Small towns come in a variety of flavors– each one unique. And it is my experience that the small towns of Nevada are more unique than most. Maybe it comes from their boom and bust history as old mining towns. Derelict mines and falling down shacks dot the landscape. Certainly their existence on the remote edge of nowhere has an impact, as does their extreme desert climate. Whorehouses perched on the outskirts of many towns provide a unique, Old West twist. Prostitution is still legal. The state is a do your own thing kind of place.
And finally, there is the omnipresent military. Nevada is America’s go to place for testing the latest, most secret military hardware, for training troops, and for practice at blowing things up. Thousands of square miles are devoted to these pursuits. As a child growing up in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I remember getting up at 5 AM to watch the eastern sky lit up by an atomic blast 50 or so miles north of Las Vegas. It was apocalypse now but we were taught that our ability to destroy the world assured a safe future. No wonder the youth of the 60s and 70s turned to drugs.
Hawthorne, Nevada has a slightly different connection to the military. It’s where old military ordnance goes to die. Some thirty-three hundred cement bunkers spread out from the town across the desert over 147,000 acres. 400 miles of underground railroads connect the various bunkers. If all the munitions decided to blow at once, it would make a very big BOOM.
That’s what happened in 1926 when the Navy’s principal ammunitions depot located in Lake Denmark, New Jersey blew up, wiping out the town and killing 50 people. It was decided that a more remote location was needed for storing munitions. Hawthorne fit the description. The site was officially adopted in 1930. By the 1940s Hawthorne had become known as the “World’s Largest Ammunition Depot,” providing munitions for most of the Allies’ Pacific operations during World War II. In addition to being remote, the site had the advantage of being out of reach to Japanese bombers.
Today the depot boasts the latest technology for disposing of “unserviceable munitions,” which is carried out by a private firm, the Day Zimmerman Hawthorn Corporation. Have you noticed how more and more of America’s military chores are being carried out by private firms? As an aside, way back in the early 1900s, Day Zimmerman invented the machines that put foil on Hershey Chocolate Kisses.
The Hawthorne Ordnance Museum is a must see place if you ever find yourself zipping between Reno and Las Vegas on Highway 95. For one, the museum’s claim to fame is being“the Single Largest Museum Collection of Inert Ordnance, Missiles, Bombs, Rockets and Nuclear Weapons in the World.” For two, it has a great group of friendly and knowledgeable volunteers– more than prepared to talk your ears off. For three, the collection is somewhat eclectic. Like what was the old cash register doing there?
Harold Warner was on duty when Peggy and I showed up an hour or so before closing time. We had visited the museum before but Harold was quick to point out that there were some new kids on the block: nuclear missiles that he had gussied up with a paint job. He was quite proud and they looked, um, quite deadly. You did get the inert part, right.
A couple of guys from California (looking very militia-like) were wandering around ogling the military hardware. They approached Harold about purchasing automatic weapons. He was quick to tell them that the museum’s collection wasn’t for sell but softened the blow somewhat by suggesting they could probably pick up whatever they wanted by visiting local garage sales.
Harold told us that many of the troops going to Afghanistan did their training in Hawthorne. Considering the stark desert, it made sense. What fascinated me more, however, was that he also said that the locals from the town served as the insurgents for training purposes, sort of the B Team. No thanks, I thought to myself, picturing a platoon of marines chasing me across a nighttime desert as I dodged between bunkers filled with deteriorating bombs.
I like a good adventure, but there are limits.
NEXT BLOG: Drum Roll Please… Peggy and I disappear into the heart of the Nevada desert and Area 51 searching for ET.