Nevada History by John C. Evanoff

Visitreno.com is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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Carson City

Prison, Pinion and the Pine Nut Range
August, 2007 (Chapter Three of Three Chapters)
By John Evanoff


East of Carson City, history brings together so many diverse tales; one wonders if the land might be star-crossed. If you were to look from a plane’s cockpit windows as I have on occasion, you would see an “S” shaped mountain range named the Pine Nut Mountains. The shape comes from the winding Carson River and tributaries that dot the landscape between Dayton on Highway 50 at the north end and Holbrook Junction on Highway 395 south at the other end. This range was the home of a large band of the Washoe Paiute Indians for more than three thousand years. Some stories written in rock hieroglyphs date humankind living in these hills back to more than 10,000 years ago. What is now the home of the Stewart Indian Colony just a few miles off Highway 395 south of Carson on Snyder Avenue (SR 518), a well kept museum in the old school house there best exemplifies the lives of the Washoe Indians who lived here successfully for many thousands of years. What kept them in this region were the pinion nuts, a pine nut from the Pinion Pine Tree which covers the hillsides here. The meat of the pinion nut was harvested for its vast resources of protein, carbohydrates and fat. Some were dried and pounded into a powder, then rolled into animal fat and water to a doughy texture and then into balls. The balls of pinion meat were then placed into finely crafted willow and tule bags and baskets for use throughout the hard winter as a major food source, but more on that later. You can see the grinding bowls and rock basins in many of the granite canyons all along the Carson River beside the Pine Nut Range.

The whites didn’t come through until the early 1840’s and didn’t begin to live here until the late 1850’s. Both Dayton and Genoa were the area’s first towns of significance, but it wasn’t until Gold and Silver was discovered in nearby Virginia City that the hordes began to come in droves, including some who were desperate and wild. In 1861, a group of Nevada Territorial legislators leased the Warm Springs Hotel east of Carson City as the prison and named the landlord the warden. For the period, the warden job was the best job in the area. Only a few dozen prisoners were kept in the prison and most were given a pick and hammer to pound out quarry rocks for the building of the original prison walls and for sale for many housing foundations in the region. You can still see some of the original prison walls by heading east off Highway 395 south from south Carson City on East 5th Street. Many a warden gained notoriety and power by overseeing the Nevada State Maximum Security Prison. Prisoners regarded it as a reclusive and hard way of life and the ones who left its gates as free men, never wished to return. The quarries north of 5th Street and near the river claimed a few prisoners through the hardships endured there, but the prisoners also found fossils of mammoth, sloth and the small north American horse that used to live in the area more than 60,000 years ago. Some of those fossils can still be viewed at the Nevada State Museum in downtown Carson City. The Northern Nevada State Correctional Center south of the Stewart Indian Reservation houses minimum and medium security prisoners for the state and runs Silver State Industries where inmates use taught labor skills to build furniture, mattresses; create linens, bindings and metal products; and even complete auto and truck restorations. The sales of goods and services from these labors helps defray the annual costs of the prison system. One of the things least known about the Correctional Center and Conservation Camp at Stewart is the use of minimum security inmates for putting out forest and range fires when needed.

If you drive east on Highway 50 from Carson towards Empire, once a sizeable site for lumber and ore milling during the Comstock days, you’ll find a road going south called North Deer Run Road. This is one of the few bridges crossing the Carson River and the road leads up river to Brunswick Canyon which moves right into the heart of the Pine Nut Range. Another bridge less used is a right off of East 5th Street going south on Hells Bells Road (SR 513) which turns into Pinion Hills Drive on the east side of the Carson River. From there, you have a choice of a dozen roads that lead up to Brunswick Canyon. From the top of the canyon you can take a number of four-wheel drive roads, trails and bike paths along the entire crest all the way to Topaz Lake at the south end of the Pine Nut Range. A good topo map and compass are necessary to keep your bearings, but the area is one of my favorite for true high desert flavor. The hills are alive with deer, coyote, rabbit, porcupine, badger, wild mustang and burrow and of course, quail, chucker, sage hen, a number of species of hawks and watch out for rattle snakes. The trick to quite solitude is to stay in the higher canyons away from civilization and the main four wheel drive roads so you have the trails to yourself. Mountain biking in these hills is the best way to see the most country in the shortest period of time, but if you have a horse, this is the area of Nevada most treasured by riders, because it is fairly easy on your steed and is near fresh water and grass on most of the back trail. From Bismark Peak at more than 7500 feet, Mineral Peak at 8300 feet and Mount Como at 9000 feet in elevation, you’ll get spectacular views of Carson City and the Carson Valley to the west and the little Pine Nut Valley just below the western summit of Mount Como. Trail hiking or riding to the south Pine Nut Range, you’ll come upon many old mines and Mount Siegle and Oreana Peak, both around 9400 feet in elevation. Looking east you’ll see the entire Smith Valley, Artesia Lake Nevada State Wildlife Area and some areas even further east past Yerington. From this ridge, you can traverse along several trails and roads on either side of the hills to eventually come out on NSR 208 to the south and southeast or Highway 395 to the west and southwest. The hike east of Oreana Peak is extremely steep and some cliffs fall as much as five hundred feet into the canyons below, but the views are spectacular including Nevada Hot Springs at the base of the eastern rock face. Plan your route ahead of time and be sure of your trail before making the trip. The entire route can be hiked or horseback ridden in less than two or three days and if you have a mountain bike, you may be able to make it in less than a couple. My advise is to break the trail up into several small day trips from the north around Brunswick Canyon to the top of Bismark Peak; another trip to Mount Como from Pine Nut Valley and the east side of Carson Valley and Gardnerville; and another trip to the lower Pine Nut Range from Highway 395 South just east of Dresserville and south of Gardnerville east on Pinenut Road and following one of the many well driven dirt roads up through Fish Spring or Pine Nut Creek to the base of Mount Siegle near the old Slaters Mine. September is my favorite month to hike these hills because of the strong smell of the Pinion Pine and harvesting a sack of pinion nuts to bring home to cook is just about as memorable as the sweet taste it will leave in your mouth through the fall while munching on them and watching a University of Nevada football game. The Indians used to pick the cones from the trees just before they began to drop in the fall. They used long forked willow sticks to force them from the limbs and the children would pick the fallen cones off the ground. The cones would then be placed into large sagebrush woven baskets and taken to camp where the nuts were carefully picked from their sap laden lair. Some of the tribes living near hot springs used the heat of the water to melt the sticky sap from the cones and when left for a time, the cones would actually open enough to allow for easy nut picking. The nuts were then quickly boiled or roasted depending on if the camp was near a hot spring and stripped of their shells through a winnowing process. I have found the best way to cook them is to wash them after picking them from their cones and placing them on a cookie sheet with a light sprinkle of salt across the top and baked at 320 degrees for about 15 to 20 minutes depending on the amount of nuts and how you like them cooked; the shorter the time, the softer the meat. Once they cool for just a few minutes, place them in a bowl with another empty bowl beside you for shells. Take each one, place it between your teeth and make a slight twisting bite until just the outside of the nut cracks and the warm nut meat can be easily pulled from the inside. What is left are the two halves of the shelled nut in the shell bowl and a big smile on your face as you munch away on this fantastic Nevada treat. I don’t remember anyone who can stop eating them until they are completely gone.

Next month, we will hike Olinghouse Canyon north of Wadsworth and into the Pah Rah Range where you may find yourself viewing the lights of Reno and Sparks to the west in the evening and rocks covered with lichen and ancient hieroglyphs in the morning, all while overlooking the entire Truckee Meadows and Truckee River Canyon from Verdi to Pyramid Lake.


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