Fort Churchill stands tall
Fort Churchill was built as a result of the infamous, and unfortunate, Pyramid Lake War in 1860. The site was chosen in July of 1860, and by August, the War Department declared it would be known as Fort Churchill, named after Colonel and Brevet Brigadier General Sylvester Churchill.
“Churchill was the Army’s Inspector General (1941-1861) … I can’t help but harbor a suspicion that naming a post for him was a good way of buttering up the Inspector General,” Michael Brodhead, a Nevada State archivist said.
It was only an operating fort for nine years, but it served a number of functions. The immensely wealthy silver mines in nearby Virginia City needed protection and it guarded the Pony Express route. The famed, but even shorter-lived, Pony Express ran right through Fort Churchill. The rider would stop and pick up mail between the post headquarters and officers quarters.
One of the best known riders, “Pony Bob” Haslam, regularly rode from Lake Tahoe to Buckland’s Station near the fort. His most famous ride was when he carried Lincoln’s inaugural address. The astonishing fact is he completed 120 miles in eight hours and 20 minutes while wounded.
Fort Churchill sent out patrols protecting new settlements and intervened in miners’ disputes and Carson City prison riots. Southern sympathizers were monitored during the Civil War. Apparently there was a small secret society of pro-Confederate sympathizers in the area. It is reported that if any man was too obviously against Washington, he would be taken to the fort in irons, and then, carrying heavy sandbags, be made to march around the parade ground for hours.
By all accounts, life in Fort Churchill was very good, if you were an officer. Their quarters were comfortable and spacious. They could have their families with them and they saw little active duty. An extra treat for officers was being allowed a visit to Virginia City once a month.
On the other hand, life for the enlisted man was dreary. They were quartered in crudely furnished barracks with dirt floors. However, even this wasn’t as bad as other forts where typically two men would share a bunk; at Fort Churchill, each man had his own bunk. Their diet was monotonous, especially as boiling food to a thick mush was the preferred method of cooking. The hardly recognizable meat, and on rare occasions vegetable, stews were called “slumgullion.” The untrained men who brewed this lot up were known as “slum burners.” The men also cultivated vegetable gardens to supplement their diets.
It is hardly surprising that trials of deserters fill the court martial records. It’s reported that one deserter was arrested while trying to sell his troops’ horses to the stagecoach company.
The building of the fort was an extremely costly business, mainly due to the location, and a scarcity of materials locally. Much had to be carried in over the Sierras, and transportation was very expensive. The total cost was in the region of $192,000. After the Civil War, the government deactivated the post and it was sold, by public auction, for $750 to Samuel Buckland, the owner of nearby Bucklands Station.
In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps reconstructed the fort, turning it into a recreation area. But the local adobe mix wasn’t quite right and it collapsed quickly. The ruins today are mostly of the original adobe. The corps also built the information center. It was declared a national historic landmark in 1964, and the State of Nevada acquired it in 1970.
It is fascinating to wander through the ruins. There are plenty of interesting interpretive signs allowing glimpses into life at the fort. Near the entrance to the park is a very good little museum which houses a model of the fort and some well presented and informative displays.
The picnic area, with tables and benches, is near the Carson River. Further along is a delightful campground. The 20 well-spaced sites are shaded by lovely big cottonwoods, each site has a table with bench, and a firepit. A couple of trails lead to the river and the “beach” beside it.
A troop of scouts from Reno worked on a project, building a new path to the river. Howard Wren, who has been at the fort for five seasons, supervised them. As they worked, he said, “It’s good to see the kids working here helping the community. It’s fun for them, and they get to see some history.”
Directions: From Carson City, take US 50 to Silver Springs, turn right onto US 95A. After about nine miles, turn right into the park. Another very scenic route is before Silver Springs, near Stagecoach, there is an unpaved road to the right off US 50 marked Fort Churchill 16 miles.
Fees: $3 day use; $7 camping
Facilities: 20 campsites. Toilets, no showers. No hookups but there is an RV dump station. They operate a first-come, first-serve system with no reservations. Group area accommodates up to 60 people on reservation-only basis.
Museum and Informative Center: No fee. T-shirts and books on sale.
Contact the Park: Telephone (775) 577-2345
Fort Churchill State Historic Park
Silver Springs, NV 89429