Get out of town

EXPLORE NORTHERN NEVADA'S GHOST TOWNS

An ore bin stands on a hill above Tunnel Camp.

An ore bin stands on a hill above Tunnel Camp.

story and photos by JERI CHADWELL-SINGLEY

They dot the vast emptiness of the high desert landscape. You’ll find them tucked inside whispering aspen groves high in the mountains, strewn across the leprous white of alkali flats and slumbering low within the sagebrush seas that lie between. Nevada’s inhabited towns and cities are outnumbered by its ghost towns, whose dilapidated structures and rusted skeletons tell the stories of miners and ranchers and railroaders long since passed from this world. When you’re ready to find them, you need only head out of town—any town. And upon reaching a sign that reads “pavement ends,” you’ll know you’re on the right track.

Exploring ghost towns has been a popular hobby for generations of Nevadans. I grew up doing it, on my own and with my parents, who did so before me. If you’re interested in trying it for yourself, this guide should serve as a good place to start.

Have a safe trip

Safety tips can be so annoying, especially when they're obnoxiously obvious. So I won't waste your time with the basics, but I do want to take a moment to share a few tips that are best not learned the hard way.

Some hole in the ground

According the Nevada Division of Minerals, “experts estimate that there are nearly 200,000 abandoned mines in Nevada,” about 50,000 of which may pose serious safety hazards. The list of potential mine hazards runs long to things like cave-ins, leftover explosives and dangerous wildlife, including poisonous snakes and disease-carrying rodents.

And then there’s bad air—sometimes also referred to as “damp,” a term derived from the German word dampf, meaning vapor. It happens when a mixture of toxic gasses displace the oxygen in a mine. There are different kinds of damps, none of them good. Not all forms of damp are found in all areas. For example, blackdamp—so named because a flame will not burn in its presence—is more common in coal mines. But abandoned mines in Nevada can hold a variety of damps. Some will just suffocate you. Others are flammable. Many of them have no odor to tip you off to their presence.

The simple solution is to stay out of the many abandoned mines you will undoubtedly come across while visiting ghost towns. Don’t go into the ones excavated into the side of hills, and don’t go anywhere near the ones that drop straight into the desert floor; the ground may be unstable for several feet around these.

You really can't take it with you

Ghost towns aren't just full of abandoned buildings, ruins and rusted equipment and cars. Often there are all sorts of things left over—from big things like refrigerators to little things like buttons and railroad spikes and trash piles full of bottles and rusted cans.

The Bureau of Land Management has a fact sheet about “collecting” on public land with information about what you’re allowed to pick up and what you must leave alone. It covers minerals, fossils, plants and cultural artifacts. It’s illegal to mess with “arrowheads and other stone tools, grinding stones, beads, baskets, pottery, old bottles, horse shoes, metal tools, graves and trash scatters.”

Pack it in

I really don't want to bore you, so I'll refrain from providing an exhaustive list of commonsense things to bring on your ghost town trip. Here's what you really do need: two spare tires, a can of gasoline and a map. I have personally blown two tires in a single day in the desert. It happens—enough said. And I have, on more than one occasion, gotten lost and used every last drop in my five-gallon gas can to get me back to civilization. But a map can often spare you this trouble. And the thing about Nevada’s ghost towns is that you can—and should—map your way to almost any of them, either by name or by coordinates.

Paradise Valley is a living historical town about 40 miles north of Winnemucca.

It’s always a good idea to bring a printed copy of the directions you’ll follow, because it’s quite likely you’ll go through areas without cellphone service. There are also a multitude of websites dedicated to exploring ghost towns. These are valuable resources that often include histories, recent photos and fairly good directions. But I think you will find—if you read the fine print—that these directions always come with a disclaimer about their ultimate reliability.

Talk of the towns

I've been to more ghost towns than I can even recall. In Elko County, where I grew up, I know of more than six dozen—no joke. In fact, I'm pretty sure the county has the most ghost towns of any in the state. But the towns I'll share with you here are not so far away, for the most part. In preparation for this guide, I visited them all over the course of a weekend. (You can see additional photos of them on my blog on the RN&R website.)

The route follows Interstate 80 from Reno to Battle Mountain, before turning south to follow State Route 305 down to Austin. From there, Highway 50 is an easy, paved jaunt west back to Fernley with only one stop. The towns vary in distance from the main roads. Some have more remains than others. Some, like Wadsworth and Austin, are actually living historical towns, but not all of them are accessible in a two-wheel-drive vehicle. I’ve included a bit about the history of each place, as well as information about their general location and whether they can be reached in 2WD or 4WD. If you choose to visit some of these places, I’d love to hear your stories and see photos from your adventures.

Wadsworth (2WD)

Wadsworth is a short drive out of Reno, east on I-80. The roads are paved the entire way out to this small historical town, which still has hundreds of residents. It's located on Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe land. According to Nevada Humanities' Online Nevada Encyclopedia, the “area was important for settlers as early as 1841 … [and] Wadsworth turned from small settlement to permanent town in 1868, when it was designated as a service station and headquarters for the Central Pacific Railroad's Truckee Division.” In 1904, railroad officials moved their service facilities 30 miles west, which led to the formation of Sparks.

The opening scene in John Ford’s The Iron Horse was filmed in Wadsworth, and a visit to the town will give you the chance to see several neat things—including an abandoned train bridge over the Truckee River, a lovely but very wobbly foot bridge across the same, and the Wadsworth Union Church. The church was built in 1888 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

Tunnel Camp (4WD)

Tunnel Camp is located about 21 miles northwest of Lovelock in the Seven Troughs Mining District. I was able to get there in my Subaru Legacy, but the going was rough.

Tunnel Camp is one of those Nevada ghost towns whose history is hard to pin down. According to photographer and ghost town explorer Warren Willis—whose website, silverstateghosttowns.com, hosts information and photography of more than 130 Nevada ghost towns—the town came into being in 1927 “when the Nevada State Mining Company … decided to build a 100-ton cyanide mill on the site, in addition to boring a tunnel through rock to the Seven Troughs mines on the other side of the mountain.”

The remains of the cyanide mill are prominent at the site. There’s also a cemetery and several buildings, including a brick powerhouse and a few dugout cabins built into the hillsides. But the real treasure to see there is a stamp mill with all five of its stamps still in place. Across its heavy iron front, raised letters read “Joshua Hendy Machine Works S.F.” According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Hendy’s Iron Works supplied Gold Rush miners with equipment like buckets, mine cars, ore crushers and stamp mills, and his company produced equipment that was used to dig the Panama Canal.

Humboldt City (4WD)

I made the mistake of trying to take the Subaru to Humboldt City. It's located about 33 miles east of Lovelock and just about two and half miles southeast of I-80, at exit 138. The road at first seems passable for a 4WD vehicle. But after about a mile, it degrades to something best suited to ATVs and foot traffic. That said, the mile and half hike up a canyon in the foothills of the Humboldt Range is well worth it.

According to Chris Geigle, a regular contributor to ghosttowns.com, silver was discovered in the canyon “by Louis Barbeau and the town of Humboldt City was founded. … Humboldt City was at its peak in 1863 when some 200 houses, two hotels, two saloons and a blacksmith shop constituted a proud community. The population peaked at 500.” A 1954 article in the Nevada State Journal recounts how mansions were planned for a flat above the city, but the ore being mined there petered out before they could be constructed, and the tunnel that was dug to give residents winter-time access to the flat eventually collapsed.

Today, more than a dozen crumbling stone and adobe ruins remain. In one building you’ll find an old refrigerator and stove and cloth wallpaper clinging to the windowsills. But the buildings are unstable, to say the least. I wouldn’t advise going in them. There’s also an abandoned mine tunnel, closed off by barbwire.

The door in the back of this building in Humboldt City leads to a collapsed mine shaft.

Paradise Valley (2WD)

To call Paradise Valley a ghost town would be a disservice to the people who call it home today. As of the 2010 census, there were just over 100 of them. It's a ranching and farming community located in a valley of the Santa Rosa mountain range, about 40 miles north of Winnemucca. The Library of Congress's American Folklife Center did ethnographic field work there between 1978 and 1982—compiling film, photography, maps and photos. Newspaper clippings from the 1860s tell of a time when the valley was anything but a paradise, as settlers clashed with Native Americans angered by the usurpation of their land. Today, it's a quiet town with a great little bar and a thriving Basque community.

When you visit Paradise Valley you’ll find many historical buildings, including the Micca House. According to Howard Wight Marshall’s book—Paradise Valley: The People and Buildings of An American Place—an Italian immigrant named Alfonso Pasquale purchased the original adobe store at the location and expanded it into the Micca House hotel. The well-preserved, ornate building is one of several on the National Register of Historic Places.

Galena (4WD)

The ghost town of Galena is located about nine and half miles south of Battle Mountain on State Route 305, and about three miles up a canyon in the Battle Mountain Range. References to it can be found in archives of the Nevada State Journal dating as far back as 1875. According to ghosttowns.com entries from Dougald MacArthur and Henry Chenoweth the town was formed in 1869. According to MacArthur, by late 1873, “the population had risen to 250,” and there were two hotels, four mercantile stores and two stage lines. A fire destroyed the mill and assay office in 1889, which, according to MacArthur, put an end to mining activities there until sometime around World War I. Battle Mountain locals say there was another mining revival there in the late 1960s and early '70s.

A visit to Galena seems to corroborate these stories. Heavy, cylindrical core samples fill the spaces between floorboards in the scorched mill building. And the stone blocks of the assay office are black with char. The pinstriped remains of a few dilapidated travel trailers, surrounded by heaps of faded, pull-tab beer cans, speak of the ’60s revival. But by far the coolest thing in Galena is its cemetery, with headstones and iron fences peeking out of the sagebrush that has mostly reclaimed it at this point.

Austin (2WD)

The town of Austin is nestled on the western slopes of the Toiyabe Range. The 90-mile drive south from Battle Mountain on State Route 305 offers views of other ghost towns and old ranches, though many of these are on activity mining and other private properties. The town—bisected by Highway 50—is in some ways similar to Virginia City, with many of its historical buildings housing quaint cafes, bars and shops for tourists.

According to the town’s website, “Austin was founded in 1862 as part of a silver rush reputedly triggered by a Pony Express horse who kicked over a rock. By summer 1863, Austin and the surrounding Reese River Mining District had a population of over 10,000.”

The town has three churches. The Catholic and Methodist churches were both built in 1866. The former is being restored to serve as a cultural center, and the latter is the town’s community center. The Episcopal church was constructed in 1878 and is still in regular use. According to the town’s website, the International Hotel was first built in Virginia City in 1859 and parts of it were moved 163 miles east to Austin in 1863. You can still get a drink and a meal there, though rooms are not for rent.

Sand Springs Station (2WD)

Located about 86 miles west of Austin on Highway 50, the remains of the Sand Springs Pony Express Station seem always at risk of disappearing like a mirage under the shifting tide of grit leading up to the singing sand dune known as Sand Mountain. The station was one of more than 150 that served riders during the Pony Express's 19 months of operation in 1860 and '61.

According to the BLM, “Sir Richard Burton, British scholar and explorer, visited Sand Springs Station on Oct. 17, 1860, and described it in his diary this way: ’The water near this vile hole was thick and stale with sulphury salts; it blistered even the hands. The station house was no unfit object in such a scene, roofless and chairless, filthy and squalid, with a smoky fire in one corner, and a table in the center of an impure floor, the walls open to every wind and the interior full of dust.’”

It’s not surprising to learn that the sand actually reclaimed this site for more than a century before University of Nevada, Reno archaeologists discovered and excavated it in the late 1970s. Among the artifacts they retrieved were bones, bottles, ceramics, cans, ammunition and clothing. Today, you can see the restored walls of the station and read interpretative signs put up by the BLM.

Northern Nevada’s ghost towns offer intriguing glimpses into the state’s history. Visiting them is, in my opinion, the next best thing to time travel. It’s exhilarating to get so close to the past, to view it without a museum’s stanchions and velvet ropes to keep you at a distance. But like a museum’s exhibitions, it would seem that these historical sites may only be on display for a limited time. They’re disappearing. Some are being claimed by the desert’s harsh environments. Others are the victims of willful destruction at the hands of people who cart them off piece by piece and wreck them for their own spiteful entertainment. Either way, my advice is to see them while you can.