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Washoe Valley's Franktown destroyed in 1881 spring flood

PATTY CAFFERATA


 
 
Some women and children stayed at the Bowers Mansion when they were flooded out of their homes in Franktown in February 1881.

Spring floods are nothing new. In February 1881, widespread flooding occurred in Nevada, California and Oregon. The hamlet of Franktown in was among the hardest hit in Washoe County. The town was west of Washoe Lake and south of Bowers Mansion in Washoe Valley.

The community was settled by Mormons, laid out by Elder Orson Hyde and named after Frank Poirer in 1856.

The settlement flourished because of a diverse economy made up of farms, lumber mills, a quartz mill, and later, a V&T railroad station. The town was also the terminus of the Virginia and Gold Hill Water Company's wood flume.

To improve irrigation, the local farmers and ranchers decided to build a dam across the bottom of a narrow gorge in the mountains west of town. In 1879, the Little Valley dam was constructed of boulders filled in with sand, gravel, stone and mud, but no masonry was used. The dam was situated about 1,186 feet above the V&T train tracks and at the same level as the corner of Taylor and C Streets in Virginia City across Washoe Valley.

Local rancher and former State Sen. William Thompson (1873-1875), Jane Lake's son-in-law, built the dam. Thompson completed the work for $8,500, but $600 was outstanding when the dam burst.

Before the flood, about 200 people lived in the area, including Chinese men who loaded wood for the lumber mills or worked as cooks, wash men or household servants. Canadians made up another group of immigrants working mostly as laborers and boarding at fellow Canadian John Duvall's hotel.

One of the more famous town residents was Eilley Bowers. After she had lost the fortune that she and Sandy Bowers had amassed, she no longer owned their Mansion north of Franktown. Living in a wooden house west of town, she took in a lodger to make ends meet.

On Feb. 1, 1881, a severe rainstorm filled the Little Valley reservoir to capacity. A Reno Evening Gazette article reported that the reservoir contained as much water as Washoe Lake. Twelve men struggled to release the water, but the sluice-way could not handle the overflow. The dam gave way in one gigantic wave. The next day, most of the town was virtually destroyed when the Little Valley dam burst.

The residents began fleeing Franktown before the waters washed away the community. Many of the women and children temporarily stayed at Bowers Mansion. No lives were lost.

The water swept through town leaving sand and mud everywhere. Only five or six buildings were left standing. The damage to the town was estimated to be between $15,000 and $50,000. Comstock milk dealer Guido Correcco's recently purchased house, barn and cattle sheds were demolished under two to three feet of debris.

E. B. Tolles' store and house were carried across the street, but deposited right side up with the store's stock undisturbed. Captain J. H. Dall's ranch was ruined. The front of Bowers' house was torn out, the side frames gave way and the roof collapsed. Cyrus Lee's grocery store and buildings, Beecroft's dance hall and 40 tons of hay, the Mormon Church, and George Murray's new house all were destroyed.

The water was 20 feet deep when it crossed the V & T line and tore out a mile of track. The damage was estimated to be between $5,000 and $10,000. The citizens quickly approached the Nevada Legislature and requested $5,000 to help them restore their town. The residents found the Legislature unconcerned about their plight. A subcommittee of Sen. L. T. Fox, Assemblymen Ross Lewers and J. J. Corbett visited the town. Lewers strenuously objected to helping in any way. He said they could put their homes back themselves. With no outside help and the local businesses destroyed, the town never recovered from the flood.

Patty Cafferata is an author of Nevada history books and articles. She can be reached at pdcafferata@sbcglobal.net.