Nevada History by John C. Evanoff

Visitreno.com is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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Carson City

The Emigrant Trail and Eagle Valley
(Chapter One of Three Chapters)
June, 2007
By John Evanoff

The Carson Valley and Carson River were named after the extraordinary scout, Kit Carson, by John C. Fremont, the legendary “Great Pathfinder” as they moved through the area in 1844. The river route and valley later became the southern portion of the California Emigrant Trail threading its way along the Carson River and over the Carson Pass. Today, you can follow that same path by taking Highway 50 west from Lahonton Reservoir through Dayton to Eagle Valley (Carson City) then following Highway 395 south through to Genoa where many tributaries coming off the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range contribute to the river’s waters. The Jacks Valley Road along the hillside north of Genoa is a more accurate direction of the actual path because Kit and John were looking up most of the canyons to find easier access over the mountains. Kit spent days and sometimes weeks ahead of the main group headed by Fremont wandering canyon openings and climbing peaks to verify possible negotiable trails. Fremont thought so highly of the guide, he wrote constantly of Carson’s hard work and detailed descriptions of the geography in his journal log. Within three years, Fremont’s journals and maps were beginning to be used by thousands of Americans traveling from the east coast to the fertile soils and gold laden rivers of California.

Nearly all the emigrants just passed through Carson Valley on their way west but a few entrepreneurs saw the potential of business and began to set up shop in the early 1850s at Mormon Station (Genoa) and Eagle Station (Carson City). Both trading posts did very well and land was beginning to be claimed by some of the emigrants for farms and ranches all along the river and creeks in the area. By 1855, prospectors hearing of gold strikes in the area moved east from California back into the Sierras and Nevada’s many mountain ranges and to Gold Canyon leading to the Carson River between present day Dayton and Silver City. Gold had actually been discovered as early as 1849 at Dayton, but for most of the early prospectors, the dry hills and gulches presented a problem. The claims were too hard to work and with no mills close enough to extract the small amounts of gold ore they only managed to work the mines in the spring and then only for meager amounts of money. This is one of my favorite short drives and hikes in the Dayton region. The old toll road from Dayton is still easily traveled and many of the surrounding roads make for great mountain biking and horseback riding. Another drive is further east along Highway 50 and then north past Sutro to Six Mile Canyon. If you take the Six Mile Canyon road, you’ll eventually come to Virginia City. Check out Sutro Tunnel for a history of one of the most unusual engineering feats in all of Nevada mining history. In the early summer and late fall, the rich and varied colors of the Six Mile Canyon walls and vegetation make for great photography.

In 1859, the largest silver deposit in the world, the Comstock Lode, was discovered between present day Virginia City and Silver City. Virginia City had hit it big, but so had Carson Valley. Within two years, Abraham Curry’s vision of a city laid out on more than a thousand acres he had bought known as Eagle Station became the capital of the new Nevada Territory in 1861. In 1864, Nevada gained statehood and Carson City became the political power house for the state. Curry became more affluent with production from a quarry and several logging mills and hotels he owned with his partners. Between 1860 and 1880, four large stamp mills were built between Empire and Dayton to handle the massive amounts of ore being hauled out of Virginia City mines first by wagon and then by the Virginia and Truckee Railroad. I could write a book on the V&T and the many narrow-gauge railways hooked up to it, but you only have to visit the Nevada State Railroad Museum at 2180 S. Carson Street to really envision the V&T’s importance to the region.

If you enjoy history and want to have an interactive experience with the old west, three places stand out as a must to see on your trips to the area: the Nevada State Railroad Museum for its displays and events; the Nevada State Museum at 600 North Carson Street for its extensive exhibits and replicated gold mine; and the Virginia & Truckee Railroad train ride taking 35 minutes through some of the historic mining district. The Railroad Museum has a walking and riding tour as well as many displays and lectures. The Nevada State Museum has the distinction of also being the Carson City Mint where you can see many of the original United States coin presses and silver dollars minted there. One of the highlights of the museum is a 300 foot tunnel in the basement built to detail the workings of an actual gold mine. All the timbering and displays replicate how miners worked and how mines were dug. The train ride in Virginia City is open in the summer beginning in June and runs from Virginia City to Gold Hill and back. Everyone who rides the train wishes the ride was longer and they could one day have their wish. The V&T Railroad Project is working to secure funding for a massive 17 mile restoration of the line from Virginia City through the Carson River Canyon to the Nevada State Railroad Museum. This possibility could bring tens of thousands of new visitors each year to Carson City for a chance to ride one of the several Virginia and Truckee trains being restored for the project.

Abe Curry left a sizable ten acre square in the center of his proposed city for a capital building. He devised a plan to influence politicians to build the capital building using the tact that he had all the necessary materials. After the Constitutional Convention of 1864 made it necessary that three legislative sessions would have to pass before a site was agreed upon, Carson City finally got the bid and the structure was begun using native Carson Valley sandstone and rock from Curry’s quarry. For seven decades, the building housed all three branches of Nevada government. Most legislative and judicial sessions were considerably short because of member’s obligations in their own home towns and businesses. For most of the year, the Executive Branch including the Governor and his staff were the only state workers in town and sometimes months would go by without even a Governor in the capital. Nevada government was represented by already well-to-do businessmen who enjoyed wealth and political power without regard for voter approval. Whenever one of them needed something done, they would have a party in one of their mansions and discuss the details. They would pass it on to the Governor and he would make sure the project was implemented. During the early decades of Nevada Legislative Sessions, most of the time in chambers was to discuss where the representatives were to meet for drinks and get-togethers. Laws and Acts were penned in private meeting rooms and Judges and Governors made decisions to pass those months before they actually officially came to them. Of course, most states in the old west worked like this but Nevada had one of the smoother runs of legislation for decades.

One way to get a better feel for Carson City is to walk the two and a half mile Kit Carson Trail with its 60 landmarks in the old town residential district. A blue line marks the beginning at the Brewery Art Center at 449 W. King Street. Expect to take up to one hour for this walk after you pick up a map and view the Art Center. Along the way, understand that you will be walking in the same steps as Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) who lived with his brother Orion who was the Nevada Territorial Secretary between 1861 and 1864. Orion designed the Great Seal of the State of Nevada and worked hard to make the young government succeed during oppressive times often paying for lawmakers meetings minutes and the printing of the Legislative Journals out of his own pocket. Orion ran for office when Nevada was presented statehood and lost in his attempt to win the seat for Secretary of State. The loss irritated Orion and he left with his wife in a huff, never to return to Nevada. Sam Clemens stayed in the house that still stands at 502 N. Division Street for approximately a year in 1861, writing lively opinions of the west and Carson City’s unlikely notables in a newspaper called the “Territorial Enterprise” based in Virginia City. The Enterprise had originally been the territorial newspaper printed in Genoa, then Carson City (Eagle Station) and then Virginia City always following the money, but never making enough to call itself respected. William Wright (Dan DeQuille) was the Editor/Publisher and saw humor and intelligence in Sam Clemens’s written opinions which he continually published. He offered him the lofty sum of $25 per week to work for the paper as its city editor and Sam jumped at the offer, moved to Virginia City and began his rise to credibility as Mark Twain.

I’ll be spending some more time with Carson City in the coming months because a lot of people, including those that might live there, don’t realize the many places they should find time to visit, hike and explore in their own backyard. Recreation, history and fantastic geography abound in this region and I want to take a few articles to expand on these qualities of our famous Nevada State Capital.


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