Driving along the expansive landscape of Highway 50, it’s hard not to imagine what it must have been like to be riding along the Pony Express over 150 years ago through the same desert terrain. Fittingly, the legend of the next stop we visited, Austin, is that the town arose in 1862 when a Pony Express horse kicked over a rock that opened up to a cavern full of silver. The Pony Express agent riding that horse, William Talcott, made the discovery that within one year made Austin the seat of Lander County and in two years grew the population of the town to 7,500. Neek, Sar and I were curious to see this old mining town that at one point was the second largest city in Nevada.
Austin’s history is filled with unique memorable characters. There was Reuel Colt Gridley, who operated the general store built in 1863, which was restored in 1984 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Gridley is known for losing a bet on a local election in 1864 and having to carry a 50 pound sack of flour through town.
Gridley then auctioned and re-auctioned that sack until he raised over $200,000 to aid Civil War veterans. His fame spread throughout the West and Mark Twain wrote about his story in the 1872 book Roughing It. But his traveling around the country ruined his health and Gridley died in 1870 at age 41. Civil War veterans in Stockton, California where he died showed their appreciation by selling thousands of miniature flour sacks to raise money to build a monument there to honor him.
Another Austin native of distinction is Emma Wixom. She was the daughter of a pioneer Austin doctor born in 1859 with a gift for singing. Reputedly one of her earliest public performances was with the Methodist choir singing “John Brown’s Body” at the parade for Reuel Gridley’s flour sack carrying! She studied music in Vienna during the 1870s and became one of the finest coloratura sopranos in late 19th and early 20th century opera. She made her debut in London in 1880 under the stage name Emma Nevada. She later sang at the coronation of King George V and was a favorite of Queen Victoria. Upon returning to the US for a tour in 1885, she insisted on a stop in her beloved hometown of Austin, where they welcomed her and she sang for them at the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Our first stop in Austin was in front of the Lander County Courthouse built in 1869. This is one of 11 sites in Austin on the National Register of Historic Places and during the 1800s was used to hang convicted men from the second story balcony! We were anticipating a somewhat less dramatic encounter hoping to get our Highway 50 passports stamped there. Neek and I peeked around the old building while Sar waited in our parked car. Unfortunately, all the doors were locked and we could see through the windows that the place was closed.
Heading into town to try to find another place to get our passports stamped, Neek and I were amazed at how quiet it was and how many abandoned buildings there were. It felt like we were in an old Western movie; the only things missing were the sounds of a harmonica and the sight of rolling tumbleweeds! It’s an entrancing experience walking through a living ghost town.
We finally did find an open shop to get our passports stamped. We got back in the car and parked in front of a jewelry store called Trading Post. The woman behind the counter was very friendly and helpful. Not only did she stamp our Highway 50 booklets, she told us about how many of the businesses in Austin had closed during the recession, but that they were hopeful to get some of the places reopened in the future. The Main Street Shops, however, were closed because the owner’s son became ill and had to move him closer to the doctors who could help. We picked up some magazines and brochures about sites to see in Austin.
One of the places that sounded fascinating to us was Stokes Castle. It was built in 1897 by a wealthy eastern financier and local mine owner, Anson Phelps Stokes, for his wife. But supposedly she hated living there and the place was only used for two years. Though it has spectacular views up to 60 miles south and 35 miles north and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Stokes Castle is currently abandoned in an arrested state of decay.
We really wish we could have explored such a unique relic of the past. However, once we turned off Highway 50 to the road leading there, we realized the gravel would be too rough on our tires, especially after what they endured driving through the Wyoming snowstorm! So while Sar waited again by the car, Neek and I hiked up the road to see if we could find it. It took some time – we saw what looked like an old mine shaft on the way – but we did find it.
It was too far to walk to, but we did take some pictures. There was still so much we wanted to explore. Austin is definitely a town that invites further exploration!