Don’t blink as you head into Hawthorne or you may miss it. Although tiny, this town has a lot more to offer than first meets the eye.
It has been years since I visited Hawthorne, a town I remember well because I learned to swim in a motel pool during a family outing. Recently I decided to take a drive just to see what was going on these days.
Hawthorne got its start in 1881 as a stop on the Carson and Colorado Railroad. In 1883 it became the Esmeralda County seat. Now Hawthorne is a part of Mineral County. The town was named after a lumberman friend of H.M. Yerington. Yes, this Yerington gave his name to the nearby town of Yerington.
The tiny town increased very little in size over the years until the establishment of the Naval Ammunition Depot. Half the town even burned down in 1926.
Hawthorne’s greatest claim is its military presence in the form of the Naval Ammunition Depot. Congress decided to establish the depot in a more rural region after an explosion occurred in Lake Denmark, New Jersey.
Kind of like today, some Easterners back then seemed to think of our state as a vast dumping ground. However, this was a boon for the tiny hamlet. The depot hired locals and brought in many others. The population increased and the economy improved in a huge way. During the years of World War II the population exploded to around 13,000. Now it hovers at around 3,000.
The depot is now under civil management and its working force has been greatly reduced. However, the bunkers that reach out into the sand and sage near town still hold countless munitions.
Hawthorne is so proud of this part of the town’s history that it established the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum in 2002 as a nonprofit business. The museum exhibits the largest collection of inert missiles, bombs, rockets and nuclear weapons in the world.
As I entered the museum I struck up a conversation with docent Bob Swift, who showed me around and was very proud to point out a world map with numerous pins in it. This showed the global popularity of this historical military destination.
“I spent my first 10 years in the Airforce as a bomber,” said swift.
He pointed out the places where he served including Greenland, Kansas, Labrador and Wyoming.
Walking through the museum reminds one of the enormous military power of the United States. The place made me feel safe.
The Mineral County Museum is another place to poke around.
Sadly, that museum was closed the day I toured Hawthorne but it sounds so intriguing that I will be back for sure.
A very reliable friend and historical writer said this about the museum:
“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,” said David Toll in his book “The Complete Nevada Traveler.”
The El Capitan Hotel and Casino is a classic old-time casino and a must see during your time in Hawthorne.
“I think this property qualifies as an iconic place in central Nevada,” said North Star Casino’s corporate vice president of operations Mac Potter.
The business has seen a lot of action in its time as it lies on a major route from Reno to Las Vegas.
Word has it that the El Capitan has an underground component. Back in the 1940s, there was supposedly a tunnel that linked the El Capitan to the Monte Carlo across the street, a likely way to transport two commodities, spirits and ladies of the evening. The underground, unfortunately, has been closed for years.
Now the El Capitan is known for its great hospitality and, of course, gaming. If you eat there try the legendary Rancher’s Breakfast consisting of two eggs any way you like, hash browns, toast, and a choice of bacon, sausage or ham. For lunch the Mountain Man Burger is a half-pound of meat with cheese and other toppings equaling about one full pound. “Where’s the beef” does not apply.
Walker Lake, one of Hawthorne’s greatest attractions, can be seen just out of town when driving on Highway 95 from the north. Its tree-free shoreline descends into a true azure oasis in the desert.
The lake is a remnant of the prehistoric Lake Lahontan that covered a vast area during the ice age. Walker Lake was a prehistoric life-sustaining body of water for the early Paiute. An ancient Native legend claims that a creature called Tawaga inhabits the lake. Paiute children were told that the beast descended from a human man and woman. Instead of staying on ground the offspring took to the water.
Today the lake provides many recreational activities such as swimming, boating, fishing and bird watching.
A curious fact about the region is that in summer the orb weaver spider is there in abundance. Actually, it is supposed to be a real “arachnid affair” with hundreds of thousands of the tiny beasts making webs in the brush. Although I have not seen that phenomenon yet I intend to. Yes, I am a spider lover. For those of you who freak out about these eight-legged critters, don’t worry, they are harmless.
Interested in hopping over to Hawthorne? Take a look at www.mineralcountynv.us to see what is happening in Mineral County.