You know who you are, dear Nevadans: The ones who, when it’s time for a getaway, hightail it out of the Silver State to the beaches of Southern California or the majestic parks of Utah. But as our state embarks on a yearlong celebration of its 150th anniversary (the big day itself comes October 31), it’s well worth taking some time to get to know this place a little better. We asked renowned Nevada historian Michael Green to share the places and events you should experience this year:
Yes, some of the touristy stuff is cheesy, and it seems like too many things are named for Mark Twain. But striking buildings still abound from the 19th century, including Piper’s Opera House, the Bucket of Blood Saloon, the Mackay Mansion (it belonged to a Comstock mining magnate who would, by today’s standards, be a billionaire) and the Fourth Ward School museum. Some of the older buildings are now hotels or bed-and-breakfasts, and some old mines and mills are open for touring. And the town’s historical significance is particularly apt this year: Without the Comstock Lode—the silver strike that built Virginia City—Nevada wouldn’t have become a state in 1864.
The Lincoln Highway
This was the first national automobile highway, dedicated in 1913, and driving “The Loneliest Road in America” across central Nevada gives you the opportunity to make several important stops. Start in White Pine County. In East Ely, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum features a caboose where you can spend the night, 49 buildings and locomotives, the yards and shops and 50 freight cars, all left behind when Kennecott Copper pulled out of town. State parks are nearby, but about 60 miles south and east is Great Basin National Park, with Lehman Caves accessible and Wheeler Peak in the distance. After this trip, the next time someone says there’s no natural beauty in the desert, you’ll have your answer ready. Heading west, Eureka has a museum dedicated to an old Nevada newspaper and art from the collection of Wally Cuchine, who ran the opera house there (you might even find a performance of some kind going on). Austin has three classic 19th-century churches, the nearby Stokes Castle and several restored buildings.
Yes, the Biggest Little City itself. You can’t really know our state without knowing both of its major population centers. Like Las Vegas, Reno has sought to revive its downtown with more of an emphasis on culture, chic restaurants, walking areas and hipness (with the independent Sundance Books nearby). UNR’s campus has an old-time feel, and the Nevada Historical Society is nearby. Just don’t mention the Fremont Cannon or that Las Vegas passed Reno in population more than half a century ago.
Tonopah and Goldfield
The mining booms in these towns revitalized Nevada early in the 20th century. Classic hotels such as the Mizpah in Tonopah and the Goldfield Hotel are worth checking out and comparing with the luxury we know today. The 100-acre Tonopah Historic Mining Park is an education in how that industry did and did not work. Ghost towns throughout the region—including Rhyolite and its bottle house—might remind you of the direction that Las Vegas very well could have gone without federal projects and tourism.
Clark County was part of Lincoln from 1867, when Congress added the area to the state of Nevada, until 1909. The Lincoln County Courthouse, perhaps the greatest boondoggle in the state’s history, is worth visiting to find out why, but so are older towns such as Pioche and Caliente. Cathedral Gorge State Park may be the most beautiful spot in Nevada not named Red Rock Canyon or Valley of Fire.
A Basque restaurant
Reno, Gardnerville, Carson City, Winnemucca and Elko have famous ones, so you can combine it with a trip to the several Northern Nevada Basque festivals that take place each summer. It’s a great way to learn more about the culture of an immigrant group that has played a large role in Nevada’s ranching industry and contributed one of the state’s most important politicians (Paul Laxalt) and one of its greatest writers (his brother, Robert Laxalt). If you don’t like to eat lamb, you can find something else. Adults: Drink the Picon Punch slowly; I didn’t and survived, but you might not.
Your own backyard
The Springs Preserve and Mormon Fort are real and important historic sites. If you haven’t toured Hoover Dam, you’ve missed what made the modern Southwest, including Las Vegas, possible. The Clark County Museum has classic 19th-century buildings and early 20th-century houses from around Nevada. The Mob Museum, the Neon Museum, the Nevada State Museum and various state parks and other historical facilities will help you understand what Nevada is all about. Learn for yourself. You can’t always trust history professors, you know.
Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada.