Monday, February 02, 2009

The Last Few Traces of Old Washoe City

Western Nevada has become so urbanized over the years, that it’s hard to believe there’s a sort of ghost town in Washoe Valley.

Granted it’s not as large as Bodie or Rhyolite, but hidden at the north end of the valley are a few remnants of a place called Washoe City, once the largest community in Washoe County.

In 1864 Washoe City was a thriving hamlet with more than 4,000 residents. It had several lawyers and doctors, shops, restaurants, saloons, stables, a newspaper—the Washoe Times—and a post office.

The town was so successful that when Nevada named a territory in 1861, Washoe City was named seat of the newly created Washoe County.

The town’s beginnings can be traced to the rich silver discoveries in the late 1850s in nearby Virginia City. Because the valley had abundant trees and water, it quickly became a major supplier of both to the Comstock mines.

By 1861, Washoe City emerged as the center of commerce for area sawmills and farms. The town also provided services for several quartz mills that were constructed in the area to reduce the ore mined in Virginia City.

Within a short time, dozens of freight wagons began traveling daily between Virginia City and Washoe City. The wagons would be filled with food and timber on the way up to the mines, then return brimming with ore to be milled.

In 1863, an impressive brick county courthouse and jail complex was constructed in Washoe City, which by then also had a one-room school, small hospital and two large meeting halls for the Masons and Odd Fellows.

Unfortunately for the town, the glory years were short-lived. In 1866, the infamous “Bank Crowd” assumed control over most of the Comstock mines and immediately shifted milling operations to company-owned facilities along the Carson River.

Additionally, timber companies had exhausted the supply of trees on the west side of Washoe Valley and had moved on to the thickly forested slopes around Lake Tahoe.

The result was that Washoe City’s quartz mills and sawmills were no longer needed.
The community’s decline accelerated after 1872 when the Virginia and Truckee Railroad was constructed and linked Virginia City to Reno. The train route passed through the center of Washoe City, but meant the end of the freight wagon business.

Not surprisingly, Washoe City’s troubles coincided with the rise of Reno. Founded in 1868 by the Central Pacific Railroad, the town quickly became Northwestern Nevada’s most important shipping terminus.

In mid-1868, Washoe City’s newspaper had pulled up and moved to Reno. Less than two years later, the citizens of the county—who now mostly lived in the Truckee Meadows—voted to relocate the county seat to Reno.

Washoe City supporters unsuccessfully appealed to the courts to overturn the election results, but in May 1871, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled the transfer was legal and appropriate.

Angry at the loss of the county seat, Washoe City residents, now down to 800, attempted to secede from Washoe County. They petitioned the Legislature to move Washoe Valley into Ormsby County, but the effort failed.

The town simply dwindled away during the next few decades. The courthouse was dismantled in 1873 (its bricks were reused in Carson City) while the magnificent two-story Masonic Hall was abandoned in 1888 and later collapsed. Ditto the Odd Fellows Hall.

Today, Washoe City is largely gone and forgotten. Perhaps the most substantial structure still standing is the stone and brick building adjacent to a real estate development at the north end of Washoe Valley. About two-thirds of this building is original (the brick wall on the north side is new).

The other significant survivor is the Washoe City cemetery, located adjacent to the Cattlemen’s restaurant on U.S. 395. Here, you can wander through a surprisingly large burial ground containing several dozen marble and wood tombstones.

For more information about Washoe City read “Boom Times in Old Washoe City, Nevada,” by the late Myra Sauer Ratay, which is available from the author’s family through a web site,

Ratay was also author of another book about Washoe Valley entitled, “Pioneers of the Ponderosa: How Washoe Valley Rescued the Comstock,” which is also available from the same web site.


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