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Stories of Old Nevada: Gerlach, and the Black Rock Desert

Stories of Old Nevada: Gerlach, and the Black Rock Desert

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Dennis Cassinelli

Dennis Cassinelli

The town of Gerlach Nevada is tiny in size, but rich in history. The Western Pacific Railroad established the community in the early 1900s. The region has been inhabited by native American Indians for centuries. The Indians were attracted to the the natural hot springs, wild game and shelter opportunities and called the area home.

In my book “Legends of Spirit Cave” I tell about the native people visiting the Gerlach hot springs. Early pioneers came through the area on their way to the Oregon and California gold county. Evidence of this is name-carvings on rocks and even wagon ruts in dry lakebed surfaces.

Today, Gerlach is the gateway to the intriguing and mysterious Black Rock Desert. The town serves as the host of the annual Burning Man festival. In non-covid years, this event draws thousands of visitors to Black Rock City, a temporary community that is constructed in the desert for the festival and then completely torn down at the end of the event. To and from the Burning Man Festival, people often stop at Bruno Selmi’s Country Club for meals, gas or something to wash down some of the desert alkali dust from their throats.

Several years ago, archaeologists discovered the remains of a huge mammoth that had been trapped in the mud of the Black Rock Desert over 10,000 years ago. Casts of the animal’s bones were made and the skeleton is now on display at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City.

When I wrote my prehistoric novel, “Legends of Spirit Cave,” I wrote the story about how this mammoth may have been found bogged down in mud by a band of native Americans who salvaged the meat from the animal and used it to feed the people through the cold Nevada winter. The leader of the group then leads the people to other Nevada places and eventually ends up in Spirit Cave, east of Fallon, Nevada. This person has now been named the “Spirit Cave Man.” His remains have recently been repatriated back to the local tribes.

There are petroglyphs along the highway north of Gerlach that are over 10,000 years old carved into boulders covered with tufa. Tufa only forms on boulders when they are under water. This had to have been when ancient Lake Lahontan was at a level higher than the boulders. There was organic material in the tufa that could be dated with radio carbon dating.

In the 1970s family members and I traveled north of the Black Rock Desert to the tiny ghost town of Vya on a hunting trip. Vya was just a few miles east of the California border and just a few miles south of the Oregon border. The trip was successful and my uncle Chester bagged the largest deer I had ever seen taken in Nevada. The trip to Vya passed through interesting places such as a petrified forest, Soldier Meadows and the Fly Geyser.

The highway to Gerlach passes the now dry Winnemucca Lake. On my first trip to hunt in the Gerlach area, I noticed something lying out on the dry lake bed. A fellow hunter told me it was the wreck of a boat that had been used before the lake dried up to take people out to drink and party during prohibition.

There is an organization called the “Friends of Black Rock” that has a website where you can obtain more information about the Black Rock Desert and the Gerlach area.

Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli’s books can be ordered at a discount on his blog at


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