Half Way House was part of a wagon road network connecting the mines, cities, and mills of the Comstock, and linking the district to the rest of the world. Mining in the Comstock began in the early 1850s, when placer miners gleaned flecks and nuggets of gold from the gravel of Gold Canyon. In 1859, prospectors discovered the “mother lode” in outcrops at the head of the canyon, and industrial-scale, underground mining soon replaced the smaller placer operations. Scores of mines and mills worked the Comstock Lode during the 1860s and 70s, extracting silver and gold from veins deep underground. Thousands of people made their way to the region, creating urban centers at Virginia City, Gold Hill, Silver City and Dayton. The mining industry needed equipment, machinery and supplies, and the new population demanded consumer goods of every sort—all of it brought from California in freight wagons or on the backs of horses and mules.
Before the discoveries of 1859, travelers in what was then western Utah—soon to be the Nevada Territory—followed a rudimentary network of trails and stage roads. Lode mining and the suddenly expanding population brought dramatic changes to the transportation system. Roads now had to withstand constant use by heavy freight wagons, some loaded with ore on their way to the mills and others carrying everything from mining and milling machinery to food and liquor. It was the beginning of Nevada’s toll road era. Freight and stage lines scrambled to serve their customers, and entrepreneurs competed for franchises to build and maintain new roads—or claim existing ones—wherever travelers, freighters, and stage drivers were willing to pay for the privilege of using them.
Way stations like Half Way House were a basic part of the transportation system. The mules, oxen, and horses pulling the loads had to be fed, watered and rested daily. Drivers and passengers needed meals and accommodations, and there were tolls to be collected. Historical records do not provide an exact date for construction of Half Way House, but it was probably built in the spring or summer of 1860. There was apparently nothing of note at the site in June of 1859, when George H. Simpson passed through on his wagon road survey across central Nevada. Simpson followed the Emigrant Road between China Town (Dayton) and Carson City, and would have passed by the Half Way House location. His report contains numerous observations, including notes on a grove of 15-20 foot high cedars about four miles west of China Town, and the oxen bones littering the roadside. He says nothing about a way station, or any other structures.
The area between China Town and Carson City represented an arduous phase of the emigrants’ months-long journey, and would have been a promising location for one of the trading posts enterprising merchants set up to sell the exhausted emigrants supplies and fresh livestock. But the Half Way House site—in a gap in the hills where emigrants might have stopped to rest before descending into Carson Valley—lacked water. Consequently, it remained a well-traveled but undistinguished high spot on the Emigrant Road until 1860, when the “rush to Washoe” and the expanding toll road network turned it into valuable real estate.
The discoveries which eventually led to the Comstock Lode were made late in 1859. Word spread to California, but the snowbound Sierra mountain passes stymied the fortune seekers until spring. With the melting snow, they reversed the direction of the California gold rush of 1849, and poured into the Comstock. The future location of Half Way House is first mentioned in the April 28, 1860 issue of the Territorial Enterprise. Thomas H. Williams and William H. Clow announce they have “claimed and settled” a tract of land along the Emigrant Road about three miles north of “Dutch Nick’s” (later Empire City). Half Way House is actually northeast of Dutch Nicks, and more like two miles away, but the location on the Emigrant Road matches. In March of 1861, the same William H. Clow—now partnered with William Perry—filed an official claim to this same parcel. The survey map accompanying the claim includes a structure labeled “House Halfway,” and stables and corrals along the “Road to Silver City.” The earliest specific reference to “Half Way House” is in an April 21, 1860 Toll Road Notice in the Territorial Enterprise. A company of four men claim a toll road right of way between Silver City and “William’s Half Way House” on the Old Emigrant Road. On July 18, 1860 George Blanchette claimed a right of way for a road “commencing at or near the Half Way House on the Carson and Silver City Road.” When Williams and Clow announced in the Territorial Enterprise that they had “claimed and settled” the Half Way House location, they apparently built a structure which quickly became a local reference point. This is likely the same building shown on the survey map Clow and Perry filed in March of 1861. (A Close Encounter With Half Way House?)
In their Territorial Enterprise notice, Williams and Clow also claimed a ten-acre parcel and spring a mile and a half to the west, and the right of way for conveying the water to their 320 acres on the Emigrant Road. The water right is officially included in an 1861 transfer of ownership among Clow, Perry, and H. L. Hawes, which refers to water flowing to Half Way House from the Walters and Blanchette Tunnel. Robert Fulstone, a pioneer of the 1860s, explains in his memoir that miners struck water in a 500 foot deep tunnel in the nearby hills which halted their operations but—once a wooden flume was built to carry it down the hillside—supplied drinking water for Half Way House.
Half Way House was well situated in the toll road network. Traffic between Carson City and the Comstock, and Dayton, naturally converged at the gap in the hills where the station was located. The two main roads from Carson City came together just west of Half Way House. One followed the Emigrant Road through Empire City, along today’s US Highway 50. The other, the MacDonald and Bedford Toll Road, looped along the foothills north of Empire City. The road to Dayton continued east from Half Way House, with the American Flat Toll Road branching north a short distance from the station, heading to Virginia City by way of American Flat. The Devil’s Gate Toll Road, which reached Virginia City through Silver City, Devil’s Gate, and Gold Hill, turned off farther east at Spring Valley.
Half Way House was a busy place in the early 1860s. The McDonald and Bedford Toll Road was described as “. . . a very profitable road . . . well built, and traveled daily by hundreds of the heaviest teams.” The Clow and Perry 1861 survey map shows the station as a single structure, with a stable and corral straddling the road to Silver City. The 1862 Territorial Census has at least five residents at Half Way House. They belong to several different families, and range from five to 33 years of age. One man, John Linhill, is listed as a hotel keeper, indicating lodging was available by that time. Robert Fulstone recalled that Half Way House began as a stage station, with a toll gate added in the middle 1860s, and eventually included three large barns with room for three hundred head of horses. There was also a bar “where the finest wines, liquors, and cigars were sold.”
Half Way House is mentioned in a number of historic documents, accounts, and maps throughout the 1860s and 70s, but these sources lack a detailed description of the station or its day-to-day operation. According to some historians, a rival toll station—Mound Station—diverted business from Half Way House beginning in the mid-1860s. In 1869, with construction of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad, the depot at Mound House was designated the freight and passenger transfer point between the railroad and connecting wagon roads. Nearby way stations suffered as a result, but despite the competition certain toll roads did stay in business for at least another decade. Robert Fulstone recalled that Tom Calvert was in charge of the Half Way House toll gate in 1870, receiving a salary of one hundred dollars a month. Calvert and his family initially lived in a three-room home, but later bought an eight-room house which was situated a short distance away on the county line—half in Lyon and half in Ormsby County. A Wheeler survey map of the Washoe District, compiled in 1876, shows the “Devil’s Gate Toll Ha” (house) at the Half Way House location. (Link courtesy Special Collections, University of Nevada-Reno Library). The Devil’s Gate Toll Road Company bought the Bedford and McDonald Road in 1863, and still operated the toll station more than 13 years later. In 1887, as Fulstone remembers, Lyon and Ormsby Counties took over the road, and discontinued toll collections. In the twentieth century, the Lincoln Highway and eventually US Highway 50 were built over the old Emigrant Road, and Half Way House faded into history. The 1924 Lincoln Highway Road Guide includes a brief note about Mound House, but has nothing more to say about the road between Dayton and Carson City.