There is plenty to see and do along the Veterans Highway in Nevada. This long road runs from Las Vegas to Carson City through the Great Basin Desert, so the trip is guaranteed to be quite a nice scenic drive, although the points of interest are few and far between. There are ghost towns, historic sites, State Parks and a few recreation areas along the way, so a long vacation could be planned for this travel route alone. The long drive on Highway 95 takes two days and the most popular midway stopping points are Tonopah or Hawthorne. For those who prefer car camping, the Walker Lake Recreation Area is a midway point stopover option that offers campsites with a nice view.The Fort Churchill State Historic Park also offers camping and there is nothing like doing an overnighter at an old abandoned U.S. Army fort that was built the mid 1800s!
Fort Churchill is related to many historic sites in this region that shaped Nevada statehood back in the mid 1800s. The neighboring Carson River provided life giving water to the natives and fur trappers in this harsh desert region, so this area was a prominent outpost for mountain men long before the army came into the picture. Local tribes occupied this land before the first of the Europeans first started showing up and this region was an important hunting ground. Kit Carson documented the importance of this region during his first few visits in the early days, which was a period of time that was the lull before the proverbial storm.
When gold was discovered in 1849, the flood gates were opened and thousands of prospectors from back east headed west. The pioneers soon followed and the Carson River region saw quite an influx of people passing through to California. The old native trail soon turn into a wagon road that eventually became the infamous California Trail. With the gold rush came lawlessness and several major skirmishes with the local Paiute Tribes, so Fort Churchill was built on the California Trail in an effort to maintain order.
Fort Churchill was supply line security and this fortress also played an important part in securing the Pony Express mail courier system in this desolate region of Nevada. The California Trail connected Pony Express delivery with points back east and Fort Churchill secured the courier route in this dangerous region.The information that was corresponded with government representatives back east was of vital importance during this age in history. Buckland Station is a related historic site that is located a few miles downstream on the Carson River. The Buckland Station Pony Express Stop was actually built with materials from Fort Churchill after this fort was abandoned. William Buckland also adopted the abandoned Fort Churchill Cemetery as his own family plot after the graves of the soldiers were exhumed.
Fort Churchill was abruptly abandoned, but this was not what the government originally intended. The construction of Fort Churchill was a major undertaking, because this was a full scale Union Army style fort in a very remote hostile location. Local materials were chosen, so the buildings were made out of adobe and wood. There was a water source at the nearby Carson River, but there was almost no hope for sustainability, because the dry soil in this high desert region simply could not produce enough food to support an army. Fort Churchill depended on wagon train supply lines, which were subject to raids from the native people and outlaw, so food supplies did not always make it through.
The local Paiute Tribes had no intention of surrendering their homeland, so the attacks on Fort Churchill were frequent. Many battles were fought in this region and finally the Union Army decided enough was enough. After quelling a few attacks and losing a few battles of their own, it was decided that occupying Fort Churchill was no longer a feasible proposition. After a short time, Fort Churchill was the very first fort to be completely abandoned by the U.S. Army.
After closing the fort down, much of Fort Churchill was salvaged as building materials for projects in this region. A lot of the wood from the fort was used to build the Buckland Station complex just down the trail. Just about everything of value was scalped and only the adobe walls of the fort remained. After nearly a century of neglect, the adobe walls at Fort Churchill were heavily eroded, but they were still in place. Efforts to preserve this old historic site began in the 1930s and the extensive erosion of the adobe walls was successfully put to a halt. In the mid 1900s Fort Churchill finally was designated as a historic site and it is now a State Park with campgrounds, picnic areas and a museum. The old Fort Churchill Cemetery still remains on site too.
Starting a tour of Fort Churchill at the visitor center and museum is the best thing to do, because this old fort has a lot of background information to share. Some old cannons and army equipment are on display in the museum, along with native heritage items. A walk through the visitors center museum will provide plenty of insight that can be reflected upon while strolling around the old adobe fortress.
From the visitor center museum, touring the old adobe fort is easy to do by car or on foot. There is a paved road touring loop that encircles the fort complex, so those who have mobility challenges can easily check this place out. Fort Churchill covers a lot of ground, so be sure to pack some water if hiking is the choice.
Upon first glance, the view of Fort Churchill is as surreal as it gets. The way that the eroded adobe walls were smoothed in the preservation process kind of resembles a Salvador Dali painting. The odd looking adobe buildings seem out of place in this pristine mountainous environment, yet the entire picture looks like it has always belonged as well. This remote location was a strange choice for a major fort complex and this thought adds to the perplexing visual effect. The dead silence of the desert adds to the experience as well, especially when the only sound heard is a raven call. Fort Churchill definitely is a surreal experience and this old eroded adobe fort showcases the follies of westward expansion.
When planning a trip to Carson City, Reno, Virginia City or Lake Tahoe, taking a scenic drive into the Great Basin Desert to visit Fort Churchill State Historic Park is definitely a must to do! For those who wish to get away from it all, camping onsite at the old fort or at the nearby Walker Lake Recreation Area is a good choice. Fort Churchill may be way out in the middle of nowhere just like it always was, but this old historic site is well worth checking out because the surreal visual experience is so unique. This historic Nevada destination is where the west was won, lost and abandoned, so for history buffs it does not get much better than this!
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