Monday, August 29, 2011

Caliente Hangs on to its Railroad Roots

Modern Caliente probably wouldn’t exist without the railroad. Its biggest building is an old railroad depot, its business district parallels railroad tracks, not the highway, and then there’s the town’s iconic, “Company Row,” more than a dozen nearly identical wooden houses built by the railroad for its workers.

Despite the overwhelming influence of its railroad, Caliente actually started out as a ranching area. In the early 1860s, two escaped slaves, Ike and Dow Barton, began ranching in the Meadow Valley Wash and Clover Wash region of Eastern Nevada.

A few years later, the brothers sold their holdings to Charles and William Culverwell, who owned a cattle and hay operation that primarily served the nearby mining camps of Pioche and Delamar.

The area’s character changed in 1901 with the construction of the Salt Lake rail route, which served the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad.

Regular service didn’t begin until 1905, but prior to that Caliente served as a division point and supply hub for workers building the route south through the Meadow Valley Wash. An engine terminal and sidetracks were constructed at Caliente, which provided long-term employment opportunities and boosted the town's economy.

In 1901, a post office was established in the area and a town was surveyed, which was named Caliente (the Spanish word for hot) because of the area’s natural hot springs.

Driving through Caliente, it is still possible to find places that reflect the town’s rail roots. Foremost is the large Union Pacific Railroad Depot in the center of town. This classic, two-story Mission-style building was constructed in 1923 by the railroad and originally housed a hotel, restaurant, telegraph office, and train station.

Over the years, the depot has been used as city hall, office space, an art gallery, library, community center, and school.

East on Clover Street (the main street) from the depot is Caliente’s business district, which contains many buildings dating to the late 1920s.

Gottfredson’s store, in the middle of the district, is one of the town’s oldest commercial structures, having been built in 1907 as a bank and hotel by Charles Culverwell.

At the eastern edge of the downtown (on Clover near Denton streets), visitors will find the Richards Railroad Hotel, a two story building constructed in about 1910 to house railroad workers. Adjacent are the Underhill home, a two-story stone house that was once a saloon, and the Underhill General Merchandise Store, a classic false front building. Both were built in 1905.

On the other side of the tracks (north) is the Cornelius/Scott Hotel, a three-story stucco structure built in 1928. In its heyday, the hotel hosted many dignitaries, including President Herbert Hoover.

Across U.S. 93 from the Cornelius/Scott Hotel is Caliente’s classic row of railroad homes. Here you can find some of the best-preserved examples of the cookie-cutter company housing built by the railroad in 1905.

If you wander a bit through the blocks north of the hotel, you can find the Caliente Stone School (corner of Culverwell and Market streets), which is considered an excellent example of the “Classic Box” style of architecture from the early 1900s. The school, now a church, was built in 1905.

The Caliente Elementary School, across Market Street from the Stone School, is a streamlined stucco structure with Art Deco overtones, which was built in 1922, after the earlier school became too small.

Caliente is located about three-and-a-half-hours north of Las Vegas via U.S. Highway 93. For more information, go to

Friday, August 19, 2011

Site of the 'Fight of the Century'

The spot where the “Fight of the Century” took place doesn’t look like much today.

On the southeast corner of Fourth and Toana streets in an industrial section of Reno is a battered metal sign in the shape of Nevada. The sign marks the spot where heavyweight champion John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, a black man, and former champ James J. “Jim” Jeffries, who was white, battled for 15 rounds on a hot July day in 1910.

The sign stands in front of a shabby, wire metal fence with thin wooden slats, which surrounds a storage yard filled with RVs and other vehicles. Printed on the marker are the words: “On this site on July 4, 1910, Reno hosted ‘The Fight of the Century,’ a heavyweight championship boxing match between John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, the black title holder, and James J. “Jim” Jeffries, a former champion seeking to regain the title he had vacated in 1904.”

The site is largely forgotten—overlooked by most of the drivers racing by on Fourth Street—although there were a few ceremonies commemorating it a few years ago on the 100th anniversary of the fight.

But the locale continues to resonate in historical terms. The fight itself was controversial—it was billed as a battle between the races—and in its time was seen as a metaphor for the state of early 20th century race relations.

In fact, in 2004 famed filmmaker Ken Burns produced a four-hour documentary for public television, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” which included photos and commentary about the bout.

Johnson had become the first-ever black world heavyweight-boxing champion when he vanquished Canadian Tommy Burns in 1908. Not surprisingly, almost immediately after his victory there were calls by a number of prominent white religious and political figures for a “Great White Hope” to come forward and reclaim the title for the white race.

For the next two years, the outspoken Johnson battered a succession of so-called “Great White Hopes” who sought to defeat him.

In 1910, boxing promoters managed to persuade Jim Jeffries, a former heavyweight champion who had retired undefeated six years earlier, to step forward and fight Johnson. In accepting the bout, Jeffries noted, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”

Jeffries, however, was in no shape to fight the better-conditioned Johnson. The former champ, who had hung his gloves to farm alfalfa in Burbank, California, was about 100 pounds overweight and 35 years old.

On the day of the fight, in a makeshift wooden arena in Reno, Johnson was in his prime—32 years old and a trim 206 pounds—while Jeffries weighed-in at 227 pounds; he’d had to drop 70 pounds.

The fight itself was heavily promoted as a battle between the races. For weeks prior to the event, newspapers throughout the world published stories focusing on nearly every nuance of the bout, which was the first to ever be hailed as “The Fight of the Century” (a claim now used for nearly every championship fight).

Boxing entrepreneur George Lewis “Tex” Rickard, a former Goldfield saloon owner, had set up the match by offering $50,000 to each fighter for the film rights, a signing bonus of $10,000 and a $101,000 purse (winner would get two-thirds). In 1897, Nevada legalized prize fighting, which was considered violent and uncivilized in most states.

Rickard had entered the fight business in 1906, when he promoted a world lightweight boxing championship bout in Goldfield between Oscar “Battling” Nelson, a white boxer, and Joe Gans, a black fighter. Gans had won that contest in the 42nd round after Nelson was disqualified for landing a low blow.

Once the fight began, the two men pounded on each other for 15 rounds (the fight was scheduled to go 45 rounds) before Johnson, who was so much faster and stronger than Jeffries that he appeared to be playing with his opponent, twice knocked down the former champ.

At the second knock-down, Jeffries’ second jumped into the ring, ending the fight before the fading former title-holder could be knocked out.

Later, Jeffries acknowledged, “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn’t hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.” Johnson’s win ignited celebrations among his jubilant black fans around the country. However, in some cities, the merriment evolved into rioting between blacks and whites.

The bout, which drew about 20,000 fans, was a boost to Reno’s image and economy. Rickard would go on to promote many other fights, including many with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey.

In 1925, he built the third Madison Square Garden in New York, and three years later built Boston Madison Square Garden (later shortened to Boston Garden).

As for Jeffries, he retired again for good while the flamboyant and controversial Johnson continued boxing. In 1915, another “Great White Hope,” Jess Willard, defeated Johnson in Havana, Cuba. He died in a car accident in 1946.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Elko's Northeastern Nevada Museum

In Elko, you can hang with a bush pig or cruise by a white rhinoceros. The two exotic creatures are part of the wild animal exhibit in the Wanamaker Wing of Elko’s excellent Northeastern Nevada Museum.

The Wanamaker Wing, a substantial addition to the museum, opened in 1999 and was a gift of V.H. “Jack” Wanamaker, a wealthy Southern California businessman who was also a big game hunter during the mid-20th century (before most people were aware of the concept of an endangered species).

Wanamaker owned a chain of carpet stores and the mounted animals were featured regularly in advertisements promoting his businesses.

From the size of the animal collection displayed at the museum, Wanamaker was a passionate hunter who managed to track species from all over the world.

When you enter the wing, you immediately encounter a large giraffe, towering over the entrance. Nearby is an impressive Siberian tiger, displayed with a peacock, black buck antelope and other species in a re-creation of their natural environment.

The next display contains a Maxwell’s duiker (a type of miniature antelope) as well as a blue duiker, a large bongo (a hooved, horse creature) and an African bush pig (which looks just like it sounds). Nearby is another diorama displaying bush duikers (Wanamaker had a thing for duikers), a bontebok, western gazelles, and a white rhinoceros.

Another exhibit shows a virtual mountain of bighorn and Rocky Mountain sheep. More than a dozen sheep, many with trophy horns, have been posed on a re-creation of a steep mountain peak, like you’d find in Nevada.

The Wanamaker Wing also contains a second floor and a basement display area. The former is used to display the museum’s permanent art collection as well as traveling or rotating shows (during my visit, the show displayed artwork by local school children).

The basement room is a continuation of the Wanamaker collection and includes dozens of mounted heads of various animals. There, you’ll find several huge elk heads as well as red deer from New Zealand and Elands from Zimbabwe.

Of course, the Wanamaker Wing isn’t the only thing to see at the museum. Walking into the main section, you spot the large Spring Creek Mastodon exhibit, which describes the discovery near Elko in 1994 of the fossilized bones of a 2 million-year-old mastodon.

The massive bones represent the only documented mastodon find in the Great Basin region.
Nearby is a display of Nevada bird species and animals, including wigeons, grebes, herons, moles, chipmunks and mice.

One display case contains a denim tuxedo coat—and tells the story behind it. The jacket is one of two created in 1951 for singer Bing Crosby and Elko’s mayor, David Dotta.

Apparently, Crosby, who owned a large ranch near Elko, had been on a hunting trip in another state, where he was denied service in a restaurant because of his grubby appearance. In response, Dotta arranged for the making of the Levi tuxedos so that the singer could always have appropriate formal wear no matter where he was or what he was doing.

Other artifacts in the museum include a 1917 crank telephone, a fluorescent minerals display, mining equipment, an exhibit on regional newspapers in the 19th century, a re-creation of a dry goods store and cases devoted to prehistoric rock art carvings and Shoshone baskets.

One particularly interesting display contains the Sheriff Joseph C. Harris collection, a menagerie of pistols, rifles, brass knuckles and other instruments of crime confiscated by the former head lawman of Elko County.

One very bizarre artifact is a pair of wooden, cow-hoof shoes. They were made in the 1930s by an ingenious cattle rustler, Crazy Tex, who strapped them on, then led cattle off the range to his awaiting vehicle. The shoes left behind no footprints, stumping law enforcement officials. He was finally caught in the act while wearing the clever cow-shoes.

The Northeastern Nevada Museum is located at 1515 Idaho Street in Elko. It is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, go to

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Elko's Sherman Station: Clever Historic Adaptive Reuse

When you visit Elko’s Chamber of Commerce, you can’t help but think that a stagecoach just might pull up at any moment. That’s because the chamber is housed in a 100-plus-year-old former stagecoach stop known as Sherman Station.

Completing the image is the fact the two-story structure, which sits in a shaded park near the center of Elko, is made of two-foot-thick bristlecone pine logs.

In 1997, the station and four other wooden structures were relocated to Elko from a Huntington Valley ranch about 60 miles south. The five buildings, which were restored to their original condition, are part of a visitor center and historic complex now open to the public.

Inside the main station building, visitors can view a re-creation of an early 1900s parlor, which contains original artifacts and antiques that belonged to the Walther family, the station’s original owners.

Additionally, the 4,800 square-foot log ranch house has a meeting room and events center as well as a gift shop and chamber offices.

Adjacent to the house is the restored log stable, which once housed stagecoach teams, and is now leased to a company offering horse-drawn carriage rides of Elko.

Other historic wooden buildings on the premises include the Blacksmith Shop (now a specialty shop selling leather goods and other crafts), the Creamery (now a cowboy wear shop), and the Schoolhouse (now a museum).

Sherman Station traces its beginnings to the early 20th century, when rancher Valentine Walther erected the log house on his property on Sherman Creek in Huntington Valley.

Walther and his wife, Sophie, had homesteaded 600 acres in about 1875. According to the Elko Chamber’s information, the Walthers lived in two covered wagons during their first few years in the valley before building a small log cabin.

Somehow the two managed to raise 12 children in the cabin (eight girls and four boys). In 1895, Sophie was killed in a carriage accident.

Shortly after her death, Valentine Walther and a friend, Nick Scott, began construction of the two-story log house. Apparently, it took three years to cut and haul the dense bristlecone pine logs from the Ruby Mountains, another three years to trim and shape them and a year to assemble the logs into a house.

Finished in 1903, the ranch house also served as a post office (called Sherman) as well as a stagecoach stop (on the line heading south to the mining town of Hamilton) and community center.
At the time of its construction, it was considered the largest log house in the state.

For many years, Walther operated what was considered one of the best orchards in the state, raising cherries, plums, apricots and apples. Several of his original trees still stand on the former site of the station.

The Walthers owned the ranch and log buildings until about the 1920s—family members still live in the Elko area. Several later owners lived in the big house until the 1970s, when it ceased to be used.

In 1995, Peter and Kathy Scheidemann donated the historic structures to the Elko Chamber, which was able to obtain grants to pay for moving them to Elko. The restored buildings opened in 1999.

Sherman Station is located on the corner of 14th and Idaho streets in Elko. It is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, go to