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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Canal Town
November , 2007
By John Evanoff

Throughout the period Wadsworth was growing as a major train stop and servicing depot for the Central Pacific Railroad, (1867-1902) a small jerkwater grew up out of the desert just two miles south. The supervisors of the rail route were smart to lay siding track at several places to allow traffic by when Wadsworth was congested or when a train was coming by on the single track ahead. The toughest and driest part of the trip across the United States for the old steam engines was between Lovelock and Wadsworth. Water was a constant problem and jerkwaters sprang up along the entire desert route. Jerkwaters were named so because the engineers stopped below a large water holding tank where they filled the steam engine’s water tank from the top by laying the hose into the opened hatch and pulling a chain that operated the plunger to let the water flow into the tank. In some cases, the engineers were so adept at stopping and filling the engine’s tanks they didn’t even have to get out of the cab and just jerked the chain to fill the tank. These jerkwaters were also used as bases for supplies and laborers who made sure the tanks were full of water and the tracks were clean and clear for the engines. Many little service stops were installed over a fifty mile stretch between the Humboldt Sink and the Truckee River’s Big Bend. After the many realignments between 1875 and 1901, some of the sidings were re-named but most remained with their names forever to be forgotten except by the railroad engineers. From Lovelock west were the sidings of Toy, Perth, Granite Point, Toulon, Miriam, Ocala, Huxley, Parran, Desert (prev: Marsala), Upsal, Falais, Massie, Hazen, Darwin (prev: Patna), Argo, Luva, New Junction and Two Mile. A small station with an engine for moving any freight or passengers stranded in the desert was kept on the sidings between Fernley and Hazen. All of these small jerkwaters and sidings were constantly being moved because of servicing problems or issues of transporting water and men between the sidings. The Truckee River’s waters were almost completely claimed by 1895 by upstream users, but between 1896 and 1902 the United States began to look at irrigation projects in the west and especially in the Truckee and Carson River basins. The Vice-President at the time, Theodore Roosevelt under President William McKinley’s tutelage, and the help of Secretary of Interior Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who vigorously pursued the conservation of natural resources, began the building of Derby Dam and the Truckee Canal with the newly created Reclamation Service. This was the Truckee-Carson Project which eventually became the Newlands Project. In less than two years, the dam and 30 mile long canal were built to move water from the Truckee to the Carson River at Lahonton Dam. Along the path of the canal and further south to Lahonton, the water was diverted with control gates to be used to irrigate more than 300,000 acres of land. Some of this irrigated farmland can be seen along both sides of the canal’s length in Fernley on Truckee Lane, North Canal Drive, Desert Shadows Lane or Farm District Road. This amazing dream to bring life to the desert basins took the effort of more than 1,500 men and two years to complete. Fernley grew up in 1904 in part to handle this monstrous endeavor. Two railroads converged to handle the equipment and provisions needed for the large group of men including the Union and Central Pacific. In June of 1905 a delegation headed by Senator Francis G. Newlands, the sponsor of the 1902 Reclamation Act, opened the gates of the Truckee Canal. Within three years, all but a few of the workmen had left and only the homesteaders and a few railroad workers remained. So much pressure was put on the Truckee and Carson Rivers during the summer irrigation periods between 1905 and 1912 that lands were closed for additional agricultural improvement and homesteading. Some farmers even abandoned their fields because of the loss of water to upstream users. During this time, another railroad line incorporated the Central Pacific with northern California with the opening of the Fernley and Lassen railway in 1909 which moved freight and supplies north along the west side of Pyramid Lake and north into the fertile lands of the Honey Lake and Lassen County. The realignment was taken over by the Southern Pacific with branches through out the Northwest and southwest and in 1914 a sizeable depot was constructed in Fernley to handle passengers and freight. With the eventual completion of the Lincoln/Victory Highway (US Highway 40 and Highway 50) through town in 1921, the town grew to around 200 people. Then, other dams were built over the next fifty years and today, the town of Fernley is finally an incorporated city with a population of more than 25,000.

Many people live in Fernley and drive to work in Reno or Sparks. The attraction in Fernley is the open country feel and the quiet of a small town. Many of us have also driven through Fernley on NSR 427 south of Highway 80 to turn onto Alternate 95 and go to Lahontan during the spring and summer to fish, water ski or just relax in the large desert reservoir. There is also a speedway south of town where you can still be entertained by hardtop and mini racers on a small oval track. Every year in September, the town puts on a great rodeo with the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association in attendance. These kinds of family events also bring people and business to the area to live and enjoy the Nevada desert. In fact, the town is gradually growing into a small industry city with building a large distribution warehouse and many others deciding Fernley is perfect for their kind of business.

Growing up in Northern Nevada, I remember spending an occasional late fall or winter day huddled in tule bushes in the Fernley Wildlife Area (Fernley Sink) hunting duck and geese. More times than I can count, I remember looking for arrowheads in and around Fernley and along both sides of the railroad track all the way to the Humboldt Sink outside Lovelock. There are many four wheel drive roads in the area, some meandering into the hillsides and others into the alkali wasteland of the 40 Mile Desert and the great basin sinks in the region. I have taken most of them, but prefer to get out and walk once I have gone in far enough to be away from civilization for the day. One you may want to drive is south of Fernley and in the little way stop of Hazen where you pick up California Road heading east. This road finally ends at Highway 80 at the west end of the Carson Sink. There are also a few four wheel drive roads heading out of Fernley into the Fernley Sink area all the way to Brady Hot Springs. One of the best mountain bike rides is along the Canal Road west of Fernley out along the Truckee River where you’ll see some interesting parts of the canyon and get a perspective of the hard work needed to complete the canal. You always want to take enough water and food with you on any of these roads and be prepared to walk long distances. It wasn’t uncommon for our family to walk more than seven miles just looking for things dropped by the pioneers along the old California Trail or the Pony Express Trail. Of course, always bring a camera. The desert gives great views to be shared and you’ll likely see things you will never see anywhere else. Some of the early pioneers thought of this place as Dante’s worst nightmare and certainly a better depiction of hell than he ever painted, but if you know the desert like I do, you’ll grow to appreciate it as something very special.

Next month, we’ll go further south to Fallon, Oasis of Nevada and visit the other part of the dream to grow fields in the desert and feed a hungry growing west.

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