Travels in the American Southwest
Austin
GPS N39 29.533 W117 04.185
US50
Road factor/Accessability - Two lane paved
~327 miles from Las Vegas

Born on May 2, 1862 when by a twist of fate, William H. Talcott (some say Talbott) discovered silver while hauling wood. His horse dislodged a chunk of quartz that Talcott had assayed in Virginia City. His secret didn't last long!Austin Courthouse One year later, fast growing Austin became the county seat with 10,000 residents. Schools, saloons, banks, newspapers, stores, churches and 366 homes had been built in that one short year. By 1864, there were five preachers, a dozen doctors and thirty-three lawyers. Austin remained a metropolis until the mines ran dry in the 1880's after $50 million in ore had been extracted.

More info.

Although there were many newspapers in the old west, little remains of the written word. A happy exception to this rule is the Reese River Reveille. First published in 1873, many clippings from the paper exist through a compilation in book form to which one of my sources alluded. The clippings, written by Fred H. Hart, Editor and Publisher, detail a peaceful Austin lacking in the magnitude of crimes and violence found in most other boomtowns. Crime did occur in Austin and punishment was swift as was discovered by at least one murderer who was lynched by vigilantes. Since trees were scarce, the man was hanged from the small balcony on the Lander County Courthouse. Despite this,  Hart didn't sensationalize local crime. Instead, he used his editorial position to convey everyday life and the humor of the time.

From  Edwin Corle's "Desert Country":
A well dressed gentleman [from the east] arrived in Austin looking unsuccessfully for the Smith Family. He asked a local boy if he knew of the Smith Family. The boy replied, "There's Big Smith, Little Smith, Three-fingered Smith, Bottlenose Smith, Cockey Smith, Six-toed Smith, San Joaquin Smith, Lying Smith, Mushhead Smith, Jumping Smith, Cherokee Smith, One-legged Smith, Fighting Smith, Red-headed Smith, Sugar-foot Smith, Bowlegged Smith, Squaw Smith, Drunken Smith, El Dorado Smith, Hungry smith and I don't know, maybe one or two more." "My son," said the gentleman, "the Smith I am in search of possesses to his name none of the heathenish prefixes you have mentioned. His name is simply John Smith."
"All them fellows is named John," laughed the boy.

Or this entry:
We received this morning from a Philadelphia publishing house a printed list of questions about Austin, with a polite request that we would write our answers to the questions and return the list to the parties sending it. One of the questions was: "What are the manufactures of Austin?" The only reply we could truthfully make to this question was: "Silver bricks and children."

Hart receives credit for the naming of the Sazerac Lying Club, a group of a dozen or so '49ers and other old-timers who met at the Sazerac Saloon to swap tall tales. There was the stagecoach driver, mail carrier and others who could spin a tale and I'll bet Hart participated, too. One evening a contest was breaking out, the winner raising the bar for all others by claiming to have seen a pile of silver 40 feet high, 17 feet wide and 7 miles long! Needing filler for the next day's paper, Hart wrote that the tale teller was elected President of the Lying Club. Later that day, the furious "president" took Hart to task. The following day Hart acknowledged his mistake, writing, "This was in error. He was defeated." Honor was restored and I'm sure the tall tales continued as the Sazerac Saloon.

Why was Austin such a peaceable community? Perhaps its three churches had a calming effect of the citizens.
There's Augustine's Catholic Church, built in 1866. So many of the faithful wanted to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve that the pastor, Fr. Monteverde, charged the worshippers $1.00  each to limit the crowd.
The Methodist Church, also built in 1866 was financed by donated stocks which were parlayed into the methodist Mining Company by the pastor.
St. George's Episcopal Church was the late-comer  being built in 1877. Pledges of $20 gold were obtained from the worshippers after hearing Rev. Blackiston's Easter sermon...Enough for the building, bell and pipe organ.

Church in AustinEpiscopal Church in Austin

Citizen Extrodinaire - Now there's a title you don't hear every day! And if Reuel Colt Gridley of Austin, Nevada was such a man, I can understand why. With a little showmanship, this part owner of a general store leveraged a lost bet into $275,000 for charity. The story begins on April 4, 1864; Gridley (a Missouri Democrat favoring the Southern cause) lost a bet on the outcome of a local election to Dr. H.S. Herrick ( a republican and stalwart Northern Unionist). Making good on his wager, Gridley lugged a 50 lb. bag of flour (amply decorated with Union flags) through Austin to the accompaniment of a brass band and raucous, inebriated miners. Dr. Herrick "graciously" carried Gridley's coat and Gridley Store cane for him as the many stamp mills steam whistles howled in approval.
At the Bank Exchange Saloon after his good-natured defeat, Gridley thought to auction off that sack of flour with the proceeds to go to the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a precursor to the Red Cross, active during the Civil war. Gridley's genius then began to shine. He convinced the high bidder to return the sack so it could be auctioned again...And again...And again. When it was over, $10,000 in gold and cash had been raised. Gridley knew a good thing when he saw it. He took the act on the road and raised another $20,000 among the mining camps in Nevada. Then it was only natural that he cross into California. Five months; $150,000.
Gridley, who had become a Union supporter during his travels became famous. At the urging of the Sanitary Commission, he went east arriving, according to one source, in New York in 1865 with his sack of flour. After fund raising stops throughout the north, Gridley had raised over $275,000.
Where the flour was last sold is the stuff of legends. I'd read that it was at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1864 or perhaps the Sanitary Fair in St. Louis in 1865. I've also read that the flour in that well traveled sack was used to bake small cakes that were sold for outrageous prices to further raise money for the Sanitary Commission. The sack was adopted by Austin as the city's symbol and today the empty sack can be found in the Nevada Historical Society Museum in Reno.
Gridley's fundraising travels ruined his health. Upon returning to Austin, he found the mines had run dry and his store virtually bankrupt. A broken man in 1867, he was living in Stockton, CA when $1,400 was raised on his behalf so he could buy a small farm. His health never returned and he died at the age of 41 in 1870. His statue stands in Stockton today. Mark Twain, who claimed to be a classmate of Gridley, wrote of him in "Roughing It".

Years ago, the occasional solitary prospector would arrive in town with tales of a large shaggy beast he'd seen in the growing twilight or perhaps spied in the distance slowly plodding along the horizon. This would provoke an outburst of laughter and the prospector would be good-naturedly ribbed for his tall tales and overactive imagination. Strangely, the cause of these apparent hallucinations was Jefferson Davis, best known for being President of the Confederacy. As Secretary of War prior to secession, Davis ordered that camels be imported as beasts of burden so as to gauge their usefulness. Thanks to the camel's handler, a 12 year old boy imported along with the camels named Haji Ali, the test was successful. The soldiers would call him Hi Jolly, being unable to pronounce his name. Without the micromanaging of Davis who by then had left Washington for the South, the camels were retired. Some were sold while others escaped to roam the desert wilds. A few that were sold ended up in Austin where they were used to carry salt from a salt marsh to a quartz mill, a distance of over 100 miles. For 30 years beginning around 1860, camels were killed for sport, much as were the buffalo which roamed the Great Plains to the east. The romantic in me secretly hopes that some of these shaggy beasts survive in the wilds to this day; Sadly, it is not likely.

And finally, never let it be said that the good folk of Austin didn't recognize a winning fundraiser. Remembering Reuel Colt Gridley's success, when Austin needed a new school building, they tapped Colonel Dave Buel to head the Buel Shoe Fund. The Colonel was a big man who cast a very large shadow. He also left a sizable footprint since for comfort he wore shoes a couple of sizes larger than necessary; They were shoes of truly titanic proportions. On May 26, 1864, a pair of the Colonel's shoes were auctioned. and like Gridley's sack of flour, the shoes were returned by the successful bidder to be auctioned again and again. At the end of the day, better that $100 had been raised for a new school.
 

Main | Trip Reports | E-mail | Ghost Towns