Travel Log: Mystery of the Ruins

(Fallon, Nevada; May 12, 2021) – La Plata was founded in 1863 and served as the county seat for Nevada’s Churchill County from 1864 – 1869.  La Plata was dead before the 19th century died, fading from the map after the local silver mines played out and the mining boom moved elsewhere.

Located up in a narrow valley, today La Plata is the ghost of a ghost town.  The only remaining structures are the remnants of structures, and many of these are very difficult to recognize as the buildings were often built out of local rock…meaning the rubble piles of buildings are effectively camouflaged against the rocky, broken face of the mountains forming the valley.

Getting to the remains of La Plata is easy…and very bumpy.  The first dirt roads taken after turning off Highway 50 are highly trafficked and well-maintained.  However, the further the road goes up into the mountains, the more difficult it becomes to navigate.  The La Plata ruins are only 26 miles from Fallon as the crow flies, but getting up there will take an hour by car due to the circular route needed and the condition of the upper mountain roads.

The primary ruin is easily seen as you come up to the fork where the road splits off, and there is debate today whether it was a mill or the county courthouse.  According to both Nevada Expeditions (http://www.nvexpeditions.com/churchill/laplata.php) and Forgotten Nevada (http://www.forgottennevada.org/sites/laplata.html), old-timers and long-established ranchers eschew the mill idea outright, and old records don’t show a courthouse.  However, I am here to add my two cents to help make sense of this mystery.

The primary ruins of La Plata. Churchill County, Nevada. (Nathanael Miller, 10 May 2021)

The structure is seated right at the split of the road, so it was clearly meant to be seen by anyone and everyone as they entered the town by the only road in.  The structure was also situated for easy access by anyone coming up that mountain road.  Finally, there’s a great deal of beautiful white marble among the ruins.  The only Nevada marble quarry didn’t go into operation until 1911, a full 30+ years after La Plata vanished.  Further, the Nevada marble is fragile and therefore was spurned by the construction industry as a substandard building material.

So, I imagine you’re asking, what does marble have to do with my forthcoming conclusion?

Imagine you’re a settler in a brand-new mining town that just got named the county seat barely a year after being founded.  You and your town are built in a narrow valley at the top of a narrow, difficult road.  Materials are expensive to haul in, both in terms of money and man/mule power.  The rocky walls of your valley provide abundant stone for building, so why would you spend hard-earned money wrested from the mines on importing white marble up this difficult terrain unless the building you were building was built to be a building of building importance over time?

Looking back down the valley at the mountain road leading to La Plata. The courthouse ruins are in the foreground. Churchill County, Nevada. (Nathanael Miller, 10 May 2021)

My money rests on the courthouse theory.  The most logical scenario I can envision is that La Plata’s residents invested a great deal of time, labor, and money to build a proper country courthouse, hence the marble.  Marble has been a staple of U.S. government architecture since the founding of our republic, and is associated with wealth, prestige, and government power.  If your town was to build only one ritzy building, it’d be the courthouse.

Now, the question about the lack of courthouse records must be answered by a convincing theory if I am to be an intellectually honest historian.  I believe my theory might surprise you.

You see, just because your mining town/new county seat builds a courthouse doesn’t mean the courthouse was ever used!

La Plata was the county seat for only four years.  Building a fancy structure like a courthouse, especially in the terrain of this mountain valley, is not something done overnight.  I reckon the courthouse was completed just in time for the county seat to be moved…meaning the brand-new, building with valuable marble decorative items became just another building in a boom town…albeit an expensive one.

A fragment of marble in the ruins of the courthouse. Churchill County, Nevada. (Nathanael Miller, 10 May 2021)

Exploring the roads to the right and left of the courthouse ruins will reveal many other ruins, often built into the hillside (hey; saves you from having to build one wall!).  Again, the collapsed nature of these buildings and the rocky terrain make it difficult to spot them, but they are there.

Explore the ruins, but be careful to watch for snakes and other dangerous wildlife.  Also, don’t take any souvenirs; leave things as you found them.

The wind in this valley can howl just like in the movies (trust me, I heard it while I explored the valley).  Take some time to sit quietly and listen hard with your heart as well as your head.  Let the wind become a mesmerizing influence, relaxing you and opening your spirit.  See if you can hear the echoes of the voices of those who used to toil and live here.  Contemplate the stories that must have played out before La Plata was played out.

Finally, pay attention to all the details you can (location, building material, historical timing, etc.).  You never know; you might be able to contribute to local historical knowledge by seeing old clues in new ways. 

In other words, you might be able to become part of the story of that ghost town yourself…but in a way you can be proud of.  After all, it’s not often any of us are presented an opportunity to form a theory that might solve the mystery of the ruins!

Check out my video on the La Plata ruins at: https://youtu.be/JZyo11uXO04

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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