Hawthorne’s site was selected in the winter of 1881 by the mules used by the work crews grading the right-of-way for the Carson & Colorado Railroad. Turned loose to forage for themselves, they found the most sheltered spot on the valley for protection from the freezing wind, and the humans had the wisdom to accept their critters’ advice.
Hawthorne became the Esmeralda County seat in 1883 but its growth was hardly meteoric; the 1890 census taker counted 337 residents in town. By 1900, when the Southern Pacific acquired the C & C, there were only 99 more. In 1905 the SP changed over to standard gauge and bypassed Hawthorne completely by going around the east side of Walker Lake. The railroad built a new terminal at Mina and in 1907 the booming mining city of Hawthorne took the Esmeralda County seat away. But by 1910 the population had actually increased by 35 people.
In 1926 half of Hawthorne’s business district burned down, but even this was not enough to kill the tough little town.
And finally Hawthorne had some luck. Lake Denmark, New Jersey, was blown off the face of the earth by a huge explosion at the naval ammunition depot there, and Congress wanted some less valuable real estate for the new one. After a nationwide search, Hawthorne was the choice, the Yucca Mountain of its time.
The following progression illustrates the result through World War II:
1930 pop.: 680
1940 pop.: 1,009
1944 pop.: 13,000
1950 pop.: 1,861
But even as the Korean War broke out the boom was over. Growth since has been slow, and today the ammunition depot plays a diminishing role in Hawthorne’s economy, although its bunkers still pimple the desert as they have for more than 75 years. The Gulf War brought more good times to Hawthorne, and the depot — now under civilian management — is bulging more than ever with munitions.
In 1984, after nearly 50 years without a major mishap, one of the storage bunkers exploded. The blast was contained as intended, blowing up instead of out, and the deeply feared chain-reaction causing immense damage and loss of life did not occur.
The Mineral County Museum on the north end of town is an enjoyable collection of local area artifacts and discoveries dating back as far as the Miocene Era fossils from nearby Stewart Valley and as recent as the collection of hand-made knives taken from prisoners at the state prison.
The Hawthorne Ordnance Museum is just a short distance down the street, celebrating the contribution of the Ammunition Depot and the people who have worked there over the years since it was established in 1930.
Hawthorne’s most wonderful landmark is rarely seen by visitors, though it’s only a 5-minute drive out of town to the Ammunition Depot: one of the prettiest golf courses anywhere. A visiting golfer wrote in Nevada Magazine: “A canopy of spring rainclouds was held aloft by rows of towering trees. At their feet spread fairways. The greens were of an exotic weave, floating in elevated pools at each fairway’s end like green satin pillows on a velvet bed. ‘Where is everybody?’ we asked the manager. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘It’s always like this out here.’ I thought he was going to add, ‘in heaven.'”
For the most part Hawthorne’s quiet streets are better suited to freckle-faced kids on bikes than to fun-hungry visitors. Hawthorne’s tourists are mostly the outdoorsmen who camp, hike, hunt and rockhound in the nearby mountains and fish for bass and cutthroat trout in Walker Lake at the foot of mighty Mt. Grant.
Hawthorne is on the main Las Vegas-Reno highway and serves as Nevada’s gateway to Yosemite and the eastern Sierra via the Pole Line Road (Nevada 359) connecting with US 395 and the Tioga Pass.