Sunday, May 08, 2011

Ghost Fort Churchill

In 1860 a series of events at a place called Williams Station in Nevada sparked off a battle near Pyramid Lake between Paiute Indians and whites from the area in and around Virginia City. The first battle resulted in the deaths of 76 whites. (see the explanation right) Until Custer's defeat at Little Bighorn sixteen years later this was the largest casualty of whites at the hands of Native Americans. A second retaliatory battle resulted in the deaths of about 160 Paiutes. As a result of these troubles and also to protect the Pony Express, a fort was established on the Carson River along the Emigrant Trail. It was called Fort Churchill after Brigadier General Sylvester Churchill, the Inspector General of the US Army at that time.

During the years my books are set, the presence of soldiers at Fort Churchill was an important aspect of Virginia City life. The fort was abandoned in 1870, only ten years after it was established, and is now a ghost town. Or perhaps we should call it a "Ghost Fort". I wanted to see it because I like to stand in the places my books are set to get a feel for the terrain and atmosphere.

So on Thursday 5 May 2011, my sister "Hawkeye" and my husband "Goes the Wrong Way" and I set off from Virginia City just after 9.00am. Our silver Jeep takes us down Six Mile Canyon. Instead of turning north on highway 50 we carry straight on over, as our innkeepers have advised us, staying on Fort Churchill Road. At first it's paved but soon turns to gravelly dirt. As our innkeepers promised, the road is deserted and beautiful, following the course of the Carson River. Large cottonwoods line the banks and grouse run among the sage brush. We can see the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains away to the west. 

At one point we stop and get out to look around. The sun is warm, the breeze is soft, the world is silent. We see grouse and squirrels, ducks and geese. There aren't many bugs up in Virginia City but there are plenty down here by the river. I have to shake them out of my hair before I get back in our Jeep. 

Fort Churchill National Park is marked by a flagpole and a gem of a visitors' center. The adobe ruins of barracks, storehouses and other fort buildings blend perfectly into the landscape. We are surrounded by mountains on every side and I understand why they offer star gazing evenings here on special occasions. There would be virtually no light pollution. A small but clear exhibit in the museum shows the layout of the camp and even tells us something about the plants of the region. After the fort was decommissioned, a local resident called Buckland bought it for only $750. He used timber, staircases, etc to build Buckland's Station. He and his wife had five children, all of whom died in infancy or childhood. Their gravestones can still be seen at the cemetery at Fort Churchill. 

After a good look around I convince "Hawkeye" to drive us to Pyramid Lake. My iPhone promises the journey will take less than an hour. (My iPhone turns out to be right) The road north through Silver Springs takes us through barren brown hills with virtually no trees. It is hauntingly beautiful. My great, great, great grandparents came from Battle Mountain. I've never been there but the landscape looks similar from pictures I've seen. About 45 minutes later we pass into the Indian reservation and shortly after that crest a rise to see a turquoise lake with a brown pyramid shaped island in the center. This is Pyramid Lake, bigger than Tahoe, almost more barren than Mono. A thousand pelicans flock at its southern end. It reminds me of scenes from sci-fi films of alien planets. 


A strange building that looks like steps rises up from the sagebrush horizon. This is a new visitors' center for the lake, designed to look like the pyramid at the center. Unfortunately it's closed, but a sign outside gives us lots of information. We drive up to a village called Sutcliffe but "Hawkeye" and "Goes" are not as enchanted with the lake as I am, so soon we are on the road back to Reno. 

Pictures below of Fort Churchill etc. 

plan of Fort Churchill

view of the ruins with sign identifying what's what
Visitor's center at Fort Churchill
portrait of Gen. Sylvester Churchill
Captain Stewart's quarters. See the spittoon?
Pyramid Lake visitor center sign
Mountains on the road from Pyramid Lake to Reno
Back to Virginia City
[The Case of the Deadly Desperados is an exciting adventure mystery set in and around Virginia City in the year 1862. This Western Mystery for kids aged 9 - 90 is available in hardbackKindle and audio download. It will be published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in the USA in February.]

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