About Dennis Cassinelli

Dennis Cassinelli is a Nevada author, historian and outdoorsman. He’s written extensively about American Indian culture and Comstock history. His book, Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians, contains up-close photographs and detailed pen-and-ink drawings of American Indian stone artifacts. It also contains a fold-out chronology chart showing projectile points across a 12,000-year time scale. The book is a must-have for every enthusiast of Great Basin archaeology. Dennis’s website is DennisCassinelli.com.

Memories of growing up on a ranch in Sparks 

a small, white, one-room, old-fashioned schoolhouse with a sign that says "Glendale School"
The Glendale School in Sparks, Nevada. 1864-1958

I was born in Reno and grew up on a ranch in Sparks, Nevada, on Glendale Road where Baldini’s Casino is now located.

Our ranch was bordered on the south by the Truckee River and on the north by Glendale Road. My grandfather, Pete, and his three sons, Raymond, Chester and Bob, operated the ranch. Raymond was my father and we all worked together raising hogs, cattle, potatoes, corn, garlic and onions. My dad drove a dump truck every day to the Reno Army Air Base to pick up a load of swill to feed our hogs. One year, the hogs caught hog cholera and all of them died. All of us kids who lived on the ranch in those days had their own horses.

Two times in the 1950s, the Truckee River flooded and removed layers of topsoil from the fields along the river. Each time, I went down along the river to see the damage. I discovered the floods had uncovered many arrowheads, manos and metates for me to find. This became the beginning of the artifact collection I later donated to museums in Stewart and Gardnerville. Archaeologists later did a study of the area they named the Glendale site.

Just northwest across Glendale Road from our ranch was the Nevada State Mental Hospital, then known as the “asylum.” In those days, the facility had a small farm, butcher shop and a dairy for hospital use. The patients were not allowed to drive a motor vehicle, so they still used horse-drawn wagons to haul hay from our ranch to their dairy across Glendale Road.

One day, as a wagon was leaving our ranch, the driver stopped at my grandmother’s house for a drink of water, leaving the team unattended. The horses took off and headed back to the dairy with the load of hay. As they left our ranch at the end of our lane, the wagon tipped over in the neighbor’s yard across the street dumping the load of hay in the yard. The horses broke loose and ran back to the dairy.

I worked on the survey crew for the Nevada Department of Transportation in Sparks staking out the concrete columns for the elevated freeway over John Asquaga’s Nugget in the early 1960s. Sparks had a nice park called Deer Park, where we often went swimming and picnicking. One of our school events was Jacks Carnival where we marched in a parade in costume.

One year, we were let out of school early to go to the town bandstand to see President Harry Truman speak. Not being much of a political person, I walked back to the ranch instead. I was originally supposed to attend the 1864 one-room Glendale School, but my mother insisted I go to the school she attended, the Robert Mitchel School in Sparks.

a plaque affixed to the outside of an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse
State Historic Marker Number 169 tells the story of the Glendale School. Click here for a larger image and to read the text.

While I was still in high school, my family leased the old Stead ranch in Spanish Springs Valley for several years. I asked schoolmates if they wanted to work to earn a few bucks. We picked them up at the Block S in Sparks with a cattle truck and took them out to work weeding onions in Spanish Springs Valley. My uncle, Chester, stood at the edge of the onion field at the end of each day with a cowboy hat full of silver dollars. As we passed by, he handed each one of us five silver dollars for the eight hours of work we did.

I was familiar with silver dollars, since my mother was a blackjack dealer and brought many home from her tip money. She gave me one each week to pay for hot lunch at school. When she gave me one with a Carson City mint mark, I went without lunch that week and kept the dollar.

When it came time to pick potatoes, we hired the students from the Stewart Indian School to come out with busloads of students to work in the potato fields. Other farmers did the same.

Every year my family hired a crop duster with an airplane to come and dust the fields with insecticide for bugs. One year, my uncle, Bob, and I were watching the plane circle back and forth spraying the fields. Suddenly, we saw the plane hit a tree behind my house and crash in the road. Bob and I ran as fast as we could to help the pilot get out of the wrecked airplane. Fortunately, he was shaken up but not seriously injured.

My family bought a prisoner of war barracks building from the Reno Army Air Base and converted it into an apartment building on Glendale Road. When Mary and I got married, we rented an apartment from my uncle as our first home together.

The ‘loneliest road in America’? Not so fast

Nevada author Dennis Cassinelli explores the desert landscape near Grimes Point, Nevada
Exploring the sprawling desert landscape near Grimes Point, Nevada. Contrary to what some people may claim, there is a lot to see and appreciate along the Highway 50 corridor through Nevada.

In July 1986, Life magazine declared Nevada’s Highway 50 the “Loneliest Road in America,” claiming there were no points of interest along the route and warning readers not to risk traveling it unless they were confident of their survival skills.

Thirty-five years later, Travel Nevada continues to shine a light on and celebrate Highway 50 and its gateway to ghost towns, historic mining communities, state parks, recreational opportunities, and wide-open spaces.

I have personally traveled the full length of Nevada’s Highway 50 many times while working for the Nevada Department of Transportation for many years. In addition, my family and I have traveled to various destinations on Highway 50 on many occasions.

I take exception to the claim that “there were no points of interest along the route.” To illustrate my position, I will start with the west end of the route in Carson City, where the old Carson City Mint is located. This is where I found a hoard of more than 900 Carson City coin dies buried at the mint since the 1800s. The V&T Railroad had a spur at the mint where gold and silver was brought to be minted into coins. The old V&T depot still stands in Carson City.

Next, moving east at Mound House, is the brothel district and the location of the Mound House Depot for the V&T Railroad and the beginning the Carson and Colorado Railroad whose depot in Dayton recently burned down.

Moving on toward Dayton we come to the Pony Express Station in the historic downtown area, one of the best-preserved of the Nevada Pony Express Stations. Dayton is where gold was first discovered in 1849 at the end of Gold Canyon where it reaches the Carson River.

Just past Dayton is the Dayton State Park. North of Dayton is the town of Sutro and the portal of the Sutro Tunnel that still drains water from the Comstock mines. Plans are under way to stabilize and restore the Sutro tunnel to make it a tourist attraction where many artifacts from the Comstock mines are on display. 

Highway 50 Alternate forks off to Fernley, a gateway for people traveling to the annual Burning Man gathering.

Highway 50 then enters the Great American Desert that was dreaded so much by the early emigrants. Just before reaching Fallon, the road passes Ragtown, along the Carson River. This was where emigrants stopped for water and rest after crossing the 40-mile desert. Fallon is famous for its auto mall, the annual cantaloupe festival, corn mazes and being the county seat of Churchill County.

Beyond Fallon lies Sand Mountain where people drive their dune buggies, the ruins of the Sand Springs Pony Express Station and the Grimes Point archaeological area. Grimes Point has acres of boulders covered with ancient petroglyphs. It is also the location of Hidden Cave and Spirit Cave that was the basis for my book, Legends of Spirit Cave.

At the junction of Highway 50 and the road to Gabbs is the Middlegate Station. My NDOT crew and I dined on their famous Monster Burgers on more than one occasion at Middlegate. The remains of several pony express stations, including the one in Dayton, can be seen along the Highway 50 corridor.

Next on the route comes Austin, famous for a tall stone building called Stokes Castle. Austin, settled in 1862, was the mother of central Nevada mining towns and has 11 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The next town on the route is Eureka, with the restored 1880 Eureka Opera House and the Eureka Sentinel Newspaper Museum. Eureka is the county seat of Eureka County.

The next town along the route is Ely, county seat of White Pine County. Ely is known for a huge open pit mine at Ruth west of town where millions of tons of copper ore was removed over many years. One of the main attractions in Ely is the Nevada Northern Railway Museum. The Nevada Northern Railroad still operates as a tourist attraction. Ely also has the White Pine County Golf Course. Just southeast of Ely, is Baker, gateway to the Great Basin National Park.

As you can see, the Highway 50 Route across Nevada is filled with places of historical importance and I have barely scratched the surface. When traveling the route, get out of the car and take a walk alongside the highway. You may see wildflowers, Indian Paintbrush, arrowheads, gem stones, quartz crystals, lizards doing pushups on flat rocks and all sorts of wildlife. There is more to Highway 50 than getting from one place to another. Having been there many times, I have never felt lonely on Highway 50.

Tragic family mystery solved

In this working ranch, lush, green fields lay beyond a thick hedge of sagebrush with a long row of tall trees standing in the distance.
Pietro Cassinelli operated this ranch in Dayton, Nevada, from the late 1880s through the early 1900s.

Several times in the past, I have written stories about my family when they owned a ranch across the Carson River from Dayton, Nevada. My Great Grandfather, Pietro Cassinelli, owned and operated the ranch — now known as the Ricci Ranch — from the 1880s until about 1910. These stories included family squabbles, bar fights, Pietro being shot in the back while taking water from an irrigation ditch and lawsuits among some of the family members.

I had done some research on the family, and — with assistance from family members and others — was able to make a list of the family members who had lived on the ranch and the dates they were born and died. The list was fairly complete, except for one child who was listed without a birth date or a date of death. This person, named Angelo, was listed with an unknown birth date and a death date of “as a baby.” No one in my family could tell me anything more about the boy until my brother-in-law, Phil Hanna, sent me the following newspaper article:

“Pietro Cassinelli, an Italian rancher on the Carson River across from Dayton, while running a hay mower Tuesday afternoon, fearfully mangled his little three year old son. The child had wandered into the alfalfa field where the mower was in operation, and was probably asleep in the tall grass. The machine struck the little fellow before his father observed him and could not stop the team (of horses). The sickle of the machine severed one of the child’s legs and nearly cut off another, besides cutting and bruising him on other parts of the body. A physician was immediately summoned and rendered the proper medical care, but it is doubtful if the child can recover.”

Lyon County Times, July 2, 1904

Sadly, the little boy did not survive the injuries from the mowing-machine accident. His name was Angelo Cassinelli, and he was born to Theresa and Pietro Cassinelli sometime in 1901. He was the ninth of their 12 children. I have searched the Dayton Cemetery, but because there were so many unmarked graves, I was unable to find Angelo’s grave. However, it’s possible the family buried his remains at the ranch. 

Angelo’s older brother, Bill Cassinelli, suffered a similar tragedy several years later, when he was a solider in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. He lost a leg when he was hit by a Japanese artillery shell and surely would have died if fellow soldiers from Nevada, Paul Laxalt and Leon Etchemendy, had not helped take him to a field hospital.

At the Dayton Museum, I donated a 1906 Dayton school photograph picturing several of the family members, including Bill, who had attended the school. I also donated an accordion my dad had played at dances held at the Odeon Hall

I had seen Pietro and Bill a few times when I was a child, but I had never heard anyone in the family talk about the tragedies. It was my experience that the old-timers were very tight-lipped about some tragic events, and now I can understand why.