Historic Winnemucca courted the railroad
Winnemucca owes much of its existence to the fact it was a place where travelers could easily cross the Humboldt River.
Trapper Peter Skene Odgen was the first non-American Indian to visit the area during his trek through Nevada in 1828. Later, it was the site of a ferry crossing because it was one of the few dependable fords across the Humboldt.
In 1853, a trading post was established on the banks of the river to provide supplies to travelers heading to California. Within a short time, a small settlement developed around the post, which became known as “Frenchman’s Ford” (among its original owners were several French people).
Additionally, because the community was on the major transportation route across the state, it thrived as a regional shipping center for local sheep and cattle ranches.
Gold and silver strikes in the early 1860s in nearby places like Unionville, 40 miles southwest, boosted the town’s fortunes as it became the gateway to these new discoveries.
In 1868, the Central Pacific Railroad reached the community, which was renamed Winnemucca to honor a famous Nevada Paiute chief. The railroad brought additional jobs (switching crews were stationed there) and linked the town to distant markets.
Unionville was named the first seat of Humboldt County in the mid-1860s, but the mining camp’s decline resulted in the county seat being shifted to more prosperous Winnemucca in 1872.
Interestingly, since the railroad was built a mile south of the river, Winnemucca saw the development of two commercial districts. “Uppertown” was the name of the section adjacent to the railroad while “Lowertown” was the business district along the river.
For a time, the districts competed to be the center of commerce. At one point, the newer Uppertown gained an edge because it was the first part of town to have oil nightlights.
Eventually, however, the rivalry faded as new commercial growth connected the districts via Bridge Street. To ensure continued peace, the county courthouse was constructed in 1919 on Bridge and Fifth streets, about halfway between the districts.
The Western Pacific Railway was constructed through Winnemucca in 1909.
The Western Pacific route ran roughly parallel to the Central Pacific (which by this time had become part of the Southern Pacific Railroad) across much of Nevada.
The last phase of Winnemucca’s development is directly related to the completion of the national highway system, which went through its center.
The first automobile arrived in Winnemucca in 1905. Within 15 years, the Victory Highway — one of the earliest transcontinental roads — was completed across Nevada and through Winnemucca.
The Victory Highway became part of U.S. Highway 40 and, in the 1950s, the route was incorporated into Interstate 80.
A third commercial district parallel to U.S. 40, grew up during the early and mid-20th century. In the 1970s, however, construction of the interstate to the north of the downtown removed much of the traffic.
Today, if you wander Winnemucca, you can still find plenty of reminders of rich and varied history. The oldest building in town is the Winnemucca Hotel (95 Bridge St.), a modest, two-story wood-frame structure opened in 1863.
Still in use as a Basque dining house, the hotel originally was a stagecoach stop, post office and restaurant. Located near the river, it’s one of the few remaining original structures from the former “Lowertown.”
Other historically significant places include the brick post office (49 W. 4th St.), built in 1928 (listed on the National Register of Historic Places); the ornate St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, northern Nevada’s only Spanish Colonial structure, constructed in 1923; and the Martin Hotel, a Basque boarding house built in 1913 (and a remnant of the former “Uppertown.”).
The most impressive building is the 1919 Humboldt County Courthouse, designed by famed Nevada architect Frederick Delongchamps.
Sadly, another of the town’s most beloved historic buildings, the 1907 Nixon Opera House, also on the Historic Register, was destroyed by an arsonist in 1992. No one has ever been arrested for setting the fire.
Richard Moreno loves to travel across Nevada to meet people and visit new sites.