MYSTERY WIRE — A stretch of asphalt known as the loneliest road in America has produced a bounty of spooky legends and murky lore.
One of the enduring stories involves a tall cottonwood tree and a whole lot of shoes.
Highway 50 cuts through the center of Nevada and was named “The Loneliest Road in America” by Life magazine in July 1986. It’s the 287 miles between Ely and Fernley that’s known as the lonely road.
If you were to drive it you would see the sights of mountains, valleys, cattle, and thousands of shoes hanging from a tree.
The tree is known to locals as the Shoe Tree of Middlegate. The remains of the original shoe tree and new shoe tree are just a couple miles east of an old Pony Express stop at Middlegate Station.
The photograph below shows the current shoe tree.
The origins of why the tree became home to shoes, boots, sandals, stilettos, and every other type of footwear are varied.
The Nevada Commission on Tourism says the tradition started following an argument between newlyweds, during which one tossed the other’s shoes in the tree. When they reconciled, the other reciprocated, and a tradition began.
It’s a story that a nearby employee of the Cold Creek Station Bar and Restaurant told George Knapp in a 2000 interview. “Originally the story that we all heard was a couple had had an argument there at the tree,” Natalie Worster said. “And she was all mad and gonna walk out, and he decided he was gonna stop her from going so he took her shoes and hucked them up in that shoe tree so she couldn’t go anywhere.”
Depending which version of the story you hear, the couple involved were newlyweds from Oregon, or California, or Colorado. And the shoe throwing began in 1996, or 1992, or 1990. When the version with the battling newlyweds made the paper, a man from Austin, the next town 60 miles to the East of the tree, spoke up. “He said no, that wasn’t the story at all,” according to Worster. “That was a prefabrication, and he was actually there with his boys, and his boys had thrown his shoes up there. But I never heard a reason why.”
Whatever the truth of the first person to adorn the cottonwood with shoes was, the tradition was cut short on December 30, 2010.
Locals woke up at the end of the year to find out someone had chopped down the beloved tourist attraction. Within hours the hunt was on to find the person or persons responsible for the vandalism. Television stations and news websites from all over the nation covered the destruction of the shoe tree.
In keeping up with the legend of the shoe tree, the destruction is also mired in mystery.
This week, Mystery Wire spoke with a person at the nearby stop Middlegate Station Hotel, Restaurant and Bar who said the rumor was a local man from Fallon, about 40 miles to the west, was mad at his “old lady” for cheating on him with another man at the site of the shoe tree. He took his anger out on the tree and cut it down so they would no longer have the shoe tree as a rendezvous spot.
Mystery Wire has been unable to confirm this with local authorities, but it’s a fitting story to add to the lore of the shoe tree.
But this would not be the end of the shoe tree. Within a few years, another cottonwood tree had grown next to the original, now just a stump, and by 2017 people began once again tossing their loafers and sneakers skyward to find a home among the branches of the new shoe tree alongside the Loneliest Road in America.
Aside from the stump next to the new shoe tree, part of the original shoe tree still exists. The tree was such a major part of the lives of the family that runs the Middlegate Station, they used part of the trunk as a tabletops that now sit in front of the bar.
There are other shoe trees around the world. One that was a little over 100 miles from the Nevada shoe tree near Doyle, CA northwest of Reno was also cut down. This tree, however, was removed by Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation) because it was dying.
The original story produced in 2000 was one part of a five part series about the legends and lore of the Loneliest Highway in America. We will be revisiting the rest of the series in the near future.