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Tale of Pahranagat Valley traveling stones moved many

A legend of the Old West and one from Nevada’s yesteryear that was around for a long time is the story about some stones, small rocks really, in parts of the Pahranagat Valley that were said to possess some very unique and unusual properties.

William Wright worked for the Virginia City daily newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise from the late 1850s through most of the 1880s. His pen name was Dan DeQuille. He was there during the great rush and development of the famed Comstock lode.

An experienced and knowledgeable reporter, he was considered an expert in the fields of mining and geology by many people including miners themselves and invited to visit all of the great mines of the time. His vocabulary was said to be “truly remarkable.”

During the great rush at the Comstock, in 1862 the Territorial Enterprise hired another young writer in order to help keep up with the flow of news in the area that was growing rapidly. He was a hungry, scraggly, dusty, “coyote-hole,” unsuccessful miner and former Confederate Army runaway. He showed up at the door to answer the call for an additional reporter.

The new journalist was destined to become a great pal and drinking buddy of DeQuille. He, too, fine-tuned his writing skills and had many opportunities to express his unique style of humor. His name was Samuel Clemens, and in 1863 he began using his pen there as well: Mark Twain.

The two writers, good as they were with the articles they were assigned, were not above concocting some “tall tales” to fill space on the “slow news days,” which they both did together or separately a number of times.

So it was that on just one such occasion that DeQuille wrote one of those fillers and invented a hoax of “The Traveling Stones of Pahranagat Valley.” This turned out to be for him a monster that would follow him for the rest of his life.

In his “This Was Nevada” series, the late Phillip Earl, former curator of the Nevada Historical Society, said the original newspaper in which the DeQuille hoax story first appeared sometime in 1864 or 1865 is missing from the Nevada State Library, Archives and Public Records.

However, DeQuille did recount the story in his 1876 book “The Big Bonanza,” in which he said, “Some years after Pike’s great discovery, a prospector who had been roaming through the Pahranagat Mountains, the wildest and most sterile portion of southeastern Nevada, brought back with him a great curiosity in the shape of a number of traveling stones. These stones were almost perfectly round; the majority of them as large as a hulled-out walnut and very heavy, being irony of nature.

When scattered on the floor, on a table or other level surface within two or three feet of each other, they immediately begin traveling toward a common center and then huddle up in a bunch like a lot of eggs in a nest. A single stone removed to a distance of a yard, upon being released, at once started off with wonderful and comic celerity to rejoin its fellows, but if taken four or five feet away, it remained motionless … These curious stones appear to be formed of loadstone or magnetic ore.”

Earl wrote an article in the Feb. 7, 1999, issue of the Las Vegas Review-Journal that even though the story was an amusing hoax, the story from the Territorial Enterprise spread around the world and to DeQuille’s amazement, he received hundreds and hundreds of inquiries.

Some came from German scientists and physicists and others, requesting more information and samples. One circus operator offered to buy a carload of the stones to be used as a money-making exhibit. The inquiries grew and grew and try as he may, DeQuille could not get away from it.

Finally, in the Nov. 11, 1879, issue of the Territorial Enterprise, he made a full confession of the hoax, saying how tired and fed up he was of it all.

“We solemnly affirm that we never saw or heard of such diabolical cobbles as the traveling stones of Pahranagat … If this confession shall pang to the heart of any true believer we shall be glad of it, as the true believers have panged it to us, left and right, long enough.”

But this confession, Earl noted, did not get the worldwide circulation the first story did and he continued to get letters, offers of money and requests to conduct expeditions into the Pahranagat Valley to bring out some of the stones.

On July 11, 1891, the whole confession was published again word for word and maybe brought a little relief.

After DeQuille retired, he moved to West Branch, Iowa, where he died in 1898 at age 69.

Dave Maxwell is a Nevada news reporter with over 35 years in print and broadcast journalism, and greatly interested in early Nevada history. He can be reached at maxwellhe@yahoo.com.

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