The Lurking Legacy of Nevada’s Lead Boom

At the corner of Treasure and Main streets in Eureka, Nev. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

At the corner of Treasure and Main streets in Eureka, Nev. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

2013-06-20 12.24.24EUREKA, Nev. — This place might be the best example of an old mining town anywhere along the Lincoln Highway.

Heading into town along Main Street, the names of the crossstreets are inspired by mining — Gold, Silver, Treasure, Bullion and Mineral streets.

A historic marker on the way into town succinctly describes Eureka’s boom and bust. Naturally, a miner yelled “Eureka!” when a rich vein of silver-lead ore was discovered here in 1864 and that’s how this place got its name. (In ancient Greek, “Eureka” means “I’ve found it,” a saying that’s been attributed to Archimedes.)

Back in the days of plenty, Eureka had plenty of smelters — 16, to be exact. And saloons, too. One-hundred of them.

As Pete Davies noted in American Road, Eureka was once home to 9,000 people and with an abundance of smelting, it was called the Pittsburgh of the West, “with toxic air to match.”

By the early 1890s, Eureka’s glory days were waning. But the legacy of that late 19th century prosperity remains, with hints of the good, the bad and the dangerous.

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Observing America From the La Quinta Inn Breakfast Room

ELY, Nev. — Maude Flanders was not pleased. The plain-looking woman who was sitting two tables over from me in the breakfast room of the La Quinta Inn reminded me of Ned Flanders’ wife from The Simpsons. So as a breakfast activity, I named her Maude.

Maude, who looked like she recently became eligible for AARP discounts, was finishing the remainder of whatever up-and-at-em morning liquid was inside the diminutive disposable cup positioned next to her half-eaten muffin. Was it coffee or orange juice? I couldn’t tell. It didn’t really matter because more importantly Maude was irked.

The stocky mustachioed man sitting next to her — I assumed that was her husband — looked like one of Bill Swerkski’s Chicago Superfans from the classic 1990s-era “Saturday Night Live” skit. He had just used his finger to spoon up the last of the grayish-white country gravy from his now-devoured biscuits. He seemed quite satisfied as he sucked his index finger clean and finished breakfast with a clean plate.

But the finger sucking by Maude’s gravy-loving companion didn’t seem to bother her. I don’t think she even noticed since something on the flat-screen television across the way had captured her undivided attention.

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CNN’s Carol Costello had just introduced one of Jeanne Moos‘ quirky human interest features. This one featured “prancersice.” (Watch the video above to see glorious oddity.)

By the time Moos had found a reason to resurrect and recycle Joanna Rohrback’s strange exercise routine for CNN’s infotainment purposes, prancercise was weeks-old news. It had gone viral back in May. As Maude stared at the television in the neutral-toned breakfast room off the lobby, it was now June 20.

“We live in such a weird country but I love it,” Costello expressively declared as she wrapped up the segment, according to CNN’s transcript.

Maude shook her head in a most decidedly sour manner. But I doubt that she was reacting to CNN’s lame attempt to extend the shelf life of the stupid and stale prancercise story. Perhaps it was Maude’s way of lamenting the current state of CNN or the cable news industry as a whole. Did Maude find Carol Costello particularly abrasive to the ears and eyes? Maybe Maude was completely sheltered and prancercise was just too much to handle. Or perhaps Maude just saw a little of herself in the quirky prancercise lady. They did share a strange resemblance to one another.

Like Joanna Rohrback, Maude Flanders was wearing a similarly citrusy-colored top — in this case, a pink-lemonade-colored sleeveless golf polo — white pants and white tennis shoes. Their hairstyles were both big and wavy. But I got the sense that Maude would be horrified to see herself on YouTube flailing her arms and prancercising her way through a local park. Maude was a wonderful mystery best observed from a few tables away and not to be disturbed in this mundane setting.

As I pressed west along the Lincoln Highway, I never knew quite who, or what, to expect in the hotel breakfast room morning after morning. It was always a surprise. Prancercised-shocked Maude was an absolute gem, but there were other random hotel guests along my trip who were just as delightful to observe. I found the breakfast room at the La Quinta Inn — or Holiday Inn Express or Courtyard by Marriott — always a strange spectacle even if nothing truly notable happened.

But there were also bizarre and peculiar moments.

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‘Justice Was Meted Out by the Vigilante Committee and the Hanging Rope’

A historic marker near the ghost town of Ward, Nev., notes how the "vigilante committee and the hanging rope" helped keep the peace. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

A historic marker near the ghost town of Ward, Nev., notes how the “vigilante committee and the hanging rope” helped keep the peace. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

WARD, Nev. — In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck wrote that “those states with the shortest histories and the least world-shaking events have the most historical markers. Some Western states even find glory in half-forgotten murders and bank robberies.”

For such an empty place, Nevada is full of historic markers. Many of the ones I encountered in the central part of the state  — and I suspect elsewhere, too — celebrate the state’s rich mining heritage. The sign marking the ghost town of Osceola, northwest of Mount Wheeler in Great Basin National Park, notes how the nearby mining operations there once produced a gold nugget valued at $6,000. (I’m assuming that was a big deal at the time but nothing like the Comstock Lode.)

The abandoned charcoal ovens at Ward, Nev., are open to the public. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

The abandoned charcoal ovens at Ward, Nev., are open to the public. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

Closer to Ely, a marker off U.S. 93 celebrates the mining heritage of the ghost town of Ward, a place which was “booming from 1876 until 1882” before it was abandoned. Ward was a lawless place and from its description sounded like the type of settlement that could have inspired a John Wayne movie.

“Early killings did occur, but justice was meted out by the vigilante committee and the hanging rope,” according to the marker.

For the most part, there’s nothing left of these ghost towns. In the case of Ward, the roadside marker was miles from the actual site of the town, off-limits on the property of the modern-day mining operation. But Ward’s beehive-shaped charcoal ovens beehive-shaped charcoal ovens are certainly worth checking out.

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‘Give Me Solitude’ Among the Ancient ‘Grotesque’ Trees

The Bristlecone Pine Trail on Mount Wheeler in Great Basin National Park (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

The Bristlecone Pine Trail on Mount Wheeler in Great Basin National Park (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

BAKER, Nev. — As I’ve been traveling along the Lincoln Highway from the East Coast toward the Pacific, there have been few moments where I’ve felt truly alone.

Yes, I’ve been traveling mostly solo, but with my smartphone — and with it, Facebook, Twitter, text messages and email — the normal life I would ordinarily be living back in Washington, D.C., has been within easy reach even as I’ve been thousands of miles away. For better or worse, that’s the world we live in today.

When I set out for Great Basin National Park, about 62 miles from Ely, I entered truly unconnected territory. There was no cellphone reception.

I had a momentary panic attack. Not a real one of course, but I was slightly uneasy as I drove deeper and deeper into the desert. I scanned for local radio stations. It was the first time I’ve ever pressed “Scan” on a car radio and it turned up absolutely nothing.

In his poem “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun” from Drum Taps, Walt Whitman wrote “Give me solitude — give me Nature — give me again O Nature your, primal sanities!”

If I had some sort of time machine, I would have loved to have dragged Whitman up toward the top of Mount Wheeler to sit among the bristlecone pine trees that are older than the Egyptian pyramids.

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Bright Neon and Faded Dreams on the ‘Loneliest Highway in America’

The Hotel Nevada is the flashiest place in Ely, Nev. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

The Hotel Nevada is the flashiest place in Ely, Nev. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

ELY, Nev. — It’s hard to miss the Hotel Nevada. It has bright, colorful lights, neon and if I’m not mistaken it’s the biggest place in town. It was the tallest building in the entire state when it opened in 1929.

Ely is a former mining town along the Central Overland Route, the mail delivery trail between Salt Lake City and San Francisco first used in 1858. This path across central Nevada, which was later followed by the Pony Express, can trace its origins to a man looking to win a bet.

According to The Overland MailLeRoy R. Hafen’s 1926 authoritative history of mail delivery in the American West:

[A] Utah pioneer, Howard Egan, had explored a direct route from northern California to Salt Lake City which followed very nearly the fortieth parallel, north latitude. In September, 1855, he retraced his steps and won a wager by riding a mule back from Salt Lake City to Sacramento in ten days.

Later, the Central Pacific Railroad, part of the first transcontinental rail link between California and the East, bypassed this route for one through northern Nevada along the Humboldt River.

When the Lincoln Highway came through Nevada, it followed the old Central Overland Route, bringing crosscountry travelers right through Ely. But when the Interstate Highway System was planned, I-80 tracked north along the Humboldt River, leaving Ely isolated on the so-called “Loneliest Highway in America.”

Every town out this way is an oasis since the distance to the next sizable human settlement along the road can be as many as 168 miles away. In this isolation, such a showy establishment like the Hotel Nevada certainly stands out. But for all the glitz and glam in the center of town, the rest of Ely felt like a very lonely place when I drove into town. Continue reading

Avoiding ‘Tractionless Grit’ and Dust Devils in the Great Salt Lake Desert

The Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

The Bonneville Salt Flats near Wendover, Utah (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

WENDOVER, Utah — Leaving Salt Lake City on Interstate 80 heading deep into the desert, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. As a child, I used to pore over my well-worn Rand McNally road atlases and was always curious about this part of the United States.

There were few labeled locations. And while there were some named mountain ranges, these maps lacked any detail pertaining to the true nature of the terrain, leaving me to imagine what was out here. National Geographic maps, naturally, were generally better at providing topographical detail, but they too couldn’t be a substitute for actually being there in person.

In the Rand McNally atlases, the course of the red-, blue- and black-colored roads gave some clue of the shape of the landscape. The more twists and turns in a road generally meant more difficult terrain to traverse.

The more straight sections signaled some sort of valley or relatively flat plain, but that’s not always indicative. Most roads in Iowa, for instance, are straight but they can cross some surprisingly hilly, undulating territory as I discovered earlier during my travels along the Lincoln Highway.

Western Utah is the physical manifestation of emptiness. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

Western Utah is the physical manifestation of emptiness. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

Looking at the road atlas in my youth, I-80 between one point west of the Great Salt Lake and the Nevada border was completely straight for roughly 45 miles. In the 120 miles between Salt Lake City and the state line, the atlas showed little evidence of any human settlement along I-80.

Places like this naturally spark curiosity. Who in their right mind would venture out here? For most travelers, this has been a place to quickly travel across and not linger for fear the forces of the desert will somehow eat you up or rob you of life-sustaining water.

Although I’ve been in the American Southwest on previous visits, the only comparative drive of complete and utter desolation I’ve had was crossing the Mojave Desert on Interstate 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas on a roadtrip in August 2001. And that stretch was driven at night when the darkness hid the landscape.

My rental car had been running great the entire trip along the Lincoln Highway, so I had little fear of getting stranded out in the middle of nowhere. Still, I stocked up on bottled water and some snacks, just in case.

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‘This Is the Right Place’ for ‘One of Obama’s Spies’ to Stop for Lunch

Salt Lake City, as seen in 1913 (Photo by Johnson Co. via the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division >>)

Salt Lake City, as seen in 1913 (Photo by Johnson Co. via the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division >>)

SALT LAKE CITY — There are only a handful of major cities in the United States where travelers get to enjoy a dramatic descent on a major highway down from the mountains into a broad urbanized valley below. Denver is probably the best example, where drivers headed east out of Colorado’s Front Range on Interstate 70 are presented not only with the vast expanse of the metropolitan area, but the endless horizon of the Great Plains beyond.

In Utah, I was expecting something similar heading down into Salt Lake City out of the Wasatch Range along Interstate 80. But Parleys Canyon only gives westbound drivers a partial glimpse of the Salt Lake Valley. This is a route that anyone who has skied or gone to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City has most likely experienced. The canyon narrows in its final stretch into Salt Lake City, so instead of seeing an uninterrupted view of the valley below, travelers are treated to a succession of exit signs for Interstate 215’s Belt Route amid the steep canyon walls with, in my case, bright blue skies above.

What was beyond briefly remained a mystery. When I popped out in South Salt Lake, the view wasn’t all that impressive. I could have been somewhere in Southern California.

Not counting my diversion to Boulder, Colo., Salt Lake City has been the largest populated area I’ve been in since I raced through the suburbs of Chicago, nearly 1,500 miles to the east.

When I rolled into Utah’s largest city, I wasn’t exactly inspired to declare “This is the right place,” as Brigham Young apparently said when his eyes first saw the Salt Lake Valley from the foothills of Emigration Canyon. But it was at least the right place to stop for lunch.

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The All-Important Echo Canyon

Echo Canyon, Utah (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

Echo Canyon, Utah (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

Welcome to Utah! (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

Welcome to Utah! (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

ECHO, Utah — After hundreds and hundreds of miles of mostly flat terrain, crossing the border from Wyoming into Utah provides much-needed visual variation for the eyes.

This is where the Lincoln Highway, following Interstate 80 and the former Mormon Trail and Pony Express Trail, begins its descent into the Great Basin and Salt Lake Valley by heading into Echo Canyon, a stunningly beautiful stretch of territory flanked by towering red cliffs and rock formations.

For those familiar with the Oregon Trail video game, the path to the promised land in the Willamette Valley has already turned northwest from Fort Bridger in Wyoming toward Fort Hall in Idaho. Today’s U.S. 30, which carries the majority of the Lincoln Highway all the way from Philadelphia, similarly has left Interstate 80 in western Wyoming and roughly follows the old Oregon Trail westward.

If a similar video game were ever made of the Mormon Trail, Echo Canyon would be the final leg in completing the great overland journey. If the game also involved some military strategy, this is where the Mormons in the Salt Lake Valley would have fended off federal troops in the mid-to-late 1850s.

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Unwelcome Signs in Wyoming

Heading westward toward sunset, somewhere along Interstate 80 in southern Wyoming (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

Heading westward toward sunset, somewhere along Interstate 80 in southern Wyoming (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

EVANSTON, Wyo. — Traveling across Wyoming’s southern tier, I had one destination in mind: a hotel bed. Originally, my plan was to drive all the way from my mid-trip relaxation stop at Boulder, Colo., to Salt Lake City, but when a friend in Colorado asked me whether I knew “that’s a really, really long way” to do solo, I decided to reassess my options. I did, after all, want to make a few stops along the way and take the longer, more scenic drive along the Lincoln Highway’s original route via Medicine Bow.

I decided that Evanston, a city established when the Union Pacific Railroad pressed west through this part of Wyoming in the late 1860s, would be a good stopping-off point. It would still necessitate a long driving day because there is no such thing as a quick trip anywhere in Wyoming.

Like many towns along the transcontinental railroad, Evanston once had a sizable Chinese population in its early years. In fact, there have been archaeological excavations of Evanston’s former Chinatown which uncovered materials belonging to Chinese women, who were always a rarity in these male-dominated communities along the railroad.

According to Western Wyoming Community College:

The most distinctive pieces of jewelry recovered during excavations that can be attributed to women are earrings. Photographs of Chinese women in Evanston show women wearing earrings similar to the ones uncovered in excavation. Other jewelry items uncovered in excavation are less useable as indicators of gender. However, the earrings recovered, as well as the other jewelry items uncovered, come from one living space that posses an internal courtyard. Based on the gold, silver, Ming Dynasty ceramics, jade fragments, variety and number of coins recovered, and shear quantity of artifacts found in this one area, we contend that the occupants had a relatively high economic status–especially when compared to the Chinese coal miner’s quarters north of Evanston at Almy and even railroad laborers homes inside the Evanston Chinatown.

The history of Chinese laborers building the transcontinental railroad and the industries they served along the route is a decidedly unhappy one, especially in Wyoming.

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A Place to Appreciate the Power of Emptiness

(Photo by Michael E. Grass)

The view of the Medicine Bow Mountains near Walcott, Wyo. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

WALCOTT, Wyo. — I’ve never been to Montana to see Big Sky Country but from the looks of the things, Wyoming could rightfully claim that title, too. On my way west from Laramie, I could have simply stuck to Interstate 80 and taken a shorter route through the southern tier of Wyoming.

But the Lincoln Highway bends north, roughly following the Union Pacific Railroad around the Medicine Bow Mountains before eventually rejoining I-80 to cross the Great Divide Basin. Many Lincoln Highway enthusiasts are adamant about taking the old, slower route. I can see why.

Thus far along my trek, this stretch of land might be the most impressive geography along the route. And this is where the combination of light, sky, clouds and topography were finally in harmony and my smartphone was able to capture the true grandeur of the territory.

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(Photo by Michael E. Grass)

Looking southwest along the Lincoln Highway near Walcott, Wyo. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)

Because I was off I-80, I had an easier time making brief pitstops to enjoy this landscape. I was also mostly alone out here — passing cars were few and far between — so I essentially had this beautiful land all to myself.

In Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck wrote:

From the beginning of my journey, I had avoided the great high-speed slashes of concrete and tar called “thruways,” or “superhighways.” … These roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders.

Bosler, Wyo. (Photo by Flickr user afiler via CC BY-SA 2.0 >>)

An abandoned school in Bosler, Wyo. (Photo by Flickr user afiler via CC BY-SA 2.0 >>)

This original route travels through the mostly abandoned settlement of Bosler, where, according to American Road, “the last souls packed up and left, leaving a ghost village of empty mobile homes and scrawny shacks” when I-80 opened in 1971.

I can understand why economics would drive most people out of this great land. And part of me is thankful that it did so I could enjoy this expanse on my own with few distractions.

There are, for sure, many places like this across the American West, but I want to think that this part of Wyoming could be the greatest, grandest and most impressive territory that anyone seeking to understand the power of emptiness could ever discover.

(Photo by Michael E. Grass)

This is a beautiful place. (Photo by Michael E. Grass)