How do I find time to write? It’s a dilemma for nearly every memoir writer.
Here’s a fresh thought: instead of fighting the calendar, treat it as your friend. Remember that every day brings you 24 fresh hours. Every week, that’s 168 precious chances to find an hour – just ONE hour! – to write.
Steal five minutes in the grocery line to jot notes. Borrow 15 minutes to scratch out a paragraph while you’re waiting for the rice to boil. Better yet, write your own name in on your calendar for a solid hour sometime in the coming week.
And treat it as precious “reserved” time. Because you deserve it. And your story is precious.
Our last story followed the life of Lorenzo Smith, whose family settled Pleasant Valley in 1856.
At the time the Smiths arrived, there was no Washoe City yet. But that soon changed. The site had all the important amenities to fuel Virginia City’s thriving mines: abundant water from the nearby lake; convenient road access; and available timber on the hillsides to the west.
Washoe City sprang up around 1860 when mills began to be built — some to mill lumber, others to reduce ore. The townsite was formally platted in 1861. And before long, “bull-whackers” and their wagons were making multiple trips each day from Washoe City to Virginia City and back — carrying timber and supplies on the eastward leg, and ferrying ore back to be milled as they returned.
When the new County of Washoe was created in 1861, Washoe City sashayed right in as its first county seat. Now, herds of lawyers bumped elbows with the teamsters and jostled with saloon owners, storekeeps and liverymen. A newspaper was launched in October, 1862, and a two-story brick courthouse and a jail were soon built.
Before long, Washoe City had a hotel, a school and hospital, stores and fraternal halls, physicians and druggists, a post office, a handful of churches, and all the merriment and mayhem of a typical boomtown. By the time statehood was bestowed upon Nevada in late 1864, Washoe City boasted some 2,500 permanent residents, plus another 4,000 or so “floating” inhabitants.
But the angel of progress began to pass by, leaving Washoe City in the dust behind. Timber resources on the hillsides above Washoe Valley began to dwindle. Ore-milling shifted to the mining companies’ own reduction works at Empire, and seeing the writing on the wall, Washoe City mills began moved their equipment there. In 1869, the V&T Railroad had extended its line as far as the Carson River, and by 1872 its rails stretched all the way to Reno. The days of teaming and “bull-whackers” to serve Virginia City were largely over.
In 1871, the upstart young village of Reno snatched away the crown of county seat from Washoe City. Disgruntled Washoe City townsfolk contested that vote all the way to the state Supreme Court, but lost. In a huff, they then petitioned to secede from Washoe County entirely and make Washoe City part of Ormsby County. They failed in that effort, too. The death knell was sounding loud and clear.
In 1873, Washoe City’s stately two-story brick courthouse was ripped asunder and its bricks carted off for reuse in the Carson City armory. (Rumor has it that some of the brick also went into the Mapes Hotel in Reno.) Then late one evening in 1875, fire swept through what was left of the old town. With no fire engines remaining, residents could only stand around in their nightclothes and watch the flames.
The flames had actually broken out simultaneously in two separate places, a rather suspicious circumstance. Arson seemed a strong possibility. At least, quipped a Virginia City newspaper, “the fire had saved them the trouble of selling out.”
One of the twin blazes originated in the basement of a saloon. Upon closer inspection, it was found that all of the kegs of liquor had been conveniently opened to release their contents, and the straw used for packing nearby liquor bottles had evidently been set ablaze. If there was a bit of humor in it all, it was that the saloon owner’s habit of watering-down his inventory came to light. Instead of the alcohol fueling the flames, “owing to the bad quality of the liquors the fire had gone out.”
By 1880, only a store, one saloon, a few homes, and about 200 residents were left in Washoe City. Today, Wikipedia declares it a ghost town. A few traces of the old town still remain, however, if you know where to look. The first, of course, is the town’s amazing graveyard. (One bit of happy news there: volunteers are prepping the paperwork asking to add the cemetery to the National Register of Historic Places!) And a second notable remnant of old Washoe City: a stone-and-brick building which once may have been a saloon, on the east side of Old Hwy 395 (today, part of a nursery).
Next time you drive Old Hwy 395, we hope you’ll slow down to remember the town of over 6,000 souls that once stood here.
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Let’s face it: we memoir writers are a sensitive lot. After all, this is our life we’re writing about!
What if no one likes it? What if someone says my writing’s no good? What if I piss off Great-Aunt Martha or that grumpy uncle who shows up at our house at Christmas? Worse yet, what if I can’t think of anything to say after page one? And besides, no one’s going to want to read it when it’s done. Right??!
It’s so easy to let those fears bring us to a screeching halt, right in our memoir-writing tracks.
So how do you turn fear into fire? They’re so close, after all! “Fear” and “fire” — just one letter different!
Here’s one simple trick: Look for the story inside the fear. Worried about whether your writing’s any good? Tell the story of that English teacher who used to torment you. Afraid Great-Aunt Martha will hate your family stories? Write about her fabulous Thanksgiving apple pies. (Trust me, she’ll love it!)
And nervous you’ll run out of stories? Use “nervousness” as a prompt. When have you felt nervous or fearful? When did you manage to overcome those fears? What leaps of faith have you taken? Whether you soared to success or fell flat on your face, those are all great stories! After all, some of the greatest stories of all are about picking ourselves up and finding the courage to continue our journey.
As for family critics? Remember you can’t please everyone. That grumpy uncle — he doesn’t need a copy.
Tracks through the tall grass say people still visit the old Washoe City Cemetery. But the stories of its dead — and even some of their names — are long-forgotten.
Here’s one little-known tale that’s survived: the life of Lorenzo Smith. His family was part-and-parcel of Washoe County’s early history. And you can still find his headstone here, amid the brush.
Born in England in 1852, Lorenzo had just reached his first birthday when his family decided to emigrate to the States. Lorenzo’s parents, George and Caroline Smith, were converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His father was a church elder. Other members of the family had trekked to Utah in 1848 as part of the Brigham Young company. And in 1854, George and Caroline decided to leave England and join them.
One-year-old Lorenzo, his eight siblings, and their parents boarded the shipWindermere in on a cold February day in 1854, joining some 470 other Saints who were leaving England. Eight weeks later, the ship docked at New Orleans. From there, the family took passage on a steamboat to St. Louis, took a jog west to Kansas City, and then crossed the plains with a wagon train to reach Salt Lake.
One daughter, Eliza, died of cholera as the family was crossing the plains, and the family lost many of their possessions on the way. Father George, a mat-weaver by trade, was forced to discard his precious but heavy weaving equipment. Finally, they were able to embrace their relatives in Salt Lake Valley. But George Smith found it hard to make a living there. The next two years were difficult. Then in 1856, tales of gold farther west convinced George Smith to move his family once again, and they set out to seek their fortunes in a new part of Utah Territory.
The Smiths became the very first settlers in Pleasant Valley (just north of Washoe City, near Steamboat Springs). Here, George Smith built a cabin for his family, and began planting crops. By the time of his death in 1893, George had become one of the largest and most prominent land-holders and ranchers in the vicinity.
Son Lorenzo grew up on his father’s ranch. As a young man, Lorenzo ferried the mail on horseback between Washoe City and Virginia City. For a short time, he tried his hand as a butcher, operating a meat market in Carson City. But he soon returned to farming, and eventually took over management of the family ranch. Over the years, Lorenzo continued to improve the ranch: purchasing new equipment, adding buildings, and planting an orchard.
In 1882, when Lorenzo was 30, he married Sarah Ann Jones, daughter of prominent Carson Valley settler, David R. Jones. They had eight children together; but sadly, Sarah died in childbirth with their last child, Sadie Ann, in 1894. Lorenzo was left alone with eight motherless children. Four years after Sarah’s death, Lorenzo married Florence Connell of Antelope Valley, California. She must have been made of tough stuff indeed; she instantly had her hands full, with Lorenzo’s eight children!
Washoe City itself began as a milling, freighting and supply town for the Comstock mines, thriving from 1860 to about 1870. In 1861, it even became Washoe County’s first official county seat. As a young man, Lorenzo Smith must have visited Washoe City frequently to purchase supplies and attend to business. He was an active member of the Odd Fellows Lodge at Washoe City, and served as a trustee for the local school district. But construction of the V&T Railway in 1869 crushed the demand for teamsters to haul ore. And in 1871, the county seat was moved to Reno. The town’s population quickly dwindled and slowly, the buildings of Washoe City began to fade away.
As for Lorenzo, he lived to the ripe old age of 89, and was the last surviving child of the large family of George and Caroline Smith. Lorenzo passed away in the hospital at Reno on April 29, 1942, and was buried here at Washoe City Cemetery.
Lorenzo is buried beside his first wife, Sarah (who died in childbirth almost 50 years before him). And somewhere in the brush nearby, lying in unmarked graves, are Lorenzo’s parents, George and Caroline, and his sister, Sarah.
Concern about the cemetery was being expressed as early as 1892, with many graves said to be “in such form that it is impossible to properly locate them.” A To Whom It May Concern blurb in the Nevada State Journal requested assistance from people who could identify the location of graves of friends or relatives. But the grounds, at least, were still being tended by friends, family, and neighbors. As late as 1962 the cemetery was said to be in relatively “good condition,” at least as far as neatness was concerned, thanks to volunteer efforts.
Today, the cemetery is sadly neglected. Nevada’s Legislative Counsel Bureau estimated costs to restore Nevada’s neglected pioneer cemeteries in its report in 1962. But no money was ever appropriated for the cause.
And time (and humans) have not been kind. When a state investigator visited Washoe City Cemetery in the summer of 1962, he chanced upon a carload of Californians loading one of the historic headstones into their car. Their excuse: “All our friends have one!” (Luckily, he interrupted that plan.)
Turns out there’s a strange reason that Washoe City Cemetery is so sadly overgrown today: nobody actually owns it. Assessor’s maps show it belonging to “Washoe City Cemetery” itself — an organization as long-gone as the folks buried here.
And so, ignored and largely forgotten, Washoe City Cemetery continues to languish in the weeds.
Happen to know anyone in the Nevada State Legislature? Historian Sue Silver has kindly suggested that an “Orphaned Cemetery Preservation Act” might be a great way to help neglected pioneer cemeteries like Washoe City Cemetery!
TO BE CONTINUED: In Part 2 of this story, we’ll share more about the history of Washoe City itself. So stay tuned!
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If you’d like to visit: The Old Washoe City Cemetery is located on Old Hwy 395, on the west side of the highway. But it’s easy to miss. Turn into the driveway where a sign on the fence says “555” and “CRCS,” a few yards south of the old log cabin. Walk carefully, and watch for snakes in the tall grass. And if you’re tempted to try to remove a few weeds, please remember not to disturb any rocks, wooden remnants, or other artifacts.
Special thanks to our reader Dee for the inspiration for this story! Details about the life of Lorenzo Smith from Find-a-Grave, Memorial #16295343. Thanks also to historian Sue Silver for her extensive research into ownership of the Washoe City Cemetery, and her many contributions of individual histories on Find-a-Grave.com.