Fort Churchill attracts history buffs, outdoorsy types

A remnant of Nevada’s turbulent years as a U.S. territory, Fort Churchill figured prominently in frontier times, particularly during the Civil War.

Today, the old fort’s history and a great deal more is preserved as Fort Churchill State Historic Park. Stark ruins of adobe walls and stone foundations mark the perimeter of the original parade ground, a bustling site back when the fort was manned by a couple of hundred soldiers and served as a supply depot for regional military activities.

Situated about halfway between Carson City and Fallon, Fort Churchill is about 350 miles from Las Vegas. Head north on U.S. Highway 95 to the junction with U.S. Highway 50 in Fallon, then drive west on U.S. 50 toward Carson City. At Silver Springs, turn south on U.S. 95A and drive eight miles to the park entrance road. Nevada residents pay a $5 entrance fee; nonresidents pay $7.

The park encompasses the remains of the fort, acquired in 1957, the adjacent 2,300-acre Carson River Ranches, purchased in 1994, and Buckland Station, added in 1997. The state-owned property creates a recreational and environmental corridor linking Fort Churchill with nearby Lahontan State Recreation Area. The corridor attracts birders, kayakers, hikers, mountain bikers, horsemen and photographers.

The park’s visitor center and headquarters occupy a former barracks. The structure was restored by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s during a period when the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution worked to save the historical site. The sturdy building contains artifacts and exhibits on Fort Churchill’s history, regional Native American cultures, natural features and plants and animals of the area.

Fort Churchill State Historic Park includes a main picnic area near the visitor center, a small picnic site near Buckland Station, a 20-unit main campground, a smaller campground suited for equestrians, and group areas. Most sites are shaded by trees along the river. There is no charge for use of the picnic sites. Campsites are available on a first-come basis, except for the group sites. There are no RV hookups. Nevadans pay $15 per night to camp and nonresidents $17. Group and equestrian sites cost more.

Miles of trails were developed with volunteer assistance. A popular self-guided short trail explores the ghostly ruins of the fort. The Orchard Trail follows the river from the campground to Buckland Station, then continues through the Carson River Ranches section.

The 19-room Buckland Station was once a family home, stage stop, Pony Express station and hotel. The white two-story structure stands along U.S. 95A about half a mile south of the park entrance road. Built in 1870 by pioneer rancher Samuel Buckland, the station was strategically placed on Buckland’s toll road at a river crossing that he built along a busy overland trail. Buckland’s livestock, poultry, gardens and orchards supplied the fort, travelers and his family. His blacksmith shop repaired wagons and shod horses.

Call the park at 775-577-4880 to arrange a tour of Buckland Station. It is now restored, refurnished and open on weekends for a toll of $1.

Buckland’s enterprises had just been established in 1860 when trouble with the native Paiutes led to the Pyramid Lake War. After three men at a nearby way station kidnapped and abused two Paiute girls, Paiutes rescued the girls, killed the men and retreated to Pyramid Lake. Carson City Mayor William Ormsby assembled 105 militia volunteers and led them into an ambush in which he and 70 of his men were killed.

In response to territorial demands for help, U.S. Army officials ordered construction of Fort Churchill, which was completed in 1861. The Paiutes were defeated in the second and final battle of the war.

Fort Churchill remained active through 1869. When the Army auctioned off everything at the fort, Buckland purchased it all for $750 and used the salvaged material to build a new hotel.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.

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