Northern Nevada, one of the state's least populated regions, is home to national forests, wilderness areas, Native American reservations, and small, isolated towns with populations ranging from thirty to 25,000 residents. The remote northwest corner of the region, which contains the Black Rock Desert and the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge, is the most sparsely settled. Native Americans, including the Shoshone and Northern Paiute, once roamed the mountain ranges and basins. The landscape changed after the arrival of Euro-Americans, who increased the number of transportation routes and travelers across the region and established agriculture and industry.
The Humboldt River provided the earliest connecting thread through this region. Fed by mountain streams arising near Wells, it cuts across northern Nevada, finally draining into the Humboldt Sink southeast of Lovelock. Though it seems a creek compared with the Mississippi or the Columbia River, the Humboldt was important as a source of water for Native Americans and later for travelers along the Emigrant Trail, the Central Pacific Railroad, and highways.
The transcontinental railroad transformed this region, creating towns along its route and drawing more people to Nevada (or at least through it). The river and the railroad determined the paths of later transportation routes—Victory Highway (U.S. 40) and I-80. Victory Highway, like the railroad, brought traffic through northern Nevada's small towns, but the interstate highway has proved to be a boon for a few towns and a catastrophe for many others. Towns advantageously located for motorists have benefited from the highway; others were bypassed, losing a steady source of commerce. Secondary highways and railroads leading to towns north and south of the Humboldt River have brought some trade, but towns along Nevada's northern border and nestled in valleys to the south remain fairly isolated.
Most of the towns along the tracks display common characteristics introduced by the railroad company, including town grids and commercial rows fronting the tracks. At one time, each of these communities had a prominent depot; most of these structures, as well as many other railroad buildings, have been destroyed. The interstate introduced new commercial and tourism-related structures clustered at the freeway exits. Hotel, gas, and fast-food franchises have drawn business from every downtown along the interstate. Motorists using these easy on-and-off services rarely venture into the downtowns. Communities have done little to stem this tide, seeing the short-term revenues brought in by such commercial ventures as an asset rather than a detriment to the long-term survival of local businesses along the main streets.
The buildings in this region vary in style, type, and material. Ethnic groups, particularly Italians and Basques, have contributed to the built environment through specific building techniques and forms, such as well-executed stone construction (Italians) and hotels (Basques). Farming and ranching have left a rich legacy of agricultural structures, including bunkhouses, barns, and mills. The region includes three county seats; in these communities the county courthouses and public schools rank among the most elaborate buildings. Housing generally consists of a mix of modest structures ranging from log cabins to mobile homes.
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