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Flumes of the Comstock

Flumes were water filled wooden troughs that brought wood and lumber down from the mountains to feed the Comstock Lodes insatiable need for lumber and fuel. The mountains from Gardnerville to Reno and around Lake Tahoe were clear-cut for the mines and the flumes played a fascinating role in that exciting time.

I found a magazine article from 1896 written by a man who worked on a flume west of Carson City in 1870. The article, “Down A Mountain Flume” is here.

The mountains west of Washoe Valley had several mountain sawmills and flumes between 1863 and 1880.

down the flume oac

Winters Estate Still a Monument

Winters Ranch History (editors note: scroll up to find later chapters as they become available)

By: Rick Cooper

Chapter 1: Early Days

Winters Ranch HouseOn the northwest corner of Washoe Valley, in the shadow of our new super highway is a unique home that looks like it is from another era. It was completed in 1863 and was a grand mansion for it’s time. Mark Twain visited in 1864 and filed a newspaper dispatch describing the home. Both Twain and Winters knew each other well as they were among the handful of prominent men in the Washoe Valley/Virginia City area at the time. But first, some background info.

Theodore Winters immigrated from Illinois in 1849 and joined his father and brothers in various commercial endeavors in California during the Gold Rush. Similar to others caught up in the Gold Rush like Levi and Studebaker, they apparently realized it would be more profitable to sell things to the gold seekers than to actually mine. They engaged in freighting, cattle raising and mine speculating. Their operations led them to be familiar with the early settlements in western Nevada. In 1853 his wife, Sarah and a young daughter perished in a boat accident in the Sacramento Delta while a young son survived having been thrown ashore by Sarah.

In 1857, the Mormon settlers of Washoe Valley were called back to Utah by their church and  had to abandon their ranches that they had diligently spent 10 years developing. Winters acquired a square mile tract of prime pastureland in the north end of the valley for a song. One prominent Mormon, Orson Hyde, who was forced to sell his fine sawmill for an old wagon and a yoke of oxen laid a famous curse upon Washoe Valley and it’s people (but that’s another story-ed.).

Soon after, the fabulous silver strike was discovered in Virginia City and the exodus was on from California to the new sensation known as “Washoe”. Winters brother happened to invest in a stretch of dirt that turned out the be the fabulous “Ophir” claim in the heart of the strike and the two rode the crest of the riches produced in the Comstock Lode. Theodore was now involved with mine operations and supervision and was even a state legislator in 1862. Now, a ranch and creek in Washoe Valley are named for him, a street in Reno and a town in California!

According to Twain, Winters engaged a Washoe City architect and builder and built a mansion commensurate with his new found position as a mining magnate and rancher. The first floor was occupied by the kitchen and a huge pantry, bathroom, dining room and bedchambers for the servants. This floor was fully plumbed and fed by the pure snow waters of Winters Creek fresh from the Carson Range to the west. On the next floor are two large drawing rooms with adjoining luxurious bedrooms outfitted with the most luxurious furnishings. On the top floor are six bedrooms and a billiard room to accommodate Theos large family. Mark described the house from his memory of attending a party there were, even though his companion and he got lost in the dark, they eventually made it to the ranch to enjoy several hours of the festivities. He makes note of the distinctive “Gothic” style windows that make the homes appearance so unique. The house rivaled the luxury and conspicuous consumption of the Sandy Bowers Mansion further south. From the photo of the current home it is hard to imagine all the rooms Mark described fitting within but was Mark ever know for exaggeration?

In addition to the acres of pastures and hay fields, he built gardens, a pool and a quarter mile horse race track. He and his brothers were greatly interested in “the sport of kings” horse racing and their horses grace the histories of the sport on both coasts at the time. Later, a 2 huge barns were erected, one that was a landmark until the 1960s. At one point, Theodore recognized that the roofless, stone buildings of the abandoned Ophir Quartz mill were being wasted to time. He built new roofs and established there a dairy to produce world class cheese, importing a herd of exceptional dairy cows. A Swiss cheese maker was brought in and Washoe Valley cheese became famous and much prized throughout the west coast. A last remaining wall of the mill can still be seen to the immediate east of Highway 395 in the valley. Eventually, the Winters ranch would extend to nine square miles in 1888. At the time there were about 16 ranches in the valley supplying produce, hay and wood to the Comstock.

Overview of the ranch

Winters had a large breeding farm along the banks of the Sacramento River in Yolo County where bred champions Emporer of Norfolk and Maid Marion. In 1870, Winters sold his farm in Yolo County, California to make the commitment to Washoe Valley where he believed the altitude, climate and verdant valley would raise the best racehorses the world had known. Among the most famous of his horses were Maid Marion, her colts, El Rio Rey and Yo Tambien; and Mollie McCarthy. Two American Derby winners were Emperer of Norfolk and CH Todd. El Rio Ray is said to have held the records at all the great tracks in America and was considered an “equine wonder” in the 1880s. Mr. Winters had a custom railroad car for transporting his prize horses to events around the country. For more history on the horses, see their Wikipedia entries.

At various times Winters owned the Bower’s Mansion property, the townsite of Ophir and the Smoke Creek Ranch in Northern Washoe County.

Next: Chapter 2: Family Matters

(editors note: scroll up to find later chapters)

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.