HERE IS EARLY 21st century Nevada in microcosm, with new curbs and gutters and a four-lane highway slicing around the old stone and brick downtown, now populated with upscale restaurants. Residential developments occupy former farm and ranch lands to the west, north and east. There is a traffic light in Dayton now, and companies escaping the costs and confinements of California have built modern factories out past the new schools and burbs on Dayton Valley Road. There’s an airport and golf course, and at the eastern edge of town a Smith’s supermarket is surrounded by fastfood cafes — even a Starbucks!
Dayton was originally a trading post where west-bound wagon trains rested, foraged and watered in preparation for the struggle over the mountains to California. A 49er named Abner Blackburn pried a little nugget of gold out of the riverbed here — the first gold discovered in Nevada — before hurrying on to California.
Dayton had a Pony Express station and prospered as a milling center during the early years of development of the Comstock Lode. It achieved its present configuration by the middle 1860s, after which Comstock milling was done at more convenient places upriver.
The drowsy charm of Dayton’s downtown is enhanced by its attractive setting. The Odeon Hall is one of Dayton’s most impressive landmarks, and the site of two of the little town’s most memorable moments. The first was in 1879 when ex-President Grant addressed a crowd of local citizens from the balcony. The second was in 1960 when Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe came to town to film “The Misfits.” Marilyn’s exceptional paddle-ball performance at the Odeon bar marks the high point of the 20th century in Dayton.
Across Pike street is the popular J’s Bistro. A block west, the Gold Canyon Restaurant serves lunches and dinners at the back of the Wild Horse Saloon. The Roadrunner Cafe by the highway serves diner fare of considerable variety. Compadres on Pike Street is a friendly Mexican place with outdoor dining in good weather. Two small casinos on the highway on the east side offer coffee shop cuisine.
Cemetery Road takes you to the earliest-established burying ground in Nevada. It contains among its tenants the mortal remains of Governor Charles Russell and Judge Clark Guild, founder of the state museum. James Finney, who christened Virginia City after his home state, was brought to rest here after being thrown from a horse. The carefully tended grounds provide a pleasant diversion for those who enjoy the tranquil intrigue of pioneer cemeteries.
Dayton State Park is on the east side along the Carson River, a serene setting that combines what’s left of the Rock Point Mill, built in 1861, with the cottonwoods, sagebrush and willows along the river. The park has picnic tables, 10 campsites and two short hikes — strolls, really — one to the mill ruins, the other to the river bank. It’s an oasis of calm in our busy world.