Traces of Washoe City (Part 2)

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.

The interior of the Buckeye Mill at Washoe City.

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.

The Buckeye Mill at Washoe City.

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.

The V&T Tracks came through town. But it wasn’t enough to sustain Washoe City for long.

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 fire broke out in the basement of a saloon.

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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