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Washoe’s Civil War Fort

In honor of Nevada History Month and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, I thought it would be fun to dig up some information on our local “fort”. The civil war began with the bombing of Fort Sumter in 1861 and in the Comstock passions ran for both sides. By 1863 the tide of public opinion has swung and it was generally agreed the Comstock supported the Union. Also in 1863 a Mr. Lyford established a claim on the hillside just east of downtown Gold Hill and called it the Homestead Mine. The site occupied a ledge and had a commanding view of the canyon and the approach to Gold Hill and Virginia City. The garrison at Fort Churchill to the east had become overcrowded and the Homestead site was used to supplement the regional fort as a parade ground and “shooting gallery”. By the end of 1864 Three complete companies had been formed, one of which was an artillery company. On the site, a parade ground was leveled and a mound established for the prominent display of Old Glory.
A collection was taken for a cannon and presently funds were raised and an iron “six pounder” was properly mounted overlooking the town. It was christened the “Kearsarge” after the Union warship that sank the CSS Alabama in a daring exchange off the coast of France (which is an entertaining story in itself).
Over the winter of 1864-65 the cannon was used to signal Union Victories and special events at all hours of the day and night. When the South finally surrendered on April 9th, 1865, the cannon added to the melange of sounds from steam whistles, shouts and gunshots in celebration. Conversely, on April 15th, the news of President Lincoln’s assassination reached the Comstock and work came to a stop as the community mourned the president. The Kearsarge fired every hour on the hour from sunrise to sunset and over 2,000 mourners gathered at the fort to participate in prayer and a funeral oration.
After the war the site was popular for public recreation and meetings especially upon the completion of a meeting hall on the site.
In 1866, the man in charge of the cannon was absent and inexperienced revelers loaded the cannon with too much powder and the cannon exploded sending chunks of iron up to a quarter mile away. One 90 pound fragment flew across the gulch to the Yellow Jacket Mine, crashing through a wood sidewalk. Surprisingly, no one was reported killed or injured. In 1868 a 32 pound replacement was hauled over from California. Sporting a 6 inch bore, this cannon could be heard for miles around and broke windows in Gold Hill. It was last fired on July 4, 1874.
By 1870, when a larger Miner’s Union hall was built, Fort Homestead fell into disuse as apparently did the adjacent mine.
As for the state’s role in the Civil War, and it’s admission into the Union, also in 1864, see Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha’s article on that here.
Photo Note: In this “Then and Now” by your editor, The fort’s flagpole can be seen in the upper photo. Now, as can be seen in the lower photo, the area is overgrown and abandoned private property.

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