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Pioneer Wins Essay Contest in 1930

Washoe Valley

by Myra Sauer

This essay won the State Federation of Women’s Clubs historic essay competition in 1930 when Myra was a high school student in Reno. The Sauer’s were a Washoe Valley ranching family from the 1850’s. The essay was reprinted in the Reno Evening Gazette on May 31, 1930. Myra Sauer Ratay went on to graduate from UNR and dedicated her life to social work passing away in 1999 at age 87. She also wrote two books on Washoe Valley, “Pioneers of the Ponderosa: How Washoe Valley Rescued the Comstock” and “Boom Times in Old Washoe City, Nevada”.

Perhaps the richest heritage that has come to us from that period of Western expansion is the wealth in stories of pioneering life. Each family has its cherished tales; but, unfortunately, has done little to preserve them.

To me there is no more entrancing history than that of my own home, Washoe Valley, which is nestled among the Sierra Nevada mountains. Of this little truly authoritative history has been written.

No more beautiful little valley can be pictured. On the west it is sheltered by high mountain tops that are verdantly covered with evergreen trees and underbrush. Gradually it slopes toward the east where the waters of its lakes lap at the sands that give rise to gray sagebrush blanketed hills.

Think back to the time when this valley, was a wilderness; when its only inhabitants were the forest creatures and the hardy Indian. Then the hills were not shorn of their abundant and luxuriant growth of trees.

The beauty and resources of Washoe Valley were known to the earliest emigrants who passed through to California prior and subsequent to the gold rush. No settlement was made until 1852 when a man named Clark built a tiny log hut in a lovely spot near what is now Franktown.

The following year a man known as “Old Man Rose” left his abode in Eagle Valley and settled on a ranch at the very northwest edge of Washoe Valley. When Clark left that same year only about four men remained, including G. W. Dodge and John Campbell who owned the present Bowers Mansion, and Christopher West who settled on the present Winters Ranch.

Elder Orson Hyde, accompanied by Mormon settlers came the following year and built homes. Mr. Cowan and wife, later Mrs. Sandy Bowers, bought the ranch from Dodge and Campbell and lived in a small three room house situated halfway between the mansion and my home. Many others arrived and also took up homesteads. Hyde was pleased with the country and built a saw mill. From that time on frame houses took the place of the former log huts.

In 1856 the population of Washoe Valley was greatly increased by a party of Mormons about thirty families in all, who settled at Franktown, the most important center at that time.

During this period all the settlers were obliged to obtain their provisions from Sacramento. They were brought over on pack mules via Placerville and the Kingsbury grade. Charley Shedd and Andrew Sauer owned a pack of mules with which they transported the provisions over the mountains to the families.

Prices for necessities were exorbitant, flour costing fifty dollars a hundred pounds; potatoes, ten to fifteen cents a pound, and hay a hundred and fifty dollars a ton.

Cattle were brought into the valley but the industry did not become profitable because of the hard winters which were common then.

In 1857 when Brigham Young recalled all the Mormons to Salt Lake City only a few people remained in Franktown, among them being Mrs. John Hawkins and Mrs. Cowan. Those who returned were forced to exchange their possessions, at a great loss for horses and mules. Later a few apostates returned and also many other settlers. Andrew Sauer brought his young wife over the mountains and she told how he proudly stretched forth his hand and showed her her future home which she, too, loved. They lived in a small house in the Bowers Mansion field.

One of the most important geological events of the time happened in 1861 after an unusually wet winter. The eastern slope of “Slide Mountain” gave way and rumbled into a canyon forming Price’s Lake. My grandmother said that she could hear the terrible noise while at work. The mountain thus received its name.

The Indians in the valley were not warlike but they were disagreeable to the settlers, causing them much worry and stealing their possessions. Because of Mr. Sauer’s great stature and strength most of them feared him although he carried only a shovel for protection.

This was the condition of Washoe Valley at the time of the great Mount Davidson discovery. The lack of both wood and water there compelled the mines to depend entirely on the nearby country for the supply of these articles. From then on the western mountains of Washoe Valley yielded their dense growth of pines and firs to build Virginia City and timber the mines.

Great saw mills were built in the mountains and the town of Ophir and Washoe grew to be of great importance for several years. About 1861 there were, in addition to Washoe City’s six or seven thousand, three thousand wood cutters in the mountains.

On Comanche Flat west of the present Winters ranch was located the large Comanche saw mill. McFarland’s mill was situated several miles above the present Sauer’s ranch while at Brown’s Creek there were two others. The Hobart estate owned several mills, there being one at Stoney Lake, above Ophir and two above Price’s Lake. Farther south in the valley there were other mills, on at Franktown near the creek, one at the present site of the Cliff Ranch. The barn there now was part of this mill.

The trees for these latter mills were obtained from “Little Valley” and mountains above the “Incline” at Lake Tahoe. A flume to Franktown carried the lumber down the mountain where it was loaded by the teamsters and hauled to Virginia City.

“Mills Station,” near the Lewers Ranch, boasted of a wood flume and the lumber was likewise hauled from there to Virginia City.

The flume at Washoe was the largest of all and came from Mount Rose directly into the city. The wood from the Tahoe Meadows, Slide Mountain and Tamarack districts was floated down this flume. Many teamsters, with their ox and mule teams, carried great quantities of wood and lumber to the Comstock returning with ore for the stamp mills.

In the valley there were three roads which joined the two main roads to Virginia City. One ran directly from Washoe to the lake where a bridge was built across the narrow neck of water between the tow lakes. A plank bridge was laid across the swampy Tule land at Ophir and joined the other roads. Riding on horse back over the land now one may still see traces of these roads.

The most important stamp mills in the valley were the Dahl Mill at Franktown, tailings from which were later hauled to the canyon below Washoe were they were worked. The stone ruins of the Ophir mill are still to be seen. This mill employed four hundred men.

There were also six quartz mills at Washoe, namely the New York, situated at the foot of the hills near the end of Little Washoe Lake and the Back Action Mill located behind the present school house.

Washoe City boasted of two churches, the Methodist and the Roman Catholic. The Methodist church was on a small hill where now stands the old rectory. The church was used as a school building also and the very earliest teachers were young men.

The city limits of Washoe City extended from the shores of Little Washoe Lake where there was a hotel to the present cemetery and thence to the pine tree near the railroad in Mr. Sauer’s field.

The business district was located about the brick buildings which are yet standing. The I. S. Bostwick, general merchandise buildings were where the dance hall is now. In Washoe there were also six saloons, many livery stables, stores, a brewery and a newspaper, called the “Eastern Slope”.

When Nevada was made a territory and Washoe county was formed Washoe City was the county seat. At the time of the state’s admission to the union there was an unsuccessful attempt to have it enter as Washoe instead of Nevada.

Ophir at this time had a population of about six hundred people with stores and other public buildings. The present Ophir house was the mill superintendent’s home and the building near it was the assay office. The well known educator, Orvis Ring, taught school in Ophir from 1862 to 1868 when he moved to Washoe City.

Franktown was never a large town, there being only a few hundred people there. The only old relic of this town still stands.

Up until the seventies the wood and lumber business in the valley was of a most extensive character. The millions of feet of lumber being cut monthly were conveyed to Virginia and Gold Hill by numerous freight wagons, the owners of which put bells on the leader and exhibited great pride as these bells announced their arrival.

After the mills along the Carson River and Gold Hill and Seven Mil Canyon were erected the dependence of the Comstock on the mills of Washoe Valley decreased rapidly. When the railroad from Virginia City to Carson was completed in 1869 ore could be carried cheaper than it could be hauled. The consequence was the dying out of the teaming and milling business of this section. Some old timers to their last day hated bitterly the railroads. Mills were torn down and people moved away often taking with them their homes, some of which can still be seen in many different parts of the state. Then came the new town of Reno, which, in 1870, was given the county seat in a bitterly contested election.

Life for the ranchers in the valley went on amid the great change. Each family prepared for the winter as usual, for it would often begin to snow in October and from then until early March the snow was drifted as high as the fence posts making freighting or transportation impossible. Huge stores of food, clothing and sacks of tobacco, tons of flour, pounds of coffee were brought in. Should anyone run out of provisions one of the men would saddle a horse and plough through the drifts to a neighbor, sure of assistance.

Two important events happened in the early eighties. These were the Franktown and Ophir floods. The dam in Little Valley broke and the waters rushed madly through the canyon carrying with them boulders, sand and trees. The dance hall below the Dahl Ranch was filled with bailed hay and was carried with other ranch buildings and home down to Big Washoe Lake. Fence posts could hardly be seen above the sand.

At Ophir the Price’s lake dam gave way and the waters filled the Ophir district with great quantities of debris, but no damage of any consequence was done.

Washoe Valley can boast of many romantic and widely known landmarks. After Theodore Winters had, by a chance of fortune, received all his money in Gold Hill claims he built a beautiful home. The furniture and furnishings were freighted from Sacramento. The grounds always kept in beautiful condition by Mrs. Winters who was a great lover of flowers. Her conservatory was perfectly cared for and the path leading to her orchard was bordered by rows of rose bushes. On this place now there are still some rare imported trees and shrubs. The Winters race horses and racing stables are known all over the country as the record set by one of his horses, EL Rio Ray, has never yet been broken.

another interesting place is the old Dahl home, near the tailings mill. This house had a fireplace in each room-seven in all-and a beautiful conservatory and orchards.

The most widely known of the settlers of the valley were Sandy Bowers and his wife. Mrs. Cowan refused to return to Salt Lake when the Mormons were recalled and moved to Gold Canyon where she had a boarding house and there meeting and marrying Mr. Bowers who later gained a fortune from his mines at Gold Hill. Many anecdotes are told about Mr. Bowers and often their veracity is questionable. However, in 1862 work was begun on the mansion which was completed in 1864. Mrs. Bowers, like her husband, was very ignorant but no kinder hearted and sincere people ever lived. Because of his ignorance and dealing in stocks the Bowers lost all their money. The foundations of the barns of the ranch and the buildings are still a curiosity to travelers. After Mr. Henry Riter took over the place it became the most attractive picnic grounds for people from all over Western Nevada. Mrs. Bowers’ ashes were brought home and placed beside the graves of her husband and adopted daughter on the steep hill behind her old home.

Washoe Valley like many other places has seen many thrilling and romantic days. It has watched its cities rise and fall and seen civilization slowly, amid hardships, overcome the wilderness and now it rests peacefully and quietly as a farming community, cherished memories of which are held by a very few pioneers yet living, their children and grandchildren.

100 Years Ago In Reno

News from the Reno Evening Gazette of August 19, 1914.

Pope Pius given last rites. Relapse occurs in condition of pontiff and he fails to respond to all stimulants.

Germany is advancing across Belgium towards France threatening an “immense engagement”.

Jesse R. Grant, son of President civil war general Grant petitioned the court to stay his divorce previously granted in Goldfield after meeting the 6 month residency requirement. The couple, married in 1880 both claimed desertion.

Four Goldfield motorists arrived at the Overland Hotel in their Lexington 40 having traveled 2,200 miles with their brindle bulldog. Three punctures have been the only unpleasant incidents during the journey.

From the opinion page: “A large proportion of the membership of Congress is slated for defeat. The list presumably includes every member who voted against the proposed amendment to the Federal Constitution extending the vote to the women of all states, whether or not the women of those States wanted it.”

Work is to resume on the Consolidated Virginia Mine in Virginia City. Exploration work is underway on a crosscut at the 2500′ level. Work was stopped briefly due to the Declaration of War.

Canadian women can veto their husbands enlistment in their military and that has resulted in up to 50 percent being denied in some areas.

RUUD instantaneous water heaters are advertised for “the final touch to bathroom comfort”.

A seven acre small ranch just 2 miles south of town near the Moana street car line is being “sold at once” for $2100. Includes a fine four room house and fine chicken house.

Young lovers Jack Day and Florence Tucker of the San Joaquin Valley in California stole a car and “lived the nature life in the jungles of Truckee” were located, split up and returned to their homes. It is feared Jack will be sent to reform school for his “pranks”. Florence’s mom is sympathetic.

Former resident of Reno, Mrs. Marie Hollcroft, was shot and killed in Sacramento by Earl Loomis, boy bandit.

James P. Martin, Nevada mining man, is being sued in San Francisco court for $12,500 in back alimony. He made but one payment of the $100 per month settlement she alleges.

Washoe Valley Royalty

Washoe Valley and the English House of Lords

This started out as a story of a prominent Washoe Valley resident of days gone by but it also ended up as a tale of historical research. I was rummaging the local papers of 1933-1970 and came with a variety of contradictory snippets of information. Very frustrating and I wondered if the story I was going to present would even be accurate. Then I happened to find a relevant article in the Oakland Tribune of California which wrote up the whole affair entertainingly and succinctly. What a relief. It also illustrated how different the reporting quality was between Reno and “the big city”. So, I will pretty much quote that article with some info brought in from other sources.

Oakland Tribune, Tuesday, November 14, 1933.

Earl To Seek U.S. Citizenship

Nephew of Duke of Wellington, Who Wed Night Club Girl, Will Live Near Reno

By James F. Wickizer
United Press Staff Correspondent.

Christian Arthrur Wellesley, Fourth Earl of Cowley, who married a Reno nightclub hat-check girl last June, plans to give up his seat in the House of Lords and settle down to a pastoral life on a Washoe Valley ranch, he said today. Lord Cowley, grandnephew of the original Duke of Wellington revealed he had made application for American citizenship and had a purchased the Lakeview Ranch, a section of land 25 miles south of here in Washoe Valley.
“My wife and the life of the West mean more to me than titles”. said Cowley, who wears blazing red-and-green plaid shirts and chaps after the fashion of the Hollywood cowboy at his ranch.
Cowley’s marriage to Mary Elsie Himes, beautiful brunette hat-check girl of “The Cedars” Reno nightclub, startled two continents.

Wed Check Girl After Divorcing Lady Cowley

He married Mrs. Himes the day following his divorce from Lady Mae Josephine Cowley, known the London stage as Mary Picard. The divorce was granted on the grounds he and Lady Cowley, whom he married in New York City in 1914, had lived apart for five years. A settlement of $18,000 per year was made on Lady Cowley and their three children.
The new Lady Cowley is a native of Reno. She was born on the old May ranch.
She divorced Joseph T. Himes of Oakland, Cal. here on June 8, after she testified Himes made her mow the family lawn, build the fires, and left her sitting in the family automobile while he attended baseball games. (the charge was mental cruelty-ed).
Her 7-year-old son, George Hadley Himes, is living with the Earl of Cowley, who said he may adopt the boy.

Predicts happiness on Little Ranch

“We shall be immensely happy on our little ranch.” Lord Cowley said. “We shall have sufficient pasture for my horses, raise a little hay and settle down being happy living a simple life.”
Cowley’s Lakeview ranch is one of the most picturesque places in Nevada. It is situated on a rolling ill which overlooks Washoe Valley to the north where the half-million-dollar stone mansion built in 1861 by Sandy Bowers and Eilley Orrum, first “King and Queen of the Comstock,” now is transformed into a beer garden.
To the south is the sleepy town of Carson City, Nevada’s State Capital. Virginia City, the “billion dollar city” on the Comstock Lode, lies to the east.
In a clapboard ranch house of eight rooms Lord and Lady Cowley expect to spend the remainder of their days, Cowley said. (end of article)

The House of Lords is the upper house of Parliament in the United Kingdom and was once only made up of the upper class who inherited their seats. These inheritances were the result of titles given as “Kingly Favors” stretching back to the Middle Ages. Lord Cowley who evidently rejected the privileged but stiff lifestyle we see in the TV show, Downton Abbey, came to America in 1925 and pursued an artist’s life on the stage.

Lord Cowley insisted on being known as Christian “Bill” Wellesley when he lived in Washoe Valley. As outlined in the above article, he came to Reno for his divorce for unlike nearly everywhere else, Nevada had just instituted “quickie” divorces by only requiring a six-week residency. This created a divorce industry in Western Nevada employing lawyers, entertainers and funding many dude ranches in the area where wealthy divorce seekers could live their western fantasies. There were several in Washoe Valley.

Despite the unusual and scandalous circumstances of their union, The Wellesley’s apparently really did live happily ever after in Washoe Valley. They were married in the home of his divorce attorney and her immediate family were the only other guests. They had two sons and they both attended the one-room school house in Franktown on the west side of the valley. In fact, over the years, more than a few children from notable domestic and foreign families attended the school as their parents waited for their divorces to finalize.

Christian’s daughter, Lady Patricia Wellesley, visited in 1938 and made numerous friends in Reno and Carson during her visit of a year. In September, 1944, the Wellesley’s received news she was killed in London. It may have been the result of a robot bomb.  She was 28 and a member of the WRENS the British equivalent of the WAVES.

Christian passed away here in 1962 and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Reno. The Lakeview Ranch was purchased by the father of future governor Bob List. I have not had time to research the precise location of the 700 acre ranch but it may have included the Lakeview subdivision north to Franktown Road, west of Highway 395. It was modeled on the English style of self sufficiency with it’s own blacksmith, carpentry and butchery shops. Along with cattle, Mr Wellesley raised prized race horses.

Even though he insisted on living as a “commoner” (but a wealthy one) he did do a couple of interviews for the local papers. In 1936, he gave his opinion of the controversy that rocked the world- King George’s decision to abdicate the throne of England and marry Wallis Simpson, a twice divorced American socialite. “The day of Kings marrying Princesses and nobility marrying nobility is gone forever-as well it should be”. In another article, this one in 1936, the Earl is asked to contribute to the Nevada State Journal’s feature, “One Sound State”. The title was, “Why I Chose Nevada”. It deserves it’s own article at a later date.

The Lord and Lady’s son, Garrett, excelled in school, college and corporate America and later moved to England to take part in his aristocratic connections. Christian’s first son from his first marriage became the 5th Earl of Cowley but due to life events, Wellesley’s Washoe Valley born son, Garrett, despite being an American and a “cowboy from Nevada” eventually assumed the title and his seat on the House of Lords. His mother, Elsie, the “Dowager Countess Cowley”, and his brother Tim continued to live in Western Nevada amongst the commoners. The Dowager Countess joined William at Mountain View cemetery in 2003 to spend eternity together in their beloved Nevada.

The Wellesley’s have made a complete circle and are now firmly back in England. Now, Garret’s son will inherit the title and his son. but now they are fortified with Nevada blood.

We can really be proud of our wonderful valley and those it inspired over the years. We have a history and heritage that most places can’t match.

Editors note: Additional information was obtained by contemporary articles in the Nevada State Journal and Reno Evening Gazette and an article by J. D. Deming, Reno born nephew of the Dowager Countess who’s article appeared on the Nevada Journal website.

Who Is This Man?

What does this guy have in common with Washoe Valley and the TV show “Downton Abbey” and British Royalty? Check back later to find out!


The folks at the Virginia and Truckee Railroad Company in Virginia City wrote in a correction to my article below “Last Train To Carson”. You could take the train from New York City to Carson City up until 1950 but service to Virginia City was stopped in 1938. Thanks for the clarification!

Last Train To Carson

The V&T passes through verdant Washoe Valley on its journey to Carson City

You could take a train from New York City to Carson City up until May 30, 1950 (service all the way to Virginia City ended in 1938). Then it was gone forever. It’s surprising it lasted as long as it did as Virginia City was in decline since well before the turn of the century. It wasn’t until 1921 that a surfaced road was built between Reno and Carson City so the railroad provided an important transportation link between Reno and Minden.

On May 30th the celebrated line passed quietly into the local lore of the Comstock and not many noticed. The Reno Gazette reported that Train No. 1 pulled out of the Southern Pacific depot at 7:30 am with only 40 of it’s available 60 seats filled. “Engine No. 27  and three cars and a caboose headed towards Carson to wind up a faithful career of 81 years. The only formal farewells will be provided by the children of the Brown-Washoe schools at Steamboat Springs as the the train stops at the station at 5;30 on it’s last return trip to Reno. It’s fitting as Steamboat is the only remaining stop on the Reno-Carson run. Huffaker’s, Brown, Washoe City, Franktown, Mill Station and Lakeview have all closed previously.”

The paper reported that several “old-timer” employees, current and retired,  manned the Carson Station and the train for the last day. The event also marked the last mail delivered by a short-line railway in the western states.

It was reported that the railroad has received many letters postmarked from all over the United States and around the world since the closing was announced. In the recent years not a small amount of the passenger traffic has been by railroad tourists from around the country.

It was just a couple years ago that we lost some of the last remnants of the line in the fire that destroyed the trestles in Washoe Canyon, north of Highway 395 at the north end of the valley. It’s great that we can still experience the V&T with the rebuilding of the line from Mound House to Virginia City.

The V&T pauses at the location of the Franktown Depot where only the water tower remained. In the background is the Flying ME Dude Ranch popular with divorees in the 1930s and 40s.
Photos above by Al Rose

“Then and Now” of a Virginia and Truckee train passing through Washoe Canyon in North Washoe Valley in the 1880s.
The Now photo was taken in 2009 before the trestles were destroyed by fire.

The folks at http://www.virginiatruckee.com assisted me in correcting some inaccurate information in this article and I appreciate it!

Flood Destroys Franktown in 1881

Franktown’s 1881 Flood

Local historian Patty Cafferata wrote this article for the Carson Times on the devastating flood in 1881 that wiped out the town of Franktown on the west side of the valley along with a mile of V&T track. The flood was caused by the failure of a private earthen dam up in Little Valley. In those small government days help was denied by the state and most everyone (about 200) moved on and the town was not rebuilt.

Washoe Valley’s Franktown destroyed in 1881 spring flood

Posted: 2/22/2008

Some women and children stayed at the Bowers Mansion when they were flooded out of their homes in Franktown in February 1881.

Spring floods are nothing new. In February 1881, widespread flooding occurred in Nevada, California and Oregon. The hamlet of Franktown in was among the hardest hit in Washoe County. The town was west of Washoe Lake and south of Bowers Mansion in Washoe Valley.

The community was settled by Mormons, laid out by Elder Orson Hyde and named after Frank Poirer in 1856.

The settlement flourished because of a diverse economy made up of farms, lumber mills, a quartz mill, and later, a V&T railroad station. The town was also the terminus of the Virginia and Gold Hill Water Company’s wood flume.

To improve irrigation, the local farmers and ranchers decided to build a dam across the bottom of a narrow gorge in the mountains west of town. In 1879, the Little Valley dam was constructed of boulders filled in with sand, gravel, stone and mud, but no masonry was used. The dam was situated about 1,186 feet above the V&T train tracks and at the same level as the corner of Taylor and C Streets in Virginia City across Washoe Valley.

Local rancher and former State Sen. William Thompson (1873-1875), Jane Lake’s son-in-law, built the dam. Thompson completed the work for $8,500, but $600 was outstanding when the dam burst.

Before the flood, about 200 people lived in the area, including Chinese men who loaded wood for the lumber mills or worked as cooks, wash men or household servants. Canadians made up another group of immigrants working mostly as laborers and boarding at fellow Canadian John Duvall’s hotel.

One of the more famous town residents was Eilley Bowers. After she had lost the fortune that she and Sandy Bowers had amassed, she no longer owned their Mansion north of Franktown. Living in a wooden house west of town, she took in a lodger to make ends meet.

On Feb. 1, 1881, a severe rainstorm filled the Little Valley reservoir to capacity. A Reno Evening Gazette article reported that the reservoir contained as much water as Washoe Lake. Twelve men struggled to release the water, but the sluice-way could not handle the overflow. The dam gave way in one gigantic wave. The next day, most of the town was virtually destroyed when the Little Valley dam burst.

The residents began fleeing Franktown before the waters washed away the community. Many of the women and children temporarily stayed at Bowers Mansion. No lives were lost.

The water swept through town leaving sand and mud everywhere. Only five or six buildings were left standing. The damage to the town was estimated to be between $15,000 and $50,000. Comstock milk dealer Guido Correcco’s recently purchased house, barn and cattle sheds were demolished under two to three feet of debris.

E. B. Tolles’ store and house were carried across the street, but deposited right side up with the store’s stock undisturbed. Captain J. H. Dall’s ranch was ruined. The front of Bowers’ house was torn out, the side frames gave way and the roof collapsed. Cyrus Lee’s grocery store and buildings, Beecroft’s dance hall and 40 tons of hay, the Mormon Church, and George Murray’s new house all were destroyed.

The water was 20 feet deep when it crossed the V & T line and tore out a mile of track. The damage was estimated to be between $5,000 and $10,000. The citizens quickly approached the Nevada Legislature and requested $5,000 to help them restore their town. The residents found the Legislature unconcerned about their plight. A subcommittee of Sen. L. T. Fox, Assemblymen Ross Lewers and J. J. Corbett visited the town. Lewers strenuously objected to helping in any way. He said they could put their homes back themselves. With no outside help and the local businesses destroyed, the town never recovered from the flood.

Patty Cafferata is an author of Nevada history books and articles. She can be reached at pdcafferata@sbcglobal.net.

Sun Down Town

Washoe Valley’s Newest Ghost Town

I got a letter the other day from Pat Russell of Oregon who grew up in Washoe City in the 50’s and 60’s and in his letter, among other interesting things, he mentioned “Frontier Town”.

You have heard of Washoe Valley’s ghost towns such as Washoe City and Jumbo. You may have heard of Franktown and Ophir. You may even have heard of Mill City and New Bangor. But have you heard of Sundown Town? A “ghosttown” that had a boom and bust existence in modern times? Well I hadn’t either. I did some digging and this is what I came up with.

In about 1960, Buster Keaton, jr came to town and bought some land around Joy Lake in the extreme northwest corner of Washoe Valley. Buster Keaton Sr. was a one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the silent film era of the 1920’s and 30’s. A George Carroll was a a local partner. In his obituary, Robert Fairbanks, is claimed  to have been a founder but is not mentioned in any of the documents I have seen. Mr. Fairbanks, a colorful local character, passed away in Fallon just last month. Buster, jr also passed away last year.

The idea was to create an “authentic” western themed amusement park on 130 acres of “piney plateau” above Washoe Valley adjacent to Joy Lake, the onetime water supply for Washoe City. The town had 11 buildings including a jail, livery, “saloon” for kids and a bar for adults. A “trained” brahma bull named “Lightening”, and horse and burro rides were available for entertainment as well as stagecoach and wagon rides. The owners prided themselves on authenticity and described how the stagecoach and harnesses were historically accurate down to the last rivet.

Canoe rides, picnicking and fishing were also available.

Admission was free and only rides and concessions had a fee. Future plans for a hotel were in the works. Joy Lake was not part of the property but permission was obtained for its recreational use. Wells were drilled to provide water for the site. News reports speak of patrons walking the two miles to the town but another reports a guest running off the road and crashing while driving to the site.

In 1960, Jack Linkletter came to Reno to film James Arness of “Gunsmoke” receiving a “Silver Spur” award. Linkletter filmed much of the footage for his CBS-TV show “On The Go” at Sundown Town.

In 1961, a local district judge had to bring peace to Sundown and end a squabble between the owners and “Moon” Mullins, chief quick draw artist who also ran the gold panning, fishing and chuck wagon concessions. Included in the complaint, Mullins was accused of staging a mock hanging that almost became a real hanging, using “already shot dice” in a sharp-shooting act and parading as “Town Marshall” even though the owners had not authorized the role. The Reno Evening Gazette reported the case had “humorous overtones”.

As with most western boom towns, the promise evidently didn’t pay out and the little amusement park closed for good in 1963, four years before the opening of the more successful Ponderosa Ranch just over the mountain in Incline Village. The site was offered to Washoe County for $250,000 but was sold to a private firm for $150,000 (ha!- ed.). The new owners planned on reopening the park but it never happened. The site has had a variety of owners over the years and remained pretty much unused until recently. Today it is a part of the gated Joy Lake development and now a private home is on the shores of Joy Lake. I doubt there is any public access to the site.

On January 9, 1966 the restaurant, bar and several buildings burned to the ground as fire crews were blocked by roads closed by snow. The next day the owners promised they would “definitely” open in the spring and planned a 4 story hotel building with a showroom, an indoor arena and 20 additional shops. Apparently, plans changed between January and the spring as nothing is reported about the site after that.

A 1975 article reported the property was owned by a local doctor at the time and the only residents were a caretaker couple and some boarded horses. Prowlers were confronted with a warning shot and they shot back at the caretakers so an auction was soon held and the artifacts and everything else worth stealing was removed. The doctor, appreciating the beauty of the site, rejected proposals for variously a resort and a trailer park while his own plans for a health spa went unrealized. It was reportedly a holistic health spa for several years in the 1980’s.

Washoe Valley with its classic western feel and authentic western history has inspired dude ranches and now, we find out, a real western theme park- for a couple of years at least.

See many more photos and more info at this website provided a descendant of one of the people that worked at Sundown Town (photos on this page are courtesy of that website).

As usual, if you have any information to share about this subject, please share it with us!

Ad, logo and information courtesy of Nevada State Journal and Reno Evening Gazette. Map courtesy Google Maps.

ad from 1961:

First Reference to “The Biggest Little City”?

From the July 23rd, 1913 Nevada State Journal. Apparently Mr. Jones was a boxing promoter impressed with the level of betting in the city. 100 years ago today.

Washoe Valley Ladies

Nevada State Journal
June 26, 1875:
How They Did It In ’49
One of the most interesting features of the great Pioneer Picnic today is to be the following: When the excursion train arrives opposite the Bowers Mansion grounds four mule teams will haul the lunch baskets to the grounds, a distance of half a mile or so. The teams will be driven by four ladies residing in Washoe Valley, who came across the plains in ’49 and wish to show they can drive mules just as well now as they did then.