Nevada is known for its silver mines. The museum has one in its basement.
Nevada is known for its silver mines. The museum has one in its basement.

Nevada State Museum: Scary Teeth, Mummified Cat

Field review by the editors.

Carson City, Nevada

Carson City had barely 3,000 residents when it opened a U.S. Mint in 1870. People didn't matter, silver did -- from the then-recently unearthed Comstock Lode, which the mint hammered into hundreds of thousands of coins with a single steam-powered press.

Mummified cat, displayed in the desert tree where it was found.
Mummified cat, displayed in the desert tree where it was found.

The mint building is now the Nevada State Museum and the six-ton press is still there, although repurposed into the world's most elaborate squished penny machine.

"People can buy a silver blank in the museum store, then watch while we press it into a medallion," said Bob Nylen, the museum's curator of history. The medallion designs change frequently, adding to an ever-lengthening list of coins minted by the 150-year-old press. Bob said that the museum displays examples of all but two of them -- "We're almost there," he said, optimistically -- although one, an 1873 dime, last sold at auction for over a million dollars.

The museum opened in 1941, barely 75 years after Nevada became a state, which helped it to save a number of relics before they were lost or thrown away. The Unruly Tooth Collection of dentist Helen Rulison Shipley, for example, was a memento of her years in Nevada boomtowns with poor dental hygiene. "She had five or six jars of them," said Bob. "Some pretty nasty teeth." Snaggletoothed Nevada miners would probably recognize another of the museum's exhibits, the antique gambling contraptions of inventor Charles Augustus Fey, "the Thomas Edison of slot machines" as Bob described him. Modern-day risk-takers can watch the lines squiggle on the museum's seismograph. Nevada has a lot of earthquakes, but the old mint is built to be tremor-resistant.

North America's largest assembled Columbian mammoth skeleton; it was dug up in Nevada.
North America's largest assembled Columbian mammoth skeleton; it was dug up in Nevada.

1870 coin press still works, now mints souvenirs for tourists.
1870 coin press still works, now mints souvenirs for tourists.

A rough sandstone carving of a human face is another of the museum's odd survivors -- all that remains of a failed effort to carve headstones for the Nevada State Prison cemetery. According to Bob, the inmate-artist thought that the warden wanted actual sculpted heads. When the warden realized how much time it was taking to carve just one, he cancelled the project.

An exhibit on Nevada's desert climate showcases the museum's best-known preserved oddity: a mummified cat, displayed in the tree in which it was found near the old trading post of Genoa. "It's not a one-time occurrence," said Bob. "At least two other times since I've been here people have called and said, 'I've got a mummified cat; would you like it?' And I've said, 'No, we already have one. But thank you for thinking of us."

Ghost Town dummy has worn the same jeans since 1985.
Ghost Town dummy has worn the same jeans since 1985.

Nevada is the location of more ghost towns than any other state, and Bob knows that because it was once a question on Jeopardy and the show researchers called him to confirm it.


"Pick-a-Mood" doll: sleepy (in mirror), happy, and weepy.

The museum contains its own indoor fake ghost town, complete with saloon, mining office, newspaper, and general store, hosted by an animatronic burro and prospector who tells the story of the state's many busted boomtowns. The grizzled prospector still wears Bob's blue jeans, provided by Bob Nylen to the display when it opened back in June 1985. Bob said that when he retires his pants will not, but he hopes that the museum will buy him a replacement pair.

The most popular exhibit in the Nevada State Museum has been in its basement since 1950: an underground mine, worked by a crew of miner dummies. Although it seems like the place where the museum gets the silver for its medallions, the subterranean warren is an elaborate fake, built with the help of Nevada mining experts.

Terrifying teeth pulled from the mouths of Nevada prospectors.
Terrifying teeth pulled from the mouths of Nevada prospectors.

"I've taken many tour groups through that mine over the years," said Bob, "and people honestly do think we're mining in the basement. A number of times people have said to me, 'Oh, this is how you make your money.' I wish it was that easy."

Nevada State Museum: Scary Teeth, Mummified Cat

Nevada State Museum

Address:
600 N. Carson St., Carson City, NV
Directions:
North side of downtown, on the west side of N. Carson St. between W. Robinson and W. Washington Sts. Four blocks south of the intersection of eastbound US Hwy 50.
Hours:
Tu-Su 8:30-4:30. Medallion minting last F every month; every F in summer. (Call to verify)
Phone:
775-687-4810
Admission:
Adults $8.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Big Head On A LawnBig Head On A Lawn, Carson City, NV - < 1 mi.
Cadillac Ranch Driving RangeCadillac Ranch Driving Range, Carson City, NV - 2 mi.
Yard Art - Fort CarsonYard Art - Fort Carson, Carson City, NV - 2 mi.
In the region:
Last Chance Joe, Sparks, NV - 25 mi.

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