The road – vast, endless, and full of the promise of adventure – snakes through the awe-inspiring, expansive lands of sagebrush, while mountains in the distance tower over the panoramic vista. It’s the Nevada stretch of Route 50 – infamously dubbed the “loneliest road in America” by Life magazine in 1986.
Not much has changed since then. Cruise down the winding highway with not a worry in the world, brilliant blood-red sunset in your rear view mirror, and the only things keeping you company will be the moon and the stars.
One unforgettable stop on the Loneliest Road is the friendly town of Eureka – a bastion of warmth along Highway 50. The town, with its 480 inhabitants, opens its arms to intrepid road-trippers looking for adventure, offering quirky accommodations, hearty grub, and an opera house resplendent in glory from the booming mining days.
“It’s a very friendly town to visitors and we like to share our history,” says Joyce Jeppesen, who has lived in the town since 1992, and is the curator of Eureka Sentinel Museum. The museum is located in the former Eureka Sentinel Newspaper offices, which operated from 1879 to 1960. The museum is covered with newsroom relics, from an original complete printing press to typewriters, and peeling yellowed newspaper bulletins lining the walls.
The biggest draw of Eureka is its perfectly preserved historic downtown. The town was discovered in 1864 by silver prospectors, who were exploring the region from their homebase of nearby Austin in the hopes of finding the next big mining bonanza. Along their journey, they found rock containing a silver-lead ore, in what became the state’s second largest silver strike. Shortly after, a site was selected for a new Nevada town – in an area that was known as Horse Thief Canyon. The land was surveyed, and on January 27 1870, the Post Office was established, and the town was named Eureka — from the Greek term (and hopeful prospector’s refrain), “I have found it.” Unlike other mining towns that went bust, Eureka continued to prosper, churning out 700 tons of ore in a single day. Even today it still produces gold.
Today, road-trippers may find themselves experiencing a similar sense of “eureka” euphoria when they stumble across this central Nevada gem.
“The ruralness of Eureka makes for a very peaceful and quiet town,” Jeppesen continues. “Even during the busiest times of summer and hunting season, Eureka is very peaceful.”
The town offers comfortable lodging for visitors, thanks to the elegant Jackson House Hotel, built in 1877, and the quaint but modern powder blue Eureka Doll House, which manages to pack a hot tub into its charmingly petite footprint. Put on your Sunday best for afternoon tea at the Jackson’s historic tea rooms, stock up for a picnic at the deli at Raine’s Market and head out into the surrounding vast wilderness, or sit down for a hearty meal at the Owl Club Bar & Steakhouse.
Tourists come for both the history and the great outdoors. “During hunting season we have an influx of hunters, some who have hunted our area all of their life,” Jeppeson explains. “People also come just to bring their four wheelers and ride the hills. We have miles of trails to explore, one which leads to an old charcoal kiln still intact from the 1800s.”
Thanks to the booming mining industry, the town thrived in the late 1800s, boasting 125 saloons, 25 gambling halls and various other businesses. Although not quite as busy today, Eureka is a gold mine when it comes to character.
Built in 1880, the 300-seat Opera House brought Victorian high culture to the Wild West, hosting dances, masquerade balls and operas for the town’s high society. Housed in a red brick building, the grand hall auditorium oozes charm, with a horseshoe-shaped balcony and imposing chandeliers. Time it right, and you can even catch a performance – bands, poetry readings, dances and theater performances, or even the impressive Nevada Old Time Fiddlers’ Contest.
Today’s locals are comprised of an eclectic group: farmers, ranchers, miners, entrepreneurs – all existing peacefully in the same small space – who take advantage of the natural activities the area has to offer, everything from hiking, riding four wheelers, and fishing. One of Eureka’s biggest annual events is the 4th of July Celebration, an old-fashioned festivity that harkens back to the good old days, complete with sack races, an egg toss, a soda drinking contest, a coin scramble, and an epic fireworks display.
The entire town is steeped in history, which as Jeppesen points out, is what makes it so unique. And it’s not just buildings from the past that tourists come to see. “People also come to Eureka for the ghosts.”
Eureka Ghost Walks are available most Fridays and Saturdays but the main attraction is the Great Eureka Ghost Hunt in late October, offering thrillseekers two days of paranormal activities. Aside from the general lawlessness of the Victorian era (which resulted in many a fight to the death between drunkards exiting the saloon), the town was also ravaged by smallpox twice, almost completely destroyed by fire, as well as being partially washed away by floods.
“There are nine cemeteries so there are more people deceased up on the hills than there are living in the town,” says Rich McKay, whose family dates back to living in Eureka in the 1870s. People claim to see ghosts at the Eureka Depot quite frequently. It used to house a hotel, a grocery store, a drug store and doctors’ offices, and now serves up pastries and coffee. But sightings of a cowboy sitting in what was the old bar have been reported, whilst the eerie remains of the old mining ghost towns, including Ruby Hill, to the west of Eureka, mean there’s plenty of the paranormal phenomena to explore.
Eureka’s residents once used underground tunnels which connected many of the town’s businesses, including the Opera House, Courthouse, Sentinel newsroom, and the Jackson House Hotel – and reports of a supernatural apparition down there have circulated for years. It’s not clear who built the tunnels, locals suspect either oppressed Chinese miners who wanted a place to socialize without being harassed, or by bootleggers who built the tunnels to ensure regular deliveries of booze during high desert winter months. The tunnels have recently been reopened to visitors who must make an appointment in order to descend into the labyrinthine network.
But don’t let the ghosts spook you. Eureka bills itself as “The Friendliest Town on the Loneliest Road” for a reason, and you’d be missing out if you didn’t take a detour.