Horse Reservoir.

Angel Lake—As dams go, the one creating Angel Lake, 12 miles south of Wells, is small, measuring a mere 15-feet across. Built in the 1880s, this dirt-and-rock barrier is one of the state’s oldest dams and creates a picturesque alpine lake.

Cave Lake—The earthen dam creating this scenic mountain lake is so low profile that most visitors don’t realize Cave Lake is a manmade reservoir. Nestled in Eastern Nevada’s Schell Creek Range, Cave Lake was created by a rancher in the 1920s and enlarged in 1961 by the Nevada Division of State Parks. A 27-pound, five-ounce brown trout, a state record, was caught here in 1984.

Davis Dam—With its blocky, angular design, this dirt-fill and concrete slab looks the way a dam ought to look. Located on the Colorado River, 67 miles downstream from Hoover Dam and a mile north of Laughlin, Davis Dam was constructed from 1946 to 1953 and created Lake Mohave.

Lahontan Dam—This impressive concrete, earth, and rock dam has distinctive design touches, such as an elegant archway and suspension bridge leading to an outlet tower. Constructed in 1911-15 as part of the Newlands Project, the dam captures water from the Truckee and Carson rivers, and then feeds it to nearby Fallon area farms.

Marlette Dam—Part of the oldest water system in Nevada, this dam was constructed on Marlette Lake in the 1860s by the Carson and Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Company. In 1877, a series of flumes and pipelines were built to carry Marlette’s water to Virginia City. The system was one of the engineering marvels of the 19th century, transporting water from high in the Sierra Nevada range, down 2,700 feet to Washoe Valley, across the valley, and back up 1,400 feet to Virginia City.

Tahoe City Dam—Sitting at the north end of Lake Tahoe, this dam is the spigot that pours water into the Truckee River, which provides nearly all the water for Northwestern Nevada. Built from 1909-1913, this 14-foot concrete sluiceway raised the level of Lake Tahoe by more than six feet—which translates into 732,000 acre feet of water—despite vehement opposition from shoreline property owners.

Derby Diversion Dam—This concrete dam is one of Western Nevada’s most controversial barriers. As part of the Newlands Project, it diverts Truckee River water to Lahontan Reservoir. The diversion helped turn Fallon into an agricultural center but also sparked nearly a century of legal squabbling over water rights. Derby is located 20 miles east of Reno.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Toast to a Ghost: The Story of Rawhide

Despite the fact that very little remains of the old Nevada mining town of Rawhide, the place refuses to fade away.

Perhaps it’s because of its colorful name—Rawhide—which conjures images of western false storefronts, saloons with swinging doors and old prospectors wandering the streets with their burros and pickaxes.

But while once upon a time Rawhide may have been able to boast all of those iconic features, it’s been a long time since anyone has been able to belly up to a bar in that community.

Rawhide trace its beginning to December 1906, when a miner named Jim Swanson is said to have found gold in the area, which is west of the Buckskin Mountains of central Nevada.

A few months later, Charles Holman and Charles McLeod joined Swanson in working the site. Holman, in fact, is credited with naming the town. Allegedly, he called it Rawhide as a play-on-words to indicate his dislike for a nearby mining camp called Buckskin, which had tossed him out.

McLeod and Holman staked several claims on a mound that became known as Hooligan Hill. Their holdings proved promising and they sold them to a larger mining operation for $20,000 plus 10 percent of the profits.

By the end of 1907, word about Rawhide’s riches had spread and it became a classic Nevada mining boomtown that swelled to about 7,000 people.

The rush to Rawhide attracted a number of well known—and notorious—Western figures including Bill “Swiftwater” Gates, who had made a fortune in the Alaska gold rush, as well as “Diamondfield” Jack Davis, who occasionally worked as an enforcer and strike-breaker for Goldfield’s mining boss, George Wingfield.

Additionally, among those early residents was George Graham Rice, a legendary conman who reportedly had embezzled about $100,000 from investors during the earlier Goldfield mining boom.

Other, more reputable arrivals included George “Tex” Rickard, who opened a bar in Rawhide called the Northern, and invested in several local mines.

Despite all the interest and feverish activity, Rawhide’s glory days were brief, less than a half dozen years. One of the town’s main challenges was a lack of a water source. The precious liquid had to be hauled in from a distant well and was sold at the incredible price of 5-cents per galloon.

Still, at its peak Rawhide had a telegraph and long distance telephone service as well as three banks, five newspapers, a half-dozen restaurants, several dozen shops and hotels, more than 30 saloons, a school and a thriving red light district known as Stingaree Gulch. It was also served by a daily automobile-stage with mail service from several surrounding communities.

In September 1908, however, tragedy struck the town when fire destroyed a third of a mile of local businesses and residences. While some of Rawhide was immediately rebuilt, the community didn’t entirely recover as mining revenues began to dip.

Less than a year later, the Rawhide boom was over. Most of the population moved on to other, more promising communities. By the 1920s, Rawhide was almost completely abandoned.

But while the town didn’t last very long, it did make an impression. In 1908, famous British romance novelist Elinor Glyn came to Rawhide to get the flavor of a real Western town for her books and wrote about her visit.

Rawhide also experienced several unsuccessful railroad-building attempts. The closest to becoming a reality was the Rawhide Western Railroad, which would have linked the town to the Nevada-California Railroad at Schurz.

With less than three miles of grading to be completed, the railroad line was abandoned after investors bailed following the 1908 fire.

Today, virtually nothing remains of old Rawhide. Modern mining operations can be seen in the area but there is little to mark the town beside a small cemetery. Even the original Rawhide Jail has been relocated to the city complex in Hawthorne.

A non-profit group,, is working to develop a permanent historic display in Rawhide (funded by Kennecott Minerals) that will tell the history, geology and folklore of the community.

The former site of Rawhide is located about 55 miles southeast of Fallon via U.S. 50 (go about 30 miles), Nevada State Route 839 (turn right and continue another 10 miles) and about two miles of dirt roads.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Retracing Jack London in Northern California

"I liked those hills up there. They were beautiful, as you see, and I wanted beauty . . . I bought beauty, and I was content with beauty." —Jack London

The picturesque valleys north of San Francisco have long fascinated and attracted writers. In fact, writer Jack London was so taken with the lush green hillsides, moss-covered charter oaks and serenity that he chose to live there.

Born in 1876 in Oakland, California, London discovered the Sonoma Valley in 1905 and purchased a 130-acre ranch in Glen Ellen, a village located about 10 miles west of Sonoma. He named the spread, Beauty Ranch.

Although only 29 years old at the time, London had already written "Call of the Wild" and "The Sea Wolf," and had become one of America’s most famous and successful writers. He soon began expanding and developing the ranch, which he envisioned as a model for a socialist, agrarian society.

At the same time, he also began work on "The Snark," his prize sailing ship that was to take he and wife Charmain on a seven year cruise around the world. The trip only lasted 27 months (although they made it to the South Pacific and Australia) after London began having health problems.

The Londons returned to the ranch, which Jack immediately began expanding (he ultimately owned 1,800 acres). He also began planning the "Wolf House," his massive grand home in the mountains.

From 1910 to 1913, London spent more than $80,000 (in pre-World War I dollars) designing and constructing this rustic palace. Unfortunately, on the day the Londons were to move into their dream castle, the building mysteriously caught on fire (the source of the fire has never been determined) and was destroyed.

The destruction of the house and the resulting financial setback were harsh blows to London. He continued to write and made small improvements to a small ranch house that he'd previously been living in on the ranch but planned to try to rebuild the Wolf House.

In 1916, however, despite being only 40 years old, London died of gastrointestinal uremic poisoning—a result of his rough and ready lifestyle, manic work habits, diet and heavy alcohol consumption. The Wolf House was never rebuilt.

Today, visitors can tour the impressive ruins of the Wolf House as well as his ranch house (he died while sleeping on the front porch there), a small museum and the grave sites of both London and his wife.

The latter is housed in a beautiful stone structure, called "The House of Happy Walls," built from 1916-22 by his widow. It served as her home for more than 30 years and it was her wish to have it made into a museum after her death.

Inside, visitors can find first editions of London's works, displays describing his adventures, historic photographs, personal artifacts and effects, furniture, manuscripts and can purchase books by and about London.

The former London property is all part of the Jack London State Historic Park, which encompasses about 1,400 acres of the Beauty Ranch and includes orchards, barns, the small farm house in which London died, silos, a manmade lake constructed by London and other ruins.

Interpretive trails lead through the park and up into the slopes of Sonoma Mountain and the surrounding countryside.

The Jack London State Historic Park is located at 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, CA 95442. For more information call 707-938-5216 or go to

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Marvelous Markleeville

Markleeville, located 35 miles southwest of Carson City, is one of Eastern California’s most picturesque and historic small towns.

Its history is remarkably similar to that of many Nevada mining towns. In the mid-1860s, silver was discovered in the area and a number of small mining camps appeared almost overnight, including Silver Mountain City, Monitor and Markleeville.

By 1864, more than 5,000 people lived in the region, which was carved into a new county called Alpine. That year also turned out to be the historic peak in terms of population for the county, which is still among the least populated in California with only a few thousand residents.

As with most mining towns, the ore began to run out and by the mid-1870s, the population began a gradual decline. Silver Mountain City faded so quickly that Markleeville was named the county seat in 1875.

As mining declined, the lumber industry became more important. During the 1870s and 1880s, Alpine County became one of the major sources of wood for booming Virginia City. Records indicate that during one year more than a quarter-million cords of wood were cut and sent to the Comstock.

Today, Markleeville is a charming, quaint little town with a handful of historic buildings that show that things haven’t changed too much in the last century.

For example, the Alpine Hotel in the center of town has a friendly tavern and still offers a couple of rooms upstairs. There are also a few local businesses—the kind you usually only find in small mountain towns—like a bait shop and a general store.

Markleeville is also the location of the Alpine County Historical Complex, a museum that includes a collection of historic buildings that help tell the town’s story. The complex is open from Memorial Day through October.

Visitors to the museum will find the restored Webster School, a classic one-room schoolhouse built in 1882. The Webster School was used until 1929, and then allowed to fall into disrepair.

In the 1960s, it was stabilized and eventually restored to its original condition. Inside you can view an interesting photographic exhibit describing the restoration project.

In addition to the schoolhouse, the museum includes displays describing the area’s rich history. Exhibits include a re-creation of an old country store and a blacksmith shop, Washo Indian baskets, antique toys and dolls, and a pair of 19th century handmade, wooden skis that are similar to those used by famous Genoa resident John “Showshoe” Thompson.

The complex also includes the Old Log Jail, Alpine County’s original jail built from locally cut logs in 1875. The jail has two hand-riveted iron cells that were originally part of the Silver Mountain City jail before being relocated to Markleeville in the 1870s.

Located high in the Sierra Nevada, Markleeville is surrounded by alpine forests and beautiful mountain ranges. There are a number of campgrounds and hiking trails in the immediate area. Lists of both are also available at the Chamber of Commerce office.

Markleeville is located 35 miles southwest of Carson City via U.S. Highway 395 and Highway 88 and 89. For more information contact the Alpine County Chamber of Commerce, Box 265, Markleeville, CA 96120, 530-694-2475 or go to

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

In the Footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson in California

“Those lodes and pockets of earth, more precious than the precious ores, that yield inimitable fragrance and soft fire, who virtuous Bonanzas, where the soil has sublimated under sun and stars to something finer, and the wine is bottled poetry: these still lie undiscovered.”— Robert Louis Stevenson

The rich, green valleys north of San Francisco have long fascinated and attracted writers. In the 19th century, author Robert Louis Stevenson was so taken with the lush green hillsides, moss-covered charter oaks and serenity that he chose to live there for a time.

In particular, the picturesque Napa Valley region captivated the writer who would later pen such classics as “Treasure Island,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “A Child's Garden of Verses.”

In May 1880, Stevenson and his new bride, Fanny, homesteaded in an abandoned bunkhouse adjacent to an old quicksilver mine on the slopes of Mount St. Helena.

In poor health, Stevenson found the clean mountain air and sunshine helped him regain his strength. While his time in the bunkhouse was brief—only a few months—he was so impressed by his surroundings that he maintained notes about the people he met and the sights he experienced, which he later published in the form of the book, “Silverado Squatters.”

Part of the reason that Stevenson and his wife found themselves in California was because she was a divorced woman and Stevenson’s family did not approve of the marriage. Eventually, however, he gained his family’s approval of her and was able to return with her to his family in Scotland.

Over the years, a kind of Stevenson cult has cropped up in the Napa Valley, which, appropriately, commemorates his stay in the region. The former site of the bunkhouse, which is located about a mile up from Highway 29, as it winds around Mount St. Helena (at a point about eight miles northwest of the town of Calistoga), is now part of the Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.

The park is rustic, with no services. But visitors will find miles of hiking trails winding to the top of Mount St. Helena, which is the tallest peak in the area.

A shorter trail leads to the bunkhouse site, which is marked by a large, marble monument carved in the image of an open book. Writing on the tablet notes his stay in the area and includes a quote from “Silverado Squatters.”

Standing on the site, you sense that there is something almost religious about the spot. The sun peeks through the tall trees, a slight wind rustles the leaves, and you recognize the place from his description in “Squatters”: “A clean smell of trees, a smell of the earth at morning, hung in the air. Regularly, every day, there was a single bird, not singing, but awkwardly chirruping among the green madronas, and the sound was cheerful, natural and stirring . . . The freshness of these morning seasons remained with me far into the day.”

In addition to the state park, the quaint town of St. Helena, located about 18 miles east of the park via Highway 29 is home of the Silverado Museum, a facility devoted to Stevenson’s life. There, you will find more than 8,000 letters, manuscripts, first editions, historic photographs and other Stevenson memorabilia.

The Silverado Museum is located at 1490 Library Lane in St. Helena. For more information call 707-963-3757 or go to

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Scenic Mono County

Crowds, Starbucks and traffic jams are just some of the things you won't find in California’s Mono County.

Instead, travelers passing through this part of Eastern California will find plenty of beautiful landscapes, interesting history, fascinating geology, friendly towns, fishing, hiking, camping and a host of other places to see and things to do.

To reach Mono County from Carson City, you just head south on Highway 395, through the Carson Valley, and into California. You cross into Mono County about an hour south of Carson City.

Mono County dates to about the same time that Nevada gained territorial status. The county was created in 1861 and was the first of the mining counties organized on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada in California.

On a map, the county is long and narrow, averaging 108 miles in length and some 38 miles in width. It includes more than 3,000 square miles, wedged between the crest of the Sierra Nevada and the Nevada state line.

The focal point for the county is the community of Bridgeport, located about 85 miles south of Carson City. Bridgeport, which is the county seat, developed during the late 19th century and fortunately has retained many of the historic buildings and flavor of its early years.

Perhaps the most prominent landmark in Bridgeport is the county courthouse. Built in 1880, this three-story white wooden structure, which remains in use, features classic Italianate architecture and is topped with a square cupola and flagpole.

Behind the courthouse is the original jail, a simple square stone building constructed of native rock that was used from 1883 to 1964.

Slightly to the west of the jail is one of the best places to learn about the history of the area, the Mono County Museum (760-932-5281), housed in an old schoolhouse. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Inside this traditional white and green schoolhouse you will find an interesting array of artifacts including a fine collection of handmade baskets woven by local Paiutes, antique furniture, firearms, farming equipment and a great collection of historic photographs.

The latter displays include a large number of scenes of the nearby ghost town of Bodie, now a California state park.

Adjacent to the museum, visitors will also find a pleasant community park with picnic tables. Bridgeport also contains a number of businesses, such as gas stations, motels and restaurants, geared for the traveler.

The surrounding area is very beautiful as Bridgeport is located in a large valley surrounded by spectacular mountains. In fact, the mountains southeast of the town are the northern border of Yosemite National Park, certainly one of the most beautiful scenic areas in the world.

The eastern entrance to Yosemite, at Tioga Pass, is located about 30 miles southeast of Bridgeport via 395 and State Route 120. This road takes you through the Tuolumne Meadows and winds around to the magnificent Yosemite Valley in the heart of the park.
Directly north of the town is Bridgeport Lake, a popular reservoir that offers camping and fishing. There is also quality recreation available at the Twin Lakes, located about five miles southeast of Bridgeport.

The south end of Mono County includes a couple of well known skiing areas, Mammoth Lakes and June Lake as well as Crowley Lake, said to be one of the best trout fishing lakes in the Sierra.

A particularly scenic detour from Highway 395 is to take State Route 120 east to Benton (go opposite of 120 to Yosemite), then head south on U.S. Highway 6 to Bishop, where you reconnect with 395. This drive takes you through some remote but picturesque areas, including the Chalfant Valley.

For more information contact the Bridgeport Chamber of Commerce, 760-932-7500 or go to

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Manzanar Site Recalls World War II Internment

Looking at the vast, empty landscape of the Manzanar National Historic Site, it’s difficult to imagine that it was once the location of a veritable city containing more than 10,000 Japanese-Americans, who were forced to live there for three years.

The Manzanar Historic Site, located adjacent to U.S. 395, five miles south of Independence, California (about 4 hours south of Fallon), commemorates the war relocation center which was operated there from 1942 to 1945.

While little remains of the original buildings that were once spread across 6,000 acres in the shadows of the Sierra range, the site is considered to offer the best opportunities for interpretation of the WWII relocation program (there were nine similar camps in the U.S.).

The Manzanar camp was commissioned shortly after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. In early 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which called for people of Japanese ancestry living on the west coast (most of whom were American citizens) to be placed in relocation camps.

More than 110,000 Japanese-Americans, mostly Californians, were immediately moved to racetracks, fairgrounds and other makeshift detention centers in California before being transferred to the ten permanent detention centers (Manzanar was the first permanent camp).

Within months, the Manzanar camp had 10,000 residents who lived in rows of simple, wooden barracks surrounded by barbed wire fences, secured by guard towers.

Additionally, the site included gardens, orchards, ponds, auditorium, cemetery, reservoir, airport, sewage treatment plant and hospital complex.

The camp operated until late 1945, then the war ended and the last resident was released. Shortly after, the trailer-like barracks were sold at auction and removed from the site.

Today, the best-preserved building is the auditorium, a large, square, green building that is used as an Inyo County maintenance shop (it’s surrounded by yellow public works trucks and other equipment).

You can also find the stonework shells of the small, pagoda-style police post and sentry house, near the site’s entrance, as well as portions of other buildings. Most impressive are the stone and concrete walls of two buildings found southwest of the sentry house.

Poking through the overgrown sagebrush and grass, you can also find concrete steps that once led up to the barracks, portions of the water and sewer systems and remnants of rock gardens.

Wandering the site, try to imagine this was a bustling community that once contained rows of trees teeming with apples and pears (most of the trees are gone) and gardens overflowing with produce.

While today, the existence of the detention camps might seem an overreaction, it is best to view the unfortunate episode in the context of wartime.

Prior to its use as an internment camp, Manzanar was an early Owens Valley agricultural settlement (1910 to 1935), which is when many of the remaining handful of trees were originally planted, and a prehistoric home for centuries to native Paiutes and Shoshone tribes.

The Manzanar Historic site was established in March, 1992. In recent years, the National Park Service has installed interpretive signs and reconstructed one of the guard towers (there were once eight towers). You can also find an excellent display of Manzanar photos, recollections, drawings, paintings and artifacts at the fine Eastern California Museum in nearby Independence.

For more information, call 760-878-2194 ext. 2710 or go to

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Perpetrators of Nevada's Best Hoaxes - Part 2

Dan De Quille

As noted in part one, Nevada has had the dubious distinction of being the subject of a number of misguided scientific claims. There also have been hoaxes of a more deliberate kind, most concocted by 19th century Nevada newsmen.

One of the most famous tall tales was concocted by legendary Virginia City journalist William Wright, who worked at the Territorial Enterprise and wrote under the name, Dan De Quille.

In 1867, De Quille wrote of meeting a man from the Pahranagat area, located about two hours north of Las Vegas, who showed him a half dozen pebbles that were almost perfectly round. The man said that the rocks were “rolling stones,” which when spread out would gravitate together “like a bunch of eggs in a nest.”

De Quille described how the man would set the stones on a floor or table in a circle and the rocks would begin moving toward each other. He speculated that the stones probably rolled together because they were made of loadstone or magnetic iron ore.

The story was copied by newspapers all over the world and generated a flood of letters from people curious about the strange rolling stones. De Quille reported that P.T. Barnum wrote to offer $10,000 if the rocks could be coaxed into performing under a circus tent.

In 1879, De Quille finally tired of the story and wrote a short article in the Territorial Enterprise that exposed his duplicity. Bizarrely, many refused to believe the retraction.

De Quille crafted other, less famous hoaxes during his many years as a Comstock reporter as did one of his Territorial Enterprise co-workers, Samuel Clemens, who is more widely known by his nom de plume, Mark Twain.

One of Twain’s best-known hoaxes was the story of the petrified man. Angry with a Humboldt County coroner for some slight, he wrote a story about the coroner finding a petrified man who seemed at least 300 hundred years old.

He wrote that rather than leaving the man in peace, the coroner decided to summon a jury and conduct an inquest into the cause of death—even though the man was three centuries old.

The story was clearly satire, written with plenty of absurdities, yet many believed it and it was reprinted in papers throughout the world. Twain later wrote that he gained much secret pleasure in the fact that the coroner was inundated with mail from folks asking about the famed petrified man.

A hoax not created by a newsman but conceived by a commercial enterprise was the legend of the Maiden’s Grave. Promotional materials distributed by the Central Pacific Railroad told of a large cross on a hillside near Beowawe that commemorated Lucinda Duncan.

The story said that she was a courageous, young Missouri woman who grew sick and died while crossing Nevada by wagon in the mid-1860s.

Other evidence, including emigrant diaries, indicates that Lucinda Duncan was probably a 70-year-old grandmother who died in 1863 of a heart attack while traveling to California.

The big white cross is still there and people continue to repeat the much sexier story of the young maiden who died while traveling across the harsh Nevada landscape.

At the end of the classic western film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a newspaper editor tells a young reporter that when the legend becomes fact—print the legend.

Ain’t that the truth.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Nevada has been Home to Many Strange Hoaxes - Part 1

Did you know that Nevada was the site of the Garden of Eden or that giant, red headed Indians once hung out near Lovelock?

Over the years, Nevada has been the subject of a number of outlandish claims. Some of the bizarre pronouncements have been the result of honest scientific miscalculations while others have been the work of more misguided individuals.

In the 19th and early-20th century—when most of these claims were perpetrated—it was perhaps easier to convince people of their veracity because most folks knew so little about Nevada.

One of the most unusual claims was one made in the 1920s when a San Francisco newspaper announced that the Garden of Eden had been found in Nevada.

On August 17, 1924, the San Francisco Examiner reported on its front page that archaeologist Alan Le Baron had found the birthplace of mankind on a barren hilltop 30 miles south of Yerington.

For a week, the newspaper printed exclusive reports from the location that stated Nevada was the site of the creation of mankind. Proof, according to the paper, was the existence of rock art that appeared related to—and possibly predated—Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The articles referred to the site as the “Hill of a Thousand Tombs” and included photos of carvings depicting bighorn sheep, snakes, birds and other shapes.

Additionally, Le Baron claimed to have found the bones of elephants, lions and camels mingled with the petrified remnants of a million-year-old forest.

Other experts, however, studied the site and determined that the “hieroglyphics” were Native American petroglyphs. They concluded that Nevada was a nice place—but certainly not the Garden of Eden.

Another noteworthy hoax was the evidence showing that giants once lived near Carson City. Proof of this claim surfaced in the late 1870s, when inmates at the Nevada State Prison discovered footprints that some experts said were made by prehistoric giants.

The inmates had been cutting stone in the prison quarry when they found a large number fossils and a trail of large footprints in the rock.

The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco sent a team of experts to study the site. While the group concluded that the intriguing prints were most likely made by animals about a million years ago, a few scientists reported that they believed the prints were made by a prehistoric race of giants.

They based their findings on the fact that the prints appeared to have been made by a two-legged creature wearing large wooden sandals. The prints were thought to be human because they curved like a human foot.

Other researchers studied the prints and came to a different view—the prints were made by a giant sloth. The controversy rages for nearly 50 years before paleontologist Chester Stock, who excavated the Rancho La Brea tar pits, studied the prints and said they were identical to sloth prints found at La Brea.

Yet another “Land of the Giants” theory gained notoriety during the 1920s and 30s when John T. Reid, a mining engineer and avid amateur anthropologist, found bones in the vicinity of Lovelock, which he told local newspapers were from a race of giant, redheaded Indians.

Reid had heard Paiute stories about tall, redheaded cannibals, said to have lived near Lovelock Cave, so when he found red-haired skeletons he assumed he’d discovered the remains of the legendary giants.

He measured the bones and calculated that when alive the people had been between seven-feet, seven-inches tall and nine-feet, six-inches.

The bones became lost for several decades—during which time the legend of the redheaded giants grew—before surfacing again in the late 1970s. An analysis showed that Reid had incorrectly measured the bones, which were actually from normal-sized people.

Additionally, the red hair was the result of discoloration caused by natural deterioration of the bodies as well as dyes used by Great Basin tribes during preparations for burials.

In other words, the bones were not of red haired giants.

More great Nevada hoaxes next time.