Like a hardy lilac persisting through drought and indifference, Hawthorne continues to blossom to the south of Walker Lake with restaurants and motels offering provisions, diversions and accommodations for travelers.
Hawthorne's crown jewel is the long-established El Capitan, where the chicken-fried steak (the Nevada state bird, according to one of our critics) is a tradition. Joe's Tavern across the street is another major landmark, a classic Nevada saloon, decorated with an eager desire to reveal all. There are rusty implements from mine, farm and kitchen, guns of all shapes and sizes, helmets and other accourements of war the memorabilia of three generations including the headlight from one of the narrow-guage locomotives that clattered through town in the early days.
Hawthorne's most wonderful landmark is rarely seen by visitors. It's a five minute drive out of town to the north, but instead of continuing to Walker Lake Hawthorne's fourth and grandest wonder turn west into "the Base." This was once the headquarters for the US Navy Ammunition Depot, and is now a minor paradise enjoyed by its residents and by visitors alike. Take ten minute driving tour of this astonishing remnant from another age. Just drive in; if there is a security guard on duty, just say "Golf Course" and you're in.
Your tour ends at the Walker Lake Country Club, where a beautiful 9-hole golf course (open to the public) was the best-kept military secret in America for 50 years. It was built by base employees, four holes at first, and then two at a time until the ninth hole was completed 30 years ago. A visiting golfer wrote in Nevada Magazine:
"A canopy of spring rainclouds was held aloft by rows of towering trees. At their feet spread fairways. The greens were of an exotic weave, floating in elevated pools at each fairway's end like green satin pillows on a velvet bed.
"Where is everybody?" we asked the manager.
"'I don't know,' he said. "It's always like this out here.' I thought he was going to add, 'in heaven.'" The club house is a favorite meeting place for local decision-makers.
The Mineral County Museum on the north end of town is an enjoyable collection of local area artifacts and discoveries dating back as far as the Miocene Era fossils from nearby Stewart Valley and as recent as the collection of hand-made knives taken from prisoners at the state prison.
Among the mounted butterflies, the buggies and the sun-purpled inkwells is a display case devoted to a collection of mysterious brass bells. They were discovered between Luning and Hawthorne a few years ago, by a plinker shooting at cans. When one of his shots made an odd sound, he investigated and found one of these small bells poking up out of the grit. He dug around and eventually uncovered 18 groups of them -- weighing about 200 pounds -- as if they had been buried or otherwise left behind by a traveler along an ancient "Spanish Trail" there.
It is obvious from their design that the bells had a common origin, and some of them carry the inscription "Mejico" and dates ranging from 1810 to 1818. But who might have left them, and why and when, remains unknown. A lesser mystery is also on display: a blue military uniform dating to the 19th century with unique brass buttons that seem to depict the State or Territorial seal. The museum staff would be grateful if you can identify the unit of the soldier who wore it.
Hawthorne's lunch and dinner choices range from the family-style Maggie's Restaurant to Henry Wong's Chinese Fast Food on the south side of town and the McDonald's on the north, all on the highway route through town. There is a Safeway supermarket on the north end of town.
For the most part Hawthorne's quiet streets are better suited to freckle-faced kids on bikes than to fun-hungry visitors. Hawthorne's tourists are mostly the outdoorsmen who camp, hike, hunt and rockhound in the nearby mountains and fish for bass and cutthroat trout in Walker Lake at the foot of mighty Mt. Grant. The Cliff House provides a grace note of elegance in this unique setting, with food, drink and lodging overlooking the west side of the lake a few minutes' drive north of town.
Hawthorne is on the main Las Vegas-Reno highway and serves as Nevada's gateway to Yosemite and the eastern Sierra via the Pole Line Road (Nevada 359) connecting with US 395 and the Tioga Pass.
Founded in 1881 as a division point on the Carson & Colorado Railroad, Hawthorne's site was selected by the mules used by the work crews to grade the right-of-way. Turned loose to forage for themselves in the winter, they found the most sheltered spot on the valley to protect themselves from the freezing wind. The humans had the wisdom to accept their critters' advice, and Hawthorne was established in this favored location in the valley.
Hawthorne became the Esmeralda County seat in 1883, replacing Aurora where the mines were in deep decline. Hawthorne's growth was hardly meteoric; the 1890 census taker counted 337 residents in town. By 1900, when the Southern Pacific acquired the C & C, there were only 99 more. In 1905 the SP changed over to standard gauge and bypassed Hawthorne completely by going around the east side of Walker Lake. The railroad built a new terminal at Mina and in 1907 the booming mining city of Goldfield took the Esmeralda County seat away. But mining discoveries in the vicinity helped maintain Hawthorne's prosperity through the hard times, and by 1910 the population had actually increased by 35 people.
In 1911, State Senator Fred Balzar of Hawthorne was able to persuade his fellow legislators that Esmeralda County was too large. Mineral County was created from its northern part with Hawthorne as its seat, and the old Court House was put back into service. But mining fell off again after World War I, and in 1920 only 226 residents were hanging on. Mina, meanwhile, with its mining and busy railroad, had grown to 680.
In 1926 half of Hawthorne's business district burned down, but even this was not enough to kill the tough little town.
And finally Hawthorne had some luck. Lake Denmark, New Jersey, was blown off the face of the earth by a huge explosion at the naval ammunition depot there, and Congress wanted to find some less valuable real estate for the new one. After a nationwide search, Hawthorne was the choice, the Yucca Mountain of its time. The following progression illustrates the result through World War II:
1930 pop.: 680
1940 pop.: 1,009
1944 pop.: 13,000
1950 pop.: 1,861
With more than 7,000 armed forces and civilian workers at the arsenal during the war, Hawthorne was the busiest Nevada boomtown in a generation. By 1950 nearly 2,500 people still lived in government housing at nearby Babbitt, but even as the Korean War broke out, the boom was over. Growth since has been slow, and today the ammunition depot plays a diminishing role in Hawthorne's economy, although its bunkers still pimple the desert as they have for more than 75 years. The Gulf War brought more good times to Hawthorne, and the base now under civilian management is bulging more than ever with munitions.
In 1984, after nearly 50 years without a major mishap, one of the storage bunkers exploded. The blast was contained as intended, blowing up instead of out, and the deeply feared chain-reaction causing immense damage and loss of life did not occur. In the early 1990s a bunker detonated for no discernible cause, unless it was provoked by a lightning storm the previous day.
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