Keck Museum - Atlas Obscura

Keck Museum

Mackay School of Mines Building

The original building of a mining school endowed by one of the barons of the Comstock Lode now houses a museum of earth science and mining history. 


Nevada’s oldest geology museum can be found inside a mining school that was endowed by one of the barons of the Comstock Lode, one of the most significant mining discoveries in American history.

John Mackay (pronounced “Mackey”) was one of the handful of hopeful prospectors who made a fortune on the silver strikes of the Comstock Lode, going from penniless immigrant to wealthy mine owner. After his death in 1902, the Mackay family donated much of his fortune to endow a school of mines at the University of Nevada in Reno. The Mackay School of Mines was housed in a handsome Neoclassical building. Out front stands a statue of Mackay attired as the hard-rock miner he had been.

Over the years, the original Mackay School of Mines building began to show its age and its unreinforced masonry was not at all earthquake-resistant. With the growing awareness of high seismic risk in western Nevada, by the late 20th century the building was deemed unsafe for holding classes routinely. The school even considered demolishing the structure entirely.

But because of its historic significance, the school carried out an extensive seismic retrofit in the early 1990s. The building is again fully in use, housing the Delamare Library, the science and engineering library for the whole campus.

The old School of Mines building also now houses the W.M. Keck Earth Science and Mineral Engineering Museum. The museum includes extensive displays of rock and mineral specimens, as well as exhibits on geology, generally focused on Nevada but touching on mining in the West generally. In addition, the Lugaski Gallery on the second-floor balcony includes displays of historic mining technology.

Most unusually, the museum has an extraordinary exhibit of Mrs. Mackay’s opulent silver tea service, made by Tiffany & Co. in 1878. It is displayed under glass in an alarmed room.

John Mackay’s statue has been gazing over the university quad for more than a century now and has witnessed staggering changes. Although Mackay would no doubt find many of those changes disconcerting, he could take satisfaction in the legacy his bequest has left to the university.

Know Before You Go

The Mackay School of Mines building and the Mackay statue are at the north end of the Old Quad, now at the southern edge of the modern University of Nevada, Reno campus. As at many college campuses parking can be a problem. There are a few metered parking places in a small parking lot at the south end of campus off 9th Avenue. A new parking structure south of 9th Avenue should have much more parking available. Although a longer walk is required, a bridge over 9th Avenue connects directly to the campus so that at least you don't need to deal with traffic.

The Keck Museum is free to the public but has limited hours. Check the website for details.

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March 6, 2024

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