Monday, March 31, 2008

The Mystery of Roy Frisch

Roy Frisch probably shouldn't have gone to the movies.

On the evening of March 22, 1934, the Reno banker walked to the theater, watched a film, and then started back home. At some point during the four-block walk to the home at 247 Court Street that he shared with his mother and two sisters, someone intercepted him.

He was never seen again.

The mystery of what ever happened to him has fascinated folks ever since.
Nevada historian Phillip I. Earl, who has researched Frisch's case, has written that March 22 was a Friday evening and Frisch’s mother was having a Bridge party.

At about 7:45 p.m., Frisch began to walk to the Majestic Theater, located a few blocks from his house, to see the film “Gallant Lady.”

Earl speculates that Frisch probably walked two blocks east on Court to Virginia Street, then turned north at the Washoe County Courthouse. Most likely, he crossed the Virginia Street Bridge, spanning the Truckee River, then turned east on First Street and walked two blocks to the theater.

Frisch watched the movie and departed the theater at between 9:45 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. A friend recalled encountering Frisch at the corner of Sierra and Court streets and having a brief conversation. From there, Frisch walked up Court Street toward his house. And disappeared.

The next morning, Frisch’s mother discovered he had not slept in his bed. Puzzled, she called his office and his friends before deciding to contact the Reno Police. Despite a nationwide manhunt, extensive publicity about the disappearance and a $1,000 reward, Frisch never turned up.

Finally, in 1941, he was declared legally dead. Part of what makes the mystery so intriguing is the fact that Frisch was the cashier at the Riverside Bank and an advisor to George Wingfield, a Nevada financier and political boss, who was considered the most powerful man in the state.

Wingfield, who owned the Riverside Bank, the Riverside Hotel and a half dozen other banks and hotels, was being investigated for his associations with two Reno gamblers, William J. Graham and James C. McKay.

Law enforcement authorities believed that Graham and McKay were involved in a national sports wire-fraud as well as an insider stock trading scam. They believed that money from the schemes was being laundered through Wingfield’s Riverside Bank.

In 1933, Frisch had testified before a grand jury, which indicted Graham and McKay. An arraignment was scheduled for April 2, 1934, with Frisch to be the government’s main witness.

Additionally, Frisch had been asked to appear before a federal committee that was investigating the failure of several Wingfield banks. All of that, of course, meant that Frisch was a threat to a number of Reno’s most powerful and corrupt figures.

Over the years, many theories have been advanced as to what might have happened to Fritsch. One of the more credible is that McKay and Graham asked an old friend, gangster “Babyface” Nelson to snatch Frisch and dispose of his body.

According to the FBI’s files, Nelson and his associate, John Paul Chase, were in Reno in March 1934. In a later interview, Chase told the FBI, “Nelson killed a man during an altercation while they were in Reno. The victim was a material witness in a United States Mail Fraud case.”

Chase reportedly said that Nelson dumped the body down an abandoned mineshaft somewhere in Nevada.

Another intriguing theory is that Frisch was killed and his body was buried in the spacious backyard of Wingfield’s splendid classical revival mansion, which once stood at 219 Court Street about two doors east of Frisch’s mother’s house.

In the late 1990s, the owner of the home gave authorities permission to search the backyard but nothing was uncovered.

Interestingly, Wingfield’s historic home, built in 1907, was itself destroyed in 2001 by an arsonist, who has never been caught. In 2006, the city approved a 499-unit condominium project for the site.

Maybe they'll name it after Roy Frisch.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Central Nevada Museum Tells Tonopah's Tale

In May 1900, Jim Butler, a Central Nevada rancher discovered a ledge of silver that eventually developed into one of the largest mining booms in Nevada history.

Within two years, more than 3,000 people were living in the town. By 1905, Tonopah had eclipsed the mining camp of Belmont as the area’s largest silver producer—and took the county seat away from Belmont, today, a ghost town.

Reminders of the region’s rich mining past can be seen throughout Tonopah. From the headframes, the huge, triangular-shaped hoists built over mine shafts, on the mountainsides to motel names, such as the Silver Queen, it’s obvious mining made Tonopah.

The fact becomes even more evident after a visit to the Central Nevada Museum, the town’s fine repository of local history and culture.

A good place to begin a visit to the museum is outside. Here, on the museum grounds, you will find an extensive collection of mining equipment, buildings, and artifacts that help tell the Tonopah story.

Wandering through the collection offers fascinating insights into the lifestyles of Nevada's early miners. For example, a rustic two-room wooden cabin, lined with canvas, shows the modest and crude accommodations built by these hardy pioneers.

Even more revealing is the tank house, a metal cylinder that once served as housing for a Chinese miner. It is basically a large steel drum with a door cut from the side and illustrates how just about everything was reused in mining towns.

An old wooden barn contains the tools and equipment of an old blacksmith shop that once stood in Tonopah.

Perhaps the most impressive of the artifacts—all of which are authentic, moved to the museum grounds to preserve them from vandalism, destruction or theft—is a full size headframe from the mining camp of Manhattan (north of Tonopah).

Other mining items include a stamp mill, ore carts and lift, various cranes, and drilling equipment.

Inside, visitors will find excellent interpretive displays including a nice assortment of Native American crafts such as baskets, a water jug, arrowheads, and a cradleboard. Photographs show petroglyphs (rock writings) found in the region.

Adjacent is an extensive mineral display showing gold and silver ore and other precious or valuable metals found in area mines.

The museum has a large collection of early 20th century photographs of Tonopah and Goldfield. One display shows several views of early Tonopah, including scenes of the Mizpah Hotel, just after it opened in 1907, and the effects of fires on the community.

Another display shows Goldfield during its peak, with shots of the Goldfield Hotel, the Nixon Block of buildings, the Esmeralda County Courthouse, and the disastrous fire of July 7, 1923, which destroyed dozens of blocks of homes and buildings.

A nearby display case contains objects preserved from Goldfield, including photos of its most important citizens, old mining certificates, a box from the Goldfield Candy Company, and a Goldfield Hotel spittoon.

The museum also has the partially burned, but still operational, organ used from 1905 to 1923 at the Goldfield Presbyterian Church, which was destroyed in the 1923 fire.

A fascinating exhibit shows early miners’ equipment as well as color photos taken in 1987 by Philip Metscher (who, with his brothers, helped to develop the museum) of the underground mining tunnels still beneath parts of Tonopah.

Other items on display are a potpourri of regional history, including a 1919 whiskey still, an 1880 saddle, late 19th century pistols and rifles, early 20th century toys, merchant tokens for local businesses (dating back to the early 20th century), and slot machines.

One corner of the museum is devoted to the long presence of the U.S. military in Tonopah, including the development of the Tonopah Airbase during World War II (lots of plane parts found in the desert are on display).

A well-stocked gift shop offers a good selection of Nevada history and travel books.
Tonopah is located about 175 miles south of Fallon on U.S. 95. For more information contact the Central Nevada Museum, Logan Field Road, P.O. Box 326, Tonopah, NV 89049, 775-482-9676.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Nevada's House of Rails

For railroad buffs, the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City is truly one of the state's treasures. The museum offers everything from restored engines and rolling stock to reconstructed historic buildings.

While the museum is devoted to the history of all of the state's railroads, its focus is on the railroad that has for many years captured the imagination of many—the Virginia & Truckee Railroad (V & T).

Much of the museum's collection of engines and cars are historic V & T equipment, which was purchased in 1974 from Paramount Pictures. The studio had bought them in 1937 from the V & T, which was just about ready to fold.

As a result, unlike a lot of 19th century rail equipment, which was scrapped when no longer needed, these pieces were preserved and used in the movies, then later restored by the museum.

Walking into the open, bright interior of the museum is a chance to view important pieces of the state's rich rail history. During its years of existence, Nevada has been home of about 69 major and minor rail lines.

The first engine you encounter in the museum’s main building is the Inyo (#22), a wood-burning 1875 Baldwin 4-4-0 locomotive. This beautiful, classic piece of equipment was one of five of its type purchased by the V & T in the 1870s to pull passenger cars from Reno to Virginia City.

The Inyo, also called the "Brass Betsy," because of its elegant brass trimmings, ran for more than 50 years. It was sold to Paramount and appeared in a number of movies, including "Union Pacific," in 1938 and "The Virginian," in 1946. Its last star turn was in 1965, when it appeared in the "Wild, Wild West" television show.

In 1969, it was refurbished as Central Pacific Railroad engine #60 (the "Jupiter") and taken to Promontory, Utah, to be used in a National Park Service display dramatizing the centennial of the driving of the golden spike that signaled the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

Finally, in 1978 (Nevada purchased it in 1974), the old train was moved to Carson City, where it was restored and repainted in its original colors.

Behind the Inyo is V & T Caboose No. 9, built in 1873. Originally a 22-passenger car, the No. 9 was rebuilt as a coach for 60 people in 1891, and later used a crew car. Like the Inyo, it was sold to Paramount and appeared in many films before being retired in the late 1950s.

In 1971, Nevada purchased the caboose, which needed extensive restoration because of its deteriorated condition. Today, the No. 9 is a magnificent wooden car, painted the distinctive yellow color of the V & T.

Beside the No. 9 is Coach No. 4, which is the oldest piece of V & T equipment in the museum. Built in 1872 in San Francisco, the coach was one of the original 16 passenger cars bought by the railroad.

Coach No. 4 is an elegant creation. The interior is accented by laurel, redwood and maple woods and boasts elaborate brass lamps and overstuffed chairs. Like its neighbors, the No. 4 was sold to Paramount and appeared in many films.

On an adjacent track is another marvelous old engine, the Dayton (#18). While it has a certain resemblance to the Inyo, the Dayton is one of the rarest locomotives in the museum's collection. It was built in 1873 by the Central Pacific Railroad in Sacramento and is one of only two of its type still in existence.

Like the others, the Dayton was sold to Paramount, and, like the Inyo, was used at the Promontory Point centennial in 1969 (it was repainted as Union Pacific Railroad No. 119).

Other items on display in the museum, include V & T Engine No. 25, V & T Flat Car #162 (built in the railroad's Carson City shops in 1891), red Caboose No. 3, from the Nevada Copper Belt Railroad, which operated in Yerington (not all of the museum's collection is V & T stuff), and a 1917 fire truck that once served in Battle Mountain.

Another popular piece in the museum’s collection is the Joe Douglass, a narrow gauge locomotive built in 1882, and used on the Dayton, Sutro & Carson Valley Short Line Railroad.

The Joe Douglass may be one of the smallest engines you’ll ever see. This mini-locomotive, which seems to be half of the size of a standard engine, was used to shuttle cars of ore between the mills that once operated along the Carson River.

One of the museum’s operating locomotives is No. 8, built in 1888 for the Denver, Texas & Fort Worth Railroad. After hauling loads for several decades, it was leased to 20th Century-Fox in 1938 for the film, “Jesse James,” and later bought by the movie company.

The engine appeared in several other movies including “Sentimental Journey” and “Scandalous John. In the 1980s, it was used in Nevada during the filming of the made-for-TV production of “The Gambler” with Kenny Rogers.

A couple of years ago it was acquired by the state railroad museum to provide steam powered train rides, which it does several times per year.

The museum’s wall exhibits include an amazing collection of 1/2-inch scale models of nearly every locomotive used by the V & T, which were built over a 16 year period, a railroad photo show, and a fine collection of 19th century lithographs of Nevada communities, including Fort Churchill in 1860, Carson City in 1875, and Ely in 1872.

The museum also has a nice exhibit describing the role of the Chinese in constructing western railroads. Be sure to check out the reconstructed Chinese Joss House, which served as a community center and place of worship.

In the summer months, you can also tour the maintenance shops, behind the main museum building. Inside you can view other historic rail equipment, including several boxcars and coaches (mostly non-V & T stock) awaiting restoration.

Near the front of the museum building, you can find the restored Wabuska depot, a rail worker cottage, and a reproduction of a 19th century square "board and bat" water tower.

During summer weekends, rides are offered on a special diesel motorcar. Additionally, on selected weekends and holidays, such as July 4th and Labor Day, the museum offers rides on the No. 25 and No. 8.

The Nevada State Railroad Museum is located at 1280 South Carson Street in Carson City. It is open daily 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and there is a small admission charge. For more information, call 775-687-6953.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Nevada's Strange Place Names

Weed Heights

Nevada is without peer when it comes to unique and descriptive names for its towns, mountains, waterways, canyons and other places.

Where else but in Nevada would you find place names like “Fatty Martin Lake,” “Toe Jam Mountain” or “Lousetown?”

In many cases, names were selected because of some noteworthy aspect or event related to a place. For example, in Clark County there is a “Slim Creek,” named not because it is narrow but because its waters were so sickening that anyone drinking from the creek would get ill and lose weight.

Some of the more unusual names were not initially intended to be bizarre but evolved over time from one name to another. A classic example of this is “Burning Moscow,” the name of a Virginia City mine.

Apparently the owners originally wanted to name the mine after the Spanish word for firefly. However, they only partially translated the word, using Spanish word “mosca,” for fly, and adding the English word “Burning.” Thus “firefly” became “Burning Mosca,” which was further mangled into “Burning Moscow.”

Another two examples of names taking on unintended meanings are Carp and Weed Heights. In the case of Carp, a southern Nevada railroad stop, it was not named for the big-mouthed, ugly fish in Lake Mead but rather in honor of a Union Pacific Railroad official. Similarly, Weed Heights had nothing to do with unwanted vegetation but was named after Clyde E. Weed, a mining company executive.

And who wouldn’t want to live near a place named Adverse? While the name might describe some of the more desolate places in the state, it was actually given to a railroad siding near McGill, which was called that because there the train track ran counter to the grade (which is known as an adverse grade).

Other place names are just plain clever. For instance, Adaven is Nevada spelled backward and it’s a name that has been given to two places—a post office in Elko County in 1911-16 and a tiny, remote settlement between Tonopah and Pioche. Neither exists today. Oot dab.

Perhaps the most interesting story behind a name is the tale relating to the naming of Jiggs. This ranching community south of Elko was actually named after a comic strip character.

The hamlet had previously been called Mound Valley, Skelton and Hylton—unfortunately, all at the same time. Since no one could seem to agree on a name, postal authorities chose a new name from a list submitted by local ranchers. One of the names was Jiggs, a character in the “Bringing Up Father” comic strip, who, not surprisingly, is always bickering with his wife.

The story behind the naming of Ragtown is equally intriguing. In the 1850s, thirsty, exhausted survivors of the trek across the 40 Mile Desert on the Emigrant Trail would straggle into the Kenyon Farm Station, located on the Carson River near present-day Fallon. There, the travelers bathed and washed their tattered clothing, which they frequently hung to dry on the trees, thus giving the place its name.

There is also the southern Nevada town of Searchlight, which, according to a popular myth, was named after a brand of matches. While that’s a great story, the truth, according to more recent historical research, is that it was most likely named when one of the town’s founders, George F. Colton, allegedly remarked that while there is gold in the area—it would take a searchlight to find it.

Another good yarn involves the naming of the town of Tobar, located 20 miles southwest of Wells. The town, which no longer exists, was founded as a railroad construction camp in 1908.

Tobar gained its name in a rather unusual fashion. One of the first businesses to open in the camp was a tent saloon. To advertise the establishment, a crude directional sign was painted and nailed to the side of the railroad station. Others who saw the sign mistakenly thought it was the name of the town—and that’s how Tobar came to be named.

Some place names just sound weird and don’t have any colorful stories behind them. For example, Central Nevada topographical maps show a place called “Goblin Knobs.” It was not named for one of Harry Potter’s bankers but rather by the United States Geological Survey because the “local tuff weathers into hoodoos and weird knobs.”

Whatever the heck that means.

A good source of information about why Nevada places are named what they are is “Nevada Place Names” by Helen S. Carlson, available in local bookstores.