Wadsworth and Columbus Freight Road

The Wadsworth and Columbus Freight Road was a 130-mile wagon road connecting Wadsworth on the Central Pacific Railroad to the Columbus Mining District in the deserts of southwestern Nevada. From 1871 to 1882, freight wagons hauled supplies and mining machinery south to the Columbus District's towns and silver mines, and returned loaded with borax from the surrounding salt marshes. The road's brief but busy life illustrated the constantly changing nature of the wagon road network which tied together Nevada's far-flung mining camps, and linked them to the outside world. New routes and destinations appeared with every discovery, and old ones disappeared just as abruptly. At the same time, miles of railroad track were being laid across the state, adding yet another way to move people and freight from one place to another.

In 1864 silver was discovered in what became the Columbus Mining District. The district had its ups and downs, but by 1871 it included three producing mines in the Candelaria Hills and several mills in the town of Columbus. In the same year, the Nevada state mineralogist reported “the richest and most extensive deposits of the salts of borax yet discovered in any part of the world are found in the vicinity of Columbus. . . [and]. . . will yield an unlimited supply for an indefinite period.” It was a matter of time until the transportation network expanded to include Columbus, but exactly how was actually determined in 1868, when construction of the transcontinental railroad finally cleared the Sierra Nevada. Previously, most freight crossed the Sierra Nevada by wagon road from Placerville, in central California, to Carson City and the Comstock, where it was then distributed to the Nevada interior. This same freight could now be delivered by rail to the east side of the mountains, and transferred anywhere along the line to freight wagons, which would haul it to its ultimate destination. Wadsworth was 130 miles from the Columbus District, but it was the closest station on the Central Pacific. In addition, there were long, north-south valleys between the two points, forming the “thoroughfare” which became the Wadsworth and Columbus Freight Road.

Silver mining in the Columbus District expanded through the 1870s. New towns and mills were built at Belleville, Candelaria, and Metallic City. The Wadsworth and Columbus Freight Road—like other freight roads of the era—carried the machinery, equipment, and supplies that kept the busy district operating. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs such as F.M. “Borax” Smith were transforming borax from an obscure mineral to the popular detergent and disinfectant found today in almost every household. The Columbus District marshes supplied the tons of borax needed to meet this newly created, worldwide demand. For a ten-year period beginning in 1873, Nevada was the world's leading borax producer. This was a boon to the freighters, who would make their deliveries to the mines and towns of the Columbus District, then stop at the nearby borax processing plants and fill their wagons for a profitable return trip to the railroad at Wadsworth.

The Wadsworth and Columbus Freight Road lasted more than a decade, but just as one railroad brought it into existence, another—the Carson and Colorado—ended it. The Carson and Colorado was built to link the mining districts of southwestern Nevada and eastern California to the Virginia and Truckee Railroad at Moundhouse, which then connected to the Central Pacific at Reno. Construction reached Candelaria just after New Year's Day in 1882, and with that the 130-mile wagon trip to Wadsworth was history. The Wadsworth and Columbus Freight Road's days as a long-haul route ended, but the road was not entirely abandoned. During the 1906–07 Rawhide boom, auto-stages traveled it between Fallon and Luning, and throughout the twentieth century the smaller mining and milling projects dotting the mountains of west-central Nevada used segments of the old wagon road as supply lines.

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