By Dennis Cassinelli
For thousands of years, much of western Nevada was submerged under the waters of ancient Lake Lahontan. About 4,000 years ago, climate change caused the waters to recede and the area around what is now Fallon, Nevada became a dry desert playa. Prevailing winds from the west blew millions of tons of sand from this playa into a 500-foot high pile of sand now known as Sand Mountain. In modern times, Sand Mountain became an attraction to dune buggy enthusiasts and it became a popular recreation destination. In addition the site is very near the Grimes Point Petroglyph Area and Hidden Cave archaeological site.
When the stations for the Pony Express were constructed in 1860, the owners selected a place about 20 miles east of present Fallon and just south of Sand Mountain to construct Sand Springs Station. This site is now easily reached from U.S. Highway 50 east of Fallon.
After the station was abandoned when the Pony Express ceased operation in 1861, the stone corrals and station house soon became buried under the ever shifting sands of the Great American Desert. In 1976, the BLM and archaeologists from the University of Nevada located the buried ruins and excavated them. The stone walls of the buildings were stabilized and interpretive signs were placed along a hiking trail to identify the elements for visitors to the site. Since the ruins were buried for over 100 years, they are very well preserved.
To get an idea what the conditions were like at Pony Express stations when they were actually being used, we can refer to eyewitness accounts written by people who saw them in 1860. The riders, station masters and workers led lonely and often dangerous lives during this time. Living conditions were usually extremely bad and boredom was constantly with them. Sir Richard Burton, British scholar and explorer, traveled by stage across the route of the Pony Express and commented on the stations he visited. When he visited Sand Springs Station on October 17, 1860, he described it in his diary this way:
“The water near this vile hole was thick and stale with sulphury salts; it blistered even the hands. The station house was no unfit object in such a scene, roofless and chairless, filthy and squalid, with a smoky fire in one corner, and a table in the center of an impure floor, the walls open to every wind and the interior full of dust.”
When Pony Express employees were hired, they were required to swear that they would drink no intoxicating liquors. Whoever made this ridiculous rule obviously had no concept of the living conditions the employees of these stations would face. When the archaeologists from the University of Nevada excavated Sand Springs Station in 1976, the most common artifacts they uncovered were hundreds of fragments of liquor bottles. Solemn oaths were hard to keep when faced with isolation, boredom, loneliness and the constant threat of Indian attacks.
Sand Springs Station is one of the best preserved and easily reached of all Pony Express stations. The fact that it was buried under sand for over 100 years until it was re-discovered, protected it from the vandalism that destroyed or damaged many others. Here you can even see the smoky fireplace in the corner described by Sir Richard Burton in 1860.
As with any of the stations, please do not remove anything, climb on or disturb any of the ruins. These are fragile resources that should be treated with respect. One distraction you may notice if you visit the site is the noise from the many dune buggies that come to climb the dunes at nearby Sand Mountain. Despite this inconvenience, Sand Springs Station is worth a visit.
This article is by Dayton Author and Historian, Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a discount plus $3.00 for each shipment for postage and packaging.