St. George’s Episcopal Church, built in 1866, is one of a trio of historic houses of worship found in the central Nevada town of Austin.
One of the first things you notice when driving through the historic central Nevada mining town of Austin are the churches. There are three magnificent red-brick frontier-style houses of worship that are nearly a century and a half old. The churches are reminders of the days when Austin was one of the largest communities in the state, when, at its peak in 1865, as many as 10,000 people lived there. Located 170 miles east of Carson City via U.S. 50, 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). By the late 1860s, the community boasted its own railroad, the Nevada Central, as well as several newspapers, banks, a thriving business district, its own mining stock exchange and those impressive churches. 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, St. Augustine’s Church is in remarkable shape despite its age. A local, non-profit group was able to receive state and federal grants to pay for stabilizing and renovating the structure, which is now known as the St. Augustine’s Cultural Center, and hosts art shows and other events.
Richard Moreno St. George’s Episcopal Church, built in 1866, is one of a trio of historic houses of worship found in the central Nevada town of Austin.
St. Augustine’s boasts 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. 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 a town hall, is the largest building in town. Its construction was financed in a rather unusual way. In about 1865, the newly arrived Methodist minister, Rev. J. Lewis Trefren, discovered that his flock badly wanted a church but there was little cash available to build one. 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 Co., created. According to Thomas Wren’s 1904 “A History of the State of Nevada,” Trefren headed east and managed to sell some $250,000 in stock. His sales pitch was simple — the Methodist Mining Co., 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, 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 has 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 information, visit www.austinnevada.com.