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Some find peace and quiet in a few of Nevada’s most storied places.
Photo: Zack Thomas (Unionville)
“When we first got here, this was just a big hole full of rubble,” says David Jones as he leads us through the kitchen of the restored 1862 Hadley house in Unionville. He waves a calloused hand toward a doorway opening into a massive, sunlit parlor in which a baby grand piano is no more than an accent piece and says, “The cows were living in there.”
Preservation of local history is a way of life in “living ghost towns” like Unionville. Founded in 1861 after silver was discovered nearby, Unionville boomed to a population of about 3,000—large enough that the homes of the nine families living here today are far outnumbered by ruins. One of many such towns in Nevada, it is, like the rest, a curious, vibrant mix of historic and modern, of ruin and restoration, of old-timers and newcomers.
David’s parents, Lew and Mitzi Jones, moved to this shady little oasis tucked away in the sagebrush foothills of the Humboldt Range in Pershing County in the early 1970s from Monterey, California. They were looking for somewhere Lew could do a bit of farming and pursue his passion for rebuilding old houses “without dealing with some planning commission,” and a place far off the beaten path where their daughters could keep their horses. They bought the house they live in today, the 1862 Talcott house, along with a good bit of land and several ruined buildings, including the Hadley house.
In restoring the Hadley and Field houses—which now accommodate guests of the Joneses’ Old Pioneer Garden Bed & Breakfast—Lew and David preserved as much of the original structures as they could and rebuilt what they couldn’t with materials taken from ruins in Unionville and the surrounding area, as well as period doors, windows, and fixtures gathered from San Francisco salvage yards.
David shows us to our Hadley house room with its view of pastures and poplars and an oceanic expanse of high desert beyond, tells us dinner is at seven, and excuses himself to finish mucking out the barn.
In Midas, a gold town founded in 1907 at the foot of the Owyhee Bluffs north of Battle Mountain, Dan and Joanne Bennett are equally devoted to local history. They live in a modern home, but Dan runs Friends of Midas, a nonprofit dedicated to researching and preserving the town’s history. Their daughter, Dana Bennett, has written two books about Midas, Forward With Enthusiasm and A Century of Enthusiasm.
Sixty miles north of Ely, in Cherry Creek, a boomtown dating from the early 1870s, even the original log jailhouse has been restored and converted to a home by one of the town’s 16 residents. Modern windows and doors contrast with the weathered logs, and a satellite TV receiver sprouts from one wall. The only business in town, the Barrel Saloon, operates—with considerable pride—in the original 1883 Post Office.
Curiously, few people who live in these old towns are descended from the early settlers. Most, like the Bennetts and Joneses, moved in after retiring from city careers, but they seem as concerned with the towns’ histories as if their families had lived there for generations. In a way, that makes their preservation and restoration efforts even more admirable.
It’s rarely a fascination with history that first draws people to these towns. That seems to develop later. Rather, they come mostly for the uncomplicated—if sometimes challenging—life they find here. As Dan Bennett leans on his front fence, recalling the seven years his family has lived year-round in Midas, and how back then the pay phone outside the bar was the only one in town, and how cold it could get in that booth on a winter night, a loose knot of a dozen cows moseys down the road from the canyon. Swinging the gate shut to keep them out of the yard, he grins and says, “Just one of the insurmountable problems you face living out here.”
Of course, “uncomplicated” isn’t an exact synonym for “easy,” and this life isn’t without its challenges. Although electricity and phone service have now reached a lot of them, most of Nevada’s living ghost towns are remote, even by Nevada standards. With the closest grocery store typically an hour or more away, a certain level of self-reliance is required, but for most of the people who live out here, that’s part of the attraction.
In Unionville, Mitzi Jones admits rather reluctantly, as if it’s too often, that she makes the hour trip into Winnemucca “at least every couple weeks.” Even so, for breakfast she serves homemade oatmeal with wild blackberries that grow next to the creek running through the property, then thick, coaster-sized peach pancakes with bacon, fried eggs, and cottage potatoes, all home grown but the pancake batter.
Leaning against the massive, ornately carved antique back bar of the Midas Saloon and Dinner House, the town’s sole business, bartender Jim Schennum allows that he gets into Winnemucca once a week, but only to keep the restaurant stocked. A self-described “jack of all trades and master of none,” he’d been coming out from Reno to hunt and fish since the 1960s, but he was only recently able to move here permanently.
At 50, he says he’s “semi-retired,” making enough to live comfortably and visit family and friends in Reno every month or so. Why did he move out here? “I get to wake up to this every morning,” he says, gesturing toward the dirt main street beyond the old hitching rail, the cottonwoods, the gray-green hills, and the distant basalt cliffs, all silent on this summer morning but for a quail calling down by the creek.
Take exit 149 off I-80 to Unionville/Mill City, about 43 miles north of Lovelock; follow Highway 400 south 17 miles to the end of the pavement; turn right for three miles at the Unionville historical marker. The Old Pioneer Garden B&B can be reached at 775-538-7585.
Take exit 194 off I-80 to Golconda/Midas, about 15 miles east of Winnemucca; follow Highway 789 for roughly 15.5 miles and then bear right at a signed fork; continue about 25 miles northeast to the signed left turn to Midas.
From Ely, take U.S. 93 north 59 miles; turn left on Highway 489, eight miles.
WORTH A VISIT
Part ghost town, part theme park, Gold Point, 14 miles east of U.S. 95 between Beatty and Tonopah via highways 266 and 774, has about 50 original buildings still standing. Despite a population of fewer than 10, it’s home to a bed and breakfast and hosts numerous gatherings and events.
A gold-mining boomtown dating from around 1905, Manhattan, 49 miles north of Tonopah off Highway 376, has a small year-round population and a couple of picturesque saloons.
Founded around 1870, Tuscarora, 52 miles north of Elko via highways 225 and 226, was home to a large Chinese population. Today, it’s known
for the Tuscarora Pottery School, an artists’ retreat.