Odyssey of a Ghost Town Explorer: Part 7
January – February 2019
Chapter 2, Part 7: The Elephant
BY ERIC CACHINERO
Ghost towns by their very nature are plagued by hardships. They exist because something didn’t work out the way people had hoped. They exist because obsessions of riches and grandeur faded to sometimes sickening realizations that precious time may have been wasted; wrong choices were made. They exist because of broken dreams.
Early Western prospectors and frontiersmen referred to this sobering introduction to hardships as “seeing the elephant.” The term is appropriate and all encompassing, because it described the quickly shattered dreams many prospectors experienced when they showed up to the west expecting roads paved in gold, only to be introduced to a life tougher than they could have ever imagined.
So in the most appropriate manner possible, Nevada Magazine Editor Megg Mueller and I are reminded of this fact soon after we depart on our first ghost town trip of the year. Much like the hopeful settlers of Nevada’s early days, we set out into parts unexplored with delusions that everything will work out great, only to be stopped dead in our tracks. We see the elephant.
TUSKS IN OUR TIRES
We leave the office on a brisk late-fall morning, adopting our usual plan of packing way too many activities in a day. We head out U.S. Route 50 en route to Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, with the goal of exploring some of the abandoned mining camps that dot the Stillwater Range to the east.
We drive through the semi-abandoned town of Stillwater and snap some photos at the refuge before heading east into the range. An inviting gravel road coaxes us farther and farther into the mountains, and before long, Nevada’s true residents start to reveal themselves. A portly coyote and a covey of chukar let us know we’ve reached Mountain Well, which is aptly named because it’s, well, a well in the mountains. The sighting is good news, because it gives us a point of reference on our atlas and tells us we’re getting close to our first real ghost town of the day: La Plata.
In 1862, silver was discovered in the area, leading to the formation of the Mountain Well Mining District. Many stone structures were built, and mining operations fueled and funded by Eastern capitalists began popping up across the region. The town of La Plata was completely owned by the Silver Wave Mining Co., and its success led to it being named the Churchill County seat in 1864. At its peak, La Plata had a post office, three mills, and many businesses. Like many silver camps, the town’s success was short-lived, though, and people and riches waned as early as 1867. The county seat was moved to the town of Stillwater, and La Plata faded.
I wish I could tell you what remains at La Plata today. Alas, the elephant is flashing his ivory tusks at us and is about to charge.
Somehow we find ourselves lost, or maybe La Plata is lost. Anyway, this isn’t too surprising. I’ve been lost dozens of times on backroads, but for the lives of us we cannot find the ghost town. We spend what seemed like hours driving up and down the same dirt road seeing nothing, somehow convincing ourselves that La Plata will just materialize somewhere if we keep doing this ridiculous dance.
Finally we are able to tell more or less where we are, and realize we’re right next to the correct road to get us to La Plata. Smiles and relief abound and we set off up a road we’re sure is the correct one.
Optimism is short-lived. The elephant lets out a threatening trumpet and several sharp snorts, which sound somehow like the all-too familiar hiss of a tire rapidly losing air.
The elephant tramples us.
Changing a flat tire is easy, but sobering because after changing it, we don’t have a spare, which means its back to town for us just three hours into our trip to get our flat repaired.
As we’re driving back to town, still on dirt roads, I glance at the tire pressure monitor on the dash and am once again in shock when I realize the elephant has turned and is barreling back at us for another round.
We have another flat, this one slow leaking, thankfully. Normally I don’t drive on slow-leaking tires, but with no spare, we have no choice. We limp back to Fallon and luckily find a tire shop that gets us fixed up. Unfortunately, though, the tire fiasco has wasted almost our entire day of ghost towning. We have no choice but to drive straight to Austin for the night with our tails between our legs, praying that maybe tomorrow the elephant will let us pass.
The next day, we lick our wounds and get back on the road with the intention of exploring a couple ghost towns nearby Austin. We head out in search of Ledlie, Jacobsville, and Skookum. The three ghost towns are supposedly located just north of U.S. Route 50 west of Austin, and before we know it we’re out getting lost again. We try to find Ledlie; nothing. We find a sign for Jacobsville and attempt to locate the townsite; nothing. Then, just as I’m fearing the elephant is rearing its ugly head yet again, we spy what we believe is the remains of Skookum in the distance, and let out a sigh of relief that we may actually end up seeing a ghost town this trip.
It’s hard to imagine that for as desolate as the area is today, Ledlie was an important asset to the Nevada Central Railway in the 1880s. The townacted as a station for freight teams traveling to Ione, Grantsville, Silver Peak, and Jefferson, and was a busy railway station in the early 1900s for the adjacent Skookum mines, just two miles to the northwest. Rich ore was discovered at Skookum in 1906, leading to a boom fueled by whispers of gold floating around at nearby Ledlie. Skookum was mostly a tent town, though stores and a newspaper were present during its peak. Proximity to the railroad, as well as unlimited water, made Skookum pretty comfortable, though the quickly drained riches did not.
Jacobsville has a bit more of a salacious history. The town was the result of the Overland Mail & Stage Co. establishing its base near the Reese River at Jacob’s Spring, named after the Overland’s division agent. Upon the creation of Lander County in 1862, Jacob’s Spring was renamed Jacobsville, bringing with it two hotels, three stores, a post office, a courthouse, and a mill. In its early days, Jacobsville was known to be the only place in the region where reasonable quantities of whiskey could be obtained, but as time moved on, it began to lose population to nearby Austin. In an effort to persuade the miners in Austin to move to Jacobsville, a letter was sent to the Austin “Reveille” newspaper that read: “How do you do way up in Austin there? If you will come down and make us a visit here, I will take you around and show you some of the prettiest ladies on the Pacific Coast. There is the beautiful Miss J. and Miss K., then there is pretty little Miss S., with her nice curls…Then if you aren’t satisfied, I will see that you become acquainted with some of our fine-looking married women. You fellows can brag of your rich mines and mountain fever up at Clifton and Austin, but they are nothing compared to our pretty women at Jacobsville.” As Nevada author Stanley Paher puts it, “the invitation went unnoticed.” Austin dominated Jacobsville in every way, and the camp faded within a decade.
Though Megg and I don’t find any remains at Ledlie or Jacobsville (or any pretty ladies), we are able to explore some scant ruins at Skookum, including the remnants of one building and a mineshaft that rest along the bank of the Reese River. We explore quickly before moving on to our first real redeeming town of the trip: Amador.
It’s probably no surprise that we get lost again trying to find Amador. We joke that we’re rusty from not going ghost towning for a while, but eventually find out that for the first time ever in my experience, my Nevada atlas was wrong. Luckily we carry a couple maps, and after driving aimlessly for a while, we find our way up the western edge of the Toiyabe Range and into the ghost town of Amador, where much to our happiness, there’s lots to see.
Silver was discovered in Amador Canyon in early 1863. A modest camp sprang up, and by the fall, there were several hundred living there. Though the town did produce some riches, it failed to produce on any level that would be considered respectable. The town peaked in 1864, boasting business and a post office. History maintains that the town had an ore crusher that was an “exploded humbug which could not crush potatoes, much less quartz.”
We poke around Amador for a while, exploring some remnants of brick and stone buildings, as well as a cool mine opening. Though the opening has been sealed with metal bars, visitors can still peek inside the old mine shaft. A number of tailing piles dot the landscape, as do the remnants of steam-powered mining equipment.
After Amador, we set off up State Route 305 toward Battle Mountain, and make a quick stop-off at the ghost town of Walters, located almost on the road, but easy to miss.
Walters was around from 1880-1938. It wasn’t quite a town, but was a stop on the Nevada Central Railroad. A baseball diamond and grassy fields enticed visitors from nearby towns to picnic and relax for the day. Today, the train station still stands, and is one of the better remaining station houses left from the Nevada Central, though it was recently the victim of vandals and has been closed off. If you visit, please admire this piece of Nevada history from behind the fence.
We snap some shots of the building, before continuing up State Route 305, fighting daylight to visit one more town for the day: Galena.
Galena popped up around 1863, and by 1866, it had a townsite with a park-plaza and a water system. The town boasted many of the luxuries of early boomtowns, and the addition of large, mature trees and a small creek through the town made it a sight to behold. By 1870, there was a daily stage running from Battle Mountain Station that brought supplies. The town’s mines produced large amounts of silver, gold, and lead, though by1875, they began to slow. Galena was mined intermittently during WWI and WWII, and even all the way up through the late 1960s.
There’s a lot to explore at Galena. Remnants of mid 1900s mining look misplaced in the landscape, presenting a strange amalgam of historic and modern equipment and buildings. The older edifices stand sentinel towards the bottom of the canyon, while more remnants of newer mining operations dominate the top. Barrels once containing chemicals are scattered across the landscape and piled up among the sagebrush, sitting strangely next to what appears to be a historic small stamp mill. As the last bits of light fade from the canyon, I frantically jog from structure to structure trying to snap as many photos as I can, while Megg explores a bit before taking refuge in our vehicle from the sub-freezing temperatures. As we drive out of the canyon towards a hot meal and comfy beds awaiting us in Battle Mountain, my mind again returns to the elephant, and how the early prospectorshad made Galena their home, even when the temperatures were much colder and in conditions much more unforgiving than ours.
THE NEVADA GIANT
The next morning, we fuel up and take a quick tour of the Cookhouse Museum in Battle Mountain before getting on the road en route to our final ghost town of the trip: Cortez. We head east on Interstate 80 before turning south on State Route 306. We mosey through the quiet town of Beowawe and continue south through the spacious Crescent Valley. We quickly realize that save for a few mining trucks, we’re the only traffic on the road.
That’s until, however, we come to a four-way stop. Approaching from the left is the biggest dump truck I’ve ever seen, with each of its tires much larger than our vehicle. We make the executive decision to let the truck go first, and we quickly realize we’ve stumbled into an active mining zone. We drive around some more, convincing ourselves that we’re completely lost yet again, before heading up a windy road on the southwestern slope of Mt. Tenabo. Our fears of failure fissure when we surprisingly approach a metal sign with an arrow that reads “CORTEZ TOWN SITE.” We know we’ve made it.
Mexican prospectors discovered silver ore in Cortez in 1862. Further exploration would reveal rich silver ledges on the cliffs above the town—which were aptly named The Nevada Giant—leading to the formation of the Cortez mining company in 1863. A man by the name of Simeon Wenban was considered the patriarch of the town of Cortez, having built a mansion there, which included running water—a rare luxury at the time. Wenban funded mining operations in Cortez, including the establishment of a mill, which employed mostly Chinese miners and millhands. Mining activity continued throughout the years until the 1930s, when The Depression tanked the price of silver and made mining unprofitable. The Cortez Gold Mine, owned and operated by Barrick Gold, is still mined on a large scale.
Megg and I poke around Cortez for a bit, discovering something new behind every small bush. Decrepit wooden shacks are strewn across the hillside, as are some impressive stone remains and metal scraps. A person could spend half a day exploring this intriguing ghost town, but remember that the town is in the middle of an active mining site. If you decide to visit, please be cautious and courteous to the operations happening all around you. Getting there is daunting, but well worth the experience.
We make it back to Carson City without seeing the elephant again. We lucked out this trip, but it did remind us we better get back to embracing a couple ghost towning basics: carry plenty of water, food, and emergency supplies; always let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll return; and always bring a spare tire (two, if you’re really smart). Because all it takes is one wrong turn or one misplaced rusty nail to bring the curse of the elephant crushing down upon you, and sometimes by the time you see him, it will be too late.