PHOTO/JANICE HOKE: A fossilized foot of a mastodon is among the artifacts of ancient Nevada on display at the Keck Museum on the University of Nevada, Reno campus. The giant beasts roamed what is now Nevada during the Ice Age.

From the proud history of Nevada’s indigenous people, to mining to pioneers and antique fire engines, Nevada has some great small museums where visitors can walk among the artifacts and ghosts of the past.

Many small, but often overlooked, museums are on the University of Nevada, Reno campus, where several of he institution’s schools and colleges showcase the history and evolution of their academic disciplines. Others are tucked away in Carson City and Dayton. All are open to the public.

In honor of Nevada’s 157th birthday this year, we take a few of the state’s lesser-known portals into the past:

From the first Nevadans to gaming

For a quick, yet thorough, glimpse into Nevada and Reno history, visit the Nevada Historical Society.  The major themes of the state’s varied history are all there in its galleries: native people, gaming, ranching, pioneer life, military, even a display case of Mark Twain artifacts.

“People are looking for information about the state – people, places, history to explore,” said Curator Sherlyn Hayes-Zorn.

Find the NHS building just off Virginia Street in the midst of the University of Reno, Reno campus.  The founder, Jeanne Weir, began collecting Nevadiana as early as 1904, and the collections and research library hold some of the state’s treasures in trust for all Nevadans, young and old.

Masterpieces made of reeds

The baskets woven by famed Washoe basket-maker Dat So La Lee form a dramatic centerpiece, one of the only locations where they are displayed for the public. (Some of the artist’s baskets have sold at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars.) Next to those beauties, as Hayes-Zorn noted, is a new acquisition: a portrait of Dat So La Lee by a favorite Nevada artist, Hans Meyer-Kassel. 

As you enter the galleries, turn left through the rendition of the iconic Reno Arch for a tour of old Reno and how it became The Biggest Little City in the World.  See the impressive 1940 roulette wheel from the Bank Club as well as the Reno Rodeo display.

Further in the galleries, a potpourri of interesting objects will draw your attention, including an original model made to advertise the Borax 20-Mule Team, a trunk of dress-up clothes for children, a model of a mining stamp mill, a Civil War sword and scabbard, an early wooden airplane propeller and vintage aviation photos.

Betting against the house

An important feature of the galleries is the American Gaming Archives alcove of gaming cards, dice and slot machines, including a Liberty Bell machine, one of the first slot machines made.  Follow the steps involved in making gaming chips, with materials, inserts and inlays, and authentic punches.

Don’t miss the small gift shop stuffed with interesting mementos. Buy a book, slot glass insert, gaming chips, a Ghost Town calendar, as take-aways.

The Nevada Historical Society, 1650 North Virginia Street, Reno.  Open Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Admission fee is $6. Free for children under 18. Also open Thursdays and -Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. by appointment only.  Visit requests are available online at or call the front desk, 775-688-1190 ext. 221. Debit or credit card payment only for admissions and for store sales.

Visitors also will find treasures for sale in the Nevada Historical Society gift shop.  Christmas ornaments in the shape of the Reno Arch come in three versions.  Jewelry made by local artisan Gail Rogers uses Nevada stones of Lapis, bogwood, yellow and red jasper prized by rockhounds.

Genuine artifacts from the American Gaming Archives collection, donated by local collectors, include matchboxes, chips, dice, playing cards, shot glasses and ashtrays, as well as a spectacular example of the glass insert in a slot machine in bright colors. The NHS gift shop offers a panoply of books on almost every Nevada subject:  native people, Basques, geology, historic women, transportation, water, and Comstock mining.

Mines, minerals and engineering

Follow the history of Nevada mining, central to the state’s formation from the Comstock Lode to present day, in the historic W.M.Keck Museum in the Mackey School of Mines building located on the north side of the Quad at the University of Nevada, Reno.  Curator Garrett Barmore boasts that the museum has mineral specimens “the Smithsonian doesn’t have.”

Check out each Nevada county’s characteristic minerals, including the famous “blue mud” that early Comstock miners, seeking gold ore, threw out on a slag heap. Only when Mexican miners pointed out its value did the other miners recognize the valuable silver ore that made them fortunes and paved the way for statehood.

The three-floor museum, established in 1908, is an historic artifact itself, with original museum cases, high ceilings and windows and quaint staircases.  You will find lots of interesting minerals, impressive mastodon fossils, John Mackey’s ornate safe, an authentic pneumatic mining drill from the 1920s, even tracks of ancient sloths found in the Carson City trackway. 

A world-famous silver service

A tray from the Mackey silver service.

The specimens are not always old: among others, a mineral just found in Utah in 2019 sits in one of the table cases, called Andymcdonaldite for the finder. 

One of the state’s most important treasures is in the lower gallery, the Mackey Silver Service.  John W. Mackay , one of the original Comstock silver barons, commissioned Tiffany and Company of New York to design and produce a silver service for his wife Marie-Louise.  The silver service was noted by author Charles Carpenter in his volume, Tiffany Silver, as the largest, the grandest, the most elegantly ornate and most famous set of its time.

Curator Barmore hosts a free, online Mineral Monday short video and newsletter for anyone interested in earth science, especially science teachers and students.  Some recent topics: the Fly Ranch geyser, a visit to the Twin Creeks gold mine in northeastern Nevada,  topaz specimens in the Keck collection, fluorescent minerals, meteorites, and ichthyosaurs.   For more information and to subscribe, visit this link.

The W.M. Keck Earth Science and Mineral Engineering Museum, 1664 N Virginia St, Reno, on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.  Free admission and open to the public Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and the first Saturday of the month, 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.   Guided tours available.  784-4528.

Fauna, flora and the first Nevadans

While you are parked at the University, take a stroll over to the Fleischmann Agricultural Building on the southeast corner of campus and visit the Museum of Natural History on the third floor.  Among the dramatic animal specimens such as the black bear, the kit fox, the grey fox, the mountain lion, birds, mice, and squirrels, you’ll find two examples of the Greater Sage Grouse, a protected animal in recent news that has been prominent in land use issues in the West.

Another museum of interest is the UNR anthropology museum located on the fifth floor in the Ansari Business School, which focuses on all sorts of native Nevada baskets – winnowing, cooking, storage, burden baskets and water jugs, some decorated with feathers, beads and woven designs.  UNR offers several other museums that display artifacts and provide information on everything from the history of medicine, Nevada’s plants and trees, rare historical documents and art collections. More information about the university’s many museums can be found online.

Where’s the fire (museum)?

Fire engine enthusiasts should not miss the small but impressive Carson City Fire Department Museum, featuring a hand-pumper 1847 Hunneman fire engine and the first motorized fire engine in Nevada, a 1913 Seagrave.  All original engines have been restored by museum members, said Pete Baker, president of the Warren Engine Company #1. The museum in the main fire department building at 777 South Stewart St. in Carson City can be visited Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. by asking at the main desk for free admission.  Call 887-2210, ext. 4 (administration) for further information.

Immerse yourself in the everyday life of Nevada’s first citizens, from native people to Chinese settlers, pioneers and railroad men, blacksmiths and families, at the Dayton Valley Historical Society.  The museum occupies the 1865 Dayton Valley Schoolhouse at 135 Shady Lane, just off Highway 50. 

While the Comstock Lode boasted immense gold and silver deposits, Dayton historians tout Nevada’s first gold discovery in Gold Cañon in Dayton. The town also lays claim to being Nevada’s first permanent settlement in 1851. Dayton boasts many other firsts in Nevada’s history, including being the site of Nevada’s first Chinatown.

The first settlement

Laura Tennant, a founder of the museum, has a deep background in local journalism and is now the curator of the museum, which opened in 1994. The collections have grown from its original donation from Dorothy “Dixie” Randall Raymond in 1993, who loaded up a U-Haul truck with artifacts from two pioneer families, including the Randall train sign marking a siding on the Carson and Colorado Railroad.

Visitors marvel at the remarkable collections of all sorts of tools of trades and family life, from dishes and quilts and an elaborate dollhouse to shovels, a whetstone, a scroll saw, scales and an imposing reel-to-reel theater movie projector.  One corner of the museum is dedicated to the 1960 filming in Dayton’s downtown area of “Misfits,” a masterpiece Western film written by Arthur Miller, directed by John Huston, and starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift.

The Dayton Valley Historical Society museum gift shop offers postcards, books and vintage Dayton photos. 

A commode and Chinese artifacts

Lola Montez’s traveling toilet.

Recently acquired, a wooden and porcelain toilet used by Lola Montez, a famous Irish dancer and actress who performed in the 1850s in San Francisco and lived in Grass Valley, Calif., sits quietly, as Lola surely did while using the accommodation.  

The original name of the settlement was China Town, but the burg later was christened Dayton in 1993 in honor of its surveyor, John Day. A display of Chinese artifacts includes a white canvas underjacket which may be the oldest surviving such garment in the state, according to Nevada State Museum’s clothing and textile center curator, Jan Loverin.

The Dayton Valley Historical Society museum is open from early March through the weekend before Thanksgiving, on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m., and by appointment.  Email Curator Laura Tennant at for more information.

Dining with Nevada’s ghosts

The old Liberty Belle eatery is long gone, but Reno is host to a couple other restaurants with an historic “flavor”

The Depot Craft Brewery Distillery is housed in the 1910 headquarters for the Nevada-California-Oregon Railway at 325 East Fourth Street, Reno. The eatery remembers its past with photos and and by preserving the original archtecture and ambiance of the old railroad depot. Phone :775-737-4330.

The venerable Casale’s Halfway Club has been recognized as the oldest continuously family-owned and operated restaurant in Reno and displays many historic photographs on its walls.  It’s located “halfway” between Reno and Sparks at 2501 E 4th St, Reno. Phone: (775) 323-3979

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  1. Asking students to read this for social studies at the high school level here in Reno. THanks for the helpful articles on Nevada history!

  2. to Janice Hoke: This photo of mastodon bones wheels me right back into the Nevada landscape. Good article, excellent photos.

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