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Washoe Valley's Newest Ghost Town

I got a letter the other day from Pat Russell of Oregon who grew up in Washoe City in the 50's and 60's and in his letter, among other interesting things, he mentioned “Frontier Town”.

You have heard of Washoe Valley's ghost towns such as Washoe City and Jumbo. You may have heard of Franktown and Ophir. You may even have heard of Mill City and New Bangor. But have you heard of Sundown Town? A “ghosttown” that had a boom and bust existence in modern times? Well I hadn't either. I did some digging and this is what I came up with.

In about 1960, Buster Keaton, jr came to town and bought some land around Joy Lake in the extreme northwest corner of Washoe Valley. Buster Keaton Sr. was a one of Hollywood's biggest stars in the silent film era of the 1920's and 30's. A George Carroll was a a local partner. In his obituary, Robert Fairbanks, is claimed  to have been a founder but is not mentioned in any of the documents I have seen. Mr. Fairbanks, a colorful local character, passed away in Fallon just last month. Buster, jr also passed away last year.

The idea was to create an “authentic” western themed amusement park on 130 acres of “piney plateau” above Washoe Valley adjacent to Joy Lake, the onetime water supply for Washoe City. The town had 11 buildings including a jail, livery, “saloon” for kids and a bar for adults. A “trained” brahma bull named “Lightening”, and horse and burro rides were available for entertainment as well as stagecoach and wagon rides. The owners prided themselves on authenticity and described how the stagecoach and harnesses were historically accurate down to the last rivet.

Canoe rides, picnicking and fishing were also available.

Admission was free and only rides and concessions had a fee. Future plans for a hotel were in the works. Joy Lake was not part of the property but permission was obtained for its recreational use. Wells were drilled to provide water for the site. News reports speak of patrons walking the two miles to the town but another reports a guest running off the road and crashing while driving to the site.

In 1960, Jack Linkletter came to Reno to film James Arness of “Gunsmoke” receiving a "Silver Spur" award. Linkletter filmed much of the footage for his CBS-TV show “On The Go” at Sundown Town.

In 1961, a local district judge had to bring peace to Sundown and end a squabble between the owners and "Moon" Mullins, chief quick draw artist who also ran the gold panning, fishing and chuck wagon concessions. Included in the complaint, Mullins was accused of staging a mock hanging that almost became a real hanging, using “already shot dice” in a sharp-shooting act and parading as “Town Marshall” even though the owners had not authorized the role. The Reno Evening Gazette reported the case had “humorous overtones”.

As with most western boom towns, the promise evidently didn't pay out and the little amusement park closed for good in 1963, four years before the opening of the more successful Ponderosa Ranch just over the mountain in Incline Village. The site was offered to Washoe County for $250,000 but was sold to a private firm for $150,000 (ha!- ed.). The new owners planned on reopening the park but it never happened. The site has had a variety of owners over the years and remained pretty much unused until recently. Today it is a part of the gated Joy Lake development and now a private home is on the shores of Joy Lake. I doubt there is any public access to the site.

On January 9, 1966 the restaurant, bar and several buildings burned to the ground as fire crews were blocked by roads closed by snow. The next day the owners promised they would “definitely” open in the spring and planned a 4 story hotel building with a showroom, an indoor arena and 20 additional shops. Apparently, plans changed between January and the spring as nothing is reported about the site after that.

A 1975 article reported the property was owned by a local doctor at the time and the only residents were a caretaker couple and some boarded horses. Prowlers were confronted with a warning shot and they shot back at the caretakers so an auction was soon held and the artifacts and everything else worth stealing was removed. The doctor, appreciating the beauty of the site, rejected proposals for variously a resort and a trailer park while his own plans for a health spa went unrealized. It was reportedly a holistic health spa for several years in the 1980's.

Washoe Valley with its classic western feel and authentic western history has inspired dude ranches and now, we find out, a real western theme park- for a couple of years at least.

See many more photos and more info at this website provided a descendant of one of the people that worked at Sundown Town (photos on this page are courtesy of that website).

As usual, if you have any information to share about this subject, please share it with us!

Ad, logo and information courtesy of Nevada State Journal and Reno Evening Gazette. Map courtesy Google Maps.

ad from 1961: