Nevada History by John C. Evanoff is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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Steamboat Hot Springs
January 2009
By John Evanoff

While most people drive by the chalky looking hills on Highway 395 south just past the Mount Rose Highway not realizing much but the smell, this place was once geographically historic and a bee-hive of commercial activity. It is now active again, but for a very different reason. But first, let’s take you back through its recent history of a hundred or more years ago and also its not so recent history.

In the late 1840’s and early 1850’s, thousands of settlers moved west through our little valley and many of them were down right pooped by the time they finally reached the lower Truckee Meadows around Huffaker Hills and Rattlesnake Mountain. They camped along the creeks there in the grassy fields overnight and arose each morning looking south to huge steam clouds rising into the air. A few of them went to the hot springs to see for themselves the remarkable natural display including a large geyser accompanied by the eerie chugging sound of the hot water moving through the numerous steam pools and mud pots. The spectacle was both awesome and heartening for the emigrants because it reminded them of the paddle wheelers on the Missouri and Mississippi where many of them had begun their trip and gave them hope of seeing the same on the Sacramento on the other side of the Sierras. These boats gave off somewhat the same giant plumes of steam and noises so they wrote in their diaries about the area and a man named Monet called the place the Steamboat and who soon after set up a bath house at the hot pools. Many other names were given the springs, but Steamboat was the one that stuck.

More than two million years ago, the entire south end of the valley was a field of volcanic domes constantly erupting. Other parts of the hills and flats were filled with caldrons of bubbling lava, hot water and mud. Along the entire ridgeline between Washoe Hill at the south and Verdi to the northwest and then east along Peavine Mountain to Spanish Springs, lava flowed intermittently from fissures and vents. The evidence from these flows remain along the fault lines of this ridge as black andesite and rhyolite fields (lava rock). Around a million years ago, the several rhyolite domes and andesite flows above the large magma chamber underneath the south end of the Truckee Meadows around Steamboat broke at the surface and ground water rushed in from below the Mount Rose alluvial fan. The broad alluvial fan of Mount Rose is best seen from the top of the Huffaker Hills (itself a rhyolite dome) or from the Geiger Grade lookout. The rhyolite lava and pumice in the area is mostly composed of quartz and alkali, but it also harbors many other minerals including silver, gold, arsenic, copper, boron and more. These vents and cracks on the top ledge of the Steamboat area are also filled with sulfur and cinnabar. For a time, the area was mined for both of these substances because of sulfur being used in the production of gunpowder and cinnabar being melted down for mercury which was used by the miners to attach gold flecks away from sandstone and quartzite at many of the regions mines. Another important rhyolite feature is the obsidian rock used by the earliest inhabitants of the Truckee Meadows known as the Washoe Indians. The Indians lived near the three creeks close to Steamboat and they used the hot springs to cook their pinion nuts in the fall. They also used the hard black shiny obsidian stone found near the edges of the Steamboat Rhyolite dome in fashioning their arrowheads, drills and spear points because it gave a very sharp edge although not as durable as some other stone materials. The Washoe were extremely methodical in their napping of the stone as showcased at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. To this day, I occasionally sit down and begin flintnapping with some obsidian I pick up on my hikes in the desert. My favorite pressure flaking tools are several old deer antlers of various sizes I scored from a mule deer I hunted when I was younger. I learned the technique from a Shoshone friend and later worked with a Paiute buddy who was an artist. The tiny arrowheads I make are extremely rare in that they are so very small. The larger points are easier and quicker to make but are not as intricate as the small bird points I like to create.

Not much is mentioned about the large forest of petrified tree stumps left from millions of years ago on the hillsides of Steamboat Hill. If you take a walk up to the top of Steamboat Hill from behind Galena High School, above the “G” on the side of the mountain and follow along the canyons and ridges along the north and south sides, you will notice rocks jutting out in certain spots that are actually petrified tree stumps and limbs. The Miocene woods of fifteen to twenty million years ago in this region were primarily large redwood and probably consisted of an earlier version of the giant sequoia which is also found throughout Northern Washoe County in petrified form. The Washoe Indians used their harder basalt drill points to make holes in the colorful ringed petrified rock some of which became opalized over centuries of pressures under the earth. They created elaborate necklaces from the material and also used it as a form of money for trade with other tribes. My father and I found several of the ornate pieces long ago beside the sand dunes of Washoe Lake while arrowhead hunting. The pieces along with many of our other finds were given to the Nevada State Museum.

At the time the first white man entered the region and until a strong earthquake changed the fault structure in the area in 1900, one geyser at the site shot water as high as 70 feet into the area and was considered the third largest in the United States. In the 1960’s, a drilling platform was left with a pipe sticking twenty feet into the air on the west side of Steamboat Creek where once several hot pools surged and the geyser again roared to life although somewhat manmade. The adjoining pipe that juts towards the creek is still there to view except there is no activity now due to capping of the wells in the area and the drying of the lower fields from working wells at the high terrace and above.

Commercial development came to the hot springs because of the presence of the boiling hot water pools as early as 1859 with the small bath-house built by Monet followed by a small hotel and then in 1861 a small hospital was set up by Dr. Joseph Ellis using the springs as a healing source for aches, pains and a many other unknown qualities linked by doctors of the times to the waters. The Virginia and Truckee Railroad set up a train station beginning in 1871 and the resort/hospital quickly grew to a small town including saloons and a dance hall, a large stagecoach station, two large V&T Buildings and the Grand Hotel. The Grand was used for some of the largest and most notable entertainment events in Nevada and was visited by some of the more prominent citizens of the country including President Ulysses S. Grant, many US Senators and Governors as well as the wealthy and famous entrepreneurs of the Comstock Lode. Then in the 1900 earthquake, the geyser and many of the hot water pools dried up and in 1901 a fire burned much of the town down including the Grand Hotel.

Several companies continued using the waters for bath houses and the V&T ran a daily train from Reno to Steamboat until the late 1940’s. The largest swimming pool in all of Nevada was built at the corner of Highway 395 and the Mount Rose Highway. It was the size of a football field and including lighting and bath houses as well as overnight campsites and a picnic ground. The pool was quite famous for its high diving board, the highest in the west. There were other hot spring swimming pools in the region including one in Carson City and one along the Truckee River at Lawton’s where visitors were welcome to swim at an indoor pool as well. The massive pool at Steamboat was remarkable in that it was so big and had an abundant array of amenities. The high heat of the pools and heavy mineral content of the volcanic waters of Steamboat eventually gave the owners too many problems to contend with and so the cooling tanks were taken down and eventually the Steamboat swimming pool was drained. Many of our neighbors hated to see the huge pool go, but later a pool at Moana Hot Springs near what became the minor league baseball park and then one at Mark Twain Hotel replaced Steamboat for warm water swimming. Summer swimming in Reno was mostly relegated to Idlewild Park where most of my generation learned how to swim.

Steamboat Hot Springs is one of the more extensively studied geothermal areas in all of Nevada and historically, one of the most written about in the world. The reason is the extremely rare mineral content, the way the bench moves water from one vent to another, the sinter flows just southwest of the main terrace believed to be the largest in the world, the rhyolite domes and the underlying massive magma chamber. The combination of all these exceptional geological oddities gave scientists years of data to study and research. Much of the research is still being studied at the site by geothermal companies who have drilled holes and begun to extract the steam to generate electricity. A couple large plants have been built and more are to be operational in the very near future because of the high heat of the thermal waters which exceeded 425 degrees Fahrenheit at the base. This heat is the result of the large magma chamber below the southern part of the Truckee Meadows. The Earth’s crust is thin along the line beside the Sierra and along the western edge of the Virginia Mountains because of the thrust mechanism of the Pacific Plate and the sinking of the Great Basin to the east. Some geologists believe there is enough energy below Steamboat and a line extending north all the way to Lawton’s to power the entire Truckee Meadows. The benefits of geothermal are immense and the company exploiting the resource has partnered research efforts with the University of Nevada by giving them free hot water and electricity to power the Redfield Campus near the newest plant structure. Some resourceful Reno homeowners along this line have even had geothermal drill holes dug to extract the heat and steam for their own electrical and warm water use, selling reserves to the local power grid.

Above the main terrace at Steamboat where the largest fissure is found, some extraordinary geology can be seen including the high terrace which extends upward to Sinter Hill below the ridge of Steamboat Hill and the mud volcano area which still shows signs of the small crater that erupted there millions of years ago. There is also the Silica Pit at the northern edge of Steamboat Hill and the Clay Quarry and Pine Basin where you may see a few desert burrow residing. The best way to see it all is to climb to the top of Steamboat Hill and follow along the ridgelines in every direction. To the southwest of the hill is where Galena Creek and Jones Creek come together and further south is the slight outline of Galena, which I have written about previously. Below the main terrace is a spot that is protected because of an extremely rare species of plant known as the Steamboat Buckwheat. The flower blooms unusually beautiful in the spring. This plant is only found here and nowhere else in the world, so it is imperative that harm does not come to this area. The plant is still being studied for its rarity and botanical properties.

Steamboat has a villa for relaxing in the calming hot waters just south of the highway on US395 before you enter Pleasant Valley to the south and from what I’ve been told, it’s still a treat to bathe in the mineral thermal waters there. So, after walking all over Steamboat Hill and Galena, it might be fun to take to the hot water cure for your aching muscles. Have fun and happy hiking.

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