With all the casinos defining Reno’s skyline, and the gambling halls studding the main drag of almost any small town in Nevada, it’s easy to forget how our state began—mines. More specifically, Nevada began as a source of financing for the Union during the Civil War. Like Liberia with its conflict diamonds, our silver helped Lincoln kill South Carolinians, free the slaves and light Georgia on fire.
The Comstock Lode, in and around Virginia City, was the biggest early boom, but it was hardly the only one. In Pershing County alone, towns like Dun Glen, Humboldt City, Mill City, Rye Patch, Star City and Unionville all poured millions of dollars into the Union’s wartime economy. They tended to come and go quickly, usually no more than 10 years.
The cycle of boom and bust hardly slowed with the end of the war and Nevada’s official recognition as a state. Dozens more followed, popping up in a flurry of disposable buildings, hasty construction and very expensive equipment—getting that metal out of the ground meant building dozens of boomtowns all across the state, often in the harshest, most inhospitable locales.
This cycle of rise and fall, hyper-accelerated extraction and abandonment brings us to the closely related boom towns of Seven Troughs, Tunnel and Mazuma. They huddle around the mountains near Lovelock. From Reno, this means driving east on I-80 well past Fernley and into the lush green farmland near Lovelock. From there, travelers need to head off into the barren hill country on NV State Route 399. Finally, Seven Troughs Road, a dirt thoroughfare, shoots off into the foothills and mining camps. Don’t worry about the road if you don’t have a four-wheel drive or a truck. My friend and I made it with no trouble in a hippied-out Kia.
Seven Troughs Road runs through a desiccated valley of stunted sagebrush and bristling grasses. Red stones and white, powdery silt line the road and provide perches for fence lizards, skinks and bees. Hawks circle above, and ravens cry in the distance. The nude geology shows best in the mountains, where the cut lines of ancient Lake Lahontan’s shore still show against the basalt cliffs. It boggles the mind to consider how 19th century man, with his mule trains and steam engines, ever sustained himself in a landscape so barren.
The twin towns of Seven Troughs and Mazuma came first, in 1907. Mazuma, which is almost completely gone, sat at the mouth of an extensive canyon system, in the middle of a dry river bed. Supposedly a few foundations and mine pilings remain, but we were unable to find them. Seven Troughs clings to the side of a mountain a few miles up that same canyon system. A series of brick and concrete foundations dig deep into the far side of the canyon. Mine shafts and tailing piles dot the hills.
July 18, 1912, in the afternoon, black thunderclouds began dropping rain over Mazuma and Seven Troughs. Sometime later that night, a two-story wall of water rushed down the canyon and destroyed Seven Troughs, killing five children and seven adults. Further down the mountain, the postmistress of Mazuma decided to save her postal receipts and perished as well. Looking at the ruins now, it’s easy to imagine huge rock crushing machines and cyanide pools shaking against those foundations, breaking loose and spilling down the canyon. All that remained of Mazuma lies scattered across the desert floor, but Seven Troughs continued on until 1918 when the gold finally ran dry.
Above the Seven Troughs Ruins is an incredibly steep mine. The tower that served it, raising and lowering men and materials into the depths, has recently collapsed, but the shaft itself remains. A visitor can throw rocks into the mouth and listen in vain for the bottom. However many hundreds of feet it goes down, it’s far enough to muffle the sound. The canyon itself serves as home to at least two families of pronghorn antelope and a herd of wild asses.
Tunnel of love
Newest of the Seven Troughs area ghost towns, Tunnel, or New Seven Troughs, is also closest to the main roads. This well-preserved little company town began operations in 1927. Miners originally conceived of Tunnel as a base of operations where they could better control the water in the older mine shafts. Further, the town was to serve as the entrance for a tunnel that would go all the way through the mountain and meet up with older shafts the next canyon over. It never did, and they gave up after a few years.
However, the mining part of the operation lasted until 1950 and the remnants of depression era and wartime America are manifest throughout the area. The rusting and dismembered body work from 1920s pickup trucks lie next to disused telegraph wires, ancient hydraulic connectors poke out from beneath enormous, wooden silos. We even found a stash of polyester disco wear and a single pair of patent leather shoes inside a crumbling wooden shack.
A large brick building dominates the lower town, towering over a few small shacks, what appears to have been a relatively nice wooden house and another building that was probably a workshop. Was the brick building an office? The many windows in the first room seem to suggest so. Was it a storehouse? The far side once had a large loading door and the rigging from a loft still hangs from the ceiling. Was it a dock for lowering gold nuggets into waiting trucks? It seems likely the central room did just that—you can even see where something big and stout, a safe maybe, once bolted to the brick walls.
Further up the hill, visitors can see the ruined remains of an enormous, 30-foot-tall stamper. Built by the Joshua Hendy Machine Works some time between 1874 and 1904, the giant machine features four enormous steel rods that extend up almost 20 feet with crushing hammers on the lower ends. A huge camshaft, about 15 feet up, remains to this day. Visitors can easily imagine each rod, at least several hundred pounds, smashing against the cam and rising up, falling off the lobe and crashing down on the rocks below—taking small boulders and reducing them to the size of grapefruits.
Joshua Hendy’s great stamper used to sit inside what was presumably an industrial building. At the far end of the massive foundations sits mounting for what we imagined could be another stamper, perhaps a finer, more sophisticated machine for breaking small stones into dust. Beyond that we found concrete mounts for a raised machine or pool. Considering gold miners used to leach their treasure from the stones with great quantities of mercury, it’s not unreasonable to assume a mercury evaporator once stood here. Farther down still, concrete settling canals stand proud of the eroding earth, long since dormant.
Paul Dircksen of Timberline Resources, the mining company that owns the property where these sites were found, says that though they have no problem with people visiting these locations, “The area is … privately held and none of the artifacts should be damaged, destroyed or hauled off.” Tunnel—or any of these ghost towns—offers great opportunities to play amateur archeologist. Go forth and imagine how those early Nevadans lived.
(Originally published in the Reno News and Review)