Winnemucca has never laid claim to being the oldest settlement in the state, but its location has been more or less continuously occupied since about 1830 when beaver trappers like Peter Ogden established a camp here on what they called Mary’s River. Twenty years later, when westward bound wagon trains began using the Humboldt Trail, the trading post on the southern bank of the river came to be called Frenchman’s Ford. By 1863 when it was renamed for the last time — in honor of the principal Paiute chief of the region — a rough settlement had grown up there.
In 20 years more the transcontinental railroad had been built along the hillside to the south and a rival townsite was established upslope from the old village at the river’s edge. For years, until they grew together around US 40, there was friction between the railroad-dominated Upper Town and Lower Town, where farmers and ranchers carried the weight.
Winnemucca prospered as a shipping point and commercial center, and in 1872 the bustling young town had wrestled the county seat away from failing Unionville beyond the Humboldt Mountains. Brick buildings graced Winnemucca’s streets in the middle 1870s as its population grew to 1600 people.
The most exciting single moment in Winnemucca’s mostly calm past fell just short of bloodshed, but it has been a source of controversy since it took place on the 19th day of September 1900. It was then, as the story goes, that Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall Gang rode into town, put a knife to First National Bank president George Nixon’s throat, and made him open the safe.
But perhaps that is not a completely true story. In fact, Butch Cassidy didn’t send that famous photograph, and the evidence is not clear that he was ever in Winnemucca in his life
The great robbery took place of course. Butch Cassidy may have known about it — may even have planned it, or made arrangements for it. But it’s not clear that Butch himself was there that thrilling day. The famous photograph was actually found by an alert detective in a photographer’s display window at Fort Worth, Texas. The Pinkerton Detective Agency sent it to Winnemucca for banker George Nixon to identify. After studying the photo of the six dapper dudes in new suits and neckties, he wrote back: “While I am satisfied that Cassidy was interested in the robbery, he was not one of the men who entered the bank.”
So, if he didn’t enter the bank, according to an eye-witness with a vital reason to notice . . . was he there at all? Plenty of people say he was, including Charles Kelly, author of a definitive history of Cassidy’s career, and that’s good enough for Winnemucca. Butch Cassidy has been absorbed into municipal history, and Butch Cassidy Days is a big celebration in the Winnemucca calendar, attended by thousands and enjoyed by all.
Winnemucca is placid, green, open and friendly. Its quiet neighborhoods are slowly spreading away from the railroad tracks, and the main street, Winnemucca Boulevard — once upon a time it was U.S. 40— has become a bright strip of businesses catering to travelers. New street lights extending from the cemetery at the west end of town. Motels, restaurants and auto services are available here in abundance. The chamber of commerce operates a Visitors Center at the corner of Bridge street and Winnemucca Boulevard.