From the oldest recorded instance of humans in North America to potential technology from another planet, Nevada is home to some awe-inspiring moments in the history of our world. And, of course, we celebrate each and every one of them — maybe even some of the ones we shouldn’t.
Either way, the Battle Born State has helped shape that history with these seven only-in-Nevada moments, and you definitely haven’t read about them in any stodgy textbook (otherwise, you’d be celebrating them already).
1. That time when Virginia City residents raged against indoor plumbing…
Henry Comstock discovered one of the largest silver ore deposits in the West in 1859, sparking a silver rush that turned Virginia City into a boomtown seemingly overnight. The city’s exploding population and newfound wealth turned the Western frontier town into a modern industrial center. For 1859, at least.
However, when the city banned outdoor latrines in favor of newfangled indoor plumbing, local residents scoffed. In an effort to stall the pending change, they dragged their outhouses to the middle of town, blocking the entrance to City Hall… Don’t worry, they eventually came around.
Experience it: Every first week of October, Nevadans pay homage to the legacy of outdoor plumbing during Virginia City’s World Championship Outhouse Races. Teams of three people with basic crafting skills — and a penchant for potty humor — propel decorated outhouses through town, fighting to be the first to cross the toilet-paper finish line.
2. That time when tourists flocked to watch nuclear bomb testing…
Ah, the Las Vegas Strip. A treat for all the senses: lively music, dazzling lights, mushroom clouds looming on the horizon. Wait, what?
In 1951, the first in a series of nuclear test explosions was set off in the desert just outside of Las Vegas, putting on a show in the sky over the city. The events were a boom for local businesses that capitalized on the spectacle. Viewing parties, nuclear-themed cocktails, and even a Miss Atomic Energy pageant became a regular part of the Vegas scene until the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty put an end to the fun of open-air nuclear testing. Yeah, the ’50s and ’60s were a time to be alive.
Experience it: The National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas recently unveiled new exhibits, including artwork from United States Navy Artist Arthur Beaumont. Then there’s Atomic Liquors, Vegas’s oldest freestanding bar — liquor license #00001. They’ve got awesome spacey decor, themed cocktails (the “F Bomb” being one of the more notorious), parties and events on the regular, and a time capsule.
For an even deeper experience, head northwest of the city on US-95 to the Nevada National Security Site, the area that saw those nuclear blasts up close. And, in a turn of events you might not have seen coming, it’s open for tours. They happen monthly but fill up for the year almost immediately when dates are released each June. Ready, set, click!
3. That time when counterculture artists founded a temporary city in the desert…
Okay, so this one technically got its start in the San Francisco Bay Area, but Burning Man has long since called the Black Rock Desert of Nevada its true home. Festival organizers relocated the event in 1990 after outgrowing the Baker Beach scene, and Black Rock City was born.
The City is an intersection of functionality and artistry using a traditional city-planning framework (yes, it has its very own police force and medical teams), all the while incorporating the varied interests of its residents. Each year, thousands of people take up habitation in Black Rock City for a week of radical self-expression, and each year the city is dismantled with the help of volunteers who work to leave no trace of the temporary metropolis.
Experience it: Burning Man takes place annually during the week before Labor Day. Can’t make the actual festival? The art and spirit of Burning Man are alive and well in Reno. Check out the Reno Playa Art Park to discover some of the sculptures and pieces that were once part of Black Rock City.
4. That time when prehistoric marine reptiles roamed the land…
It’s hard to imagine that the desert of Nevada was once part of the ocean floor, but 225-million-year-old ichthyosaur fossils tell the truth. Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park is home to the fossilized remains of what amounts to the largest concentration of ichythosaurs in the world.
History buffs are treated to a double feature when they visit the state park as the Berlin ghost town houses the remnants of a long-abandoned mining town. You can also explore the Diana Mine, regularly patrolled by rangers and considered safe to enter — there are tours, too.
Experience it: Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park is located not too far from Austin, Nevada, just off the famed Loneliest Road in America (US-50). The park is open seven days a week, year-round.
5. That time when Nevada was visited by extraterrestrial beings…maybe
For decades, Americans were told that Area 51 didn’t exist, but the secrecy only made the conspiracy theories wilder. Most versions speculate that the facility is used to research UFO reports and test extraterrestrial technology. Some even believe it’s where the government stored wreckage and bodies from the mysterious Roswell incident, which supposedly involved a craft from another world. Take it all for what it’s worth, but folks in the area report an unusually high number of sightings of strange lights and flying craft to this day.
While the exact purpose of Area 51 remains a secret, the Pentagon recently confirmed the existence of a $22 million program to research “anomalous aerospace threats,” — but the program “ended” in 2012.
Experience it: You, the casual visitor, are still definitely not welcome in Area 51, but Nevada State Route 375 gives those looking for life from beyond our world plenty to explore. Dubbed the Extraterrestrial Highway, this 98-mile stretch of road leads to some of Nevada’s famed “UFO hotspots,” including ET Fresh Jerky, the Alien Research Center, and the very much alien-themed town of Rachel (aka, the “UFO Capital of the World”). From Las Vegas, head north on US-93 toward Alamo. Fuel up before getting to SR-375.
6. That time when Lake Tahoe was a vacation destination for the mafia…
When the state of Nevada legalized gambling in 1931, the Cal-Neva Lodge became one of the country’s first legal casinos and a destination for some of the nation’s richest and most influential characters. While under the ownership of legendary crooner Frank Sinatra, the Cal-Neva also apparently became a frequent stop for the notorious Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana — or so thought the FBI, at least.
It’s alleged that Giancana had a hand in tipping the 1960 presidential election in favor of John F. Kennedy. Maybe it’s only coincidence that Sinatra took ownership of the Cal-Neva just a day before Kennedy was nominated by the Democratic Party, but some believe the election was one of several mafia deals that took place behind closed doors at the Cal-Neva Lodge.
Experience it: The lodge has faced some hard times in recent years. After changing hands several times, the property closed for renovations. Oracle chief Larry Ellison recently purchased it; however, plans for the future are unclear.
7. That time when some of the oldest-known human remains in North America were found here…
One of the oldest-known mummies found in North America was discovered in a cave just outside of Fallon, Nevada. Referred to as the Spirit Cave Mummy, the remains are over 10,000 years old — for some comparison, the Egyptian Pyramids (and associated tombs) were built around 5,000 years ago. Yeah, the Spirit Cave Mummy is really old.
The discovery of the Spirit Cave Mummy launched a decades-long court battle over whether it had any relation to local indigenous tribes. In 2016, genome sequencing proved once and for all that the Spirit Cave Mummy was, in fact, most likely related to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, and the remains were returned for a proper burial.
Experience it: Get a taste of Fallon’s native history by visiting Grimes Point Archaeological Area, about 10 miles southwest of downtown Fallon, just off the Loneliest Road. Within the archaeological area are various examples of rock art, and you can also tour Hidden Cave, home to artifacts that are thousands of years old. Just another awesome history lesson in Nevada.