Emigrant Trail pioneers could only dream of finding a place like Rye Patch

“Today we have been toiling through the deep dust, as uncomfortable for us all as a person who has never traveled this route can ever imagine.” — Harriet S. Ward, 1853

Travelers on the Emigrant Trail, which stretched across Northern Nevada, would have been elated to come upon the Rye Patch Reservoir.

More than 80 years before the Rye Patch Reservoir was built, pioneers — like Harriet Ward, who maintained a journal — found the stretch between present day Imlay and Lovelock to be one of the dustiest and driest parts of the journey that many had started in far off St. Joseph, Mo.

Emigrant diaries written in the 1850s tell of reaching Lassen Meadows, just north of today’s Imlay, where there was some water and grass for animals, then traveling for about 40 miles along the dry bottomlands of the Humboldt River until reaching Big Meadows (Lovelock).

“It is a perfectly barren land for forty long miles, and it is distressing to hear the complaints of the poor cattle, which are suffering for want of food,” Ward wrote.

Historical records indicate that by the mid-1860s a small community called Rye Patch — named after the presence of wild rye grass in the area — had cropped up near the river.

Along with a school, post office and boarding house, Rye Patch had a stamp mill to process ore from the mines in the nearby communities of Unionville, Rochester and Star City. In 1869, Rye Patch became the site of a station on the Central Pacific Railroad.

By the late 1870s, however, the nearby mines had ceased producing ore and the Rye Patch mill was closed. Within a short time, the town of Rye Patch also disappeared.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (the same agency responsible for the Newlands Project and the Lahontan Reservoir) constructed Rye Patch Dam in 1935-36. Its main purpose is to store water for irrigation in the Lovelock area (the area’s average annual rainfall is only six inches).

Like most of Northern Nevada, as recently as 12,000 years ago the Rye Patch region was submerged beneath the waters of prehistoric Lake Lahontan. As the lake receded, it left behind sediments, which since then have been steadily eroded by the Humboldt River.

Those sediments have yielded invaluable archaeological discoveries including the bones of prehistoric camels, horses and bison.

This river channel, cut through the sediment, is the reason that the Rye Patch Reservoir (which fills the channel) sits nearly 100 feet below the surrounding terrain — and is nearly hidden from view.

The Rye Patch State Recreation area, which is about 23 miles east of Lovelock via Interstate 80, encompasses the reservoir, picnic grounds, campsites and other amenities. Water enthusiasts will find the reservoir is nearly 22 miles long and one-third mile at its widest point.

Additionally, when full, the reservoir holds 200,000 acre-feet of water (enough to irrigate 38,000 acres of agricultural land). The reservoir has produced record size fish, including a 15-pound walleye (the state record) in 1992 and a 31-pound channel catfish.

The earth-filled dam, at the reservoir’s west end, is an impressive piece of 1930s construction. It’s 800 feet long, rises 75 feet above the riverbed and measures 500 feet wide at its base. A 110-foot spillway handles any overflow.

The reservoir created by the dam has about 72 miles of shoreline and 11,000 acres of water surface when full.

Down river from the spillway is the River Campground with 22 units and a restroom with flush toilets and hot showers. A campground on the reservoir’s west side has 25 units and a restroom with flush toilets and hot showers. A sanitary dump station with potable water is located on the dam’s west side.

There is an entrance fee to use the state park facilities.

To reach Rye Patch, travel east on U.S. 50 to Silver Springs, then north to Fernley, continue east on I-80 past Lovelock to the Rye Patch exit. A small Burns Brothers Truck Stop is located on the eastbound side of the interstate.

For information, visit http://parks.nv.gov/parks/rye-patch.

Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.


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