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Adventure on Nevada's Loneliest Highway: The Austin - Eureka Auto Tour, August 26 and 27, 2017

October 14, 2017

Reported by Cindy Ainsworth and Brian Suen

 

For a copy of the Tour Guide for this event please see the Archive section of this web site.

 

Eureka!  We’re On Our Way to Austin!

The Nevada Chapter of the Lincoln Highway Association (LHA) had been discussing about the possibility of an overnight Austin and Eureka trip for a couple of years.  The board’s interest peaked when members Elizabeth Rassiga and Warren White mentioned that they would love to host some kind of event at their historic Leland House in Austin.  Everything came together in 2017 and the road trip along Highway 50 and Nevada 722 took place on August 26th and 27th.

 

Twenty-seven people signed up for the tour and the Chapter was very pleased to have a blend of new and longtime members along for the adventure. California was represented with participants Kathleen Jarvis and Ron Breedlove traveling from the Bay Area in California and Bob Jacoby from Los Angeles. Long time LHA member Jim Marsh flew in from Las Vegas and joined us in Austin.  Lou Groffman from the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) and his daughter Dominique were a great addition to our hardy bunch of travelers.

 

We started our road tour portion of the trip on a hot and sunny Saturday at the 1908 Overland Hotel in Fallon, Nevada.  The hotel was a popular stop on the Lincoln Highway and continues to serve visitors to the agricultural town.  Chapter member and LHA Officer and Vice President, Brian Suen organized and distributed an excellent guidebook which included additional information collected from Chapter members.  Past Chapter President and Nevada LHA Officer and our premiere LH researcher and lecturer Jim Bonar led the first half of the tour and Warren White took over in Austin.

 

After a group photo, participants gathered their cars and we headed out of town on a 1924 alignment of the LH.  Fallon has the distinct honor of being one of the towns served by the first dam built for the Newlands Reclamation Project.  The 1902 Derby Dam distributed irrigation water to these desert agricultural areas through miles of canals, ditches and other water diversions.  The picturesque rural flavor of this route gave you a feel of what it may have been like traveling through Fallon in 1924.  However, the LH alignment ends before reaching Highway 50 because of the Naval Air Station, Fallon; home to the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program or more popularly known as TOPGUN.

 

Travel plans are sometimes disrupted by unexpected events. Little did our group know that access to Highway 50 was blocked by a temporary water diversion channel called the Big Dig that was constructed in response to the record snowpack and rain that hit the region in 2017.  The group had to backtrack through the rural farm lands but we all took it in stride as part of the total LH experience.

You wonder what those early intrepid east coast LH travelers thought as they drove into the Fallon Sink area.  Even today, except for the better roads, you feel the desolation one must have felt upon entering this salt playa.

 

As we traveled along the 1921 Highway 50 alignment our guidebook reminded us that the LHA contributed to improving miles of Nevada roads. The following description is from A Nevada View of the Lincoln Highway by W. Earl Givens. At a gathering in Detroit, LHA “field secretary was called upon to name the points at which he felt outside aid would be needed to bring the entire Lincoln Highway in Nevada up to the standard demanded by the traffic.”  Interestingly, it was W.C. Durant, president of the General Motors Corporation who approved of the funding for the improvements.  In 1919, the LHA offered the state a total of $104,000, including $100,000 from the General Motors Trust Fund.  Nevada accepted and used during the ensuing six years $75,296.60.  $20,000 was returned to General Motors.

 

Jim Bonar emphasized the importance that the Simpson Route and the Overland Stage Route played in the development of this future Nevada LH segment.  In 1859, Captain James H. Simpson surveyed and founded a new route across Utah’s Great Salt Desert, and through Nevada’s Great Basin to Genoa, Nevada.  Later improved by the U.S. Army, Simpson’s Nevada Central Route was used by the overland mail and stage lines.  It was also used by the short lived Pony Express and Wells Fargo & Co. stagecoaches and freighters.  Thus with no road across the Great Salt Lake Desert, the LHS in 1913 assigned this section of Simpson’s Route as part of the transcontinental highway.

Our first stop along Highway 50 was Sand Springs Station which was first a stop in 1860 for the Overland Stage.  Later, the site was included in the 1916 and 1924 LH guide. The stop is also the entrance to the Sand Mountain Recreational area.  This is an impressive 600 ft. dune site.  The sand originates from the dry ancient Lake Lahontan.  A mostly intact Pony Express Station is a short walk from the parking lot and many of our participants commented that they never knew the site was there.  For the LH enthusiast, an excellent and probably the best view of the 1913 alignment can be seen.

 

We left the Highway 50 segment and continued on Nevada 722; the picturesque 1925 Carroll Summit LH route alignment.  Recognized as a better route from Austin to Eastgate, the LHA offered the state $44,500 to put this new road through.  Here we stopped at Eastgate which was once the site of a store and gas station and later the main building was converted into the local schoolhouse. 

 

Jim Bonar talked about the importance of the Eastgate site and the efforts to perhaps make this alignment a historic byway.  This setting also gave us a chance to introduce ourselves and Jim asked why we were there and how we all got interested in highway history.  We were all intrigued on how others celebrate road and transportation history.  One of the more interesting comments came from member Jim Berg whose yearly goal is to travel at least 10,000 miles in his 1956 Chevy Bel Air.  He documents those travels by photographing the car in front of as many state capitols as he can.

 

After a leisurely drive over Carroll Summit, we drove through the beautiful agricultural area just west of Austin This was the wildlife portion of our tour.  Along this route we saw pronghorn, deer, perhaps some wild horses and herds of cattle.

                                                                                                                                                                              Jim Bonar addresses the group at Eastgate.

Bob Jacoby at Carroll Summit Station

 

We continued our tour with a stop where the Nevada Central Railroad (NCRR) tracks crossed the LH.  Tour guide Warren White explained that the NCRR began operations in 1881 to connect the mining town of Austin with the transcontinental railroad in Battle Mountain, 93 miles away.  Warren provided excellent materials about the railroad. The narrow gage NCRR was an important development of mining and commerce in Nevada. The railroad ceased operations in 1938.  After a stop at the site of the NCRR turntable, the group was on their own for lunch and to check into the various Austin motels.

 

    Warren White at the site of the NCRR turntable

 

Both the communities of Austin and Eureka went all out in opening up various historic buildings.  Founded in 1862, Austin was a silver boom town with a population of about 7200.  After lunch, we toured the interior of many buildings normally not opened to the public.  These included the Masonic-Odd Fellows Hall and the old 1866 City Hall.  Along with the City Hall, there are 11 Austin sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  That is quite impressive for a small town of about 300 people!  

 

One highlight included a look at the old jail at the 1871 Lander County Courthouse.  For some strange reason, exploring old jails bring the kid out in us.  Our tour guide Frank Whitman responded to probably the most asked question. Any hangings?  He reported that there were two hangings off the second story balcony.

 

Resident Donna White graciously opened the Austin Historical Museum where there are excellent community displays and a library.  One display caught the eye of many tour goers.  There in a display case was an enameled LHA Sustaining Membership Radiator Car Badge.  The car badge was found across the street in a barn owned by Norm Scoggins who was restoring the building as a family getaway retreat.  Originally owned by his Uncle, Norm also found a unique artistic exhibit of locks and keys which is also on display at the museum.

 

Our Austin hosts Elizabeth Rassiga and Warren White really out did themselves for our dinner social. Located at the1868 Leland House, the dinner site was formally an early boarding house located on the LH and Highway 50.  Elizabeth and Warren have done extensive restoration work on the property and I think all tour participants found it a relaxing location after a very busy day.  Both the exterior and interior have many collectible items including Elizabeth’s women’s vintage undergarment collection.

 

We feasted on tri-tip, baked beans, fresh corn, potato salad and a very popular appetizer called 722 Cowboy Nachos made with locally sourced beef from the Gondolfo Ranch (located on Rt 722!).  Strawberry Shortcake and wonderful cookies baked by our Chapter Secretary, Connie Davis,  rounded out the tasty evening.

 

Sometimes happenstance events make the day.  We had the honor of being visited by Bhaktimargo Swami, the Walking Monk;  a Canadian Hare Krishna member who has made his life’s journey sharing his experiences by first completing a walk across the Trans-Canada Highway.  He was now walking across the U.S. on parts of the LH.   Elizabeth and Warren invited him along with his small troop of young monks to the social.  He shared his road tales and was very familiar with LH sites.  The Walking Monk was a delight and was one of those memorable travel experiences. 

 

 

After a restful night in Austin many travelers took advantage of Elizabeth Rassiga ‘s and Warren White ‘s invitation to enjoy  breakfast at the Leland House on Sunday morning.  Others dined at nearby eateries like the Toiyabe Café and the International Café before heading to Eureka 70 miles to the east and the resumption of the tour. 

 

The West Tour began at the 1880 Eureka Opera House where Curator and Director of the Eureka Sentinel Museum, Ree Taylor, met our travelers and opened the opera house for inspection.  Built of brick after the devastating fire of 1879, the opera house hosted traveling theatrical performers, plays, boxing matches, dances and began showing films in 1915.  After the closure of the movie house in 1958 the building fell into neglect until 1990 when the county began to restore the building to its former glory.  In 1994 the Eureka Opera House was acknowledged with the National Preservation Honor Award. 

 

Across Main Street (the Lincoln Highway) from the Opera House stands the elegant Eureka County Courthouse, a working present day county administration building.    Being that it was a Sunday, the building was closed.  We were unable to tour the grand interior of the 1880 courthouse due to a problem with the entrance door’s combination.  The preserved courtroom on the second floor is considered the best example of 19th century architecture in the state.  Outside the courthouse are two large brass bells used to warn residents of fire.   A Lincoln Highway Association concrete marker with Lincoln medallion still attached stands proudly at the front entrance to the courthouse.  Also at the corner of the building is the metal plaque honoring General Motor’s financial backing of the Lincoln Highway construction in Nevada. 

 

Cindy Ainsworth and the General Motors Plaque at the Eureka County Courthouse

 

The tour continued one block behind the courthouse to the building that once housed the local newspaper, the Eureka Sentinel, from 1870 to 1960.  Now it is the Eureka Sentinel Museum commemorating the newspaper and county history.  What is remarkable is the first floor press room containing the machinery, presses, type setting equipment and work stations appear as though the workers had just left the building.  The walls are covered with posters, news print pages from their publication and other memos and notes of the working staff.    The second floor is devoted to telling the story of Eureka County’s colorful history as a pioneering region, the mining booms and ranching enterprises.        Eureka Sentinel Museum

 

 

Local businessman, Richard McKay, arranged to have the old 1877 Brown Hotel (now the Jackson House) opened for our inspection.  The two story building boasts a fancy bar, restaurant and meeting rooms on the first level and guest rooms on the second.  Fully restored and modernized visitors can arrange stays at the Jackson House through the nearby Eureka Gold Country Inn.  The second floor balcony affords views of the entire downtown area including the courthouse, county museum and other prominent historical structures like the Owl Club, original Raines Market, the Masonic Lodge, the old Lincoln Hotel and the Eureka Café.

 

Susan Puryear on the balcony of Jackson House

 

After lunch in Eureka the tour continued at the closed Eureka Café.  Owner Richard McKay recently acquired the property and is busy cleaning and restoring the building.  It had been Eureka’s Chinese restaurant for over 40 years before closing in 2016.  Beneath the building are impressive brick cellars and tunnels with arched ceilings and passageways.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries most of what is now downtown Eureka had been interconnected by a labyrinth of underground tunnels to facilitate the movement of goods in bad weather.   There were rumors that the cellars had been used in the past as opium dens, for the storage of spirits during the prohibition era and in recent times for the cultivation of marijuana. 

 

Richard McKay also opened the Farmers and Merchants Bank across the Lincoln Highway from the Eureka Café.  Originally a saloon, the structure has housed a succession of different banks since 1930.  The last tenant moved to new quarters in 2016.  The original teller’s cages and the bank vault are still in place. 

                                   Bob Jacoby and Warren White inspect the cellars and tunnels beneath the Eureka Cafe Building

 

The West Tour then departed Eureka west on Highway 50 (the Lincoln Highway) back to Austin rendezvousing at the Lincoln Motel.  At this point Jim Bonar resumed his role as tour leader and our caravan headed toward New Pass Mine Road intersecting Highway 50 about 15 miles west of Austin.   New Pass Mine Road was part of the early 1913 alignment of the Lincoln Highway.   Proceeding about 5 miles past the border line from Lander County to Churchill County, we turned north off the paved highway onto a dirt road leading to a gate.  Opening and passing through the gate led us onto the Old Overland Stage Road and the site of the Overland Stage business office and station.  The early 1913 Lincoln Highway took advantage of the existing Overland Stage route so the early automobile travelers would have passed right in front of the remains of the stage company’s buildings.  The piles of stonework still outline the walls of the station and corral which are separated by a small creek.  

 

Returning to Highway 50 the tour proceed west to Cold Springs Station and the maintenance yard of the Nevada Department of Transportation.  Inside the fenced in corporation yard is a Lincoln Highway concrete marker recovered by NDOT and planted on their property.  This was a good location for a few last photographs and a chance to thank Jim for his expert leadership and commentary on the tour.  The group disbanded here and everyone went their separate ways. 

 

The Austin-Eureka Tour afforded us the opportunity to retrace a major portion of the Lincoln Highway, explore historical sites along the way and experience the old 19th century settlements.

Warren White, Chester Ross and Jim Bonar roam the Overland Stage business office ruins.

 

A special thank you goes out to the following people who made this road trip possible.  Our committee: Cindy Ainsworth, Jim Bonar, Tom Davis, Connie Davis, Elizabeth Rassiga, CJ Smith, Brian Suen, and Warren White.  Our Austin community representatives: Carolyn Maestretti, Bob McGiven, Donna White, Frank Whitman and the Gandolfo Ranch.  Our Eureka community representatives: James Marsh, Richard McKay, and Ree Taylor

 

 

 

 

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