The Nevada town of Austin plays host to ghosts and other visitors as part of its special summer events during the 24th annual Gridley Days Celebration, June 13-15. A former mining queen, Austin now trades on her colorful past and exploits her superb mountain setting to draw visitors to Central Nevada.
Austin’s Main Street forms part of U.S. 50, a scenic and historic route across the Silver State known as the “Loneliest Road in America” because of the vast distances it covers and the light traffic it carries. The highway roughly parallels the route of the Pony Express riders as they rode relay across 300 miles of Nevada Territory before it became a state in 1864.
Perched in a pass at the northern end of the towering Toiyabe Range, Austin’s location indicates its mining origins, an unlikely site for any other kind of town. In her day, Austin counted 10,000 residents, ranking as the second largest town in Nevada. In the boom and bust cycle common to mining towns, Austin survives today as a shadow of her former self with fewer than 350 residents.
Austin lies 326 miles from Las Vegas, near the geographical center of the state. A common approach uses U.S. 95 northwest to Tonopah to U.S. 6, then north on Nevada Highway 376 through Smoky Valley to access U.S. 50 a few miles east of Austin. Other routes from Las Vegas head north to Ely to reach U.S. 50 and cut west for Austin. Reach Ely either on U.S. 93 or on the shorter U.S. 93/Highway 318/U.S. 6 approach. Any route you choose to get to Austin, come home another way to experience more of Nevada’s splendid scenic interior.
Legend has it that the silver rush to the Reese River area, upon which Austin was founded, began with a stone kicked over by a passing Pony Express horse in 1862. The exciting strike drew thousands of people by 1863, despite the remote location and lack of access. Central to a thriving mining region, Austin rapidly grew. Soon it had banks, bawdy houses, saloons, stores, stables, restaurants, residences, newspapers, hotels and churches.
Although time, changing fortune and disaster claimed parts of Austin, significant remnants of its glory years remain. The Lander County Courthouse still stands, although repurposed since 1979, when Battle Mountain replaced Austin as the county seat. Three beautiful churches still grace the town. The lovely 1878 Episcopal church still serves parishioners, while the 1866 Methodist church now serves as a community center. St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, constructed in 1866, will become a cultural center for Central Nevada. Now a restaurant, the old International Hotel came in pieces to Austin from Virginia City.
One of the state’s strangest buildings sits at the western edge of Austin. Stokes Castle, constructed of locally quarried granite by mining magnate Anson Stokes in 1896-97, replicated a tower Stokes had seen in Italy. The three-story structure served as a summer residence for the Stokes family for just one season.
The old Gridley Store still anchors the town’s high end. Owner R.C. Gridley, upon losing an 1864 election bet, carried a 50-pound bag of flour up through town to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” While post-race libations flowed in the local hotspots, the sack of flour made the rounds at auction. Auctioned many times, it raised $6,000 for the Sanitary Commission, the Civil War precursor of the Red Cross. Other towns challenged Austin and the sack of flour toured the country. Its repeated auctions raised $275,000 for the cause to help battlefield casualties.
Austin’s annual Gridley Days festivities include a re-creation of the race with the sack of flour, racing downhill with a 10-pound bag. The Red Cross now benefits from the auction proceeds. The weekend celebration includes ghostly walks through historic sites, Irish and Scottish folk music, community breakfasts and barbecues, a parade, an evening street dance, games and tournaments.
Austin offers overnight visitors three small motels, two tiny bed and breakfast inns and two small RV parks. Campers find additional sites in Toiyabe National Forest. Those planning to stay for Gridley Days need reservations, or plans to stay in other Central Nevada towns. Contact the Austin Chamber of Commerce for details at (775) 964-2200, 946-2447 or www.austinnevada.com.
Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears Sundays.