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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.

The Washoe City Cabin

This is an update of an article originally published on this site in 2012.

I have been asked several times about the history of the dilapidated log cabin on hwy 395 in Washoe City. This is the one on the north side of the highway in the old Cattlemen’s Restaurant parking lot. Word of mouth was that it was built as a movie set in the old days and is not an authentic original home.
I did some light research in the old papers and only found one circuitous reference so far but it backs up the story. In November 1959 a letter to the editor was published in the form of a eulogy to a Joe Farnsworth. Joe was apparently a long time resident and ex Virginia City cop and had quite a knowledge of the local surroundings and goings-on. The letter writer related the story of the cabin as he heard it from Joe. “Son, that cabin was put up by a movie company in the war years. Why they even installed electric lights so they could take night pictures. I watched them several times and they even invited me to be an extra with good pay, because I looked more western than any of those who were taking a part in the picture. Anyhow, I refused because I was never cut out to be an actor.”

Last week I was contacted by Rhonda G. Wait who has some family photos of the cabin. These photos taken circa 1944-45 seem to show that someone actually lived in the cabin at some point. There is an addition built on, a different overhang on the porch, curtains and a driveway gate. Rhonda’s photos are of her grandparents, Fern and George Hillyard and her aunt, Barbara Hillyard.img340 (2)
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wv cabin montage croppedPhotos: Top: The cabin from Hwy 395 looking North.

Middle: Looking Northwest.

Bottom: Left: A “Now and Then”. Middle: Barbara with what appears to be Hwy 395 and west Washoe Valley in the background, looking south. Right: George and Barbara at an unknown location. It’s pretty high- Geiger Grade?

Photo credit: Fern I. (Hall) Hillyard

 

Visit The Chocolate Factory

Don’t forget to visit one of the last remaining businesses in Washoe City- The Chocolate Nugget Candy Factory. We took the new freeway home the other day and stopped by for a treat. They have a wide variety of candies and even hand dipped ice cream bars. Valentine’s day is coming up and what could be better than a selection of candies you picked out for that special someone yourself?

Washoe City used to be the largest town in Washoe County and the county seat until the transcontinental railroad was built and it was moved to Reno. Now, the candy factory is one of, if not the only, retail business in the former metropolis.

You can also shop on their website and they will ship to anywhere in the country. The interior photo below only shows about half the store.

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Have You Tried The New Freeway?

Took the new 580 the other day from North to South. Pretty cool although we will never use it unless we have to drive straight from one city to the other which is extremely rare. We live in New Washoe City on the east side of the lake and there is no off-ramp for us. Driving the old highway is now stress-free with very little traffic. The north-bound stoplight at Mt. Rose highway I’m sure the folks in Pleasant Valley are really loving it now that they aren’t taking their lives in their hands every time they want to enter or exit the highway.
It’s going to be tough on the businesses that depend on drive-by customers and Washoe City will continue to shed these shops.
As for the drive itself, the views are cool although the shoulder barriers are high and you really can’t see anything dramatic from the big bridge.

Washoe City’s Old Cabin

I have been asked several times about the history of the dilapidated log cabin on hwy 395 in Washoe City. This is the one on the north side of the highway in the old Cattlemen’s Restaurant parking lot. Word of mouth was that it was built as a movie set in the old days and is not an authentic original home.
I did some light research in the old papers and only found one circuitous reference so far but it backs up the story. In November 1959 a letter to the editor was published in the form of a eulogy to a Joe Farnsworth. Joe was apparently a long time resident and ex Virginia City cop and had quite a knowledge of the local surroundings and goings-on. The letter writer related the story of the cabin as he heard it from Joe. “Son, that cabin was put up by a movie company in the war years. Why they even installed electric lights so they could take night pictures. I watched them several times and they even invited me to be an extra with good pay, because I looked more western than any of those who were taking a part in the picture. Anyhow, I refused because I was never cut out to be an actor.”
I also searched for movies and Washoe Valley but as yet have come up empty. I did come across an article about a major motion picture shot in Carson City during the “war years”, however. The theme was contemporary though, and reportedly closed down Carson Street for several days. I’ll probably do an article on that and try to locate the picture later.
Speaking of movies, I had the pleasure of seeing “Virginia City” starring Randolph Scott, shot in 1940, recently and thoroughly enjoyed it as it is about as close as Hollywood can come to portraying the real history. Included are Stagecoach robberies and the building of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad. Plus he had the most beautiful horse in movies, I think. This movie is out on DVD.

What Did They Put In That Time Capsule?

A couple of posts down we talked about the 100 year anniversary of Washoe City in 1961 and the bronze plaque and monument that was installed at that time. The local dignitaries also place a time capsule inside the monument to let future civilizations know what we were all about between 1861 and 1961.
Among the items are a Proclamation by then governor, Grant Sawyer; a copy of the original Territorial Statutes, setting up the local government; a townsite map of Washoe City and a program from the 50th anniversary celebration in 1911.
Literature of the period is represented by an 1861 copy of the “Eastern Slope”, Washoe City’s newspaper; A copy of “Orson Hyde’s Curse on Washoe Valley” (that we should do an article on), Sandy Bower’s after dinner speech of 1861 (likewise); and an 1862 history of Washoe County.
People and industry were included in the business and social directory and list of officials in 1862 and 1961. Also included here is something called a “Nevada Silver Centennial Official Cachet”.
Finally 18 photos are entombed depicting local dignitaries from both era’s, their homes, Native Americans, and the V&T Railroad among others.
Not quite a treasure chest but a collection of documents memorializing “the citizens of Washoe County, both living and dead, who have witnessed the progress of these years”.
It’s too bad nobody noticed the 150 year anniversary and stirred us all from our teevee induced slumber to have another civic party but I’ll put a note on the fridge for the 200th!

Nevada Lynn’s Emporium To Close

The Washoe City landmark and source for locally grown food will close by the end of the week. Owner Paul Garofalo recently passed away and the family is putting the property up for sale. That includes the 1500sf store and adjoining home built in 1936. A Washoe Valley landmark and one of the few remaining businesses in Washoe City, the store offered a local source for fresh fruit, produce and other products. Recently we noticed the used car lot in Washoe City has also closed.