Loss can be expected, or unexpected. What is lost is replaceable, or irreplaceable. I lost a friend and collaborator recently. Her name was Estelle, she was ninety-six, and we had worked together on a number of projects, most notably a history of the Cortez Mining District, where she had spent her childhood.
She was her family’s historian and archivist, a duty she inherited from her mother, who also lived well into her nineties. Between the two of them, their lives and experiences, including the stories passed down from mother to daughter, encompassed the entirety of white peoples’ presence in central Nevada. To be specific, from the family’s way station on the wagon road near Devil’s Gate, outside of Eureka, to decades of workaday mining life in places like Cortez, Beowawe, and Carlin.
I was once told that every time a person dies we lose a history book. This was never more true than with Estelle. When someone passes away, they take their memories with them but the real loss comes when that person is not only a witness to events, but understands the way the events of their lives were part of something bigger—part of history.
I’m thankful for the many hours of recorded conversations, the old photographs, and collections of family letters and the insights they offer about life in Nevada so many years ago. But the other part, what it felt like to be there, is lost.
We had another kind of loss at almost the same time. Like most people in my part of Lyon County, I learned about the fire that consumed the historic Dayton railroad depot when videos of the building, totally engulfed in flames, showed up on social media.
It was the last surviving Carson and Colorado Railroad depot, and in fact had narrowly avoided being brushed aside, or worse, in the course of Dayton’s development.
It was saved through a true community effort, involving the local historical society, volunteers, and county government. Once that was accomplished, the decades-long project to restore the depot to its 1880s condition began. Step by step, again through the same tireless community and government efforts, an abandoned shell of a building was being transformed back into a nineteenth century railroad depot.
It was becoming a place where we could share in the experience of train travel, a basic part of life for generations of Dayton residents.
It was gone in the space of an hour or two. But it was walls, floors, a roof, made of wood, boards cut and nailed together one at a time, trimmed and painted. It was built once before, and could be built again. There are photographs to guide a recreation, maybe even original architectural drawings. The community can gather itself again, and replace it, even in this time of loss.
When I say “time of loss” I don’t just mean my friend Estelle and the Dayton Depot. We have, especially in our politics, lost the ability to recognize the two sides, or more, to a question and then—more importantly—rationally decide which one is right and which one is wrong.
I’m not for a minute non-partisan on this issue, there are reasons for this, and blame. But I’ll leave that alone for now, with the exception of pointing out how social media has given us undreamed of access to one another, but has ironically cost us the ability to put ourselves in one another’s place, to treat others as we would want to be treated.
I feel as though we are, as a nation, poised at a dangerous precipice. Any little step back is a plus—anything that points out how much more we have in common than we have differences.
I’ll have to settle for memories of my friend Estelle, but the Dayton Depot can, in fact, be rebuilt. The setting can be recreated for the experience so many people shared—old and young—in parts of two centuries.
They went to the depot to catch a train, like we drive to the airport, with all the anticipation and excitement that entails, to begin a trip, maybe just to Carson City, maybe to San Francisco, or New York.
History can be controversial. It is especially that way now, and I would argue it’s supposed to be. Yet it can draw us together, back from the edge, because even though we might disagree on the how and why things happened, history has nevertheless put us all here together, now, at this point in time. We should make the most of it—we have a depot to rebuild.
If you would like to contribute, send checks to the Historical Society of Dayton Valley, PO Box 485, Dayton NV 89403, or GoFundMe.
Erich Obermayr is a columnist for the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support his work here.