At dusk, as silver coated sagebrush lays aside the day and the pinks and burnt oranges of final sun send their farewells, it is then that the Humboldt River becomes as prominent in this desert landscape as the history it has helped to shape.
To Get to the Other Side
The first white man to cross the Humboldt River was Peter Skene Ogden, a Canadian trapper for the Hudson Bay Company. Ogden happily happened upon the waterway in 1828 near Denio at the Oregon-Nevada border after stumbling through miles and miles of barren landscape.
The river became known as Ogden's River until 1845 when John Charles Fremont, another explorer, charted the Great Basin and its rivers, discovering that none have an outlet to the sea. The river was eventually named for Baron Alexander von Humboldt, a German cartographer and explorer who, incidentally, never saw the river.
It was logical that commerce would begin at the best place to ford the river, and in 1850, a trading post—French Ford—was erected at the present site of Winnemucca. Naturally, the Humboldt River became the economic center of life in this area as the waterway took its place as one of the most important guides to helping emigrants travel West.
It wasn't long before Brothers Louis and Theophile Lay built a hostelry, which dates back to the 1860s. The early pioneer Frenchmen, after whom Lay, Baud and Melarkey streets are named in Winnemucca, included a Wells Fargo stage terminal in their plans along with a magnificent bar that is still regarded as the focal point of the present-day Winnemucca Hotel.
Railroads, Prosperity and Decline
The Central Pacific Railroad came into Winnemucca in 1869, transforming the humble trading post into a major shipping point for northern Nevada, southern Oregon and northeastern California. With the coming of the railroad, L.C. Pease and C.B.O. Bannon felt the town needed a new name. It had previously been dubbed Centerville on the heels of French Ford. In order to appease the neighboring Paiute tribe, the two decided to name the town after Chief Winnemucca.
The name is an English and Paiute hybrid that means “one moccasin.” As the story goes, prospectors saw an Indian boy—the boy who would someday be chief—playing by the river wearing one moccasin. They called out to him, “Wanna muc-cha?” Muc-cha is the Paiute word for moccasin. The boy liked the sound of “wan-na-muc-cha” and adopted it as his name.
Chief Winnemucca realized the newcomers could not be defeated. On his deathbed, he advised his tribe to live in peace with, but separate from, the whites. He died in 1882 following a long illness.
In 1864, Nevada was granted statehood. Winnemucca has the distinction of being the only community in Nevada that voted against statehood. One of the first moves of Congress against the new state, though, was to pass the Silver Act. Under that deed, all silver mines that were not yet played out were closed and thousands of Nevada residents were forced to seek work elsewhere. Nevada and Humboldt County suddenly found prosperity declining along with the population. It wasn't until the boom years of World War I that the state began to regain its people.
History Stands Still
Winnemucca is home to many historical points of interest. St. Paul's Catholic Church still sits at the corner of Fourth and Melarkey streets. Originally a small, white-framed building that served Winnemucca's Catholic community for 40 years, it was transformed in 1924 by a San Francisco architect into a Spanish colonial mission style. The building is still home to Winnemucca Catholics, including a Spanish congregation.
The Humboldt County Courthouse, which faces Bridge Street at Fifth, was constructed in 1919 to replace the original 1872 building that was destroyed by fire. Designed by Nevada's official state architect Frederick DeLongchamps, its exterior is Neoclassic while the interior's marble-faced halls and stairways promote a strong feeling of the past. The courthouse has been likened to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.
The Shone House, which sits at 602 Bridge Street, was built by Thomas Shone in 1901. The Western-style rooming house features a one-story veranda over the sidewalk and a balustraded porch on the upper story.
Just around the corner on Railroad Street, the Martin Hotel features a similar veranda and hitching posts. The Basque boarding house, which functions today as a popular restaurant and bar, was established to accommodate the early sheep and cattle ranchers of the area. Railroad Street was the hub of Winnemucca's first commercial district.
The Kluncy Apartments at 583 Lay Street are also historic for their association with Railroad Street. The apartment building was constructed in 1912 by Bert Kluncy who turned out the cement blocks himself. A native of Germany, Kluncy was a prosperous rancher who operated the popular Railroad Saloon & Restaurant opposite the train's passenger depot.
The Winnemucca Grammar School, also on Lay Street, was considered very contemporary when it was built in 1927. The result of a campaign for a new school building in the name of civic improvement, it still hosts over 400 children each school day.
The Victorian W.C. Record House at 146 W. Second Street is listed on the National Register. The two-story structure in Gothic revival style is reminiscent of Maine cottages. Its builder and owner, William Record, was a lumber merchant from Maine just as Winnemucca was emerging as a vital shipping point on the Central Pacific Railroad.
The Winnemucca State Bank & Trust Co. opened for business on March 3, 1913. Built by the Reinhart family, the bank was the most ornate building on Bridge Street. It has been used as a movie theater and an armory. Most recently, it has been completely renovated and its owners are attempting to list it on the Historical Register.
Who's Who in Winnemucca History
Winnemucca has had its share of famous faces, but perhaps none have been more revered than Sarah Winnemucca. She was the daughter of Chief Winnemucca, for whom the town was named, and the granddaughter of Chief Truckee. She was born Thocmentony (Shell Flower) in 1844. Although she received little formal training, she mastered three languages, including Paiute, English and Spanish, and became the spokesperson for the Native Americans of Nevada. Sarah was the first Native American to write a book, Life Among the Paiutes. During her short life, she also worked as an Army interpreter at Fort McDermitt, rescued her father who was being held captive during the Bannock War, gave public lectures on the plight of her people, married twice and opened a school for Indian children. She died in 1891 at the age of 47 from tuberculosis.
Frank Baud helped build the oldest building in Winnemucca, the Winnemucca Hotel, and went on to become the town's first postmaster. He also donated $30 toward the town's first school house. He died in 1868 and is buried in Winnemucca's Pioneer Cemetery.
New York native David Melarkey established the first blacksmith shop at Second and Bridge streets. He was instrumental in relocating the county seat from Unionville to Winnemucca. A year before his death in 1884, he represented Humboldt County at the Nevada Legislature.
George S. Nixon organized the First National Bank of Winnemucca; he was the cashier who was held up by Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch. In 1905, after a fire destroyed Winnemucca's Armory Hall, Nixon decided to build an opera house for the people of this area. Citing his gratefulness to the small but growing town, he and wife Kate dedicated Nixon Opera House to the people of Winnemucca on July 17, 1908. Sadly, that building was destroyed by fire in July 1992.