The story of the nowhere I-80 exits
Drive across Interstate 80 in Northern Nevada and you’ve probably seen the name on the exit signs that don’t seem to lead anywhere.
After all, what is the background for places with names like Valmy or Humboldt or Toulon? All those names and plenty more appear on road signs along the interstate yet you don’t really see much when you zip by going 70 miles per hour.
It turns out that there is a story behind nearly every one of those highway exit names—except “Mote,” which apparently is little more than a mote.
For instance, if you head east of Fernley, you encounter the first of these phantom exits at a place marked Nightingale (about 17 miles from Fernley).
At first glance, it appears to consist of a small geothermal plant. But look into the name and you discover that Nightingale was once a stop on the Emigrant Trail.
In the 1840s, emigrants discovered the hot springs located in this valley. Originally called “Boiling Springs,” the spot offered the only water within 20 miles (early pioneers cooled and drank the water, despite being salty and brackish).
Later, the place was called Brady’s Hot Springs and became the location of a popular resort that featured a warm water swimming pool.
The name “Nightingale,” which is associated with the spot today, can be traced to a former mining town once located about 21 miles north. In 1917, tungsten deposits were discovered in the Nightingale Range to the north of I-80. A small camp named after the mountains cropped up at the site, but, after about a decade, it faded away.
Interestingly, the Nightingale Range was named in honor of Captain Alanson W. Nightengill (the name was corrupted on state maps), Nevada’s first State Controller and a veteran of the 1860 Pyramid Lake Indian War.
Twelve miles east is the exit sign for Jessup. While little is located there today, Jessup was another short-lived mining town, located 4 miles north of the present intersection with I-80.
Gold was discovered in Jessup in 1908, and within a few months nearly 300 people had settled in this remote camp. The boom was over by the end of 1909 and the town dissolved back into the desert.
Another 12 miles farther is the turn-off for Toulon. Unlike at most other mining sites, some of the original mill building is still standing—it’s the large, two-story metal building adjacent to railroad tracks.
Toulon, which was named for a French seaport (although no one is quite sure why a place in the middle of the desert was named after a seaport) was founded in 1917 following construction of a large mill to treat tungsten, gold and silver ore mined at Nightingale. The mill was used sporadically over the years.
The impressive ruins are located on private property and the owners are extremely protective of the site, so it’s best to take photos from the road.
The next exit to nowhere-land is located 14 miles east of Lovelock at Oreana. In the 1880s, the Southern Pacific Railroad developed a sidetrack and small station at this site.
In 1912, with the discovery of rich gold and silver deposits in nearby Rochester, Oreana boomed and soon had several stores, saloons, a large hotel and a depot. A year later, the Nevada Short Line Railway was built to connect Rochester with Oreana.
Rochester’s mines began to decline after 1917 and Oreana quietly slipped into obscurity. By the mid-1920s, its last businesses closed.
Today, foundations and and a few wooden houses are the only survivors. Rochester, located 10 miles southeast, is a ghost town with several headframes, a decaying mill and a handful of other buildings.
Another 16 miles down the interstate brings you to the Humboldt exit. While today, Humboldt consists of a few houses and a grove of huge poplars and cottonwood trees, the site once served as a stagecoach stop.
In 1868, the Central Pacific Railroad built the two-story Humboldt House at the site, an inn and meal stop for train passengers traveling across Nevada (there were no dining cars in those days).
The presence of good water allowed the railroad to develop a true oasis in the desert with pleasant shade trees, flower and vegetable gardens, and fruit orchards.
The need for Humboldt House disappeared after the 1890s when the railroad introduced dining cars. The inn continued operating as a roadside stop for several more decades before closing in the 1940s.
In recent years, local residents have cleaned up the site and hope to establish a living historic location.
More about forgotten roadside exits on the interstate in next week’s column.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.