Austin, Nevada

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When I was young and my family took a road trip out west, we drove part of the Loneliest Road, and passed through Austin, Nevada.  I remember at the time, just before we arrived, my father told me what to expect.  He said Austin was as close as a town could get to being a ghost town, and still be alive.

That was some time in the mid 1980’s, and now, in 2009, as I dropped down the hillside from Austin Summit (elevation 7,484 feet), I wondered what I would find.  Could Austin have changed much in 20 years?

Austin wasn’t exactly how I had remembered it, but it certainly still lives up to my father’s description.  Main Street is Highway 50, and the town is situated about halfway down the hillside.  It’s also built on a slope…

… so that the town’s residential streets overlook the main road.

The first place you should stop is the Lander County Courthouse.  Go ahead and walk inside…

… up the stairs…

 

… and into the courtroom.  I couldn’t get over how nothing in this room seemed to be centered.  The lights weren’t centered with the windows, the swinging gates that enter into the gallery aren’t centered with the aisle.

They couldn’t even center the clock with the pot-belly stove in the back!   Even if the criminal wasn’t insane before the trial, a few days in this room could certainly make it happen.

Aside from exercising your desire to feng shui the courtroom, there’s another good reason to stop by the courthouse.  In the hallway downstairs, you’ll find a great map of the town, that will guide you to every historically significant landmark in Austin.

The Lander County Courthouse was built in 1871, at a cost of $26,000.  The town’s historic guide admits that it’s a plain structure, saying residents selected sturdy construction over “frills”.  Only a decade or so after it was built, a murderer was lynched from the balcony over the front door.  The balcony is still there, so I guess it was built sturdy enough to support a hanging.

After looking at the remnants of old buildings still standing along Main Street…

… and admiring one of the town’s two old Lincoln Highway markers (maybe they have more, but I only saw two), I pulled out the map I had found at the courthouse, and began to explore Austin’s historical landmarks.

Here’s the Masonic – Odd Fellows Hall, which formally opened on January 15, 1868.  At the time, Austin had two lodges of Masons and two of Odd Fellows.

The current home of Austin’s tiny library is also Nevada’s oldest bank building.  The bank operated for 99 years, from 1863 to 1962.

At the upper end of Cedar Street, I found the old town hospital, which served as Austin’s medical facility from 1875 until 1959.  It might be abandoned now — I couldn’t tell for sure, but either way, it’s showing its age.

The old Austin School is relatively new by Austin standards.  It was built in 1925.  Nowadays it appears to be boarded up, although the historic guide says it’s still home to kindergarten through fifth grade classes.

I couldn’t help but notice that Austin has a lot of churches — and most of them occupy prominent spots overlooking the town.  This is St. Augustine Church, which saw its first service on Christmas Eve, 1866.  Of the first four Catholic churches built in Nevada, it is the only one that remains — which makes it the oldest.  Its pipe organ was installed in 1868.

The old Methodist church is just a short distance down Court Street from St. Augustine’s.  It was built in 1866, and now serves as Austin’s town hall.

Both of those churches look down upon St. George’s Episcopal church, which is on Main Street.  St. George’s saw its first service in 1878.

An historic tour of Austin wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one place that I clearly remembered from my childhood visit: Stokes Castle.

If you’re westbound on Highway 50, it’s easy to miss Stokes Castle.  The three-story stone ghost-building occupies a prominent spot on the mountainside, overlooking the expansive basin that begins just outside of town.  Eastbound travelers will see the castle on the ridge, but those headed westbound might never notice it.

It’s strange that there’s no big sign pointing travelers to Stokes Castle.  It’s arguably Austin’s most notable historic landmark, yet the turnoff is marked only by a small street sign as “Castle Road”.

If you’re westbound, here’s the easiest way to find the road to Stokes Castle.  Watch for the “Loneliest Road” sign (pictured later on this page).  The dirt road to Stokes Castle is directly across the street (and it looks more like a dirt parking lot than an actual road).  Be aware, the road is rough, and if the weather is wet, it can be challenging even in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle.

Stokes Castle is an exact replica of a tower built outside Rome.  It was built in 1897 for Anson Phelps Stokes, a wealthy man who built the 92 mile Nevada Central Railroad from Battle Mountain to Austin.  The Stokes family used it as their summer home, with a kitchen and dining room on the first floor, a living room on the second floor, and two bedrooms on the third floor.  Stokes Castle has been deteriorating since the 1920’s, but it still appears to be structurally in good shape.

When I visited here as a kid, the fence around the castle was cut, and I remember climbing through it for a closer look.  These days, the fence is in very good shape, so unless you want to climb it, you’ll have to be happy admiring the castle from a distance.  Also, you’ll have to be satisfied with having a chain-link fence in every picture you take.

Just down the hill from Stokes Castle, there’s an old mining frame of some sorts.  Unfortunately, it’s in the wrong place to make for a good picture, with the castle in the background.

Back on US 50, I prepared for the longest stretch between towns on the Loneliest Road.  The next town west is Fallon, 110 miles away, so make sure your tank is filled.

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