Category Archives: History

A Lincoln County Farmer in 1887

Mr. D. Bonelli was a citizen of Rioville in Lincoln County in the 1800’s. He was a farmer and a weather observer. He mentions St. Thomas, which is now under the waters of Lake Mead. This was written in 1887, before Clark County was broken out of Lincoln County:

“I settled here in 1868, first at St. Thomas, 25 miles north of here, where the thermometer would go to 123 in the shade and 156 in the sunshine. This temperature will hatch out eggs left in the cupboards in the houses, if they get an occasional movement, and it will steep tea in the sun and boil eggs in sand exposed to the sunshine, though it will not melt lead.”

“The excessive heat of course limits the range of vegetation, and makes it necessary to grow grain in the Winter. It is sown in October and November and ripens the first of May. Figs are ripe by the middle of May; almonds full grown last of April; grapes ripen the last of June.”

“Snakes, lizards, horntoads and tarantulas take a sort of hibernating spell in the hottest weather for a mouth, and are extra active about February and March, by which time our main forage crop, lucerne or alfalfa, is growing. It is cut by the middle of April, and five additional crops are cut if water be plentiful. The articles mentioned are the main productions that will stand the climate, everything else languishes in the Summer time. I am now getting some esparsette to try, a European forage plant that may do well in this dry, hot climate.”

“This region is sparsely settled, since there are only a few margins of arable land along the streams and transportation facilities are lacking to market the products. Railroads come near enough to spoil the produce market we used to find in mining camps, and not near enough to take off our surplus. If there is nothing found suited to the climate that will pay to export, and no mineral discoveries of value are made, it will only be the question of a few years when the white man must disappear from this region in spite of the many efforts made in the past for its settlement. If anything exists in nature that is valuable for food, clothing or medicine that requires just such a climate, it would be charity to introduce it.”

First Thoughts on The Newlands Project

“The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value. Conservation means development as much as it does protection.” Theodore Roosevelt. 1910

I’ve been reading this week about the Newlands and Washoe Projects. It seems easy to vilify Newlands without crediting it for powering the engine that drives several Nevada counties. I understand that governmental entities are now the largest group of water rights holders in the Project, to best insure water for Pyramid Lake and the Lahontan Valley wetlands. But those two uses were simply not considered when water contracts were signed at the turn of the last century.

Federal reclamation law and Nevada water law demanded at that time a water use be beneficial. But what is a beneficial use? Recreation wasn’t considered a beneficial use in 1902. Nor was keeping a tribal fishery alive. Nor was wetland maintenance or remediation. Instead, those beneficial uses of water were recognized over time. This happened as court cases were settled and as people’s knowledge of their cultural and physical environment increased.

In 1902 people considered water flowing into a salty lake like Pyramid as waste. They reasoned that all that water could do was evaporate. Back then, irrigating farmland, watering stock, and supporting the mining industry were clear examples of beneficial uses. Perhaps most importantly, or perhaps cynically, a beneficial use was one that could pay back the Federal government.

“The federal reclamation program was to take this wasting asset and store it for use on family farms where the use was ‘beneficial,’ since it produced a tangible return for the costs of storage and distribution.” (Townley, 1977:141) The desert itself was considered waste, something to be reclaimed in favor of agriculture. Wetlands, too, were deemed wastelands, to be drained and then cultivated. Thinking on this has evolved but a look at the other side of the ledger is in order.

It is assumed that growing food intelligently is not a waste of water.

According to the Nevada Department of Agriculture, Churchill County’s food and agriculture sector contributed $320 million to the county’s economy in 2015. It directly accounted for 965 jobs. Exports were $192 million that year. The county is home to 672 farms and ranches. Churchill County’s total agricultural production output value was $124 million in 2015. Its total food manufacturing output value was $100 million. That’s one county impacted by the Newlands Project.

Lyon County, beneficiary of Newlands Project irrigated areas near Fernley, shows similar impressive figures. In 2015 it had 462 farms and ranches with $174 million in total agricultural output value. Washoe County, utilizing the Truckee River in part, has 479 ranches and farms. Those produced $57.9 million in total agricultural output in 2015. With a total of $1.1 billion in food manufacturing.

Economic success does not excuse environmental damage or the ignoring of tribal rights. Unintended consequences occurred, goals were overstated, money  wasted. But Newlands sought a self sustaining farming community that would benefit everyone, with local food and jobs.  The Washoe Project, which I am just now starting to read about, was a hopeful and positive development to correct many of Newland’s deficiencies. I’ll leave this post with a quote from the International Water Resources Association;

“A clear and present movement exists in the Western United States to move water out of agriculture to urban and municipal uses. A definite impact is occurring on food and fiber production, however, at what point will we prioritize agriculture to ensure sustainable food production without increase reliance on imports. Cooperation and rotation must be considered in lieu of spending resources in court and litigation.”.

Historical photo of Lahontan Dam near Fallon.

Hay Prices Now and Then

The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service says Nevada farmers received $150 a ton for alfalfa hay in January. That’s assuredly a statewide average.

Historian  Robert D. McCracken, writing in A History of Amargosa Valley, Nevada, says when nearby mines were operating in the 1880s, hay farmers earned a hefty return.

In those days Amargosa farmers got four cuttings a year, six tons to the acre, and the hay sold from $70 to $200 a ton. (It may have been native grass hay.)

Adjusted for inflation, that means $1,896 to $5,418.58 a ton in today’s dollars. That was undoubtedly more per ton than most ore being pulled out of the mines.




Dyer and the Fish Lake Valley

On my travel list is Dyer and the Fish Lake Valley in sparsely populated Esmeralda County. The last U.S. census listed less than a thousand souls in the entire county, the majority in Goldfield. Enough water exists in the Fish Lake Valley to support alfalfa farming. Limited services are available in Dyer, the only settlement in the valley. The nearest large town is Bishop, CA, seventy miles to the west

Nevada State Historical Marker No. 133 reads:

This valley was settled when the Palmetto Mining District was discovered in 1866. In the 1870’s the Griffing & Wyman’s, as well as the Pacific Borax Works, were extracting borax at Fish Lake.

The Carson and Columbus stage line ran northward to Aurora and Carson City, making connections with Log Springs in the Sylvania District and Lida. Several local ranches supplied food to the freight industry and mining communities

A post office was opened at Fish Lake Valley in 1881.

This marker commemorates the life and times of W.O. Harrell, known as “Harrell, the Irrepressible,” Citizen extraordinaire of Fish Lake Valley in the 1870’s.

See also:

Nevada Test Site Experimental Farm

In the heart of Nye County was the Nevada Test Site, now known as the Nevada National Security Site. It’s where above and below ground nuclear testing was conducted starting in 1951. Testing continued through 1992.

An experimental dairy farm in Area 15 was established in 1963 to determine how radioactive iodine moved through the human food chain. The farm operated in the same way as a Grade A dairy, except that all milk produced was disposed as waste. A 15 acre farm plot for forage was laid out, along with individual pens for up to 26 milk cows. 18 years of experiments provided good insights into the the passage of radioactive materials through the so called “air-to-forage-to-cow-to-milk-pathway.”

A 100-cow beef herd was also maintained at the Test Site. The University of Nevada’s Experiment Station had a part in research on these animals, as well as two other herds kept off site. Bohmont wrote that “cattle were proven to be fine monitoring devices for radiation.” The other herds were located in Delmar Valley ninety miles northeast of the test site and at Knoll Creek near Elko, some 350 miles north.


Golden Years of Agriculture in Nevada, Dale Bohmont, Nevada Heritage Series. 1989.

Nevada Test Site Experimental Farm: Summary Report 1963 – 1981. EPA document. 1984.

Remains of Nevada Test Site Farm (EPA photo)



Operation Haylift

The winter of 1948 to 1949 in Northern Nevada found millions of sheep and cattle starving and stranded in the worst winter since 1889. The United States Air Force used C-82 cargo planes, so called “Flying Boxcars” to drop desperately needed hay to the marooned livestock. In the first seven days, 525 tons of alfalfa were dropped.

Caption and image below by UNR:

“Operation Haylift. Capt. D. L. Sayle, Operations Officer, 62nd Troop Carrier Group from McChord Field, Washington, plots his 250-mile course on a map while his C-82 flying boxcar planes are loaded early today with hay for starving, snowbound livestock in eastern Nevada. With him are Chief L. K. Vaughn, USN, Fallon base, and Flight Lt. Peter E. Berry, RAF exchange officer from Devonshire, England. Fallon, Nevada. January 24, 1949.”

Churchill County, Nevada
Electronic Publisher Special Collections Department, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries

Hollywood made Operation Haylift into a movie in 1950. The movie was filmed around Ely, the base of the original operation.