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Dennis Cassinelli: Plenty of history in Fallon

Dy Dennis Cassinelli

My first memory of Fallon was when my parents took me there to see the Nevada State Fair when it was being held at Fallon in the 1940s. The fair was originally founded in 1874 and has been Nevada’s longest running event.

Fallon is the county seat of Churchill County and is known for agriculture and livestock in the Lahontan Valley. Lahontan dam was constructed in 1914, creating the Lahontan reservoir that provides water for irrigation, fishing, camping, boating and recreation. Fallon was officially incorporated in 1908 and homesteaders flocked to the area, drawn by a national USRS advertising campaign. Our landscape company and I once did shoreline vegetation restoration at Lake Lahontan.

East of Fallon is a huge salt flat left over from ancient Lake Lahontan. This is where NDOT obtains salt for making slurry to put on Nevada highways during freezing weather. Also east of Fallon is the Fallon Naval Air Station, home to the Fighting Saints of VFC-13. The Naval Air Station in Fallon serves as the Navy’s premier tactical air warfare training center.

The Churchill County Museum is located at 1050 S. Maine St., in Fallon at 775-423-3677. Call for hours. The museum has many exhibits including Indian artifacts from Hidden Cave. The bookstore at the museum sells copies of my books about Indian artifacts and Nevada history.

People can make arrangements to take a guided tour of Hidden Cave at the Grimes Point archaeological site. The area actually contains many interesting sites. I can just provide a list of these in this short article.

On the north side of U.S. Highway 50, is the huge sand dune area called Sand Mountain. This area is usually active on weekends when Dune Buggy enthusiasts converge on Sand Mountain to drive up and down over sand dunes created thousands of years ago when the Black Rock Desert and other marshes dried up. 

The partially restored ruins of the Sand Springs Pony Express Station can be seen for those interested in Pony Express History. It is fairly intact due to having been buried in sand for many years until archaeologists removed some of the sand that had covered it. The ruins of other Pony Express Stations are located in Churchill County as well. Just east of Fallon is Ragtown, the place where pioneer families stopped to rest and feed their livestock after crossing the FortyMile Desert.

The Grimes Point archaeological site is littered with many Basalt boulders covered with a glossy black patina commonly called desert varnish. Many of the boulders have pecked or carved images called petroglyphs. The antiquity of these can sometimes be determined by how much desert varnish had formed back since they were created. These can be hundreds or thousands of years old. 

Hidden Cave was formed around 21,000 years ago by the waves of rising Pleistocene Lake Lahontan. In the mid-1920s, the cave was discovered by four school boys, the first 20th century humans to do so. The cave has been excavated by archaeologists three times: once in 1940, again in 1951, and finally a large excavation in 1979-1980 by the American Museum of Natural History. A high proportion of the artifacts found in Hidden Cave were unbroken and arranged in concentrations. That led to the conclusion that 3,500 to 3,800 years ago people used the cave as a place to store objects for later use rather than for habitation.

Hidden Cave can only be accessed through taking a scheduled tour. The site is on a half mile interpretive loop trail that is not handicapped accessible. The tour may not be suitable for very young children because of its length and the uphill climb.

Contact the BLM Carson City District Office at (775) 885-6000 for information or to arrange for a guided tour of the site for school or other large groups. Guided public tours are also available at Hidden Cave on the second and fourth Saturday of each month by calling the museum at 775-423-3677.

Other caves are at the site, including Fish Cave and Spirit Cave, where the mummified remains of the “Spirit Cave Man” were discovered in 1940. I have written a prehistoric novel about the life of this man titled Legends of Spirit Cave, available on my website below or at the museum.

Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian. You can order his books at a discount on his blog at denniscassinelli.com.