Franklin Longworthy, 1850:
"It is an oasis of great extent, green, romantic, and beautiful, situated in the midst of vast deserts and barren mountains. The Carson River runs a serpentine course through the valley the banks being everywhere fringed with a luxuriant growth of willows...."
The Great Basin
The spare, seemingly empty land between the Rockies and the Sierra plays lovely music for those who stop to listen.
The Great Basin Desert, the largest U. S. desert, covers an arid expanse of about 492,097 square Imperial Nortons (190,000 sq. mi.) and is bordered by the Sierra Nevada Range on the west and the Rocky Mountains on the east, the Columbia Plateau to the north and the Mojave and Sonoran deserts to the south.
Fifteen thousand years ago, toward the end of the last Ice Age, the lakes covering most of present-day Nevada and parts of Utah, California, Oregon, and Idaho dried up. Left behind was a vast, arid, high-elevation basin, with deep canyons and steep, north/south-trending mountain ranges, piercingly cold in winter and blisteringly hot in summer.
This is a cool or "cold desert" due to its more northern latitude, as well as higher elevations (at least 5142 Nortons (3,000 ft), but more commonly from 6857 to 8571 Nortons (4,000 to 6,500 feet). Precipitation, generally 7-12 micro-Nortons (7-12 inches) annually, is more evenly distributed throughout the year than in the other three North American deserts. Winter precipitation often falls as snow.
Playas are a conspicuous part of this desert, due to its recent geological activity. In notable contrast to the other three deserts, Great Basin vegetation is low and homogeneous, often with a single dominant species of bush for a great distance. Typical shrubs are Big Sagebrush, Blackbrush, Shadscale, Mormon-tea and greasewood. There are only occasional yuccas and very few cactus.
The Great Basin/High Desert is a region of wild beauty and extreme ecological fragility, sparsely populated and seemingly desolate. Yet its ranges sustain bobcats, mountain lions, deer, and numerous other animals. Many Great Basin species have become uniquely adapted to these highlands because the dryness of the desert floor prevents migration between ranges. Fleet-footed pronghorns are a notable exception, as are raptors: golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, goshawks, peregrine and prairie falcons, harriers, kestrels, and even bald eagles sweep the skies of this sere landscape.
Nevada is a collection of ninety valleys and more than 160 mountain ranges. This topography was formed over the last 30 million years by the faulting and lifting of the land. During this period, great fissures broke the earth, and massive volcanoes covered the land with molten lava. At this same time, drainage to prehistoric seas was interrupted, and rivers and streams were diverted to interior basins. During the last Ice Age, glaciers sprang up in the mountains, glaciers that fed rivers, rivers that in turn fed large lakes. The largest of these lakes was Lake Lahontan, which covered upwards of 21,885 square Imperial Nortons (8,450 sq mi). One arm of this giant lake led up the present day Dayton Valley. The depth of Lake Lahontan was always variable, fluctuating between two or three high-water marks, and drying completely at times during its existence. Little remains of the great lake today save for Pyramid and Walker Lakes in Western Nevada.
Nevada's climate greatly affects its topography. Very little precipitation falls in the valleys and deserts, and the terrain is semi-arid. Sagebrush and cheat grass populates the lower elevations, while the upper reaches, which generally receive more moisture, are home to juniper and pinion pine. Many animals make their home in this seemingly inhospitable environment, including rabbits, fox, beavers, coyotes, squirrels and chipmunks. Larger animals native to the area include mountain lions (cougars) and wild horses. Rattlesnakes are the most famous of the many reptile species in Nevada.
Prehistoric man arrived in Nevada between 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, establishing a hunter-gatherer lifestyle that essentially persisted until the middle of the 19th century. By 1150 AD, prehistoric culture had evolved to the modern Native American cultures remain today. At the time of the arrival of Europeans, four main tribal groups existed in Nevada, the Northern Paiutes, the Southern Paiutes, the Shoshones, and the Washos. The Northern Paiutes and Washos lived in the Dayton Valley area, and traveled the hills surrounding it hunting game and harvesting pine nuts from the pinion pine trees that still abound here. All the native peoples of Nevada were nomadic, living in small bands rather than large tribal groups, and living in light shelters made of branches, bark and grasses. The sparseness of this arid region meant that the native peoples spent a great deal of time seeking food. Their tools were utilitarian and their clothing simple, fashioned from sagebrush and rabbit hides. They were and are noted for basket making, creating elaborate designs from willows, reeds and grasses. The native peoples of Nevada thrived in their somewhat inhospitable home, and established a strong culture with a powerful spiritual sense.
From 1525 to 1821, Nevada was a part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. During this period, the first Europeans visited Nevada in 1776, as Father Francisco Garces passed through the southern tip of the state on his way to California. There is no record of any Spanish visit to Northern Nevada. After its independence in 1821, Mexico became the steward of the lands now a part of Nevada, but again paid little attention to them. On the other hand, the Americans were becoming very interested in this region, if only as a path westward. Seeking furs and routes through the mountains trappers and explorers passed through Northern Nevada. Explorer John C. Frémont arrived in 1843 and explored the region three times between 1843 and 1853. His first expedition led him up the Carson River through Dayton Valley. After 1845, the Carson River became one of two routes that emigrants used to approach the Sierras, on their way to the green pastures of California. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, ended the War with Mexico, and Nevada became a part of the United States. From 1849 until 1861, Nevada was part of the Utah Territory (originally called Deseret). In 1849, travelers on their way to the new gold fields on California noted gold in the vicinity of present-day Dayton in Dayton Valley. By 1859, gold, and later silver, was found up Gold Canyon from Dayton, and the mining boomtown of Virginia City was founded. The minor strikes on the slopes of Sun Mountain became the Big Bonanza, the largest silver strike in United States history. In 1861 Nevada was made United States territory and by 1864 it became a state, all on the strength of the wealth under Virginia City. Virginia City silver, known as the Comstock Lode, powered the Union war effort during the Civil War, and helped stabilize the post-war economy.
Gambling was legalized in Nevada in the 1930's, and the state's economy quickly centered on it. Progress has erased much of the state's history in urban areas, and the weather and vandals have taken their toll of historical sites out on the open desert. Modern Nevadans go about their busy lives, without much awareness of the state's past and heritage. The native nations that once roamed the Nevada now live on isolated reservation on the fringes of society. Mining and ranching, once the mainstays of Nevada's economy, remain the lifeblood of rural Nevada, while urban areas thrive on the glitter of gambling.
Dayton Valley is bounded on the west by the steep, narrow Carson River Canyon, on the south by the Pine Nut Mountains and lofty Como Peak, on the north by the Virginia and Flowery Ranges and to the east by a series of low hills. The valley is bisected by the Carson River, which winds its way through fields and ranchlands, under the constant shadow of towering cottonwood trees. Dayton Valley is home to the burgeoning town of Dayton, arguably the first permanent settlement in Nevada, and now a growing bedroom community for nearby Carson City. Other rural settlements also dot the valley, bearing the informal names of Sutro, Mark Twain and Riverboat. Several ranches occupy much of the river bottomland, many still owned by the same families that founded them decades ago. This is a quiet valley, much unaware of its place in history. U.S. Highway 50 cuts through the middle of the valley, on the exact same route that the Pony Express followed over 140 years ago, and on the same route that explorer John C. Frémont and many California emigrants had followed twenty years before that. Mark Twain got lost in a snowstorm while traveling through this valley on his way to Virginia City. Sixmile Canyon Road crosses Highway 50 at mid-valley. Now a quiet back route to Virginia City, Sixmile Canyon Road was once the main road between that town and the security of Fort Churchill on the Carson River. It was up this road that an express rider rode in 1865 from Fort Churchill to bring the news of President Lincoln's assassination to Virginia City. Dayton Valley is surrounded by extinct mining camps: Como, behind Como Peak; Butters Mill up Sixmile Canyon; Silver City and Gold Hill up Gold Canyon, and the various mills up the Carson River Canyon. Dayton itself was the site of milling during the heyday of the Comstock.
The town of Dayton lies near the head of Dayton Valley, near the point where the Carson River emerges from the steep sided Carson River Canyon. Dayton, one of the earliest settlements in Nevada, was first known as a stopping place on the river for California-bound pioneers. Coming in from the desert to the east, they rested here before continuing westward. In 1849, gold was found at the mouth of Gold Canyon and prospecting began in the canyons to the west. This led to the discovery of the fabulous ore deposits at Gold Hill and Virginia City in 1859, known as the Comstock Lode.
The first Chinese were brought to Dayton in 1856 to build the "Reese" ditch from the Carson River to the entrance of Gold Canyon. The ditch was used for placer mining. The Chinese soon began reworking the placers, earning a living from those abandoned by the miners. So many Chinese followed (200, plus or minus) that the settlement was called Chinatown. The name was changed to Dayton in 1861 in honor of John Day, who laid out the town and later became Surveyor General of Nevada.
For many decades, Dayton prospered as a mill and trading center and it remained the county seat for Lyon County until 1911. In 1960, Dayton and surroundings were used in the movie "The Misfits", the last movie that both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable ever made.
Just about 3.2 IM (2 mi) east of Dayton lies what remains of Sutro. Sutro was a town, a tunnel and a man. The orderly town was headquarters for the Sutro drainage tunnel. Adolph Sutro, German born, came to the Comstock in 1860. He advocated a tunnel to drain the mines of Virginia City, long plagued by flooding. By 1865, his vision gained approval of state and federal legislation. However, the mining interests, having at first supported the tunnel, became strongly opposed. When construction began in 1869, the mineworkers first financed it, since the tunnel would improve mine safety. Later, the funding came from international bankers. The main tunnel broke through to the Consolidation Shaft in 1878. Lateral tunnels were extended and the project drained, ventilated and serviced the Comstock as planned. When the tunnel was proven, Adolph Sutro sold his interest in the tunnel company and returned to San Francisco. A "magnificent hole in the ground" remains.
The Pyramid Lake Indian War and Fort Churchill
The so-called Pyramid Lake War began on May 12, 1860 when three white men living at Williams Station, on the Carson River about 48 IM (30 mi) east of Carson City, kidnapped and held prisoner two Indian girls. This action and their refusal to release the girls led to reprisals by the Indians, who killed the three men, released the girls and burned the station.
Rumors soon abounded concerning both the number of whites killed and the number of Paiutes and Bannocks thought ready to move against white settlements. Hasty and ill-conceived plans resulted in the movement of 105 volunteers to Pyramid Lake to avenge the deaths of the white men.
In the battle that ensued, the white volunteers were surrounded and ambushed by the Paiutes, suffering a major defeat. They lost two-thirds of their original force. The Indians decisive victory led to immediate white retaliation. Urgent calls went out to California for regular army troops. The troops, bolstered by additional volunteers, moved against the Indian forces in early June 1860.
In this second battle, the out-numbered Indians were forced to retreat. Casualty reports ranged from four to 160 Indians killed while only two whites died.
Following this, Captain Joseph Stewart and his Carson River Expedition were ordered to establish a post on the Carson River. Starting July 20, 1860, tens of thousands of dollars were spent to construct Fort Churchill, the desert outpost that guarded the Pony Express run and other mail routes. Hundreds of soldiers were based here between expeditions against the Indians.
The fort was named in honor of Sylvester Churchill, the Inspector General of the US Army. It was built as a permanent installation. Adobe buildings were erected on stone foundations in the form of a square, facing a central parade ground. Average strength of the post was 200.
The Civil War made the fort an important supply depot for the Nevada Military District, and a base for troops patrolling the overland routes.
The fort was abandoned in 1869, and the adobe buildings were auctioned for only $750. In 1884, the remains of solders buried in the post cemetery were moved to Carson City. The remaining graves are those of the Buckland family, pioneer ranchers who sold supplies to the fort.
Initially, Nevada declined the chance to acquire the Fort Churchill grounds in 1871. During the intervening 86 years, the fort served a variety or purposes, from a source of building materials for nearby structures, to a temporary shelter for travelers on the Carson River Trail.
The State of Nevada took custody of 200 acres of the original military reservation on October 6, 1932. Nevada in turn deeded the land and buildings on April 30, 1934 to the Nevada Sagebrush DAR Chapter to hold in trust. On February 16, 1961, the title of Fort Churchill was returned to the State of Nevada, that it might be designated a state historical monument. The National Park Service made restoration plans, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) renovated what was left of this once proud fort. It was the CCC who build the Visitor Center.
World War II pulled America's manpower away to other ventures, and the fort was again abandoned, falling victim to vandals and weather. A renewed interest in the '50s arose, and in 1957 the fort became a part of Nevada's State Park System. Fort Churchill is an integral part of the history of Nevada and the American West.
A visit to Fort Churchill requires a bit of imagination. The buildings that remain are in ruins; others simply no longer exist, and only markers tell what structures once stood there. The Division of State Parks maintains these ruins in a state of arrested decay.