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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The Big Bend
October, 2007
By John Evanoff

Prior to 1868, Wadsworth was only known as the Big Bend, where pioneers and gold seekers came to rest along the Truckee River before the crisscrossing and fording of the Truckee River Canyon and camping in the Truckee Meadows. This spot was a wonderful respite for them prior to the long trudge over the dangerous Sierra Nevada. Most of the settlers came through the Forty-Mile Desert and were desperate for clean potable water not only for the wagon train but for the stock they had managed to move this far across the desert as well. Amazingly, more than forty percent of the Conestoga wagons and roughly that amount of the stock never reached this spot after the long haul across the Utah and Northern Nevada deserts. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in goods were thrown out of the backs of the wagons to make them lighter and thousands of mules, oxen, horses and cattle died along the Emigrant Trail before this spot. Some who made it to the Big Bend wrote of the livestock sensing the river more than five miles away and the resulting quickening of the pace by the critters. The herders and drivers had to control the stock or else loose even more of them to injury due to stampede in the deep sand dunes just southeast of the river. It was the deep sand that made the last couple miles even more treacherous because it meant most of the men, women and children actually had to push on the wheels to get them through the light sand. Right where Washoe, Churchill and Lyon County come together at a large dark volcanic hill north of the Fernley Wildlife sink is where the stock would begin to smell the water. The trail bosses new they needed to get through the flats full of sand before the river so they had the route planned well ahead of time. The wagon traffic along this spot must have been enormous because you can still find remnants of the wagon path between the sand dunes almost 150 years later.

Between 1849 and 1868, no town or way-station existed except for a small Pony Express station further south in the mid 1860’s. The primary reason there was no station was because the settlers were scared of the large tribe of Paiute Indians living north at Pyramid Lake. No one wanted to confront them even though they were a peaceful people who actually guided many of them and later the US Calvary through the Truckee River Canyon and into the Carson River Valley and beyond a few years later.

In 1867, the Central Pacific began building a 21 stall two story round house, a hotel and side tracks at the site because of its location near water and the Old Emigrant Road. This also was the last place before the arduous trip over the Sierra Nevada for the old slow steam locomotives to gather fuel and provisions. The railroad service town grew steadily until 1882 when a new site was built on the other side of the river to complete a set of realignments for efficiency purposes. A fire destroyed most of the town and the site in 1884 which was then rebuilt until still another fire in 1902 again ravaged the little railroad town. In a move to again realign the tracks over almost seventy miles eastward deleting most of the “jerkwater stations,” the decision was made in 1903 to move the entire town and facilities to the Wall Ranch three miles east of Reno.

During the thirty-five year period between 1867 and 1903, more than 2,800 men (but no more than 200 at a time) worked for the Central Pacific company town of Wadsworth in the rail workshops and roundhouses. Another 500 civilians saw to the needs of the travelers and workers with their small businesses that made up the tiny hamlet. The town went through two devastating fires and saw tens of thousands of travelers and tons of gold and silver flow along its tracks. Two small narrow gauge rail spurs from the north and the south fed mills along the river with thousands of tons of ore. The company town moved all its employees and their possessions for free to the new site next to Reno and sold lots for $1 to any of them who wanted to stay on. Early in 1904, at the urging of the owner of the Union Pacific Railroad, the East Reno town was named Sparks after then Nevada Governor John Sparks, a respected rancher and mine owner of Northern Nevada.

In 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association was born and a roadway following a trail once carved by Mormons traveling west fifty years before came along Wadsworth’s Train Tracks next to the river and eventually became the Lincoln Highway around 1914. The highway was later renamed US Highway 40 by the government and after many realignments and upgrades has become US Highway 80. The Lincoln Highway actually came across the state from near Ely along what is now Highway 50 which is referred to as “The Loneliest Road in America.” Certainly, between 1914 and 1920, Wadsworth was a natural stop along the 20 to 30 day 3,140 mile cross-country Lincoln Highway Adventure. The road, although graded once a year, was always in disrepair and most autos of the day only managed an average of 15 miles per hour along the entire route. Fuel, parts and water were not common at all, so Wadsworth made a living for a time on putting up the travelers in its hotel and campsite near the river.

A shadow of its former self, the company town at the Big Bend remained a stop until the early 1950’s. Eventually, with the school and church closure and of course, the loss of much of its population, the town almost sank into abandonment. Walking around the almost-a-ghost town, one still gets the feeling there is something in store for this piece of history along the Truckee River. The hike along the east side of the Truckee River beginning from the bridge in Wadsworth all the way to Nixon at Pyramid Lake is one you will never forget. Very few people have knowledge of this relaxing trek that brings one of Nevada’s most historic waterways into perspective. In the fall, the leaves turn and the cottonwoods, willow and wildflowers are amazingly colorful.

For awhile in the 1950’s and 60’s, some of the remaining businesses in Wadsworth lived off the ranches and the roadway travelers passing by to go north to Pyramid Lake, the gypsum mines at Empire and the fantastic antelope and deer hunting grounds north of Gerlach. The Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation fully adopted the southern gate into its land in the late 1950’s and eventually took over the entire north side of Wadsworth by the early 1970’s. Today, the Wadsworth portion of the Pyramid Lake Reservation facilities includes hundreds of homes, a modern school and churches and still sits peacefully beside the Big Bend awaiting its next transformation which some say will come in the growth of the little town just south called Fernley.

Next month, we’ll take you to that town and give you a perspective of farmland never meant to be any more than desert, but changed overnight by a President who dreamt of an oasis that could feed the masses.

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