Restoring History in Great Basin National Park

By Greg Seymour, Research Associate

Late last summer the National Park Service and the Great Basin Institute (GBI) teamed up to rehabilitate the Tilford Cabin. This structure is located approximately three miles west of the Great Basin National Park boundary on Snake Creek in eastern Nevada. The cabin was built in 1912 by John Tilford, after he and his partners discovered tungsten here. Built of local rock and timbers from John’s nearby sawmill, the structure had suffered years of neglect and had partially collapsed. When built, John Tilford used the cabin as a commissary to provide food for his company of miners.

The cabin represents an important period in our country’s history. Small mining operators like John Tilford supplied minerals for the development and industrialization of the United States. Now the public can visit this place and learn about our past and how men and women like the Tilfords endured and flourished on lands that are now the Great Basin National Park.

As a specialist in historic preservation and restoration masonry, I was thrilled to work with the National Park Service through GBI’s Research Associate program to implement this project. The first step of the restoration was to gather old photos and talk to John Tilford’s descendants (the photo above was taken in early 1950s of Tilford family members at the cabin). With this information, the park’s Cultural Resource staff and I began to collect clay for the mortar, rock, and other materials necessary for the job. The goal was to honor the cabin’s history by using the same materials as in its original construction.

cabin1The cabin was built of quartzite rock. Some pieces were more than 100 pounds each. Through ingenuity and perseverance, we placed each into place as best we could the way Tilford had done. This kind of rehab work provides a glimpse of how the builder had to problem-solve. Today, materials are standard and available off the shelf. But 100 years ago, they would have had to first find the appropriate material, then assemble the odd-shaped rock into a square, straight-walled building. During the rehab, I could almost see their thought process. Many times I thought, “Wow, that’s how they solved that construction problem.”

Some walls had fallen and others bulged. With the help of the historic photos, we were able to give the building the original look and feel as it had 100 years ago. For the timbers, the National Park Service provided rough-cut lumber especially for the job, which was probably the same as what had been there originally.

The Tilford family also participated in the rehab. Dave Tilford, the grandson of John and lifetime local resident, helped by providing photographs and information about the family. He visited several times to view the work and was happy to see its completion. In all, more than 50 surviving family members, including a daughter of John’s, were able to visit the completed cabin for a dedication in May of 2015.

For me, completing the cabin and meeting the family members made all the back-breaking work worthwhile. Being able to work surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscape in the Great Basin made it even more fun.

cabin3Thanks to the cooperative effort of the Tilford family, the Great Basin National Park, and the Great Basin Institute, this building and all it represents has claimed it place in the history of the Great Basin. With a little luck, it will last another 100 years.

Although probably the most satisfying, this is not the only project I have completed for GBI. Each one has been unique and because of the location and the resources involved, and each are among the best projects I have been associated with during my career. They have been challenging and have added greatly to my experience. I would really recommend working with GBI. They have been supportive, yet have given me the freedom to work with my partner, the Great Basin National Park, resulting in the best possible results.

Historic photograph courtesy of the Tilford family. All other photos by Greg Seymour, courtesy Great Basin National Park.

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