Thursday, July 7, 2016

Finding Fort Halleck, Nevada

Fort Halleck was established on July 26th, 1867 to protect both the California Emigrant Trail as well as the construction of the nearby Central Pacific Railroad.  The location was named for Major General Henry W. Halleck who was the commander of the military in the region at the time.  Using both the title of Camp Halleck and Fort Halleck over the years, Fork Halleck was also tasked with supporting issues concerning local Indian matters.  The Fort closed its doors in December of 1886.

Present day Fort Halleck site. Photo by Author.
Today, little remains of the Fort.  Unlike some other Army installations, Fort Halleck was not kept for its historical value or used in some other fashion.  A major force behind this was its location, remote from the railroad it was to protect.  Even now there isn’t much around the sight of the old fort.

My interest in Fort Halleck sprang from research I am conducting into the life of an ancestor who served a potion of his Army life there. 

The first step in my research was to identify when my ancestor was assigned to the post.  Using the Returns from Military Bases database on Ancestry dot com, I established he arrived there on April 24th, 1869.  His regiment was there also.  From these same records I learned he commanded the fort for a few weeks each in June and October/November of 1870.  He left Fort Halleck in December of 1870.

Other genealogical information suggests one of his children was born in Nevada, and inasmuch as Fort Halleck was the only Nevada post my ancestor was assigned - juxtaposed to the his son's birth date - makes this local significant.  

The next step in finding Fort Halleck, was an open source research review.  What already existed concerning the history of the post?  Here Google is your friend, but not your only one.  I established a computer based file for this task and started collecting interesting information.  For the most part I was concerned with historical demographic data.  I found enough to complete the task, but was also surprised at how relatively little information there was.  This told me much of the memory of the fort has long ago passed.  Beyond the history, I also found some interesting - all be it less useful - social data.  Apparently the fort was an economic driver in the area and this pushed for the post remaining longer than it likely should have.  In fact, Army personnel stationed at Fort Halleck often questioned the need for this remote post.  It nevertheless remained into the mid-1880s.

Wishing to visit the present day site of Fort Halleck, I was pleased to find a few pieces of very useful information.  Two such items were: 1) a website named Howard Hickson’s Histories containing an article named Men in Blue, Fort Halleck Nevada (1867-1886), and 2) the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly, volume 7, numbers 3-4 (1976-1977).  From these two references, I was able to locate and identify the fort and its placement of buildings.  The National Archives offered a few period photographs (showing the mountain terrain in the background), and I had Google Maps for a satellite view.
Camp Halleck in 1871.  National Archives photo by Timothy O'Sullivan

I learned that soon after the fort was decommissioned, the buildings, made primarily from cottonwood trees and adobe, were salvaged by local - friendly - Indians.  Nothing remains, save some of the larger trees.  From my two primary sources, I discovered the site was about 12 miles south of a railroad station.  This portion of Nevada is in Elko County and the area surrounding the old post is today called Halleck.  The fort itself was situated on the banks of what was then named Cottonwood Creek (today named Soldier Creek).  A plot map appearing in the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly (p30) showed the point at which the fort was next to the creek.  It also showed roads leading to and past the fort.  

The next step was to compare, or basically overlay, a map appearing in Howard Hickson's Histories with a Google satellite view of the area from the present day.  I was looking for Soldier Creek and roads that would match up with what appeared on the old map.  I knew everything was south of the existing railroad tracks, and freeway. 

Howard Hickson's Histories, Men in Blue September 2002
The site and area jumped off of the screen.  Everything lined up.  I had read of the distance from the main road leading from the fort to the railroad station, a 12 miles distance, and surmised it was the line that followed the creek between both points.  Using Google Map’s point to point measuring tool, I confirmed the route was indeed 12 miles.  Today this is McIntyre Road, which looks to travel through present day private ranch properties. 

The next step was to take closer look at where McIntyre Road reaches the creek, 12 miles south.  Using Google’s satellite view I found existing modern buildings; private properties that appeared to be ranches.  Inspecting the view more, to the west of the creek I found it!  Square and rectangle shapes in the earth, visible from a satellite’s eye and probably less so to a viewer on the surface.

Google satellite image 
The shapes and their placements, relative to the creek and even some existing trees matched perfectly – like a latent fingerprint to the real thing – this was all that was left of a piece of an ancestor’s history. 

From the information found on Howard Hickson’s Histories website, I was able to give names to the shapes.  The large open area partially outlined with trees was the Parade Ground.  Between the creek and the Parade Ground, the Company Quarters and Mess.  North of the Parade Ground, two sets of stables.  Also falling into place were the Magazine and the Quartermaster’s building. 

There were two hospitals at Fort Halleck, the old one and the new one.  The outline of one or the other is east of the Parade Grounds.  Perhaps this is all that remains of the place my ancestor’s second son was born.

During July of this year I went to the site of the former Fort Halleck.  The route I used was different than the old road used when the fort was in use.  From eastbound U.S. 80, I took the Halleck exit where state Highway 229 intersects with the freeway.  A Nevada historical marker for Fort Halleck can be found at this intersection; of course it is no where near the actual former post grounds. 
My route took me about 17 miles into some very pretty country deep inside Elko County.  Taking Highway 229 south, I found a hard pack dirt road leading southwest toward Lamoille Nevada.  After about six miles of dirt road, I came across Soldier Creek.  Just south of me lay the Parade Grounds and the large cottonwood trees I’d seen online.  There was no way to discern the shapes I had seen using the satellite view. 

Monument by Daughters of the Utah Pioneers
Photo by Author
In 1939 the Daughters of Utah Pioneers erected a monument marking the existence of the former Army post.  I found it, on the south side of the dirt road, east of the creek. Today the Fort’s former site is a private ranch property.  No trespassing signs are posted.