Nevada—and especially Northern Nevada—has been called The Crossroads of the West. More accurately, it is a part of the West that for many years, people wanted to get through to get to other places, especially California and Oregon. The first people here were Native Americans, and they loved the land and adapted to it. However, by the 1820s, American fur trappers were starting to explore the west looking for beavers to trap for their fur. Surprisingly to many modern Nevadans, there were a lot of beaver in Nevada, especially along the Humboldt River, and American trappers moved along the river valleys, trapping beaver, trading with Native groups, and as a side effect, mapping the first routes across the desert. When American settlers started to head to California in small numbers in the early 1840s, they necessarily crossed Nevada, continuing along the same trails Native Americans had used for thousands of years, and which American fur trappers had only recently discovered. The traffic grew from a trickle to a torrent, followed by the Pony Express, Transcontinental Telegraph, Transcontinental Railroad, and then highways, airways, and pipelines. The discovery of silver as well as gold, copper, and iron led large numbers of people to come to Nevada to settle down…at least as long as there was ore to be mined. In 1900, Tonopah was Nevada’s second largest city, with Virginia City close behind. Las Vegas hardly registered on the map. But those boom towns went bust, and even before Las Vegas grew to prominence, Reno stayed big (at least for Nevada) and got bigger. Why did Reno thrive while boomtowns like Goldfield, Tonopah, and Virginia City went bust? In large part it was because of the geography of Northern Nevada. The following contextual materials could apply just as easily to Unit 4 as to Unit 3, and you should feel free to use them in either context.
Northern Nevada has been a crossroads for revolutionary changes in transportation and communication for over 150 years. In particular, the area’s unique geographical location has made it a key point in every transcontinental crossing: early exploration parties, wagon trains, the Pony Express, the Transcontinental Telegraph Line, the Transcontinental Railway, the Lincoln Highway, the Victory Highway, the Transcontinental Air Mail Route, US 40, and I-80 all passed through Reno or Carson City, and the area still plays a major role in logistics, distribution, transportation, tourism, and communication. The area known as “Donner Pass” (actually several passes, valleys, and saddles) is a prime example. It’s a natural route over the mountains, and once over, the Truckee River Canyon (or the older Henness Pass/Dog Valley route) is a natural pathway east, and that route takes traffic straight into the Truckee Meadows: a natural place for a city, with its abundant water, flat space, and easy exits in all four compass directions.
If you take a look at any of a number of key locations between Reno and Sacramento, you will see that there is a natural bottleneck and causes a tremendous amount of infrastructure to move very close together, and this is something that even modern air travel hasn’t totally changed: sit anywhere in West Reno between the top of Peavine Mountain and the Mt. Rose Wilderness and you will see a tremendous amount of light aircraft traffic making use of the lower mountains and the easy navigational aids of the railroad and I-80 to move between Reno and Truckee, Sacramento, and the Bay Area. Small planes, helicopters, military aircraft, and even commercial jets use this route extensively, but on the ground, things get even more interesting. For example, take a look at the 1920s-vintage ruins of a Transcontinental Air Mail System beacon on a steep hill overlooking Mogul (see the source in Unit 4 for more detailed information). All that is left is a 57-foot long concrete arrow in the desert, pointing from the Truckee River Canyon toward Reno Airport. Its purpose was to guide air mail pilots in the days before radio beacons, radar, and GPS. As an exercise (and because you can actually walk to this one on public land close to town, click the link below, then center the arrow in the screen and scroll until the map scale is 500 feet.
You will notice a few things. First, the opening in the mountains that the air mail route went through is very narrow: perhaps a mile or two wide depending on how you measure. The actual “flat” portion of that is much narrower still: maybe a quarter mile at best. For most of human history, all east-west traffic in this part of the world had to pass through there. Even today, a tremendous proportion of it does, despite our powerful machines and technology. Within less than half a mile of that arrow you will find:
The Truckee River
The Steamboat Ditch, which waters agricultural land south of Reno.
The Transcontinental Railroad
Interstate Highway 80
US Route 40
The Victory Highway
The Lincoln Highway
The California Trail
Crucial Long-Distance High Voltage Power Lines
Crucial Underground Telephone and Internet Cables
The Underground Pipeline that carries all gasoline and oil to Reno from the Bay Area.
It’s no accident that the arrow is near all that, just as it’s no accident that the concentration of vital infrastructure gets even tighter and narrower at Donner Pass. We live in an area that is vital to the infrastructure, economy, and security of the entire United States, because geography has dictated that traffic passes through here at a much higher rate than anywhere else along the north/south axis of our country. It is true now, and it has been true for centuries. The result is that not only is this an area full of opportunity for transportation, warehousing, manufacturing, mining, engineering, and logistics: it is also an area rich in the history of those things, and the various activities that support them.
For example, scroll back down until the map scale is 200 feet. Move the airmail arrow until it is near the top of the screen and centered. You will see below it about 1200 feet the “Hole in the Wall”: the place where the Steamboat Ditch suddenly starts as if from nowhere and belches water out of the mountain on its way to South Reno. Today, hikers, joggers, bike riders, and dog walkers like to use this as a turnaround point. But look 700 feet west and you will see where the Steamboat Ditch goes into the mountain in a long tunnel cut straight through after the original ditch (built by hand by Chinese laborers in the 1870s) collapsed into the Truckee River in a landslide as it made its way north around the hill (and around the airmail arrow).
Now center the arrow again and look closely. You can see the line of the old hand-built ditch going straight north from the current tunnel entrance and curving around the airmail arrow less than 200 feet to the west, suddenly ending at about the 11:00 position from the arrow. If you look from I-80 in Mogul, you can see the massive slide that brought the ditch down. You can also see it directly north of the arrow in the satellite view. Look about 250 feet east, and you can see the old ditch start up again, then snake way around the hill until it rejoins the existing ditch at….Hole in the Wall! The eastern portion of the old ditch is now a jogging/bike trail, while the eastern half is rarely used and overgrown (it’s hard to get to unless you come across private property from Mogul bushwhack up from the river like I did, or try to cross the loose, shifting soil of the landslide). But, 150 years ago, hundreds of Chinese immigrant laborers cut that ditch painstakingly by hand, and for many years it was the route that brought precious water to the farms and ranches that fed Reno, Carson, and Virginia City.
One more thing: scroll in as much as you can and then look about 400 feet west of the arrow. You will see a large tan area bounded on the left by a stream with lots of green foliage. In the middle of the tan, you will see a group of white rocks that look just a little too regular to be natural. You are right. They are old blocks of granite, quarried and left on site, and cut using a drill and wedge technique from the early 1800s. It isn’t certain, but they are probably left over from quarrying operations for the Transcontinental Railroad, since the technique matches that time period, and they are close to the route. There is also a small and long-abandoned irrigation ditch about 30 feet to the east of the quarry. If you scroll out, you can see that it runs from the Steamboat Ditch along the green, brown, and tan sections of the meadow, then splits into a T and goes down to an area of low land near the river. Ironically, once the ditch was built, it was easier and cheaper to divert water from the Truckee River about five miles upstream, run it through a series of flumes and ditches, then dig another ditch down the mountain and run the water onto fields next to the river than it was to just pull the water from the river and move it uphill a hundred feet! If you go to the site, you will find the old ditch, complete with old bits of lumber and a small concrete culvert to allow foot and small vehicle traffic to cross. It may have been part of Sal Carcione’s Carson Ranch, which occupied this area, or it could be older. I bring this up because this is all history literally under our noses, and there is always more of it to uncover, and more to discover about it. Units 3 and 4 of this project will look at Northern Nevada less as a crossroads and more as a conduit for all sorts of human activity. There is history literally under our feet and in front of our eyes every day as we go about our lives. Taking a college class that covers Nevada history and culture is a great opportunity to learn more about it, and even to explore it in person.
The Leftover Granite After Drill and Wedge Cutting Removed the Rest of the Formation
This site is remote and hard to reach, but literally only 1000 feet from I-80: remote in an area that has seen a tremendous amount of human activity to build infrastructure so others can live or move through the desert. Most of the original granite formation was removed as rectangular stone building blocks. Only the squared-off base of the formation remains, along with the rejected, broken blocks left behind. There is no historical marker or any explanation of the site but this.