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Memories Of Washoe City

circa 1960

A Letter from former resident Pat Russell


My parents established the Russell Ranch south of and west of the Washoe Motel in the mid-1950's, consisting of about 40 acres.  During the 60's the area uphill from the stream/ditch (flowing toward the old Winter's Ranch) was "mined" for granite "DG".  As kids we shoveled truck loads of DG to create a more stable and all-weather driveway from the US 395 gate to our home--first a 8'x40' single wide trailer and then U-shaped ranch home (completed about 1963).  There was always plenty of DG and we always were amazed over the huge construction equipment used to harvest the resource.
As kids, we roamed the hills above us, forested with Jeffrey Pine and at higher elevation Cedars, Noble Firs, etc. (as kids we hauled a number of Christmas Trees down that hill in the snow).  We jumped a lot of sage brush and ski'd in the snow during full moons.
During the fall, spring and summer, we spent many days among the rock piles above the motel, contemplating life, clouds and blue sky. and our future.  I remember gazing many times easterly across big and little Washoe Lake and wondering what it will look like in the future--say when I grow up.  I am 57 years old today and reflect that those wonderings probably moved me into the field of public planning (now retired, but currently citizen activist).
I am very pleased to hear that residents of the valley want to plan their future and not leave it up to politicians.  Such planning could never have been realized during the last 30 years.  Certainly, the I-580 construction spear-headed community involvement.  Once dirt starts flying, people take notice.
I have been watching the NDOT website for this project over the last few years and have been frustrated that I can't get detailed information about what is planned in working drawings.  Its my geography bias.  I live in the Portland, Oregon area and its difficult to jump in my car and take a quick trip.
So once I learned that Joy Creek Road was being reconstructed and a bridge being constructed over that ravine, I become naturally curious and felt a deep welling up of concern about change.  Yes, this valley has seen many types of construction and landmark changes of the natural environment over the last 150 years.  But never on the scale we are now seeing with the construction of the freeway.  It will be dramatic.  I am waiting to seen what the hillside will look like just north of Winter's Ranch when everything is scraped from the hillside (including what's left of any Jeffrey Pine ravished by the Pine Bark Beetle over the last 30 years).
To my surprise, I saw a few recent aerial photos of the ravine that headed up to the Joy Lake establishment, which I knew during the late 1950's/early 1960's as Frontier Town (Sundown Town, see the article on the History Page-ed), owned and operated by Buster Keaton's son.  My best friend was a Keaton grandson.  One segment of Wagon Train was filmed here and I was absolutely thrilled to meet Chill Wills in person (and getting a signed autographed photo).  Mr. Keaton's family graciously sponsored the Brown School Elementary 6th Grade "graduation party" in 1962.  This area is now an exclusive country club setting AND there are homes SOUTH of the lake.  I was surprised that this land was private because we kids thought it was part of the national forest behind our home.  This was also the same time that another "school mate" lived in the mansion south of Bower's Mansion (the lucky fellow who found uranium in Moab, Utah).
So I am assuming that the rock piles uphill from the Washoe Motel may be in the way of highway construction.  I was assured by the lead NDOT engineer around June 2007 that they were not in the right of way acquisition plans at the time, but they also indicated that the final engineering for this leg of the freeway has not been completed.
So I wonder if those piles of rock will be "saved" and be part of the historical character of the valley.  They came under intense challenge during the heyday of mining in Virginia City.  If the piles are still there, you can see drill holes and attempts to split large granite boulders that formed the tall pile. Some of the rock was split and made great sitting places to sun yourself and actually protected from the cold winds.  At times one could imagine themselves being sunned like the blue-bellied lizard.
By the way, for all those years as kids from about 1952 to 1972, we never ran across one rattlesnake.  Believe me, we stepped foot on every square foot of the neighborhood. 
We drank the creek (ditch) water along with the cows in the fields (often standing in the water).  We dealt with a number of porcupines and family dogs that frequented the willows along the creek.  We built our own little dams on the creek during the summer to create some fantastic swimming holes (3 foot deep muddy waterholes for kids was considered a luxury).  We also had fun designing our own little diversions into our meadows (until we got in trouble).  We were fortunate to have a pretty good spring for our family and we helped ditch the ditch from the spring to the house to pipe the water about 600 feet.
There were nights when the winds were so vicious that we thought we would get a free ride to Kansas.
I am glad you are trying to make a go at a local website for the valley. 
We as kids have such fond memories of our life in the valley.  We would walk to the lake, raft the lake (homemade wood pieces found along the shore), walk the canyon from the lake to the Pagni Bros. dairy.  We'd hike to the base of Slide Mountain above Davis Campground, along Davis Creek.  Our old school mates lived below old Highway 395 and were in the wake of the massive slide of the early 80's.  There was another mudslide over Highway 395 during the summer of about 1960 when there was a cloud burst uphill from the old Winters Ranch barn.  There must have been one to three feet of mud over the road.  We used to walk the approximate three miles from our home to Bowers Mansion during the summer to swim at the old round pools, fed by a hot springs (we also swam in the new pool, with the high dive board).  It always took about an hour to get there because we often stopped off at the lake at the present-day campground.  We'd have the lake to ourselves as long as we wanted to "hang out" there.  When the campground was built around 1966, the lake was the best parking place for lovers who wanted a quiet and secluded romantic spot.
Yes, we bucked many bales of hay near the Franktown ranches to make a little money for our fall school needs.
Probably some of the special days were atop Slide Mountain where we could see for a 100 miles around before smog from Los Angeles and the Bay began to infiltrate the Sierras.
I am very interested in the land use plan concepts for the west side of the valley.