About twenty six miles east of Austin and seventy miles west of Eureka is Hickison Summit. Just east of the summit itself is a well known and oft visited petroglyph site, maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. It is worthy of a stop if the weather permits. http://www.onlinenevada.org/hickison_summit It’s a fun outing and a nice break from the drive.
But this post isn’t about that kind of archeology; this is about the archeology of highways. Hickison Summit is the site of three highway “events” as some archeologists say. From the aerial image below (Google Earth) you can see clearly what I mean. Click on the image to zoom in.
The current Highway 50 alignment is the obvious big black snake from lower left to upper right. It runs through a huge cut in the summit. The white road at the top of the image leads to the petroglyph site.
Now examine the aerial image carefully. What I see is a minor road, marked in yellow, that leads northerly to the summit and then twists down a side hill to eventually head out into the valley. This is obvious as you drive on Hwy. 50. There is a later iteration, shown in pink, of the Lincoln Highway/U. S. 50. This is a much improved and wider highway with appropriate cuts and fills. You will see snippets of this road to your left as you approach the summit from the south (west). Observe how the path of this road eases the grades on both sides of the summit. (The green road seems to have been used for construction in more recent times.)
Remember that the original survey for the Lincoln Highway used old wagon roads and paths to get across the state so it seems reasonable to me that the yellow road is the primitive, early version of the Lincoln Highway. The pink road is an improved, later version, with gentle curves and easy grades. My rationale for this is that the Lincoln Highway at its dedication was a route, not a road. For many years after the dedication the road was being improved and rerouted. Near Ely and Ruth, for example, the new road over Robinson Summit was still not complete by 1920 (Franzwa p. 13). The improvements indicated by the pink road would be a natural progression of improvements to the LHW.
So what about this archeology bit? I’m going to challenge you a little because this is just plain fun: park off the highway on the petroglyph road, work back to the southwest on the northwest side of Hwy. 50 (you may have to hop a fence or open a gate) and work your way up the yellow (not brick) road to the summit. Don’t do anything stupid on my account, and watch for snakes.
What you are trying to do is find, identify, and date artifacts. The kinds of things you might find on the roads would include pop bottles, cans, tools, car parts, sometimes even license plates. If the yellow road is the original LHW as I propose, then you would not expect to find anything modern (unless dropped by tourists but that’s always a problem). On the pink route you could find anything up until the time the cut was made in the hill for the modern highway. Other things to look for would be pavement (late 20’s onward), culverts, signage, and so forth. Look for simple rock retaining walls. The mind boggles! Archaeology is about making sense of artifacts. In our case we are trying to date roads. Leave the artifacts in place. Take lots of photographs too.
After this you are ready for a dip at Spencer’s Hot Springs.