Washoe City: The Cemetery Time Forgot

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.

Handsome portrait of Lorenzo Smith, circa 1875.

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.

Remnants of old Washoe City, about 1943

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.

Another remaining grave of an early settler in Washoe City Cemetery, George Haskell.

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.

A wooden fence marks the site of one early grave.

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.

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