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Pieces of Nevada’s history are endangered. Historians are raising awareness to help save them.

Every other year, Preserve Nevada lists 11 of the state’s most threatened sites. Sometimes the sites are saved. Other times, they disappear.
Amy Alonzo
Amy Alonzo

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter. I'm Amy Alonzo, the environment reporter for The Indy.

What makes something worth saving? Is it age? Sentimental value? Cultural significance?

Everyone has something that holds a special place in their heart — old photographs, jewelry from a significant other, a childhood stuffed animal. For me, it’s old pieces of rock climbing gear that are no longer made, reminders of athletic accomplishments from 20 years ago. Sometimes, I still use them, but other pieces of equipment hang in my garage as sentimental tokens, replaced by more modern pieces of gear. Even though I don’t use them, I can’t stand to part with them.

Holding on to sentimental belongings at home is one thing — saving old, sometimes decaying, buildings and towns at the regional and state levels is much more complicated. It requires more than a corner of a one-car garage — it needs funding and buy-in from residents, developers and lawmakers. Preservation of intangible items such as dark skies and native languages is even trickier.

"The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward,” Winston Churchill once said.

Preserving Nevada’s past is imperative as we look to the future of our state.  

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email tips to me at [email protected]. To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.

Cemetery in Silver Peak on April 8, 2022. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Historic mining towns, Nevada’s famous dark skies, Indigenous American languages and early 20th Century motor courts all share something in common — they are threatened and, in some cases, in danger of disappearing.  

Preserve Nevada, the first statewide advocacy organization geared toward protecting Nevada’s cultural, historical and archaeological heritage, releases its list of the top 11 most endangered places in Nevada every other year.

The list includes not just physical buildings, but also the intangible — such as Nevada’s renowned dark skies, or the languages of Nevada’s Indigenous tribes.

This year’s list includes a Southern Nevada state park listed on the National Register of Historic Places that faces risk from development, sacred tribal land threatened by mining and the entire downtown corridor of one of the state’s smallest towns.

“When people think of historic preservation, they often think of buildings. They often don’t think of culture,” said Michael Green, UNLV history professor and Preserve Nevada’s executive director. “We view it as not only preserving structures of buildings but structures of society. We cast a broad net.”

The sites listed by Preserve Nevada are subjective. Some are based on age. Others, their history. Still others because of imminent threats from development or decay.

“We look for those opportunities to educate where there hasn’t been a strong voice,” said Preserve Nevada board member Bob Stoldal. “It’s a recognition of legitimacy when something gets on the 11 most endangered list.

“I can show my family, my kids, photographs … and I can take them to museums. But it’s a quantum leap, especially with all the visuals they’re able to see on their phones and on the internet, to actually see a structure, to see an archaeological site, to see a building that still has life. To actually see it and touch it and not just look at a photograph, the communication is far more intense and far more emotional.”

‘A future in the past’

In 1949, Congress chartered the National Trust for Historic Preservation to preserve “historic American sites, buildings, objects and antiquities.”

Decades later, all but two states had formed similar, statewide programs, according to Stoldal. One of those states lacking a statewide organization was Nevada. A half dozen or so Nevada historians decided to change that, including Stoldal and former Nevada governor and two-term U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan. Bryan has chaired the nonprofit’s board since its inception in 2001.

Over the years, the organization’s board has grown slightly, and the group now retains a UNLV graduate student who serves as the deputy director. Despite its diminutive size, some of its work has had big impacts.

“We try to get it in front of decision-makers who can have an impact and inspire people to act,” Green said.

The group has supported projects such as the preservation of UNR’s Lincoln Hall and the saving of several Queen Anne style houses along UNR’s Gateway District.

Lincoln Hall is one of the oldest buildings on UNR’s campus, as well as in Reno. Built in 1896, it served as a dormitory for more than a century. Closed in 2015, it reopened in 2016 as the university’s new home to its sociology, communication studies and history departments.

The following year, the university announced a dozen houses dating back to the 1890s would need to be relocated or demolished to make room for new academic buildings and a parking garage. While eight of the houses were demolished, preservationists and community members were able to relocate four of the houses.

Currently, the organization is supporting the City of Sparks’ attempts to preserve its old railroad warehouses. The warehouses are considered by historians to be pivotal to the formation of the city and were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 before subsequently being removed.

In 1903, Southern Pacific relocated its locomotives and roundhouse from Wadsworth to northeast of Reno, and Sparks grew up around the rail center. Last year, Southern Pacific announced plans to demolish the machine warehouses to construct a parking lot.  

Being on the National Register of Historic Places — in the past, as the Southern Pacific warehouses were, or currently, as the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort is — doesn’t ensure protection. Under federal law, the listing of a property on the register does not preclude a nonfederal landowner from demolishing the property.

If demolition of the old Southern Pacific warehouses goes through, it wouldn’t be the first time, Green said, citing the old Boulder City Hospital that was torn down in 2015 to make way for new houses. It, too, had been located on the National Register of Historical Places, but “being on the National Register doesn’t mean protection. You need local ordinances and state laws,” he said. “Historic preservation is kind of a crazy business.”

Being a crazy business that sometimes can’t save relics of the past doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying, though, according to Green.

“We believe there is a future in the past,” he said.

The most endangered sites of 2023

The most recent list includes sites that have been on the list before, including the Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort and downtown Austin, said Paige Figanbaum, the UNLV graduate student serving as the organization's deputy director. 

“Across Nevada, there’s been a lot of redevelopment,” she said. “There’s things that can change within two, three, five years. 

“That’s why we were listing repeats from previous lists, like the old Mormon fort — to reiterate the primary objective of our list is to serve as a call to action for people.”

Sites selected as 2023’s most endangered in Nevada are:

  • Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort. Located in downtown Las Vegas, the 1855 settlement is surrounded by new development.   
  • Peehee mu’huh (Thacker Pass). A lithium mine is being constructed in a mountainous area north of Winnemucca said to be the site of an 1865 Northern Paiute massacre. In 1968, the Bureau of Land Management identified remains of Northern Paiute people and a camp in the area.
  • Winnemucca Grammar School. Built in the 1920s, the school is still in use but is rapidly decaying. Administrators must find funds to renovate the school, including bringing it up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
  • Southern Pacific warehouses. In 1903, Southern Pacific relocated its locomotive and roundhouse from Wadsworth to northeast of Reno. The city of Sparks sprung up around the railyard. Last year, Southern Pacific announced plans to demolish the machine shop to construct a parking lot.  
  • Elko Water Company’s canal system. In the mid-19th century, Chinese laborers dug an 8.5-mile-long ditch from Osino to Elko to provide water to the growing mining city. “The canal system is a physical record of the Chinese community’s presence, ingenuity and resourcefulness in northeastern Nevada that has largely been unrecorded,” according to Preserve Nevada.
  • Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Reno’s northwest quadrant. Northwest Reno, including the church, are threatened by Jacobs Entertainment’s redevelopment plans to convert the area into a “Neon Line District.”
  • Lemaire store. Located in Battle Mountain, the Lemaire store was built in 1876 and is one of the oldest commercial buildings that remains in the town.
  • Historic motor courts. Motor courts and hotels were once important stopovers for long-distance travelers. Now, many are in disrepair or being demolished, such as those along Reno’s Fourth Street.
  • Historic cemeteries and burial sites. In 1962, roughly 3,000 cemeteries were documented throughout the state. In remote corners of the state, some are forgotten to time, while those closer to metropolitan areas face threats from development.  
  • Mineral and Nye county courthouses. The Mineral County Courthouse is the only courthouse in the state to have served two jurisdictions and the Nye County Courthouse boasted one of the most expensive construction budgets when built in 1905.
  • Downtown Austin. Preserve Nevada is advocating for the historic restoration of some of the town’s core buildings, including the Austin Courthouse, Mark Twain International Hotel, St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, Methodist Church and St. George’s Episcopal Church.

(Disclosure: Bob Stoldal serves on the board of The Nevada Independent. He was not involved in the editing of this story.) 

The Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Here’s what else I’m watching (and listening to) this week:

KUNC reports on efforts St. George, Utah, is taking to recycle water, similar to efforts Las Vegas instituted years ago.

Camels in the Mojave Desert? Vox looks at the lighter side of wildfire restoration in the Mojave National Preserve.

Controversial plans are being formed to turn Nevada’s pinyon-juniper woodlands into biofuel, according to the L.A. Times

Grist and Inside Climate News partner to look at the future of water-intensive mining in the arid Southwest.

A substantial amount of recycling ends up in landfills. Artificial intelligence could change that, according to The Washington Post

Federal protections could be offered to a tiny Thacker Pass snail threatened by lithium mining, reports E&E News.


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