The cool thing about visiting Fort Churchill is that it looks a little different during each visit.
The fort’s appearance changes because of the way the sunlight plays with its adobe ruins, painting ever-changing shadow portraits on the taupe walls. The contrasts between light and dark are the greatest in the early morning and late afternoon.
The changing seasons also offer different perspectives on the fort’s structures and landscape. It’s this shifting visual canvas that has made Fort Churchill such a popular destination for photographers.
Fort Churchill was built in 1860 by the U.S. Army to provide a home for a garrison of troops that would protect western Nevada settlers, who feared an Indian uprising.
Earlier that year, local tribes had fought with the white settlers in the Pyramid Lake War. The dispute started after three white men kidnapped two Indian women at a place called Williams Station, a trading post located about 30 miles east of Carson City.
A traveling band of Indians heard the women’s cries for help. They responded by rescuing them, killing the kidnappers and burning the station.
Stories about the raid began to spread — and naturally became more exaggerated. A short time after the Williams Station episode, a group of 105 volunteer civilian soldiers gathered in Virginia City to march on the Paiutes at Pyramid Lake.
The ill-prepared Virginia City war party encountered Paiute warriors in a small valley located a few miles south of Pyramid Lake. About two-thirds of the volunteers perished in the conflict.
The victory led to retaliation by regular army troops. At a second battle near Pyramid Lake, the outnumbered Indians were defeated. To prevent further unrest, the U.S. government built Fort Churchill in July 1860. The fort also served as a deterrent to prevent attacks on Pony Express riders, who were occasionally chased by Indians.
The fort later became a western outpost for the U.S. Army during the Civil War. While the Nevada garrison was never called into action during the war, it was an important training ground and supply depot for the Nevada Military District.
In 1869, the U.S. government abandoned the post, which was expensive to operate, and auctioned the buildings. The wooden roofs, supports and porches were removed and sold, but the adobe walls remained. Wood from the fort was used to build Buckland Station, a stagecoach station and hotel, which still stands about a mile from the fort.
While efforts were made in the 1930s to preserve the ruins, it wasn’t until 1957 that the site was acquired by the state of Nevada for a state historic park. Since then, the state has stabilized the buildings in a state of “arrested decay.”
On a bluff overlooking the fort site is the visitor center — a whitewashed, wood-shingled building that resembles the original structures.
Inside, visitors will find a miniature model of the fort as it appeared in the 1860s. Back then, all the adobe walls were painted white and each building had a low, over-hanging roof, which also served to protect the adobe walls.
Additionally, there are displays of authentic 1860s U.S. Army uniforms and weapons as well as exhibits on the fort’s construction and the Pony Express. A park ranger is usually available to answer questions about the fort.
Adjacent to the visitor center is the pioneer Fort Churchill Cemetery. While the Army removed its dead when it abandoned the fort in the late 1860s, visitors will find wooden markers designating a handful of frontier folks who were buried there.
An interpretive trail leads from the visitor center to the fort ruins. Along the way visitors can discover the location of the two-story officer quarters, the parade grounds, hospital, troop quarters, the armory and other buildings.
Below the fort, in a beautiful cottonwood grove on the banks of the Carson River is a developed camping and picnicking area. The best time of year to camp is in the fall when the trees have turned brilliant shades of yellow and brown.
Additionally, visitors can visit the restored Buckland Station, a former Overland Stage stop located east of the fort (across Alternate 95). A kiosk at the station explains the building’s rich history and provides information about trails along the adjacent Carson River.
The Nevada Division of State Parks has 20 shaded campsites (with no hook ups), RV dump station and picnic tables in the area. Fort Churchill is located 35 miles southwest of Fallon via U.S. 50 and Alternate 95. For information contact the Fort Churchill State Historic Monument, Silver Springs, 775-577-2345, http://parks.nv.gov/parks/fort-churchill.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada unique.