NEVADA: Discovering the silver state’s unique beauty
Design by Laci Thompson
Nevada’s unique, rugged beauty beckons travelers with a lure that reminds those of Homer’s Sirens enticing sailors to come to their island and become snarled in a trap to stay. Likewise, the Nevada landscape glistening under a bright summer sun, majestic mountains reaching to the sky with their jagged peaks and old historical stops stretching across two-lane or interstate highways offer a glimpse into those glory days … some that have faded into the sunset, others that have retained their aura
Nevada is home for more than 2 million folks who live within a land of 110,000 square miles from the Oregon border to Arizona, yet many of them never venture too far away from the urban sprawls of Reno or Las Vegas or the growing micropolitans of Carson City or Elko. Somewhere away from the maddening crowds lie some of the most remote, yet interesting places in the world.
The Nevada Commission on Tourism (TravelNevada) promoted this summer a tourism and an in-state travel campaign, a scavenger hunt co-sponsored by both their office and Nevada Magazine. For a native Nevadan who has traveled to every corner of this and to many destinations off the major highways, this campaign to see the state up-close enticed me to draw up a plan to loop around Northern Nevada for a three-day weekend by becoming a participant in he Silver State Scavenger Hunt.
The hunt divided the state in half, offering 14 spots in each of the Northern and Southern zones. The scavenger hunt instructed travelers to visit at least 10 of 14 spots in one zone before the end of July and then have a photo taken of them in front of each historical marker with a copy of the May/June issue of Nevada Magazine in hand; furthermore, a reward awaited the first 100 travelers who completed the hunt.
After persuading a trusty navigator and map-reader to accompany me across the state, Charlotte LaCombe, a retired state auditor and history buff, we perused our Nevada map, looked at the Northern Zone destinations in Nevada Magazine and devised a plan to visit as many as we could. At first, the contest seemed easy to reach at least 12 sites, but with frequent stops to see other historical landmarks dotting Northern Nevada, we felt pushed to visit at least 10 sites in three days before returning to Carson City.
Our loop began at the Governor’s Mansion and took us east to Ely on U.S. Highway 50, north to Wendover and west on Interstate 80 to the Reno Courthouse with many diversions off the paved trail. For this native Nevadan, the walls circling the Silver State made the trip seem like a small world.
AUSTIN’S MAJESTIC CASTLE
Take Miteshell Lanham, for example, the executive secretary for the Lander County Commissioners in Austin, a 110-mile trip east of Fallon on what has been referred to as “The Loneliest Road in America,” according to a 1986 article in Life magazine. We stopped at a well-kept, two story red-bricked building to meet with the tourism director, but she was not in; instead our attention focused on Lanham, a longtime resident of the old mining town who told us about Stokes Castle, our second stop on the scavenger hunt.
Her ties to the area occurred as a result of family.
Her stepfather retired from Naval Air Station Fallon in the early 1990s and moved to Austin when she was still living in Tennessee with her dad. She frequently traveled to Nevada to see her mother and stepfather but, instead, fell in love with the sagebrush, the desert and snow-capped mountains.
“I would come to visit them and go back home,” she said, sitting behind her office desk in a building built in 1871. “Finally, I moved out here in my sophomore year in high school.”
Lanham stayed for two more years and graduated from a small class from Austin High School before attending Great Basin College in Elko. The state’s spirit caught her as well; she professes to be an ardent University of Nevada, Reno Wolf Pack fan in addition to following the high school team, the Broncos. In fact, Lanham and I knew many of the same educators who taught or coached at the school.
But we were here to see Austin’s most famous landmark.
“The best time to go to Stokes Castle is either at sunrise or sunset,” she explained. “You can see the reflection of the Reese River.”
She hesitated for a second.
“When there is water,” she giggled.
Lanham insisted we stay in Austin to see other sites and have lunch down the street at the Toiyabe Café.
“When you’re here, check out the rock house in town,” she added.
“He bought the castle to get his wife here from the east coast,” Donna Sossa interjected, recounting the tale of Anson Phelps Stokes, a mine developer who built a summer house near Austin to entice his children and wife to come to Nevada. “My husband liked Nevada too and wanted me to move here from Ohio. He said ‘If you move for me, I’ll build you a castle four times as big.’”
In the Reese River valley west of Austin, Sossa’s husband built her a palace, now a bed and breakfast, the Paradise Ranch Castle. Sadly though, her husband died not too long ago.
Both Lanham and Sossa prefer Austin’s tight community feel despite its size.
“People think it’s a ghost town,” Lanham said of visitors who travel through. “Not really, but there’s about 200 people in town.”
JUSTICE IN EUREKA
Likewise, some travelers would also consider Eureka a ghost town although it’s three times the size of Austin. A short 70-minute drive east of Austin, Eureka sprung up during the mining rush of the late 1860s, suffered some down years when prices dropped but rose like a Phoenix during the past 30 years with a resurrection of gold prices to ignite a boom in the mining industry.
Before arriving, we encountered a typical summer afternoon thunderstorm that drenched Eureka with downpour, causing water to run down the gutters.
County Clerk/Treasurer Beverly Conley, who was elected to her first term in November after being appointed to fill a partial term, loves working at the Eureka County Courthouse, the third stop on our scavenger hunt.
This brick building with high ceilings and a historic courtroom faces the opera house, of which former Churchill County Museum photo curator Andy Rossman now books performers and also serves as Eureka County’s director of Cultural, Tourism & Economic Development.
“It’s a pleasure to come to work in this building, “Conley said from her second-floor office which is down the hall from the courtroom and looks west toward the main section of town. “Speaking for Eureka, we have a dedicated community that keeps up the old historical buildings.”
As we talked more to Conley about Eureka and the courthouse’s history, we also discovered her brother lives in Fallon. Tom Riggins and I have known each other since the 1970s when we attended the University of Nevada and served together on the Associated Students of the University of Nevada Senate. One of Riggins’ pastimes is writing a column for the Lahontan Valley News.
Conley wasn’t surprised he writes for the newspaper.
“Tom is my brother, but I have never won an argument with him,” she pointed out. “He wants to get in a debate and come up with the points.”
Before we left, Conley walked us down the stairs to the first floor to show us the jail, which is now used for storage. Old heavy steel doors freshened with white paint still swing on their hinges.
Deputy Clerk Diane Podborny’s office is in a downstairs corner with one window facing town and the other the sidewalk in front of the courthouse.
“I always see people by the historical marker,” she said, referring to the state’s plaque describing the courthouse’s rich history. “This is one of the older courthouses in the state.”
A resident of Eureka for 22 years, Podborny said she enjoys the ambiance the old building offers … except for winter.
“In the winter the radiator gets very hot because of the boiler, and I have to open the window to cool down,” she said.
With the number of summer storms moving across Nevada this summer, Podborny said the weather has remained moderate and the area has seen much rain — most of it needed for area ranchers.
WHITE PINE MINING BOOM
Some of the most interesting history of the Silver State occurred 16 miles south of Ely in Cave Valley where due east rises Wheeler Peak, the second highest mountain in Nevada. To the west along the foothills are the Ward Charcoal Ovens and Ward Mining District, both remnants from mining in the 1870s and early 80s.
After reading the historical marker detailing the rise and fall of the Ward Mining District, we navigated our Jeep on a 5-mile stretch of dirt road to the ovens.
Six large beehive-looking ovens remain in excellent shape and face north toward the old mining town of Ward. Built in 1876 by Italian masons who specialized in building that specific type of round structure, each oven stood that 30 feet high and 27 feet in diameter with walls 2-feet thick. Miners harvested the local pinion or juniper trees to burn as charcoal for the smelters. The ovens outlived their usefulness in 1879 because of a lack of ore and timber.
The ovens and mining district still draw many visitors said Joyce Hoffman, who along with her husband, Bob, runs the Willow Creek Trading Post and General Store, a short drive east from the ovens.
“We get tourists from all over the world who are interested in the ovens,” Joyce Hoffman said. “Then, when they see our sign, they come down here. We have had people here from Germany and Sweden. They talk about what good shape the ovens are in.”
The Hoffmans have lived in the valley since the early 1980s, and Joyce considers herself a resident expert on both the ovens and mining district.
“So many come to us looking for the old mine,” she explained, adding the Ward Mining District has had a roller-coaster existence.
Founded in the early 1870s, Ward primarily produced silver, and magnesium but the demand and recession halted production in 1882. During its heyday after the masons built the ovens, more than 6,000 people lived in the area. In 1883, fire destroyed about one-third of the buildings in Ward, and other buildings were relocated to Taylor, another small mining town.
Neighbor Allen Reid, who has lived near the Hoffmans for four years, works at the Robinson Copper Mine in Ruth, a half hour away and four miles west of Ely. The history that abounds in the area intrigues him.
“It’s a long road to get to the old town and cemetery,” he said of Ward. “As you go up, stop at the cemetery and when there look around.”
That we did and once there, we signed the guest registry and saw that more than 50 families had visited the cemetery since the beginning of June.
A cemetery for a 43 souls lies one mile downhill from the mine. Tombstones mark children’s plots, many of whom who died from either measles or pneumonia. Another marker reveals the name of an Irishman who was murdered.
While the mine started and halted operations over the decades, Hoffman said Ward did well in the 1940s, but the cost of operating the mine caused it to shut down again. Several tin buildings that currently stand below the old mine were built decades ago. Hoffman, though, said the Silver King Mining Company saw hope in working the land again and mined ore from the area from the 1960s to the early 1990s.
Even after the mining stopped, the Hoffman’s trading post continues to operate by serving both tourists and the residents who call Cave Valley their home.
“My husband and I came here and rebuilt an old ranch and started building the store in 1984. We have goods, sundry items, everything made. If I don’t have it, you don’t need it,” she quipped. “We have jewelry and antiques, and I am trying to make a museum of it (antiques). There are old clothes and new clothes, and I bought out a shoe store in Ely in 1992 when the owner passed away.”
The first thing, though, visitors will notice is a huge man-made buffalo placed on poles looking down at a desert bed of old, rusting tractors and cars and other machinery.
“The buffalo came out of a boot shop,” Hoffman said, with a chuckle.
The Hoffmans also raised buffalo, keeping a heard of 156. Because of Robert Hoffman’s age — he’s 89 — they sold the herd two years ago but kept five buffalo.
SERENITY IN THE VALLEY
Tucked away near the foothills of the towering Ruby Mountains 20 miles south of Elko lies the luscious, green Lamoille Valley, gateway to some of the finest camping and hunting in eastern Nevada. South of the valley is Lamoille Canyon, often referred to as the “Grand Canyon” or Nevada’s Swiss Alps. We arrived at the small town of Lamoille on a late Saturday afternoon with shadows forming on several houses and businesses and the lone paved street through the middle of town.
Locals already packed two restaurants for food and beer.
The drive through town takes no more than a couple of minutes, but two old buildings caught our attention at the end of the street, an old red barn and the Lamoille Presbyterian Church, both pastoral scenes that could also portray every day life in New England.
“The country church sanctuary is so inviting and warm,” said Karen Dolan, a church deacon and elder as well as the office manager and treasurer. “We have old opera seats and original stain glass windows from 1905 that came from San Francisco on a wagon. The stained glass window is probably the biggest feature of the church. There isn’t a day I don’t have someone who comes here to take pictures so if my car is here, they’ll come in and buy a history book on the church or take a tour.”
The church celebrated its centennial a decade ago.
The shiny white building sparkled in the afternoon sun with the backdrop of the mountains rising behind the church’s picturesque steeple. Dolan said about 70 people — most of them from Lamoille, Spring Creek and several families from Elko — attend service each week. Earlier this month they held a Sunday service in Lamoille Canyon. While the weekly service draws many people, both the church and valley attract people for another type of ceremony.
“We may be best known for our weddings,” Dolan said. “We’ll have one every weekend in August. We had three in July.”
Although Dolan first came to Lamoille eight years ago from Reno, Postmaster EllaMay Bottari has lived in the valley for 65 years after arriving from the San Francisco Bay Area. She thought she traveled to heaven.
“I’ve been postmaster since 2012, but I came here in November 1949, before the heavy snows covered the valley. I married a cowboy and a rancher. We had five children, but raised six and never had any desire to leave,” she recollected about her life in Lamoille.
Talking to Bottari illustrated how close Nevadans are. Her son Paul and I attended the University of Nevada at the same in the 1970s, but several years after we graduated, we found ourselves teaching together in 1977-1978 at Wells High School. Paul instructed vocational agriculture, while I taught English and journalism.
If there is one thing I discovered, though, is EllaMay Bottari could be Lamoille’s spokeswoman because she loves to describe the western way of life and the beauty of the land.
“Our ranch is about two miles north of Lamoille, and you can see our haystack from the highway. We like to go into the Ruby Mountains and camp,” Bottari said, “and we’re so blessed to see what we have and to enjoy it. It sure is peaceful.
Even during the winter when snow piles up in the fields and below zero weather smacks the valley, Bottari has grown accustomed to nature’s weather.
“I learned to love it, even if you have a bad winter or dry summer, you just roll with the punches,” she said. “We have a piece of God’s country.”
Although the valley’s beauty captures Bottari’s spirit of life, she said the residents who live in Lamoille Valley are very nice, ordinary every day type of people. She said various groups enjoy hosting community events such as a country fair, steak fry or fundraisers for scholarships. Not too long ago, she said the country fair pulled people from all over including Idaho, Utah, California and Nevada.
From such remote locations such as Lamoille to the Ward Mining District to Austin … Nevada’s people, the tales of a time long behind us and the the majestic scenery truly made the Silver State Scavenger Hunt a trip worth taking.