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Washoe Valley

by Myra Sauer

This essay won the State Federation of Women's Clubs historic essay competition in 1930 when Myra was a high school student in Reno. The Sauer's were a Washoe Valley ranching family from the 1850's. The essay was reprinted in the Reno Evening Gazette on May 31, 1930. Myra Sauer Ratay went on to graduate from UNR and dedicated her life to social work passing away in 1999 at age 87. She also wrote two books on Washoe Valley, "Pioneers of the Ponderosa: How Washoe Valley Rescued the Comstock" and "Boom Times in Old Washoe City, Nevada".

    Perhaps the richest heritage that has come to us from that period of Western expansion is the wealth in stories of pioneering life. Each family has its cherished tales; but, unfortunately, has done little to preserve them.

To me there is no more entrancing history than that of my own home, Washoe Valley, which is nestled among the Sierra Nevada mountains. Of this little truly authoritative history has been written.

No more beautiful little valley can be pictured. On the west it is sheltered by high mountain tops that are verdantly covered with evergreen trees and underbrush. Gradually it slopes toward the east where the waters of its lakes lap at the sands that give rise to gray sagebrush blanketed hills.

Think back to the time when this valley, was a wilderness; when its only inhabitants were the forest creatures and the hardy Indian. Then the hills were not shorn of their abundant and luxuriant growth of trees.

The beauty and resources of Washoe Valley were known to the earliest emigrants who passed through to California prior and subsequent to the gold rush. No settlement was made until 1852 when a man named Clark built a tiny log hut in a lovely spot near what is now Franktown.

The following year a man known as "Old Man Rose" left his abode in Eagle Valley and settled on a ranch at the very northwest edge of Washoe Valley. When Clark left that same year only about four men remained, including G. W. Dodge and John Campbell who owned the present Bowers Mansion, and Christopher West who settled on the present Winters Ranch.

Elder Orson Hyde, accompanied by Mormon settlers came the following year and built homes. Mr. Cowan and wife, later Mrs. Sandy Bowers, bought the ranch from Dodge and Campbell and lived in a small three room house situated halfway between the mansion and my home. Many others arrived and also took up homesteads. Hyde was pleased with the country and built a saw mill. From that time on frame houses took the place of the former log huts.

In 1856 the population of Washoe Valley was greatly increased by a party of Mormons about thirty families in all, who settled at Franktown, the most important center at that time.

During this period all the settlers were obliged to obtain their provisions from Sacramento. They were brought over on pack mules via Placerville and the Kingsbury grade. Charley Shedd and Andrew Sauer owned a pack of mules with which they transported the provisions over the mountains to the families.

Prices for necessities were exorbitant, flour costing fifty dollars a hundred pounds; potatoes, ten to fifteen cents a pound, and hay a hundred and fifty dollars a ton.

Cattle were brought into the valley but the industry did not become profitable because of the hard winters which were common then.

In 1857 when Brigham Young recalled all the Mormons to Salt Lake City only a few people remained in Franktown, among them being Mrs. John Hawkins and Mrs. Cowan. Those who returned were forced to exchange their possessions, at a great loss for horses and mules. Later a few apostates returned and also many other settlers. Andrew Sauer brought his young wife over the mountains and she told how he proudly stretched forth his hand and showed her her future home which she, too, loved. They lived in a small house in the Bowers Mansion field.

One of the most important geological events of the time happened in 1861 after an unusually wet winter. The eastern slope of "Slide Mountain" gave way and rumbled into a canyon forming Price's Lake. My grandmother said that she could hear the terrible noise while at work. The mountain thus received its name.

The Indians in the valley were not warlike but they were disagreeable to the settlers, causing them much worry and stealing their possessions. Because of Mr. Sauer's great stature and strength most of them feared him although he carried only a shovel for protection.

This was the condition of Washoe Valley at the time of the great Mount Davidson discovery. The lack of both wood and water there compelled the mines to depend entirely on the nearby country for the supply of these articles. From then on the western mountains of Washoe Valley yielded their dense growth of pines and firs to build Virginia City and timber the mines.

Great saw mills were built in the mountains and the town of Ophir and Washoe grew to be of great importance for several years. About 1861 there were, in addition to Washoe City's six or seven thousand, three thousand wood cutters in the mountains.

On Comanche Flat west of the present Winters ranch was located the large Comanche saw mill. McFarland's mill was situated several miles above the present Sauer's ranch while at Brown's Creek there were two others. The Hobart estate owned several mills, there being one at Stoney Lake, above Ophir and two above Price's Lake. Farther south in the valley there were other mills, on at Franktown near the creek, one at the present site of the Cliff Ranch. The barn there now was part of this mill.

The trees for these latter mills were obtained from "Little Valley" and mountains above the "Incline" at Lake Tahoe. A flume to Franktown carried the lumber down the mountain where it was loaded by the teamsters and hauled to Virginia City.

"Mills Station," near the Lewers Ranch, boasted of a wood flume and the lumber was likewise hauled from there to Virginia City.

The flume at Washoe was the largest of all and came from Mount Rose directly into the city. The wood from the Tahoe Meadows, Slide Mountain and Tamarack districts was floated down this flume. Many teamsters, with their ox and mule teams, carried great quantities of wood and lumber to the Comstock returning with ore for the stamp mills.

In the valley there were three roads which joined the two main roads to Virginia City. One ran directly from Washoe to the lake where a bridge was built across the narrow neck of water between the tow lakes. A plank bridge was laid across the swampy Tule land at Ophir and joined the other roads. Riding on horse back over the land now one may still see traces of these roads.

The most important stamp mills in the valley were the Dahl Mill at Franktown, tailings from which were later hauled to the canyon below Washoe were they were worked. The stone ruins of the Ophir mill are still to be seen. This mill employed four hundred men.

There were also six quartz mills at Washoe, namely the New York, situated at the foot of the hills near the end of Little Washoe Lake and the Back Action Mill located behind the present school house.

Washoe City boasted of two churches, the Methodist and the Roman Catholic. The Methodist church was on a small hill where now stands the old rectory. The church was used as a school building also and the very earliest teachers were young men.

The city limits of Washoe City extended from the shores of Little Washoe Lake where there was a hotel to the present cemetery and thence to the pine tree near the railroad in Mr. Sauer's field.

The business district was located about the brick buildings which are yet standing. The I. S. Bostwick, general merchandise buildings were where the dance hall is now. In Washoe there were also six saloons, many livery stables, stores, a brewery and a newspaper, called the "Eastern Slope".

When Nevada was made a territory and Washoe county was formed Washoe City was the county seat. At the time of the state's admission to the union there was an unsuccessful attempt to have it enter as Washoe instead of Nevada.

Ophir at this time had a population of about six hundred people with stores and other public buildings. The present Ophir house was the mill superintendent's home and the building near it was the assay office. The well known educator, Orvis Ring, taught school in Ophir from 1862 to 1868 when he moved to Washoe City.

Franktown was never a large town, there being only a few hundred people there. The only old relic of this town still stands.

Up until the seventies the wood and lumber business in the valley was of a most extensive character. The millions of feet of lumber being cut monthly were conveyed to Virginia and Gold Hill by numerous freight wagons, the owners of which put bells on the leader and exhibited great pride as these bells announced their arrival.

After the mills along the Carson River and Gold Hill and Seven Mil Canyon were erected the dependence of the Comstock on the mills of Washoe Valley decreased rapidly. When the railroad from Virginia City to Carson was completed in 1869 ore could be carried cheaper than it could be hauled. The consequence was the dying out of the teaming and milling business of this section. Some old timers to their last day hated bitterly the railroads. Mills were torn down and people moved away often taking with them their homes, some of which can still be seen in many different parts of the state. Then came the new town of Reno, which, in 1870, was given the county seat in a bitterly contested election.

Life for the ranchers in the valley went on amid the great change. Each family prepared for the winter as usual, for it would often begin to snow in October and from then until early March the snow was drifted as high as the fence posts making freighting or transportation impossible. Huge stores of food, clothing and sacks of tobacco, tons of flour, pounds of coffee were brought in. Should anyone run out of provisions one of the men would saddle a horse and plough through the drifts to a neighbor, sure of assistance.

Two important events happened in the early eighties. These were the Franktown and Ophir floods. The dam in Little Valley broke and the waters rushed madly through the canyon carrying with them boulders, sand and trees. The dance hall below the Dahl Ranch was filled with bailed hay and was carried with other ranch buildings and home down to Big Washoe Lake. Fence posts could hardly be seen above the sand.

At Ophir the Price's lake dam gave way and the waters filled the Ophir district with great quantities of debris, but no damage of any consequence was done.

Washoe Valley can boast of many romantic and widely known landmarks. After Theodore Winters had, by a chance of fortune, received all his money in Gold Hill claims he built a beautiful home. The furniture and furnishings were freighted from Sacramento. The grounds always kept in beautiful condition by Mrs. Winters who was a great lover of flowers. Her conservatory was perfectly cared for and the path leading to her orchard was bordered by rows of rose bushes. On this place now there are still some rare imported trees and shrubs. The Winters race horses and racing stables are known all over the country as the record set by one of his horses, EL Rio Ray, has never yet been broken.

another interesting place is the old Dahl home, near the tailings mill. This house had a fireplace in each room-seven in all-and a beautiful conservatory and orchards.

The most widely known of the settlers of the valley were Sandy Bowers and his wife. Mrs. Cowan refused to return to Salt Lake when the Mormons were recalled and moved to Gold Canyon where she had a boarding house and there meeting and marrying Mr. Bowers who later gained a fortune from his mines at Gold Hill. Many anecdotes are told about Mr. Bowers and often their veracity is questionable. However, in 1862 work was begun on the mansion which was completed in 1864. Mrs. Bowers, like her husband, was very ignorant but no kinder hearted and sincere people ever lived. Because of his ignorance and dealing in stocks the Bowers lost all their money. The foundations of the barns of the ranch and the buildings are still a curiosity to travelers. After Mr. Henry Riter took over the place it became the most attractive picnic grounds for people from all over Western Nevada. Mrs. Bowers' ashes were brought home and placed beside the graves of her husband and adopted daughter on the steep hill behind her old home.

Washoe Valley like many other places has seen many thrilling and romantic days. It has watched its cities rise and fall and seen civilization slowly, amid hardships, overcome the wilderness and now it rests peacefully and quietly as a farming community, cherished memories of which are held by a very few pioneers yet living, their children and grandchildren.