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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Stead and Red Rock

Helicopters, Astronauts and Other Birds
March, 2007
By John Evanoff

From around 1942 to 1950, the Reno Army Airport served as a small training base for the Army Air Corps at what is now Reno Stead Airfield, the home of the National Championship Air Races. Reno and the northern communities of Anderson and Lemon Valley supported the base with labor and material. The base was used primarily for training with cargo planes but was also used for occasional war games and training with bombers and fighters of the era. In 1951, the base was renamed Stead in honor of a P-51 Mustang pilot named Croston Stead, brother of Bill Stead, who owned the huge Stead Hereford Ranch in Spanish Springs Valley that was bought by his mother and father back in 1930. Bill was an avid flier himself and a World War II ace to boot. Bill Stead started the Reno Championship Air Races in 1964 at the old Sky Ranch airport, which was next to the Pyramid Lake Highway where a shopping center now sits. The little dirt runway was a pebbly menace to the blades and wings of the sleek and speedy racing birds for two years until the Stead Air Force Base was closed and the City of Reno took over the field, changed its name to Stead Airfield and moved the races to the well paved and much longer and safer air strips.

During the Korean War and throughout the late 50’s, the Strategic Air Command set up business at Stead Air Force Base and a large radar facility was linked with NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command. One of the very first (SAGE) Semi-Automatic Ground Environment logistic computer stations was set up at that facility in 1962. Helicopter training was also a big part of the training operations at the field throughout late 1950’s and into the early 1960’s. I remember many of the early helicopters of the period flying over Reno and the north valleys like the Bell H-13 Sioux, the Hiller H-23 Raven, the H-19 Chickasaw, the H-25 Army Mule and the CH-35 Choctaw. I also remember F-86 Saber Jets, B-47 Stratojets, T-33 T-Birds, C119 Flying Box Cars, C46 Commandos and of course the all purpose C47 Goonie Birds or Skytrains as they flew over our heads almost every day in the 1950’s.

In 1961, due to the shooting down of Frances Gary Powers in his U-2 spy plane over Russia, the Air Field and surrounding mountains and valleys served as the key survival training area for some of the world’s most heroic military pilots. The most rigorous of the training classes and what made the region stand out from all the other bases in the rest of the country was the Evasion, Resistance and Escape course taught at Stead. Officers and non-commissioned pilots were given hands-on training in survival tactics in the harsh desert and mountain terrain under grueling simulations. Although the actual class was only three weeks long, many military men who went through the training north of Reno still recall its demanding and stressful exercises. Because of the success of the survival training school with pilots at the U.S. Air Force Survival School at Stead, the newly created National Aerospace Space Agency at Cape Canaveral, Florida decided astronauts needed a place to practice staying alive. Thus, the Astronaut Desert Survival School was initiated. The entire Mercury Project astronaut crew went through survival training in the mountains and valleys north of Stead. For a period of five years, every astronaut in the space program through Mercury and Gemini had to perform to the highest standards and certification of the survival training course.

You can visit the countryside these famous pilots once wandered in training by just driving north on Highway 395 past the Stead turnoff where you will come to the Red Rock Road exit. Turn right and travel the road north past Silver Knolls and into the high desert valley of Red Rock. Red Rock Road eventually winds around the north end of Rancho Haven and meets up with Highway 395 again, but take the time to travel some of the side roads that are well traveled and you’ll find some beautiful Northern Nevada mountains and valleys all the way north to the base of Dog Skin and Tule Mountains next to Winnemucca Ranch and Pyramid Lake. If you have a four wheel drive or a good mountain bike, this area is fantastic to visit and explore. Bring your camera and plenty of water and food. The outing is one of my favorites for an afternoon picnic or a quick camera outing. Several roads lead off to the left of Red Rock Road and into the mountain sides of Peterson Mountain near Rancho Haven. These hills are great for hiking but strenuous for unskilled climbers. Several springs including Mud Springs, Summit Springs and Lake Springs meander down their canyons for several hundred yards in the spring time. These are perfect opportunities to see the wildlife in the area. You’ll see so many hawks, owls, eagles and falcons, you’ll come back again and again throughout the spring and summer to photograph them hunting and perching on cliff rocks high above the valley. These valleys are full of horse ranches and if you have a horse, saddle it up for a ride. You and your horse will be pleasantly surprised at the openness and freedom of the range. If you keep on the small dirt roads moving north of Granite Peak, Red Rock Valley, Porcupine Mountain and Seven Lakes Mountain, you’ll eventually find Dogskin Mountain, the Winnemucca Valley and Tule Peak. There are even four wheel drive trails that go even further north into Fish Springs in the southern Honey Lake Valley which I spoke of in the last column.

All the mountains, canyons and valleys in this region are spectacular during the spring and early summer. Autumn brings the mule deer down after the first snow on the high peaks and this area is one of the few remaining places where you can see the herds move from the high Sierras north into the grassy valleys just prior to winter. I remember in the early 1950’s seeing as many as two hundred deer moving at once out of Dog Valley north over Anderson Hill into Cold Springs and even further north into Red Rock Valley.

Red Rock Canyon at the western edge of Red Rock Valley has the regions namesake Red Rock on the north side of the canyon. The reddish hues and other brilliant shades of crimson make the hillsides and canyon a spectacular place to capture still color photos of the beautiful Northern Nevada high desert.

Next month we will discover a northern valley no one wanted to claim as their own except a pig farmer and what later became the most sought after piece of real estate anywhere in the region. We will also visit three valleys north of there named Lemon, Antelope and Hungry, an odd set of names with unusual tales to be told.


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