The town that almost
became a city
and the first Nevada millionaires.
by John C. Evanoff
Washoe City 20 miles south of Reno
on Highway 395 South was once an enterprising and lively city in
the new State of Nevada and was billed as the supply center for
Virginia City. Virginia City was a boomtown growing steadily into
a major mountain metropolis. Because of its influence and activity,
in 1866, Washoe City became the County Seat of Washoe County. The
mills and factories around the town were 24 hour operations during
the great Comstock Lode days. Many logging communities sprang up
along the Sierra hillside including Huffaker near what is now the
road to Mt Rose SR431. The wagons moving timber and supplies to
Virginia City stopped in Washoe City to water their mules for the
trip up Jumbo Grade on the east side of Washoe Lake. Two giant mills
sat in the draw to Little Washoe Lake and the mill at Ophir Creek
was one of the largest in the West. Washoe City boasted a population
of more than 3,000 people and at times because of the rush to Virginia
City, another 2,000 people lived on it’s outskirts in tents
making a living in the nearby supply warehouses and liveries. The
town grew in prosperity as hotels, bars, boarding houses, schools,
churches and a court house and jail were built. It even had its
own weekly newspaper called the Washoe Times and was the home of
one of the first Masonic Lodges in Nevada. The superbly built courthouse
and jail were constructed of brick created and fired in ovens near
what is now the middle of Washoe Lake. Stone was carried off Slide
Mountain for the steps and the entire two buildings were constructed
for a little more than $40,000, a stately sum at that time. The
coming of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad over Washoe Hill and
past Washoe City and into Reno began the decline of the town though.
In 1871, Reno took the County Seat away from the city by forceful
legislative action and within a couple of decades, the city declined
to a mere handful of residents and businesses. The sides of the
jail and courthouse are still standing near the site today a testament
to the days when Washoe City was the seat of power for all of Washoe
County and much of the region.
Just southwest of Washoe City on
old Highway 395, you will find the entrance to Davis Creek Regional
Park. There are more than 60 campsites in the park and a small fishing
pond that many in the community ice skate on during the middle of
winter. A trailhead leads over the hill from near the pond and into
Ophir Creek. Some of my favorite leisurely hikes into the Toiyabe
National Forest have begun in this region of the forest. You can
hike up Ophir Creek on two sides but the best hiking is found on
the south side of Ophir Creek near Bowers Mansion. From there, you
can go past Rock and Price Lakes all the way up to Mt. Rose Meadows.
Along the way, you’ll see some of the most majestic fir trees
on the Eastern Sierra slopes along with abundant wildlife and tiny
springs and creeks feeding into Ophir Creek. Price Lake was once
a water reservoir for many of the inhabitants in the valley and
a favorite place of mine to enjoy a bit of fly fishing. You can
also take a walk along Ophir Creek down from the Mt. Rose highway.
It’s a bit easier on your legs and you can follow the old
logging flume roads to Franktown south of Bowers Mansion for a different
view of the area. Behind Franktown, another road goes west back
into the Sierra towards Marlette Lake, the water reservoir for Virginia
City. You can still see the old water line cross Washoe Hill. Wherever
you walk or hike in the valley, you cannot miss the massive Slide
Mountain standing everything so majestically. The slide is a result
of the porous nature of the granite in this area of the eastern
mountainsides. Many years, when the heavy ice and snow cracks the
rock into pieces, it only takes a slightly heavy rainfall in the
spring to bring the hillside down. Because of the steepness of the
side of the mountain, nothing can stop its movement down the entire
length of Ophir Creek. You can photograph the resulting rockslides
that have happened over the years all the way down the mountain
and across the old highway, a testament to the fierceness of nature
in this part of the Sierras.
From Washoe City all the way around
Washoe Lake, the Washoe Tribe of the Paiute Indians inhabited the
area for more than 6,000 years. The Indian families that lived in
this valley made the trip in the late spring to the shores of Lake
Tahoe along the Ophir Creek and Franktown trails. They spent the
summers at the lake because of its abundant natural resources including
mule deer, waterfowl and the legendary Lahontan Cutthroat Trout
which lived in the lake in great quantity. The Washoe Indians also
picked the pinecones off Pinion Pine for their nuts and used large
willow and tule baskets to carry the pine cones from the eastern
hills near Virginia City and Pleasant Valley to nearby hot water
pools along the eastern hills to clean the Pinion pine tar off.
These Indians were by far the most artistic in their basket art.
Some of their beautiful basketry can still be seen at the Nevada
State Museum in Carson City.
Then, there’s the story of
Bowers Mansion. In 1856, a hard working down to earth fellow by
the name of Sandy Bowers arrived by wagon train from Missouri in
the area now known as Dayton along the Carson River. Dayton was
primarily a wayside labor camp where settlers moving westward over
the Carson Pass would hole up for a bit and then continue on. But
gold had been discovered in the nearby hills and many miners from
Northern California came back over the Sierras to stake claims.
Chinatown, near the Carson River, employed Chinese laborers to dig
a water ditch from a couple miles west of Dayton to Gold Canyon.
That’s where the action was and that’s where Sandy began
to mine a stretch of the mountainside. He moved around and finally
ended up at Crown Point near Gold Hill, and as luck would have it,
he did fairly well. He met a lady who ran a small boarding house
named Eilley Orrum who happened to have a claim near Sandy’s.
Sandy and Eilley were much the same in that they worked hard for
everything and took care to please everyone they came in contact
with including the more important citizens in the area of the time.
Fortune came their way when the ugly blue mud they heaped into small
hills around their two stakes turned out to be high grade silver.
Sandy and Eilley married in 1859 after the huge silver strike on
their claims and thus with the side-by-side mines doing extremely
well, the two became the first Comstock millionaires. They left
for Europe and toured for more than two years, Eilley discovering
how the elite and rich lived and enjoying buying furniture and paintings
for their soon to be built home. Eilley had land from a previous
marriage across from what is now Washoe Lake up against the eastern
slopes of the Sierra Nevada where a small stream flowed out of the
mountain. Since Sandy was a member of the group which voted in the
delegates to the Territorial Convention of 1859, his prominence
in Nevada history and especially the Comstock led Eilley to ask
her husband to build the mansion for them to live in and enjoy their
celebrated guests from around the Comstock, California and the world.
In 1863, the house was completed for the phenomenal figure of $350,000.
The grandiose mansion was built as more a display of wealth and
prestige for Eilley than for Sandy. Sandy was more an everyday man
and was not above getting his hands dirty in his mines and digging
out the ore himself. The Bower’s had many parties and get-togethers
at the famed mansion and their goodwill towards many of the miners
and ranchers in the area was legendary. Eilley was known as a bit
of a clairvoyant so the story goes, and she was quick to grab attention
at her parties. Dan DeQuill, Editor of the Territorial Enterprise
and a reporter by the name of Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) visited the
mansion and commented on its lavish furniture, trimmings and beautiful
setting. Then, the first great mining depression hit the stock market
and the area in late 1864 and Sandy struggled to keep his fortune
by moving to Gold Hill and working with the few miners he could
afford. In 1868, Sandy died and Eilley soon lost the mansion to
foreclosure. About six years earlier, Sandy and some partners had
built a bridge across the expanse now known as Washoe Lake to make
it easier to get to their claims in Gold Hill. Legend has it that
the line for Sandy’s funeral spanned across the lake and all
the way over Jumbo Grade up to Sun Mountain (Mt. Davidson) and Butler
Peak and down into Crown Point and Gold Hill. Sandy and Eilley are
buried together on a hillside behind Bowers Mansion. Part of the
tour of the mansion is devoted to the visit of their graves.
Today, you can explore the mansion
in the summer and fall which is now owned and maintained by the
Washoe County Parks Department. Their regular tours are highlighted
with superb historical facts and the myths and legends surrounding
the first Comstock millionaires. Many of the pieces of furniture,
paintings and kitchenware of the era were donated from longtime
families of the region making it a must to see for its accurate
accounting of the rich life during the Comstock Era. The park has
plenty of picnic sites and is a favorite for large get-togethers
and barbecues. The pool is one of the great summer and fall treats
in the area because of its location and clean well-kept facilities.
It even has a small wading pool for the little ones to enjoy the
cool Sierra waters. I’ll always remember swimming in the stream
fed pool and going to family barbecues there in the early 1950’s.
The Washoe Valley is an amazing
place to explore and visit, plus it’s really close to Reno
(only 20 to 30 minutes) making it a great daytrip.