Austin’s historic churches tell a tale or two
May 9, 2013
Things are usually pretty quiet in the former mining town of Austin. Located 170 miles east of Carson City via U.S. 50, the town of Austin was established in mid-1862, following the discovery of silver in nearby Pony Canyon by William H. Talcott, an ex-Pony Express rider.
In less than a year, Austin had grown sufficiently to be the obvious choice for the Lander County seat (in the Territory of Nevada). It has been reported that as many as 10,000 people lived in Austin by 1865.
At its peak, Austin had its own railroad, the Nevada Central, as well as a couple of newspapers, banks, a thriving business district, its own mining stock exchange and several impressive churches.
Three of the latter, all built between 1866 and 1878, remain among the most impressive reminders of Austin's glorious past.
One of the oldest is St. Augustine's Catholic Church, on corner of Court and Virginia streets, which held its first services on Christmas Eve of 1866.
While no longer owned by the Catholic Church, the red brick St. Augustine Church has been fairly well taken care of over the years. A non-profit group, St. Augustine's Cultural Center, has received several state and federal grants over the past decade that have helped stabilize and restore the structure, which is slated to be re-opened to the public later this year.
St. Augustine's boats a distinctive front bell tower and, inside, a series of religious murals that were painted on the walls in about 1940. It also contains an historic Henry Kilgen organ, which is also being restored.
The Methodist Church on Court Street was also built in 1866 and was considered one of the finest churches of its day. The Gothic Revival structure, now used as community center and lecture hall, is the largest building in town.
Its construction was financed in a rather unusual way. In about 1865, the newly arrived Methodist minister, Reverend J. Lewis Trefren, discovered that his flock badly wanted a church but there was little cash available to build one.
Reverend Trefren, however, had a brainstorm. He would form a business corporation to finance the church, which would have as its assets share of mining claims that had been donated to the congregation. Then, he would sell shares in this new corporation and use the proceeds to pay for the church.
Thus was the Methodist Mining Company created. According to Thomas Wren's 1904 "A History of the State of Nevada," Reverend Trefren headed east and managed to sell some $250,000 in stock.
His sales pitch was simple — the Methodist Mining Company would pay dividends in Heaven as well as on Earth.
Unfortunately, the financing scheme collapsed before work on the church was completed. Lander County briefly acquired the church to settle outstanding debts before selling it back to the congregation. In the meantime, Reverend Trefren decided to leave town and, in 1868, was transferred to a California congregation.
St. George's Episcopal Church on Main Street was built in 1877-78 and is the only one of the town's historic houses of worship that is still used as a church. The building is said to have been largely paid for within a few months of being proposed.
According to the local newspaper, the Reese River Reveille, about $300 was collected on Easter Sunday 1877, which got the project rolling.
Shortly after, Allen A. Curtis, one of the richest residents in Austin, pledged to pay for the "frame of the building," which included carpentry and woodwork, while another member of the congregation agreed to pay for an organ.
A local merchant donated a 900-pound bell for church. The bell was made in New York and contains silver that was mined in Austin (which is said to give the bell a "silvery" tone).
St. George's still have its original Mills pipe organ, which traveled around horn by ship to San Francisco and was brought to Austin by wagon. A rather unique feature of the church is that the entrance to the bell tower is also a bathroom. A person must stand on top of the toilet to reach the rope that rings the bell.
For more information about the town of Austin or its historic attractions, go to http://www.austinnevada.com.
Richard Moreno has a passion for Nevada, its towns and people.