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A Little Washoe City History

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 Washoe Citypiled 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.

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!

Cool Book Find in Sacramento

virginia-and-truckee-book-bWe were down in Sacramento on some business and stopped by “Time Tested Books” at 1114 21st St. when we had some time to kill. It seems that to find items about Nevada the best strategy to to look elsewhere. The local antique stores and used book sellers are usually sold out here but in other states, Nevada items can be found.

I was able to pick up “Virginia and Truckee” by Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, two wealthy and eccentric residents of Virginia City in the 1950’s. Originally Beebe wrote society articles for New York City papers before relocating to Virginia City. The only clue as to why I have seen is that VC was a hangout for eccentric artistic types in that era. They revived the Territorial Enterprise and pursued their interest in railroads by writing books on the subject while at the same time orchestrating the local social scene. Often they would be seen hobnobbing in VC in “top hats and tails.” One of their private railroad cars is on display at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento.

This volume is a short 60 pages and includes some photos of the rolling stock taken by the authors among others. I was surprised to see two “Then and Now” photos included of Gold Hill and Virginia City. This is a mini hobby of mine. Beebe and Clegg later moved to San Francisco. In all, Beebe wrote 30 books.

They were both very interesting characters and deserve more attention on this site at a later time.

Photo of the “Canary”

Here’s a photo of the “Canary” “rail bus” that was mentioned in the last post. Thanks to Scott of aroundcarson.com for sending this in and giving us some visual perspective. Scott’s comment,

“Here’s a photo of the Canary. From the looks of it, I would have bet on the cows.” This one was reprtedly painted yellow, thus the moniker “Canary”.

Several of these hybrid bus/railroad engines were used on the V&T to save $$$ and keep the road profitable.

Canary Kills Three Cows

The May 3rd, 1926 Nevada State Journal reprted that the “Canary” auto rail bus carrying passengers on the V&T rail line between Carson City and Reno ran into a herd of cows in Washoe Valley killing 3 of them. The accident occured at 8 pm near the Hiedenreich Ranch near Franktown as cows were being driven accross the tracks. The motorman, Grover Russell, yelled “jump!” and the 3 passengers did, one being injured quite seriously. Attorney General M. A. Diskin, escaped with cuts and bruises.