Nevada: Prisms & Perspectives
Welcome to Nevada: Prisms & Perspectives, the latest version of the Nevada Historical Society's museum gallery in the Wilbur S. Shepperson Gallery. Nevada: Prisms & Perspectives utilizes the Historical Society's extensive collections of artifacts, photographs, documents and maps to tell five crucial stories about life in the Silver State. Each story is complete in itself, but all five-- "Living on the Land," "Riches from the Earth," "Passing Through," "Neon Nights," and "Federal Presence"--are intimately related to each other. In the Shepperson Gallery we have included some of the jewels of the collection to tell these stories. Please join us in experiencing Nevada's fascinating heritage.
The Society has a permanent gallery dedicated to Reno's history.
Living on the Land
Although the land of the eastern Sierra Nevada and the Great Basin appears to be a hard place, people have been taking their living from the land here for over 10,000 years. From the earliest times, Native Nevadans learned to live lightly on the land, taking only what they needed. About 1,000 years ago, the Anazazi built adobe towns and farmed the rich bottom lands of the Virginia and Muddy river valleys, until they moved on to the south and east, likely as the ancestors of the modern Hopi and Zuñi. More recently, four major groups have occupied what is now Nevada. The Washoe are in the corner around Lake Tahoe, the center of their spiritual world. The Northern Paiute range stretches into what is now Oregon and Idaho, and to the southwest toward the Owens Valley. To the east, the Western Shoshone fill the middle section, and the Southern Paiute range includes parts of Nevada and Utah.
When Euroamericans, white people, began arriving in the Great Basin in the 1820s, they first sought wealth in the form of beaver pelts to be used in the making of fashionable hats. As some came to stay, they turned to farming and ranching. By the last part of the century, traditional Native American life was no longer possible in Nevada, and many of the state's indigenous inhabitants turned to the new ranches and towns for jobs. Some women adapted ancient arts to new markets. Most notable of these was the Washoe basketmaker Dat-so-la-lee. Today ranching and farming continue to prosper in Nevada. Although most of the Silver State's towns were founded to support mining or transportation, some have always been agricultural centers as well. Today, in addition to dairy and meat and wool, Nevada's ranchers and farmers produce alfalfa, garlic, potatoes and onions.
Riches from the Earth
The Great Basin has been the source of fabulous mineral wealth for thousands of years. From the earliest times Native Nevadans mined salt and turquoise. More recently, prospectors and soldiers heading back east from the Mexican-American War and the first wave of the California Gold Rush found traces of the yellow metal in streams on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Real excitement began in 1859, when placer miners panning the streams of Gold Canyon in the Virginia Mountains discovered that the blue clay that had been seen as a nuisance was really remarkably rich silver ore.
The "Rush to Washoe" brought thousands of '49ers flocking in the renewed hope of finding their fortunes. Mining in Nevada was different than in California, and it soon became apparent that large amounts of capital and new technology were going to be needed to extract the silver from the Comstock Lode. New cities--Virginia City, Gold Hill, Silver City--were built to house, feed, and entertain the thousands of miners and their families who came to work in the mines. Owners and speculators got rich, everyone else worked for wages, good wages of $4 per day, but wages, nonetheless.
Mining brought modern American civilization to Nevada. Comstock Lode silver and gold built the stock exchange in San Francisco, helped pay for the Civil War, and fostered statehood for Nevada. All over the state--from Treasure Hill to Eureka to Austin to Belmont to Candelaria to Columbia to El Dorado Canyon--mining camps boomed, grew into instant cities, and then went bust, sometimes in the space of a few months. Men and women from all the continents of the earth came to make their fortunes; the fortunate made a living. With easy access to wealth, railroads and the telegraph, they could be part of the nation and acquire all of the new products that were coming from industrial America. It did not last, however. For over twenty years, there was nothing, the people left, and the state almost blew away.
In 1902 Tonopah in central Nevada suddenly boomed, followed in a few years by the even more fabulous Goldfield. About the same time, large-scale copper mining started in White Pine County. Since then, mining has continued to be an important element in Nevada's economy. Today the Silver State is the largest gold-producer in the nation, and many industrial minerals are pulled from the earth.
People have been getting across what is now Nevada, on their way to somewhere else, for decades. Interstate 80, in fact, which is just about a mile south of here, is the latest version of U.S. 40, which was the Victory Highway, which was built along the route of the Central Pacific end of the transcontinental railroad, which was laid along the path of the old wagon road the Donner Party took to get to California, which was also the route into the Sierra Nevada which took John C. Frémont and his party to Lake Tahoe, which was the path the Washoes used to move into the mountains from the north for the summer season. East of Reno and the Forty-Mile Desert, this modern superhighway follows the old Humboldt River route that brought so many pioneers to the Far West.
Nevada has been on the way to somewhere else for thousands of years. For most of that time, people walked on their own two feet to pass through. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, however, Euroamericans (white people from east of the Mississippi River and south of the Colorado River) came in on horseback, using horses, mules and oxen to haul wagons. With the introduction of wheeled vehicles, it became necessary to lay out and maintain roads, not just trails. Freight and stage coach lines grew up in the 1860s to service the many mining camps that were spread across the Great Basin.
In 1867 the Central Pacific Railroad laid the first track, down from the Sierra Nevada into the Truckee Meadows, on the way to linking the transcontinental railway with the Union Pacific at Promontory Point in Utah in 1869. It was not long before a number of short-line railroads, including the Virginia and Truckee and the Carson and Colorado, were built to link various towns in Nevada with the main line. By the 1880s, bicycling was on its way to becoming a national craze, and the first true highways were laid out to provide safe cycling. The new mining camps of Tonopah and Goldfield, shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, benefitted from a growing number of automobiles, which in turn opened up the tourism market for Nevada after the end of World War II. In the 1920s the federal government pioneered air mail routes across Nevada, and commercial aviation eventually grew to be a giant.
Nevada is known around the world as a land of enchantment, offering fun, food, and instant fortune. It's the place to go to do things you shouldn't do at home. And that doesn't mean just gambling. The Corbett-Fitzsimmons championship boxing match in 1897 was the first time Nevada attracted national attention for allowing an event that was illegal everywhere else. About the same time, the state's liberal residency laws (six weeks eventually) began attracting the attention of unhappy husbands and wives, who began to make the trek to Nevada for "Renovation," easy divorce, and sometimes, a quick marriage. Hotels, dude ranches, boarding houses, casinos, bars and restaurants met the challenge of increased traffic through the 1920s. Casino gambling was sanctioned by the legislature in 1931 as a business move, designed to protect and bolster the tourist trade in the face of the Depression.
The early casinos in both Reno and Las Vegas were dark and smoky dives where no good woman would be seen. As soldiers and sailors came through Nevada on the way to the Pacific Coast during World War II, a new prosperity hit the clubs and they began to expand and improve. With the wildcat growth of California after the war, the markets north and south all took off and the clubs went right along. In Reno that meant bigger and better, with expansion soon coming on the south shore of nearby Lake Tahoe. In Las Vegas the new clubs were built out of the downtown, on the Los Angeles highway, which became the "Strip." The old "sawdust joints" gave way to luxury resorts built by California's hottest architects and displaying the most fantastic themes.
Visit our On-line tour of Neon Nights
Although Nevada is the seventh largest state in the Union, the federal government owns 87 percent of the land. That simple fact has made the Federal Presence central to the development of the Silver State in the twentieth century. Federal water reclamation programs had their start with the Newlands Project in 1902, which took water from the Carson and Truckee rivers to make the desert around Fallon bloom. The fact that the Paiute fishery at Pyramid Lake was hurt in the process has led to the longest-running federal law suit in history, still unresolved. The construction of Hoover Dam (1931-1935) on the Colorado River brought abundant water and electrical power to Clark County in the south and sparked the transformation of Las Vegas from a division point on the railroad into a vast playground for adults and one of the fastest growing cities in the country.
With World War II came thousands of men and women in the military services, passing through and staying to work in defense industries. Huge military bases sprouted up throughout the state. After the war, the testing of nuclear bombs spurred further growth. Even today, after the testing has ended, Nevada is facing federal pressure to become the storehouse for the nation's nuclear waste. Not only is the federal government the main landlord in Nevada, federal policies and actions have had a great impact on the Silver State's growth and development.