Every so often we like to remind locals of the great western history we have all around us in Washoe Valley. This ranges from the ancient natives that found plentiful water and food here on the edge of the Nevada desert, through Mormon settlement, farming and ranching, quartz milling and logging for the fabulous Comstock Lode to the 1940s when the famous used our dude ranches for their quickie divorces.
This article will remind our readers of the interesting history of Washoe City. Today, it exists as a sleepy for commercial district on the north side of the valley bisected by old Highway 395. One wonders why there was a town there at all. Probably because it was at a crossroads. Before the railroads but after the silver discovery at Virginia City, many newcomers from Northern California (and there were many, with the Virginia City silver strike first assayed and authenticated in Nevada City, California) came through the Henness Pass north of Truckee and into the Truckee Meadows to this spot. The decision was made to head south to the farms, ranches, and settlements of Washoe and Eagle Valleys to the south or go directly to Virginia City via the new Ophir Road. This road, began as the shortest walking trail between two points, soon was ground into existence by the increasing traffic by foot, beast and wagon.
Habitation soon increased with the industrialization of the Virginia City mines. As silver and gold ore piled up the need for processing was urgent. Water and wood for fuel were nonexistent in Virginia City and the Comstock. Soon, trains of freight wagons were hauling loads of ore down the Ophir Road to Washoe City where there was abundant wood and water. At one time there were perhaps 10 mills around the City and a total of 18 in Washoe Valley. Vast lumber operations began to denude the western hills of timber for fuel, building and mine timbers.
Shops, liveries and accommodations developed until the town consisted of several substantial buildings including Masonic and Odd Fellows Halls, Methodist Church, schools and “good” hotels. In the brief time of state organization and the coming of the transcontinental railroad in 1865, the town was even the Washoe County Seat complete with a brick courthouse. Permanent population peaked at about 700.
After Reno was established and became a major stop on the railroad, the county seat was moved there. Shortly thereafter in 1870, the Virginia and Truckee Railroad was completed from Virginia City to Reno. This allowed the Comstock ore to be economically transported to the Carson River Canyon east of Carson City. Several huge mills were built there along the river and this killed the milling business in Washoe Valley. These two events began the towns decline in population and importance. Rather than a source of labor and materials, the Washoe Valley towns of Mill City, Franktown, Ophir and Washoe City became merely lumber and agricultural loading stations for the railroad.
Washoe City fell into a long decline, shifting to a mostly residential existence. By 1875 the Reno newspaper noted that it was a “deserted village” made up of a post office, store and saloon. By 1892, there were 51 registered voters.
Like some other western settlements, the town’s monicker could also be the “The Town That Wouldn’t Die” and never became a deserted “ghosttown like its neighbors. Over the years, especially in the Nevada mining excitement of 1901-1910, various small mines and mills operated in the the nearby hills providing employment. Recreation at Washoe Lake provided some income, and the school and saloon remained.
In the 1930’s, the ever innovative Nevada Legislature created the 6 week residency requirement for divorce stimulating the state economy. The hurried, desperate and discrete from all over the country made a beeline for Reno and entertainments arose around the city. Some stayed in hotels in Reno, but others, especially the wealthy, preferred a western adventure thrown in and stayed at one of several dude ranches in Washoe Valley. These came complete with other newly liberated guests, swimming pools, horseback rides and wranglers. Also included were amusing excursions to the watering holes of Washoe City, Carson City and Virginia City. This business lasted into the 1950s as generally more liberal divorce laws became the norm around the country and Las Vegas arose in prominence.
Ironically, one of the more consistent activities in the sleepy town has surrounded the Washoe City Cemetery. As local pioneers have passed on, they have been interred there up to the 1960s. Located just east of the Chocolate Factory and west of the old Cattleman’s Restaurant (now animal rescue), it lies in decay. Other signs of Washoe City’s heyday are the stone building on the east side at the old garden store, The V&T bridge abutements across the highway and Winters Mansion to the west. A bronze plaque noting the history of the town is located at the entrance to the Washoe Estates subdivision.