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Carlin Canyon

'It All Comes Together Here'

Elko County, Nevada


While sitting on top of the hill, from where the following photographs were taken, the thought came to mind that "it all comes together here."  A chapter of the earth's history together with many of the accomplishments of human kind have been recorded in this canyon.  In this canyon you can see long extinct fossil coral, brachiopod shells, crinoid stems, and bryozoans that lived in ancient oceans.  Here you can also trace mans "progress" from seeing white chert flakes that were created in the making of arrow head points by the native American Indians, the canyon contains the history of the explorers and trappers, the history of the emigrants as they passed through this canyon in covered wagons, the railroads which allowed emigrants headed to California "to travel 15 miles per hour in the 'relative comfort' of a train car instead of 15 miles per day by wagon".  The history of the automobile from the Victory Highway, to US 40, to the two-lane divided highway of Interstate 80.  The power lines and phone lines pass through this notch.  And within the last few years, fiber-optic cables were buried through the canyon.  Their location marked with little red plastic poles.  Perhaps this web-page traveled from Spring Creek's Mighty Moose server through Carlin Canyon to your computer.  All of this history is packed into a 2-mile stretch (less than a 2 minute drive) of I-80. 


Why does it all come together here?  The mountains of the Basin and Range Province trend north-south.  The Humboldt River cuts an east-west notch through these mountains that allowed the 'path of least resistance west'.  This together with water and vegetation for the animals, provided by the Humboldt River,  made this the best route west.  Here in Carlin Canyon, the Humboldt River has cut a narrow canyon.  All the trails and rails converge here.


Carlin Canyon looking West

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Carlin Canyon Looking East

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West Carlin Canyon - Looking North

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Survey Mark No. 63 on top of Carlin Tunnels

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West Side of Carlin Tunnels

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East Side of Carlin Tunnels

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"The Rocks Tell The Story"

The Diamond Peak Formation of Upper Mississippian Age is referred to below as the "yellowish-black pebbly rocks at the bottom of the hill".  The younger overlying Strathearn Formation of Upper Pennsylvanian age is the "gray limestone layers".

The geology of this area has been studied many times.  The US Geological Survey with the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology prepared a 1975 professional paper covering this area.   It is technical, but excellent reading.  It is referenced below.

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The following series was taken directly from a sign in Carlin Canyon.

"Long, long ago, before dinosaurs roamed the land there was an ocean where you are now standing.  Stones and boulders from the nearby mountains washed into the ocean in long horizontal bands.  Eventually, these rocks were cemented together to form the yellowish-black pebbly rocks at the bottom of the hill."

"But the bands aren't horizontal anymore.  How did that happen?  Faulting is the answer.  Faulting, and associated earthquakes, shook this area and tipped the massive block containing these bands.  One end of this block moved up and the other down tilting the bands and, over time, forming a new mountain range." 

"Over millions of years wind and water eroded the upper end of the block.  Sea levels rose, covering the eroded surface with a warm, shallow ocean.  In the ocean, sediments were deposited gradually, forming the gray limestone layers now visible at the top of the hill."

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"The layering of limestone over the older eroded block records a gap in this portion of the earth's history.  This gap is called an unconformity.  Because the yellowish-black rocks meet the gray limestone at an angle geologists call this an angular unconformity.

The ocean has been gone for millions of years now; the land has continued to change.  More faulting tilted the gray limestone layers and further tipped the pebbly bands.  This faulting and continued erosion created the rounded hills and river canyon you see today."

The Ferdelford fossil bed is located in the canyon in the Diamond Peak Formation shown toward the center of the above photo.  It contains a large variety of Corals, Bryozoans, Echinoderm, brachiopods, Pelecypods and Gastopods.  Over time the fossil bed has been heavily collected, but fossils can still be seen.  A list of the fossil names are provided in the professional paper, number 867-A, referenced below.   




The Humboldt River

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The "Humboldt river meanders a distance of 350 miles from headwaters in Elko County to its termination in an alkali sink, the fate of all Great Basin rivers.

This was the last discovered of the American rivers, first named for Peter Skene Ogden, trapper and explorer.  It was then called Mary's River after Ogden's Indian wife:  the Barren River for its lack of trees, then placed on maps as Humboldt, namesake of Alexander von Humboldt.

The Humboldt traces an east-west arc through Nevada's north-south oriented mountain ranges and its river plain was the route for emigrants heading to California.  It's maligned waters alkaline, brackish and sometime non-existent, sustained grasses that allowed traveler's animals to survive the desert journey.

Its sink, near present day Lovelock, marked the beginning of yet another perilous leg of the emigrants journey, the 40-mile desert."


Explores and Trappers

"Europeans had lived in the New World for 300 years before they made trails along the Humboldt River.  Peter Skene Ogden and his British fur brigade were the first to meet the native Shashone. The trappers passed this site going east in 1828.  In 1833 an American fur party led by Joseph Walker trapped in the area."  (photo, courtesy of  California State Library,  text taken from road sign at Hunter Overpass)



The Emigrants and Settlers

"During the 1840's the shouts of men and the creaks of harness and wagon became common as the great migration west began.  It stared in 1841 when the Bidwell-Bartleson party became the first emigrant group to thread its way thorough Carlin Canyon.  Two years later the Walker-Chiles party, traversing the California Trail from Ft. Hall, Idaho, rolled the first wagons into view.  Over the next several years, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children bound for California and western Nevada passed this way.

As California grew, the wagon traffic to Sacramento increased.  Winter snows often blocked the rough wagon road through the Canyon.  Other routes were sought for a permanent road west and for a transcontinental railroad, but Carlin Canyon remained part of the major route across northern Nevada."

 (photo, courtesy of  California State Library, and text taken from road sign at picnic area in Carlin Canyon)

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The dated entry below is from the diary of Hiram Miller and James F. Reed.

This information is COPIED DIRECTLY from the linked Donner Party Site.  Make sure you check-out Daniel M. Rosen's site it is great!

The Donner party passed through Carlin Canyon on:

Sunday, September 27, 1846

"Marys River, Son 27  Came through a Short Cannon and encamped above the first Creek (after the Cannon) on Marys River"  [This camp was probably on present Susie Creek, also called Moleen Canyon, below Carlin, Nevada.]

A pretty terse description of the canyon?  If you had just traveled the Hasting Cut-off, this was just another canyon.



The Railroad

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"The ring of picks, shovels, and sledgehammers echoed through Carlin Canyon in late 1868, as Chinese laborers leveled the road bed and spiked down the Central Pacific railroad tracks.  For the next 35 years steam engine whistles resounded through the canyon.  By 1903 the curving tracks had been rerouted through a tunnel eliminating the slow crawl along the river."  (photo, courtesy of Northeastern Nevada Museum, and text taken from road sign at picnic area in Carlin Canyon)


The Automobile

"When the automobile became popular in the 1920s, motorists could drive State Route 1 through Carlin Canyon, following the paths of the emigrants and the railroad.  The route became known as the Victory Highway in 1924, only to be renamed U.S. Highway 40 a year later.  In the 1930s men from the Civilian Conservation Corp built the rock wall to protect the highway.  Today cars and trucks bypass Carlin Canyon in the same manner as the railroads."  (photo, courtesy of  Wright Motors, Elko, Nevada,  and text taken from road sign at picnic area in Carlin Canyon)

Highway 40, pictured here, was built on the old abandoned railroad grade through Carlin Canyon.

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University of Nevada Reno Fire Academy, just west of Carlin Canyon

(see photo at top of page)

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History of Carlin

How did Carlin Canyon get its name?

"The town later became known as Carlin, named after William Passmore Carlin, who was a Union General in the Civil War, and stationed here in 1863 before the reservation was moved to Owyhee. "

Maureen Brook


Nevada Counties

Humboldt County is Nevada's oldest county, created by the Utah Territorial Legislature in 1856. It was also one of Nevada's original nine counties created in 1861. Named for the Humboldt River which John C. Fremont named after Baron Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, a German naturalist, traveler and statesman. Humboldt NEVER saw the places that bear his name.


History -- Humboldt County 
Humboldt County was created on November 25, 1861 as one of the original nine counties of the Territory of Nevada. The county shares its name with the Humboldt River, which passes through northern Nevada and the southeastern portion of Humboldt County. Peter Ogden of the Hudson Bay Company first discovered the river on November 9, 1828 on his fifth Snake Country Expedition. The river was named by soldier-explorer John C. Fremont for Alexander von Humboldt, the German explorer and scientist, who was much admired by Fremont, but who never saw or came within 1,000 miles of the river, mountains or county which now bear his name. During the period 1841-1870, the Humboldt River funneled thousands of emigrants along its valley on their way to California, especially after the discovery of gold there in 1848.



Gary B. Peterson
Utah History Encyclopedia

John C. Frémont's major government exploring expeditions of 1843-44 and 1845 crossed the Basin by both Smith's and Walker's routes. The Unknown, Mary's, or Ogden's River was renamed by Frémont for the famous German geographer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.



Elko, Nevada Time-Line



Wagons Ho!





Smith Jr., J. Fred and Ketner, Keith B., 1975, Stratigraphy of Paleozoic Rocks in the Carlin-Pinon Range Area, Nevada, US Geological Survey Professional Paper 867-A.



The above photos are thumb-nailed.  The original digital photos are available on request.





Additional Information:  Northeastern Nevada Museum

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Recent Photos by Dan Turner