Churchill County

Nevada's Western Outback

The Markers Statistics

At the westernmost edge of Nevada's rural outback sits Churchill County - a region deep in history and often forgotten chapters: an impossible mail route, a waning telegraph line, an influx of color seekers, and the greening of the desert. Sounds juicy enough? Ironically despite such rich history, many thousands of people are still unaware of the county's immense historical roots and it's not hard to see why. Viewing its stark vastness from an air-conditioned vehicle offers hard parallelism to the young men who were fastened to a horse and mailbag. What the riders would have given for such a long, consistent piece of blacktop cutting through a sea of sagebrush! Perhaps it was written in the stars that "Churchill" has always been a travel corridor. If anything we can compare Churchill County to a neglected hardback book, easily judged on the exterior, with a juicy story waiting to be discovered on the inside.

Legend of "the Pony"

This was the trademark for a route that was to become the great Pony Express Trail, christened in legend as one of America's shortest, but most intriguing tales of Manifest Destiny.

"Pony Express! St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California... in 10 days or less."

If that isn't a selling point ...

"Wanted: young, skilly, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages, $25 per week."

Letters delivered in ten days was a timeframe many said was impossible. The goal of three men, William H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell, put that to the test - having organized and establishing the Pony Express Trail in just two months during the winter of 1860. The operation was an enormous undertaking with several hundred head of personnel, four hundred horses and 120 riders to make things happen! Their idea of a shorter route using mounted riders rather than stagecoaches, would establish a mail service that was faster and "more reliable" for the mail system. Ultimately, their hope was to win an exclusive government mail contract-- something that was unheard of and not present at the time. The Pony Express Trail would demonstrate that a unified transcontinental system could be built and could operate continuously year round.

The actual operation of the Pony Express was one of trial and error, tragedy and unmistakable tribulation. History fails to record the exact number of Pony Express stations across America, but a general concensus places the total around at 184 stations placed at intervals of about ten miles along the approximately two thousand mile route. The routine became quite structured, a necessary adage in this dangerous and hostile territory. The distance of ten miles is roughly the maximum distance an average horse can safely travel at full gallop. Standard requirements on the Pony meant changing to a fresh horse at each station where upon arriving, the rider would take the mail pouch called a mochila and throw it over the saddle. The pouch held approximately twenty pounds of material (usually bundles of mail stuffed into pouch pockets) then padlocked for safety. Before taking off, stationmasters stressed the importance of the pouch. If it came to be, the horse and rider should perish before the mochila did.

Nevada's True Treasure
With the replacement of the telegraph in 1861 the need for riders to risk weather out storms, sudden attack, or long-term exhaustion became unnecessary and the Pony Express became just another felled Nevada chapter. Despite its short life, the Pony Express Trail left behind a lasting legacy. Ingrained images of these long and lonely trails frequented by a horse and rider remain fresh in our imaginations. Today, US 50 roughly parallels the Pony Express Trail and visitors who drive "America's Loneliest Road" too can appreciate the long forgotten route. Hints of the Trail's past still lingers in the desert air of Churchill and remnants of the very same telegraph line that ended the riders' careers sit weathered in states of arrested decay.

The falling of the Overland Mail Route ended one great legacy for Churchill while beginning another chapter in the county's history. Fortune seekers, war deserters, hopefuls, and entrepreneurs, all with "color" on their minds, sought refuge and riches in the barren lands of central Nevada. Handfuls of camps filled almost every gully in the desert all dependent by the turn of a rock or the swing of a pickaxe. Towns like La Plata, the first ever seat of Churchill County, sit alone and forgotten, yet accessible by sturdy four-wheel-drive rigs; other obscure camps like Bolivia, Clan Alpine, Buffalo, and Dixie continue to lie in the hands of mercy and time. Despite its ups and downs, the turn of the century still wouldn't mark the end of Churchill's great legacy book. In fact, it is here that Nevada took its first steps in utilizing a commodity worth much more than any fortune.

The turn of the century brought hope for Churchill County's arid Lahontan Basin when the Newlands Water Project of 1902 created a system of canals and dams now responsible for diverting water from the Truckee River to the Lahontan Valley. The Lahontan Valley has become "Nevada's Salad Bowl," the agriculture capitol that's home to thousands of acres of farmland in ironically, one of the driest portions of Nevada! When newly-formed system of canals began channeling water from the Truckee River, the Newlands Project immediately bred controversy by notably impacting water levels of ancient Pyramid Lake. Lake levels had declined so significantly over the course of a few short years, a complete decimation of Pyramid Lake's native population of Lahontan Cutthroat Trout happened in 1915. Protests began and reservation members threatened to sue the state of Nevada for this horrific loss. One year later, native Lahontans were transplanted from Walker Lake eventually bringing back Pyramid's fish population. Since the accident, flows on the Truckee River are strictly mandated by the state to ensure the lake's ever-present source of water.

The Markers
Once a sleepy farming town of a few thousand, Fallon has now grown into a booming oasis in the desert thanks to the life-saving Newlands Water Project. This comfortable base provides the only means of services in a county comprised of over 5,000 square miles and whether you favor or disfavor of the Water Project, Newlands has brought has shaped Fallon into a full-fledged "oasis" in the middle of an arid desert barrens. The town's wonderful "Hearts O Gold" cantaloupes fill up local farmers' markets in the summer while spectacular sunsets and a friendly atmosphere become typified versions of down-home Americana year round. In your exploration of the Sagebrush Sea, listen carefully. Perhaps that nomadic herd of horses is more than just a gang of mustangs.

Markers of Churchill County

Unfortunately, Churchill doesn't offer much in terms of the marker variety. Most of them span across the breast of the county along US 50, "America's Loneliest Road" with only a few stragglers on the far corners of the county that don't relate to "the Pony."

[10] -- Sand Mountain

39.27499, -118.41329

"Sand Mountain, dominating Salt Wells Basin, is a prominent landmark in Nevada's early history."

[19] -- Ragtown

39.50566, -118.91893

"Ragtown was never a town, but the name of a most welcome oasis and hamlet ... a mecca on the banks of nearby Carson River."

[26] -- Forty Mile Desert

39.94055, -118.75024

"Starvation for men stalked every mile. A survey made in 1850 showed these appalling statistics."

[27] -- Grimes Point (Prehistoric Rock Art Site)

39.40148, -118.64759

"Grimes Point, one of the largest and most accessible petroglyph sites in northern Nevada, contains about 150 basalt boulders covered with petroglyphs."

[83] -- Rock Creek (Cold Springs Station)

39.39524, -117.85099

"An important stage stop on John Butterfield's (1861-1866) Overland Stage & Mail Company's historic line between Salt Lake City and Genoa, Nevada."

[110] -- Wagon Jack Shelter

39.30349, -117.88145

"The ten foot wide flat at the base of the cliff is the site of Wagon Jack Shelter who camped here about 1900, while working on an Eastgate Ranch."

[111] -- Edwards Creek Valley

39.54757, -117.67949

"This valley was favored by prehistoric Indians for its abundant grass and brush found near its springs and intermittent streams."

[135] -- New Pass Station

39.58181, -117.53465

"It was one part of "stagecoach king", John Butterfield's Overland Mail & Stage Company road systems, which at the time began traversing this central route between Salt Lake City, Utah and Genoa, Nevada."

[147] -- People of the Humboldt

39.94069, -118.74913

"The marshy remnant of Lake Lahontan served as a life sustaining resource of wildlife for prehistoric man who lived by its shores."

[161] -- Churchill County Courthouse

39.47493, -118.77735

"The neo-classical Churchill County Courthouse was constructed in 1903."

[178] -- Hazen

39.5634, -119.04794

"Hazen was named for William Babcock Hazen, who served under General Sherman in his "march to the sea."

[201] -- Wonder (Historic Mining Camp-- 1906-1919)

39.27499, -118.41329 Missing

"Located 13 miles to the north is the camp of Wonder, a major mining center in the early years of this century. "

[202] -- Fairview (1905-1917)

39.28439, -118.19665

"A substantial town that boasted 27 saloons, hotels, banks, assay offices, a newspaper, post office and a miner's union hall ..."

[215] -- Lahontan Dam

39.46505, -117.88145

"Lahontan Dam is the key feature of the Newlands Irrigation Project which has turned Lahontan Valley into one of Nevada's most productive farming areas."

[216] -- Stillwater

39.52161, -118.54652

"Stillwater's beginning predates Nevada's advent to statehood by two years."

[263] -- Oats Park School

39.47345, -118.76869

"The Oats Park School was designed in 1914 by Frederick J. DeLongchamps, Nevada's preeminent architect of the period."

[271] -- Pony Express Trail (1860 - Sesquicentennial - 2010)

39.28754, -118.57151

"One hundred and fifty years ago, the Pony Express was founded by W. H. Russell, Alexander Majors and William B. Waddell."