Tuesday, January 27, 2009
Finding Forgotten Empire City
During the early days of Nevada’s famous Comstock mining district, the Carson River was the nearest source of water, which could be used to operate the mills that processed the rich gold and silver ore.
In the late 1850s and 1860s, a seven-mile stretch of the river between Dayton and Carson City became a nearly continuous string of mining mills.
A small community, known as Empire City (also called Empire), cropped up directly east of Carson City. Empire City was the site of the first Carson River mill in 1859 and within a few years had nearly 700 residents.
In Empire City’s early years, silver ore was brought to the mills by wagon. However, with the completion of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad in 1870, the mills had a direct rail link to Virginia City’s mines.
Empire City also benefited from a thriving lumber industry. Timber that was cut on the slopes around Lake Tahoe would be transported by flume to the Carson River and floated downstream to Empire City, where it was cut and milled before heading to the Comstock to be used in the mines.
One of the most successful of the early mills was “Gregory’s Mill,” which is said to have been the first steam-powered mills in the Western Utah Territory (Nevada had not yet been created).
Additionally, Empire was the site of a handful of quartz mining operations. A large steam and water-powered quartz mill, the Mexican Mill, was built near the community in 1861.
Empire began to fade after about 1878, when its mills started to close due to lack of business (by that time, Virginia City and the Comstock’s mines were becoming tapped out). By the early 1900s, all of the mills were silent and most of Empire’s residents had moved on.
An historic marker on U.S. 50, a few miles east of Carson City, commemorates the spot where Empire City was once located. While little remains today, records indicate that the community once had a business district that stretched three-quarters of a mile.
The last tangible evidence that Empire City once existed is a small cemetery located south of U.S. 50, above the historic marker. To reach it, turn onto Deer Run Road and take the first right on Sheep Road.
Directly behind the Waste Management facility (5560 Sheep Drive) is the site of a former concrete-manufacturing plant (only the foundation walls remain). Adjacent to the foundations is the entrance to the Empire Cemetery.
The old cemetery has dozens of well-maintained graves, many with substantial marble headstones and wrought iron fences. An estimated 200 people, most of which died in the late 19th century, are buried in the cemetery.
From the cemetery, it is also possible to get an excellent overview of the nearby Carson River, as it winds south of Carson City.
One of Empire City’s most famous residents was Edwin Ewing Roberts (generally known as E.E. Roberts), who later became Nevada’s U.S. Congressman (the state only had one congressional representative prior to the 1980s). Late in his life, Roberts also served as one of Reno’s most popular mayors.
E.E. Roberts came to Nevada in 1897 to witness the heavyweight-boxing match between Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons. He liked what he saw, particularly the libertarian views of most of the state’s residents, and took a teaching position in Empire City.
Two years later, Roberts passed the Nevada State Bar and was elected district attorney of Ormsby County (of which Carson City was the county seat). Ten years later, Roberts was elected as Nevada’s representative to Congress, an office he held until 1918.
After practicing law for a number of years—he specialized in divorce cases—Roberts returned to politics in 1923 with his election as Reno’s mayor.
During his term, he scandalized the nation, and amused Renoites by calling for an end to prohibition and enthusiastically endorsing the state’s legalization of gambling in 1931. He died in office in 1933 and is buried in Reno.