The Nevada Traveler: Hawthorne: More to it than meets the eye
Hawthorne doesn’t seem like much at first glance. Maybe a place to eat, spend the night or grab some gas while traveling U.S. 95. But if you spend a bit of time there, you find out that Hawthorne not only has an interesting history but a few other surprises.
Hawthorne traces its roots to 1881, when the Carson & Colorado Railroad established it as a division point. The region was booming as a result of several significant gold strikes in nearby mining camps such as Candelaria and Aurora and Hawthorne quickly became a regional transportation hub.
Within a short time, the town, which was named after local rancher William Hawthorne, had become so successful that it snatched the Esmeralda County seat away from the fading mining town of Aurora in 1883.
In 1907, however, the even more successful mining boom town of Goldfield snatched the county seat away.
State lawmakers responded in 1911 by creating Mineral County out of the northern portion of Esmeralda County — and named Hawthorne as seat of the new county, a position it still has.
During the next several decades, Hawthorne’s fortunes fluctuated since it was so dependent on the success or failure of local mines. In the 1930s, however, following a disastrous explosion at an ammunition depot in New Jersey, the U.S. government selected remote Hawthorne as the site of a new Navy ammunition storage facility.
Construction started in 1928, with the first shipment of explosive ammo arriving in 1930. The depot really began to boom during World War II, when operations were scaled up and the town’s population ballooned to more than 13,000 residents.
Following the war, as could be expected, the depot’s activity slowed and by 1950, Hawthorne had a population of about 1,900. In the 1970s, the Navy transferred the base to the Army.
Now known as the Hawthorne Army Depot, it remains the largest ammunition storage facility in the world encompassing nearly 150,000 acres. It continues to be used for ammo storage and for the demilitarizing and disposing of surplus or obsolete explosives.
Perhaps the most telltale sign of the military’s continued presence are the hundreds of concrete and earthen bunkers found surrounding much of the community. These secure mounds are where the military stores hundreds of tons of military ordnance.
One of the most scenic parts of Hawthorne is the site of the former military base, which has tree-lined streets lined with sturdy brick military buildings, most built in the 1930s. The base also boasts one of the best-groomed golf courses in rural Nevada.
One of the best places to learn about the region’s rich history is the Mineral County Museum at 10th and D streets.
Of particular note is a glass display case containing 17 tarnished, green-colored bells of varying sizes. The bells are engraved with such dates as 1810, 1818 and 1819. One bell is marked “Mexico” and another with “Mejico.”
According to the museum staff, the bells were found buried in the desert about 15 miles south of Hawthorne. While no one is certain how the bells found their way to Nevada, one theory is that they were left behind by a Spanish expedition that came north from Mexico in 1822 — which would predate any known exploration of that part of Nevada.
The Mineral County Museum is open in the summer (April through October) 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday (http://web0.greatbasin.net/~mcmuseum/index.html).
Another place of interest is the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum at 925 E St. According to the museum’s staff, the purpose of the facility is to celebrate Hawthorne’s important role in the nation’s defense.
Inside, visitors will find attractive displays of a variety of types of ammunition as well as exhibits describing the region’s munitions history. There are also vintage military uniforms as well as historic photographs and old military vehicles.
The Ordnance Museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays (http://hawthorneordnancemuseum.com). Admission is free.
About 12 miles north of Hawthorne is Walker Lake, a scenic desert body of water that covers more than 50 square miles. Once considered a dying lake because so much of its waters were being siphoned for agriculture, Walker Lake has made a comeback in recent years with more water being diverted to the lake so it can be replenished.
The lake is a popular spot for fishing, swimming, picnicking and boating. For information, go to http://www.blm.gov/visit/walker-lake-recreation-area.
For information about Hawthorne, contact the Mineral County Chamber of Commerce, http://www.mineralcountychamber.com.