Looking to get a taste of what life was like in Nevada before it entered official statehood? Well then, a visit to Fort Churchill State Historic Park —about an hour west of Carson City—should be high on your adventuring to-do list. This former United States Army fort was once built to protect early settlers as they made their way across the American West. Today, the fort’s ruins stand in a fascinating state of arrested decay, some of which have managed to withstand time, thanks to northern Nevada’s arid, high desert climate. Much still feels like the Wild West, but the sky’s the limit when imagining what life must’ve been like here more than 150 years ago in a lawless territory.
Fort Churchill’s Early Days
It all began in 1860, when two proprietors who ran the Williams Station along the Carson River kidnapped and attacked two young Paiute girls. Naturally, a band of Paiutes and Bannocks retaliated in ways we’re sure you would’ve, had this happened to your children. A small group of volunteer soldiers and vigilantes (led by Major Ormsby himself) attacked the American Indians in response once more, which ultimately led to the Second Battle of Pyramid Lake.
Some unsettling circumstances were brewing throughout the region, and Fort Churchill was constructed in 1861 to help mitigate tension and provide protection for early settlers making their way West, as well as for Pony Express Riders delivering mail throughout the region. Named in honor of Sylvester Churchill—the Inspector General of the U.S. Army—the Fort soon became a permanent installation comprised of many adobe buildings forming a larger square perimeter. Later, the Fort became a supply depot for the Union Army during the Civil War, which meant that it was soon equipped with droves of soldiers. Although difficult to imagine, a staggering 200 soldiers called Fort Churchill home in its peak years. The fort was deserted just a few years later in 1869, and the adobe structures were auctioned for a mere $750.
But, the buck doesn’t stop there when it comes to fascinating history in the area. In 1859, as the Fort was being sold, Samuel S. Buckland came to the area to begin ranching. The Central Overland Route passed nearby, and his ranch soon became known as an important and relied upon resting place for pioneers passing through the region. By the time Buckland showed up, the fort was already sold, abandoned, and being dismantled. As building materials like these were few and far between in the high desert of Nevada, Buckland saw the opportunity and sprung into action by salvaging unused materials to build the two-story homestead that stands near the Carson River crossing today. Today, Buckland Station operates as a historic site part of the Nevada State Parks system, offering tours of the historic property that serve as a reminder of the industrious spirit of Nevada’s early pioneers.
Visiting Fort Churchill, Nevada
While the ruins at Fort Churchill have been in a captivating state of arrested decay for more than 150 years, the Daughters of the American Revolution took interest in the area, understanding the tremendous importance in our American story. In 1932, they spearheaded efforts to have 200 acres of land—including the Fort ruins—transferred to the State of Nevada. The National Parks helped with some restoration efforts, but the Civilian Conservation Corps really stepped in and helped preserve the ruins you still see today, along with constructing the Park’s Visitor Center that still stands today. Fort Churchill became an official State Park in 1957, and Buckland Station became part of the park in 1994.
Aside from visiting the original CCC-constructed Visitor’s Center and Buckland Station Museum, visitors can bask in outstanding hiking trails, camping and picnicking opportunities in the valley. Campsites include a table and fire ring, and all are shaded by large cottonwood trees, running adjacent to the Carson River. The park also serves up pretty spectacular photo ops, especially during golden hour. The park also offers a horse camp, where riders can camp with their mounts near Lake Lahontan.
Fort Churchill State Historic Park is open to all visitors 7 days a week, year-round. For more information on planning your trip to Fort Churchill, get in touch with the park directly at (775) 577-2345.
Admission to Fort Churchill State Historic Park is $5 for NV vehicles and $10 for non-NV vehicles. The main campground has 20 sites equipped for travel trailers, motorhomes or tents for just $15 per night, per NV vehicle ($20 for non-NV vehicles).