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Central Pacific Woodcutters’ Camp, Circa 1868-1870, Elko County, Nevada

 Central Pacific Woodcutters’ Camp, Circa 1868-1870, Elko County, Nevada

I had been told about this place by Central Pacific scholars who said it was damned hard to find but well worth it if you were lucky to locate it in the miles of rough pinon scrub. A very ephemeral site, one you could walk right through and never know what it was, they said.

Fewer than ten people have been here in the past 145 years. This was among the most interesting of all the sites Carol and I found on my exploration of the first transcontinental railroad, and it was certainly the most mysterious and evocative because more than any other, it held the sense that the men who built this railroad had been here only recently.

In 1868 as the Central Pacific built east toward the completion of the line, the company dispatched woodcutters to the mountains to cut fuel for a growing fleet of locomotives. At this mountainside spot, a handful of Chinese men dug shallow trenches, propped tree trunks and branches across them, spread small sheets of canvas on top to make one-person A-frame shelters. To hold the canvas against the wind, the men weighted the canvas edges with rocks and railroad iron—spikes, bolts, etc.

The site presents some six to ten shelters, a couple remarkably intact given their hasty and simple construction. The canvas has long rotted away, and most of the old railroad iron has disappeared with the few visitors who have been here. So how do we know it was occupied by Chinese men? A large proportion of the Central Pacific workers were hired Chinese, some who settled in the States, some who returned to China to buy farms with their earnings. Most telling: visitors here with metal detectors have turned up old Chinese coins in the dirt. How do we know it wasn’t likely occupied after 1870? The Central Pacific fueled its locomotives with wood only until they had a source for coal, a superior fuel, which came with the completion of the line in 1869.

We were very lucky to find this remote, delicate place amidst so many miles of dry mountain range and desert. It is not marked, nor should it be lest it be raided by souvenir hunters, and there are no landmarks nearby. Railroad scholars gave us directions via subtle land clues, told us to park the truck when the road looked like such-and-such, walk in a specific direction from the road for a certain distance, and there it will be. Or not.

We figured we had less than a 50-50 chance.

On a recent July morning after several weeks on the road making photographs, we parked, fairly certain we’d done so in the right place, and began walking according to the directions given. We’d been given an approximate distance to walk, but since we were walking uphill and through scattered forest, both of which tend to make people overestimate distance, I suggested we subtract about 50% from the estimated distance.

We were just about where we though the camp should be when my cell phone rang, startling me. We’d been in remote places out of cell coverage for so many days, I no longer thought of it as a communication device. It was Central Pacific historian and friend Chris Graves from California.

“Have you found that Chinese woodcutter camp yet?” Perfect timing, I thought.

“Not yet,” I told him. “But we’re just walking up the hill—it should here someplace.”

While Chris queried me about what I saw around me and reiterated his directions, Carol wandered off. She told me later she’d had a strong inclination to go off to the left. A moment later, I heard her call out.

“Just a minute,” I told Chris.

I followed the sound of Carol’s voice and soon emerged through the trees to see her grinning.

“I found it,” she said. And indeed she had. As if walking on eggs, we now stood in the midst of several faint structures of limbs and sticks that had lain here largely undisturbed for nearly 150 years.

“Chris, we found it; Carol and I are standing right in the middle of the camp.”

The phone was silent for several seconds, which suggested the garrulous Chris had been cut off. Finally he said, “I’ll be damned. Last time it took six of us four hours to find it.

We spend the rest of the morning taking photographs, making notes, imagining what this place might have been like as a temporary home, far away from home, for those strong men so long ago. We dug for nothing, collected nothing, carefully avoided stepping near the bleached tent frames for fear of damage.

Did these lonely men stay here a week, a month? It’s likely they played games in the evenings around a campfire and doubtless talked about home and family across the sea. Did some immigrate to live in coastal California, or to help build later transcontinental lines? Probably.

Will I tell you where this place is so you can visit? Nope. I am lucky to be a (fringe) member of a small and informal group of historians and scholars of the transcontinental railroad and have pledged to keep this lonely magic place a secret.

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