Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ophir City Slowly Fades Away


Most motorists on U.S. 395 through Washoe Valley probably don’t even notice the crumbling stone and brick walls that appear to be melting into the mud and grass in an open field adjacent to the northwest edge of Washoe Lake.

But those walls, along with an historic marker located on a large boulder along the side of Old U.S. 395, are among the few reminders of once-thriving saw mill and quartz mill industries located in Washoe Valley.

In Nevada’s earliest days, the early 1860s, there were more than a dozen such mills erected in the valley to provide lumber for Virginia City’s booming mines and to reduce and process its rich ore. The mills had names like the New York, the Manhattan, the Buckeye, the Napa, the Alfred and the Ophir.

The walls beside 395 are the last vestiges of the Ophir Mill, a quartz mill and reduction works that was once one of the busiest in the valley. Befitting such a lucrative operation, the name, Ophir, is derived from the name of the legendary port where the fabulously wealthy King Solomon received his cargo of gold and other treasures.

“The largest quartz mill in this county, and, with the reduction works attached, the most extensive establishment in the (Nevada) Territory, is that of the Ophir Company, in Washoe Valley,” noted J. Wells Kelly, author of the “First Directory of Nevada Territory,” published in 1862.

“These immense works . . . give constant employment to about one hundred hands,” Kelly reported. “The buildings cover over an acre of ground, and the machinery and everything about them are of the most approved style and workmanship.”

Historical records indicate the mill was built in about 1861 and abandoned after about 1866, when Virginia City’s mine operators shifted their business to mills closer to home, such as along the Carson River near Empire City.

A small community, also named Ophir, cropped up in the flats to the east of the mill. By 1862, Ophir had a post office and several hundred residents; for a time it was the second largest town in Washoe County after nearby Washoe City, which had an estimated population of about 3,000.

Not surprisingly, the closing of the mill marked the beginning of the end for Ophir. By mid-1871, the post office had closed and most of the community’s residents had moved on to more profitable places.

Over time, the structures associated with Ophir have begun to disappear. In 1961—on the centennial of the founding of the community—the Nevada Sagebrush Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected the historic marker on the boulder adjacent to Old U.S. 395. Then-Governor Grant Sawyer dedicated the monument.

The site of Ophir was once again in the news on May 31, 1983, when it was nearly submerged by a 15-foot wall of mud that flowed down the southeast side of Slide Mountain. The slide was triggered when a snow-covered portion of Slide Mountain collapsed and crashed into Upper Price Lake.

According to news accounts at the time, the mud, water and debris formed a dam in the lake, which gave way and sent a wall of liquid muck into a lower lake, where it gained additional traction and spilled down the mountain and into Washoe Valley. One person was killed by the slide, which also destroyed seven homes and inundated numerous vehicles.

In recent years, neglect, weather and the elements have accelerated the collapse and disintegration of the two remaining stone and brick walls of the old Ophir Mill. Soon, all that will remain will be a pile of gray and red rubble.

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