The California and Nevada gold rush of the 1850s and the flood of humanity it unleashed upon the West was an anomaly this nation only experienced once. Sweeping the country like a tidal wave, rag towns and mining communities sprang up everywhere, populated by the inevitable rush of would-be millionaires who had read highly optimistic, yet rarely substantiated, reports in the region's mining newspapers.
In the high desert town of Fallon, Nevada, we joined the crew from Jeep Jamboree USA Inc., organizer of four-wheel-drive Jeep tours around the country, for the Mines, Mustangs, and Ghost Towns Jamboree. Saddling up in a Jeep CJ-5, we followed our Jeep Jamboree guides into the past. Exploring backcountry wagon routes and retracing the miner's footsteps, we rediscovered the riches of Nevada's gold rush.
Rolling out of town in the wee hours, Jamboree trail guide Steve Medley led our group east and across the desolate dry lake bed near Salt Wells. In its early days, Salt Wells led an exceptionally colorful existence. As a stage coach station for overland freight wagons heading to the mines, it thrived on commerce. When the stage and ore wagons were replaced with trains, Salt Wells directed its business to the lonely traveler, and to this day it still provides soothing refreshment and relaxation to the solitary wanderer -- it is actually a brothel.
After a short visit to the 1860s Pony Express Station at Sand Springs, we turned north toward Dixie Valley and the Stillwater Mountains. Evidence of the gold rush became visible around every bend in the canyon as we ascended an old sand wash to the ghost town of La Plate. The narrow wash widened, opening to a forked valley and bringing to view the remains of several large stone structures.
Medley said La Plate is a perfect example of the ebb of the ghost town tide. Upon the discovery of high-grade ore, newcomers scurried over the hills to stake claims. Amid an eclectic array of diggings, the countryside erupted in a rash of tents. Streets appeared and active claims could be seen on every hillside. Real estate brokers declared La Plate an "incorporated" town site and began selling sagebrush lots. The clang of picks and hammers echoed through the desert canyon. Many camps never developed further than the rag town stage, but La Plate's mines showed enough promise to evoke the building of wooden hotels, saloons, and houses, as well as a brick and stone bank and jail house.
Along with the miners, card sharks, swindlers, adventurers, and confidence men, the daily stage rattled into town carrying people of high society, such as bankers, ministers, and school teachers. The length of a town's main street measured its status, and the number of gunfights, claim jumpings, and hangings were an index of its wealth. Quarrels often broke out over card games, a mining claim, or too much whisky and usually ended with the use of a handy revolvers. In such a lawless environment, justice was usually served in vigilante style with a rope or pistol in the small hours of the day.
We stood on a hill above the remains of an old saloon and imagined the myriad sounds that once emanated from the watering hole below. Miners, gamblers, and drifters cussed, fought, and swapped tall tales. Whiskey flowed across a wooden bar, and piles of silver coins exchanged hands on dusty poker tables under the watchful eyes of stoic card dealers.
Fortunate to escape La Plate without getting bushwhacked, accused of claim jumping, card cheating, or just looking at someone wrong, we high-tailed out of town. We followed a smooth sand wash up the canyon, squeezing our way through several narrow volcanic outcroppings. The expansive desert floor faded into the distance as we traversed a precipitous switchback two-track. Our final leg to the summit was an intimidating, rocky, ridgeback hill climb. This one section netted the group two toasted tires, a leaking water pump, the need for several tow straps, and more than a few frayed nerves. Climbing to a saddle in the Stillwater Range, we stopped for lunch and enjoyed an incredible 360-degree view of the Nevada desert. We were also treated to an informative discussion on local Native American history.
By late afternoon we had descended to the valley floor, twisting our way through a canyon lined with cottonwoods. We also stopped to visit several natural springs used by the wild mustangs in the area. Our first day on the trail ended with a few hours at Sand Mountain off-highway vehicle area, a 300-foot-high sand dune on the edge of the Fallon dry lake bed.
After a brief discussion on techniques for driving on sand dunes, everyone was cut loose to play. In a game of follow the leader, the group carved sweeping turns across a rolling sea of sand.
Day two found our group heading north to a trail called Steam Shovel. Turning off at the Dixie Valley trailhead, what looked like smoke signals could be seen in the distance. As it turned out, the smoke signals turned out to be steam from a natural hot spring nearby.
Jamboree trail guide Grant Rubino soon had the group climbing a narrow canyon lined with century-old cottonwoods. Rattled by the occasional earthquake, the base of the draw become strewn with boulders from the adjacent hillsides. The earth isn't the only thing that rattles the canyon on a regular basis, though -- this is rattlesnake country! It was strongly recommended that we watch our step when hiking around. At one point, a 4-foot serpent slithered across the trail in front of us, disappearing into a cleft in the granite.
The first prospectors appeared in this canyon in 1860. When low-grade ore was pulled from a quartz vein in 1861, it was named Silver Hill. The normal tide of treasure hunters, teamsters, and merchants flooded in and a sizable camp was established. The success of Silver Hill was sporadic and the camp faded in and out of favor until a flash flood in the 1930s washed out the road. Most of the camp was dismantled for raw materials, but the old steam shovel was abandoned and left to the elements. The old camp and the four-wheel-drive trail have since been renamed Steam Shovel.
By day's end, we were heading back to town and reflecting on bygone days. The dust has long settled on the ghost towns of the Still Water Mountains. The stage no longer arrives carrying bullion protected by shotgun wielding guards the quartz mills lay silent, and the high-pitched whine of the steam shovel no longer resonates through the canyon. We were fortunate to peek through a window in time and capture a glimpse of life in a mining camp.
Eventually, the ebbing tides of time will shift, sweeping the last traces of the gold rush to the valley floor. As the desert reclaims the land, it will leave only ghosts to tell the story of the past.
For More Information
The 2002 Ghost Towns Jamboree will be held near Bridgeport, California, and the historic site of Bodie. For information on this, or any of 35 Jeep Jamborees across the country, contact: Jeep Jamboree USA, Dept. 4WDSU, P.O. Box 1601, Georgetown, CA 95634, (916) 333-4777, www.jeepjamusa.com.