Dennis Cassinelli: Nevada’s Fort Churchill
Just one year after silver was discovered in the Comstock Lode, a band of Paiute and Bannock Indians attacked several white settlers at Williams Station about 30 miles east of Virginia City along the Carson River. The station was burned and several men were murdered.
When word of the attack reached the Comstock, a volunteer group of soldiers and vigilantes was formed under the direction of Major Ormsby. Virginia City, Genoa, Dayton, Silver City and Carson City all sent volunteers to retaliate for the attack. More than 100 men marched down the Carson River to the ruins of Williams Station and buried the dead settlers. They then followed the trail of the Indians toward Pyramid Lake, intent on defeating the marauders.
As the company of untrained volunteers led by Major Ormsby approached Pyramid Lake along the banks of the Truckee River, they suddenly found themselves surrounded in a trap by the hundreds of Indians encamped there. Major Ormsby ordered a charge, but hundreds of the Indians closed in with rifles, arrows and knives and quickly defeated the unprepared white invaders, killing most of them including Major Ormsby. This became known as the Pyramid Lake War.
Shortly after Major Ormsby’s defeat, Colonel John Hayes and Captain Joseph Stewart formed a larger group of volunteers and U.S. Army Regulars to avenge Ormsby’s defeat. This campaign finally defeated the Natives in what became known as the Second Battle of Pyramid Lake.
A great feeling of panic and insecurity was felt on the Comstock with all the Indian trouble so near the blossoming mining district. After defeat of the Indians, Captain Stewart formed a contingent and established a permanent U.S. Army fort along the Carson River near the ruins of Williams Station. Construction of the fort was begun on July 20, 1860. It was named Fort Churchill after Sylvester Churchill, Inspector General of the United States Army. The fort was completed in 1861.
Fort Churchill was constructed with several adobe brick buildings forming a large square. The enclosed area became the drill area for the 200 soldiers stationed there from 1861 to 1869, when the post was abandoned. The fort provided protection for the emigrants traveling along the California Trail and the Pony Express, which came through the same location.
Eventually, the property became a Nevada State Park and in 1961 (100 years after it was completed), it was declared a National Historic Landmark. There’s now a visitors center and a picnic area along the Carson River at the park where visitors can tour the ruins of the fort and see photos and artifacts in the interpretive center.
The visitor center has exhibits on the history of Fort Churchill, Native Americans who inhabited the area, and natural features of the surrounding countryside. A 20-site campground is situated along the Carson River within a grove of cottonwood trees with an adjacent group-camp and day-use picnic areas. A primitive camp lies farther along the Carson River in the Carson River Ranches unit.
Hiking trails include a self-guided trail around the fort ruins with interpretative signs explaining each of the buildings. The Orchard Trail runs along the Carson River from the campground to Buckland Station. A continuation of this trail runs the length of the Carson River in the Carson River Ranches unit.
After the fort was abandoned, local ranchers, including Samuel Buckland salvaged wooden materials from the fort to construct the two-story building at the Buckland Ranch within sight of Fort Churchill. This ranch also became a part of the state park in 1997. After more than 150 years of exposure to wind and weather, many of the adobe bricks that formed the walls of the fort have begun to melt away. There has been an ongoing program of replacing some of these with new adobe blocks so people who visit the site can see how the buildings looked somewhat in their original state. Some of the original walls are now nothing more than mounds of dried mud from the melted adobe brick.
The original road from Virginia City to old Fort Churchill ran down Six-Mile Canyon, across U.S. Highway 50 and down the Carson River Canyon Road to Fort Churchill, which is near the intersection with U.S. 95. This makes an interesting side trip for visitors to the Comstock and provides a chance to follow the route of the California Trail and the Pony Express.
Dayton author and historian, Dennis Cassinelli, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount to reduce inventory and Dennis will pay the postage.