The Nevada Traveler: 19th century hoaxes and hair-raising adventures in Pahranagat Valley

The stark desert beauty of the Pahranagat Valley in eastern Nevada, where rocks can move and governors get lost.

The stark desert beauty of the Pahranagat Valley in eastern Nevada, where rocks can move and governors get lost.

During the past year or so, I have been working on a book about Nevada’s frontier journalists (more about that in a future column). As a result of my research, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for these talented and creative ink-stained pioneers, particularly Virginia City journalist William Wright, who wrote under the pen name, Dan De Quille.
One of the most famous stories ever crafted in 1867 by De Quille involves the remote Pahranagat Valley in eastern Nevada. The valley is located about 75 miles northeast of Las Vegas on U.S. 93.
At a time when newspapers liberally borrowed stories from each other, De Quille’s piece, which originally was printed in Virginia City’s famous Territorial Enterprise, appeared in papers all over the world and as far away as New Zealand.
De Quille wrote of meeting a man from the Pahranagat Valley 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 lodestone or magnetic iron ore.
After the story appeared in the Enterprise as well as other newspapers, it generated a flood of letters from people curious about the marvelous rolling stones. De Quille reported that P.T. Barnum wrote him to offer $10,000 if the rocks could be coaxed into performing under a circus tent.
In 1879, De Quille finally tired of having to repeat the story and wrote a short article in the Enterprise that revealed he had made up the whole story. Many, however, refused to believe his retraction and thought he was lying in order to keep the rocks for himself.
Interestingly, the Pahranagat area also figured prominently in one of the most hair-raising adventures ever experienced by a Nevada governor.
In March 1866, Nevada’s first governor, Henry Blasdel, decided to travel to eastern Nevada to organize settlers in the area to support the creation of a new county.
The governor had received promising reports about the mining potential in the Pahranagat Valley and was interested in seeing the region, which was part of the Utah territory but had been proposed for inclusion into Nevada.
Additionally, Blasdel sought to establish a direct route to the area from western Nevada.
The journey proved arduous; with the scarcity of water being the biggest challenge. Blasdel’s party decided to head south from Carson City to Silver Peak (near Tonopah) and continued south into Death Valley.
As the group entered Death Valley, it lost contact with Carson City. No one would hear from Blasdel or his party for more than a month. The Sacramento Bee reported that the expedition had failed, and its members had most likely perished.
In late May, news reached Carson City that the group had straggled into Pahranagat. A newspaper reporter traveling with the Governor later wrote that the only things that members of the expedition had to eat had been a few doves and lizards that wandered into camp. He added, however, that cooked lizards were “equal to any frogs that were ever roasted.”
After returning to Carson City by way of an already established but longer northern route, Blasdel acknowledged that his venture had not been successful because there weren’t enough people in Pahranagat to form a county.
He also said that he would not recommend his short cut to Pahranagat because the trip was far too difficult.
In 1866, Pahranagat became part of the newly created Lincoln County, with the tiny settlement of Crystal Springs, which is 15 miles north of the Pahranagat Valley, named the county seat.
A year later, the seat was moved to Hiko, located five miles north of Crystal Springs – and not much bigger – and then, in 1871, to the much larger community of Pioche.
These days, the Pahranagat Valley, which is a long, narrow crevice intersected by the upper and lower Pahranagat Lakes, is a quiet, sparsely populated place that is home to more birds than people.
The two scenic lakes that stretch through its center are part of the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge, making the region a true, natural oasis—and, of course, the backdrop for some pretty good stories.

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