Austin, Nevada

austin nevada true west magazine
Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan was a member of Clarence King’s Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel when he photographed Austin, Nevada, in 1868. In just six years the silver boomtown along the old Pony Express Trail in the desert of central Nevada had attracted over 10,000 residents. – All Images Courtesy TravelNevada Unless Otherwise Noted –

Austin’s founding happened in 1862 when a Pony Express horse kicked over a rock and behold— a jackpot in silver! But that’s only one version of how this town was born. Another has it that William Talcott made the strike while hauling wood out of Pony Canyon.

The resulting boom drew 10,000 people and lasted until the mines played out in the 1880s.

Whatever the truth, both stories live on in this central Nevada community, home to fewer than 200 hearty souls. “We’re in the Toiyabe Mountains at 6,600 feet and small,” says Candace Kelly, office coordinator for the chamber of commerce. “Our school system has seven full-time children, but we’re friendly and have lots of history.”

Three of Austin’s churches are among the West’s oldest. St. George’s Episcopal was built in 1878 and is still in use. The 1866 Methodist Church serves as Austin’s town hall.

St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, built of native brick and stone, held its first mass on Christmas Eve 1866, and the priest charged $1 admission to limit the crowd. The building, one of 11 on the National Register of Historic Places, is being restored as a cultural center.

stokes castle
The Stokes Castle, the grandiose vision of mining magnate Anson Philip Stokes, stands on a bluff above U.S. 50 near the western entrance of Austin as a testament to the wealth generated by silver in Nevada in the 19th century.

With its church spires reaching to the sky, the so-called City of Churches is great for picture-taking, and walkers love the authenticity of an old mining outpost.

Other buildings on the Register include the 1871 courthouse and Nevada’s oldest bank building, built in 1863 and now the town library.

The quaint Austin Museum, open only in warm weather, showcases vintage furniture and clothing, mining gear, antique saddles and old photos.

Stop at Jason’s Art Gallery to buy striking samples of Nevada turquoise. The International Café & Bar began as a hotel in Virginia City, built in 1859. Parts of it were moved to Austin in 1863 and it’s still there, serving food and drinks in                     an historic atmosphere.

Over July 4th weekend, the town holds a parade and barbecue, and in September folks love the Prospector’s Dream Wine Walk and Sunset Dinner.

In exchange for buying a ticket, participants get a wineglass, and accompanied by live music, walk down Main Street where business owners pour them a drink. That evening, the group—some 150 people—gather at Stokes Castle for dinner.

“The setting overlooks the Reese River Valley at sunset and is so beautiful,” says Kelly.

Mine owner Anson Stokes built the castle in 1897. Visitors can’t go inside, but the three-story structure, modeled after a Medieval tower Stokes saw near Rome, is well worth a look.

At the county building, get a map of original Pony Express stations along Highway 50, which runs through town. Life magazine in 1986 dubbed it the “ Loneliest Highway in America.”

austin nevada downtown true west magazine
The historic city of Austin, Nevada, welcomes visitors to explore its historic downtown.

The Cold Springs and Sand Springs stations are now rock ruins, but historical markers tell the story of the lonely outposts. At Sand Springs: “A few rough poles stuck in the sand and covered with cloth. Several holes have been shoveled out of the sand. These are the springs. Warm and unwholesome.”—William C. Moss, August 22, 1861.

The endless open country around town offers bountiful outdoor fun. Spencer Hot Springs has pools to soothe your weary bones. Set between the Toiyabe and Toquima ranges, likely snow-covered in winter, the views are tremendous as you drop into steaming, 140-degree water and say, “Ahhh!”

At Toquima Caves, hike a short trail up stone steps to an array of yellow, black and white pictographs, painted by ancient Shoshones. If the weather’s right, drive the gravel road through Kingston Canyon, 30 miles away, to see scenery alive with wildlife.

Fun Fact: In 1868, Austin authorities hanged murderer Rufus Anderson three times. On the first two tries, he fell through the trap and thudded to the ground, alive. As horrified onlookers protested, Rufus was roped to a chair and hanged sitting down.

austin nevada museum true west magazine
Like many of Nevada’s earliest 19th-century communities, the discovery of rich silver veins led to Austin’s boom and bust mining economy. The Austin Historical Society Museum’s exhibits tell the story of the day-to-day life of a silver miner in the area.

Where History Meets The Highway

The historic city of Austin, Nevada, welcomes visitors to explore its historic downtown.  To start your trip, visit the Greater Austin Area Chamber of Commerce, 122 Main Street. AustinNevada.com

HIGHWAY 50 SURVIVAL KIT

Stop at the chamber for a Highway 50 Survival Kit, a booklet about the road. After the chamber stamps it, mail the book to the Nevada Commission on Tourism, which will send back a certificate stating, “I survived the loneliest highway in America.” Says Kelly: “We just had people from the Netherlands come in a second time. Europeans especially are fascinated by the vastness of the Nevada landscape.”

AustinNevada.com

SEE THE GRIDLEY STORE

Reuel Gridley became famous in 1864 for losing a bet that forced him to carry a 50-pound sack of flour down Main Street. To raise money for Civil War veterans, the sack was auctioned off many times around the West, accumulating $275,000. Mark Twain told Gridley’s story in Roughing It. The store, built in 1863 and on the National Register, is closed to the public.

TravelNevada.com

austin nevada historical museum true west magazine
A pioneer home exhibit at the Austin Historical Society Museum provides a window into the daily lives of women and families in the central Nevada boomtown. Before the railroad arrived in 1880, all household goods came by freight wagon.

HICKISON PETROGLYPHS

Twenty-four miles from Austin off Highway 50, see remarkable rock carvings dating to 10,000 B.C. At the overlook, watch for wild burros roaming the valley.

BLM.gov

THE LUCKY SPUR SALOON

For a drink amid endless sagebrush in Kingston, visit this saloon, named Best Bar in the Middle of Nowhere by Men’s Health magazine. The views from every barstool go on forever.

TravelNevada.com

austin nevada church true west magazine
Austin is well known for its historic architecture, including three of the West’s oldest settler-built churches, including St. George’s Episcopal Church, an active parish since 1878.

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