Saturday, September 26, 2009

Finding Traces of the Mining Camp of Como

The old mining camp of Como, located about 12 miles southeast of Dayton, is probably known more for who lived there than for anything that was actually done there.

Gold was discovered in the Pine Nut Mountains, the range directly south of Dayton, in about 1860. Within a short time, a small camp was established, called Palmyra, reportedly after the town of Palmyra, New York.

By 1864, Palmyra had a post office, several businesses, and an estimated 400 residents.
New discoveries about a half-mile away led to the development of another community, which became known as Como, and shifted attention away from Palmyra.

Palmyra’s post office closed in 1866, which pretty much marked the end of the community. Meanwhile, Como continued to grow and by 1864, it boasted a weekly newspaper, the Como Sentinel, as well as a steam-driven mill, a hotel, bars and a meeting hall. The newspaper, however, was short-lived, folding after 13 weeks.

One of Como’s most noteworthy residents arrived during this boom—Alf Doten. In June 1863, Doten sold his holdings in California and rode to Como to make his fortune in silver mining.

Doten didn’t stay long, only a few months, but he kept detailed journals of his time in Como, which serve as among the few records remaining of the town. Doten, in fact, was such a committed diarist that he ultimately filled more than 27 volumes with his reflections of daily life.

In September, Doten, who has also written for the Como Sentinel, accepted a job with one of Virginia City’s newspapers. It was there that he became friends with many of the Comstock’s leading journalists, including Dan DeQuille and Mark Twain.

Another former resident of Como was Captain Truckee, a Paiute leader who was a friend and associate of explorer John C. Frémont. He also served as a guide for several expeditions, including the 1844 Stevens-Townsend-Murphy emigrant wagon train.

It’s reported that in October 1860, Captain Truckee was bitten by a tarantula and died at Como. He is said to be buried on a mountain ridge outside of the townsite.

It turned out that Como's mines did not contain a great amount of ore and the mines began to close in 1864. The camp was able to briefly revive in 1879-81 and 1902-05.

Como, in fact, had its own post office during those revivals (it operated from December 30, 1879 to January 3, 1881, then was reopened from May 29, 1903 to February 28, 1905).

In the 1930s, optimistic investors constructed a large mill near Como, but it was soon abandoned due to a lack of viable ore. In subsequent years, there have been attempts to mine in the Como region but there are no current operations.

Today, little remains of Como besides a few stone foundations and the remnants of the various mining revivals. The drive to Como from Dayton definitely requires a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle as the road is extremely rocky in places.

The road to Como is accessed from Dayton Valley Road. Turn south on the dirt road just before Dayton High School. Ahead is the community water tank. Continue driving on the main dirt road (do not take any of the smaller branch roads) for about ten miles and you will reach Como and the former Como mining district.

After passing the Dayton High School you begin heading south into the Pine Nut mountains. Often, you can spot wild horses grazing in the range. About five miles from the start, the road grows steeper. If you stop to look back, you can get an outstanding view of the Dayton Valley.

You finally reach the earliest mining remains at about the eight-mile point. The first thing you notice is a large wheel perched atop the remains of a concrete and wooden structure. Scattered about are other abandoned mining trash such as storage tanks, pylons, beams and rusted pipes.

Here, you can also find two small ponds fed from a spring coming out of the remains of a collapsed mine. High grass and cattails surround these pools, which are shaded by large trees.

Around the site are the foundations of other buildings. Over there, a rusted iron broiler sits on the ground adjacent to the skeletal ruins of a tin and wooden two-story shed. Up on the hill is the rusted cylinder of a giant water tank.

Elusive mountain bluebirds flit from pinion to sagebrush. All about are the denuded mounds of mining tails; piles of dirt-bleached tan and white and devoid of all minerals and nutrients. There is an eerie stillness.

Hiking around the remains yielded a few surprises. Above the camp is the mouth of a mining tunnel. If you peek inside, you can see two tunnel branches, one heading east to a dead end, while the other gradually slopes down to the north and out of sight.

The rock walls of the shaft are soft and crumble with a bit of pressure—and serve as a reminder that it’s never a good idea to enter an abandoned mine shaft.

About a mile or so up the road are the remains of the townsite of Como. All that remains are a couple of rock walls and some stone foundations and cellars.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reno's Famous Arches

Reno has a thing about arches.

For more than a century, the community has erected various arches over its main thoroughfares to commemorate special events or to promote an image.

Historian Phillip I. Earl has found photographs showing an arch built in 1899 atop the Virginia Street Bridge. The span commemorated Nevada troops returning from duty during the Spanish-American War.

In 1914, Reno erected an arch over Virginia Street, this time greeting visitors passing through the city on their way to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. A third arch was temporarily installed over the city’s main street in June 1920 to promote the Reno Rodeo.

In October 1926, a more substantial arch was constructed for an exposition celebrating the completion of the Lincoln and Victory highways, the nation’s first transcontinental roads. In addition to a welcome message about the roads, the arch also had the city’s name spelled in large letters.

This time, the arch wasn’t removed immediately after the event concluded. Instead, city leaders conducted a contest to select a slogan to be affixed to the sign.

The $100 prize attracted thousands of entries including one from a Sacramento man who suggested “The Biggest Little City in the World.” While not the most original suggestion—Earl notes that the slogan had been used several times before during boxing matches and promotional events—it was selected as the most appropriate entry.

In June 1929, the arch was renovated with the new slogan and illuminated. It was changed in 1934, when the city removed its famous slogan because some business folks thought it sounded obsolete. The arch was revamped again in 1935, when it was given a neon face lift and the slogan returned.

This version of the arch stood over Reno for the next 28 years. It appeared on postcards, in movies and books, and in a thousand tourist snapshots.

In the early 1960s, executives of the former Harolds Club casino spearheaded a drive to raise funds to build a new, more modern arch. The new one, erected in 1964, still contained the city’s slogan and name but was constructed of sleek plastic and steel.

In the meantime, the outdated, neon, 1930s arch was moved to Idlewild Park and later to Paradise Park on the Reno-Sparks border.

In 1987, the city felt a need to update its arch once again and replaced the 1960s version with the present arch. The current arch is contemporary, colorful and bright—and serves as the backdrop for many downtown Reno special events such as the New Year’s Eve celebration, which attracts thousands of visitors.

As for the 60s version of the arch, a few years ago it was given to the city of Willits, California. Today, it has been reconstructed with a new message that welcomes people to “Willits: Gateway to the Redwoods.”

As for the historic 1930s arch, it was removed from Paradise Park in the late 1980s and placed in storage while city leaders discussed its future. Despite discussions about putting it back on Virginia Street—making Reno a “city of arches”—it didn’t resurface until a few years ago, when the city allowed it to be used by a movie company, which wanted to re-create the Reno of the 1930s.

In more recent years, the venerable old arch, pictured above, was refurbished and relocated to a new home on Lake Street in front of the National Automobile Museum.

It looks pretty good there, too.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tule Springs and Early Man

Tule reeds slowly wave in the gentle breeze. Large geese float on the calm waters of a spring-fed lake. It’s easy to see why early Nevadans would have been attracted to Tule Springs.

At Tule Springs, officially known as the Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs, archaeologists have discovered evidence of man having lived in the area about 10,000 years ago, making it one of the older sites of human habitation in the United States.

Floyd Lamb Park is located 10 miles northwest of Las Vegas, via U.S. Highway 95 and Durango Drive. The park is clearly marked from the highway.

Starting in 1933, archaeologists have uncovered fossil remains at Tule Springs that indicate that the water spot was once frequented by large mammals such as mammoths, bison, horses, camels and giant sloths.

In 1962, an extensive excavation revealed that humans used the site about 10,000 to 11,000 years ago, when the entire Southern Nevada region was much cooler and wetter than it is today.

Additionally, the evidence indicated that those early inhabitants were more advanced than scientists had thought. Scientists have found prehistoric hearths, fluted arrows, spear points, scrapers and charred animal bones.

The springs continued to be essential to the development of the west. Later evidence showed that about 7,000 years ago the region was populated by small groups of Desert Culture people, who survived on native vegetation and small game.

A horse-changing station developed at the springs in the early 20th century, servicing horse-drawn wagon and freight trains traveling between the mining camps to the north and the railroad station at Las Vegas.

In 1916, John H. Nay filed for the water rights of Tule Springs and within a few years was cultivating ten acres of land. About a decade later, Nay sold his small farm to Gilbert Hefner, who apparently did nothing with it for many years.

The more modern development at Tule Springs took place after Prosper Jacob Gourmond, a prominent Las Vegas businessman, acquired the site and converted it to a dude ranch for divorcees.

Gourmond offers a swimming pool, lake, tennis courts, shooting range, horseback riding, hayrides, dances and other entertainment to his clients. In addition to providing a place for women seeking a divorce, the ranch expanded to include a hundred acres of alfalfa, cattle, dairy cows and fruit orchards.

Many of the whitewash and green-trimmed ranch buildings of the former Tule Springs Ranch can still be found on the site.

In the 1960s, the ranch was purchased by the city of Las Vegas for a park and renamed in honor of a former state Senator who was one of the longest serving members of the Legislature. In 1977, it became a Nevada state park but was returned to city ownership in 2005.

The park encompasses more than 680 acres, which include nature trails, picnic tables, gazebos and lakes for fishing. Within the park, there is also a state arboretum and nursery.

Standing beside the large spring-fed lake in the center of the park, it's easy to appreciate how important the site must have been to Nevada's earliest inhabitants. The area is literally an oasis in the desert with its green lawns, lush tule reeds and mature trees.

Visitors will find picnic areas with tables and grills as well as fishing (Tule Lake is stocked with catfish during the summer and rainbow trout during the winter).

There is a day use fee for the park, which is open during daylight hours (no camping is allowed). For more information, contact Floyd Lamb Park, 9200 Tule Springs Road, Las Vegas, NV 89131,

Monday, September 07, 2009

Sutter's Fort: Where California Began

Sutter's Fort (Photo by Lee Foster; Courtesy of Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau)

John Augustus Sutter, who is often called the father of California, might not recognize some of what he helped create—such as surfers, lowriders and Hollywood —but he would feel right at home in his old fort.

Still standing on a city block (2701 L Street) in the center of Sacramento, Sutter's Fort has the distinction of being the Capitol City's first building. Erected in 1841, the fort provides a special glimpse into the lifestyles of California's earliest settlers.

The adobe brick building has been carefully restored to most resemble its original appearance. The unfortunate reality is that the fort was allowed to deteriorate and, by the late 1850s, all that remained was the three story central building.

In 1890, the Native Sons of the Golden West purchased the site, and then donated it to the state of California. Reconstruction began in 1891 and in 1947 the fort became part of the California State Park System.

Today, the fort is worth a visit. Standing outside of the whitewashed fort, you view thick walls and small portals and begin to have a sense of how important this place must have been when California was an unknown land.

Once inside, an informative self-guided tour is available. As part of the admission fee, the park system loans visitors a unique plastic guide stick, which is a small, handheld radio that receives broadcast information about the fort at various, marked spots.

Along the way, you find out that John Sutter was born in Kandern in the Duchy of Baden, to Swiss-German parents in 1803. He married Annette Dubeld in 1826 and some time later opened a dry goods and drapery shop. While he did well for a time, the business soured and he traveled to America to escape his debtors, leaving his wife and five children behind.

In 1834, Sutter arrived in New York, then headed west. He stopped in various communities along the way, including Missouri and Kansas, but never seemed to settle. Anxious to reach California, he took a circuitous route, traveling first to Hawaii, then Alaska, before reaching his goal.

Sutter arrived in Yerba Buena (now known as San Francisco) in July 1839. He spent several weeks persuading the Spanish authorities to allow him to start a settlement in California's Central Valley.

In August of that year, Sutter finally received his permission and set out from Yerba Buena in three ships, traveling a waterway now called the Sacramento River. The party landed about a mile from the location of Sutter's Fort and made camp.

A year later, work began on the fort. The walls of the structure were 2.5-feet thick and from 15 to 18-feet high. The entire complex was 320-feet long, 150-feet wide and featured a three-story central building, which became Sutter's headquarters.

Sutter quickly gained a reputation as a gracious host. He welcomed new settlers to the area and, according to records, planned to create an independent financial empire supported by the abundance of crops that could be harvested in the region.

The Spanish Government accepted him as a naturalized citizen of Mexico in 1840 and he received a large land grant of nearly 50,000 acres (he also purchased Fort Ross near Mendocino from the Russian government that year). Later, the Spaniards gave him a second grant of nearly 100,000 acres.

However, in 1844, California became the site of the Bear Flag Revolt, an effort by U.S. citizens to take the state from the Spanish. Caught in the middle, Sutter lost control of the fort for a short time, and then eventually lost his lands.

Of course, the second major event of this period was the discovery of gold in California. Ironically, it was one of Sutter’s employees, James Marshall, who discovered gold on the nearby American River.

Recognizing that the influx of large numbers of gold-seekers might destroy his dreams for California, Sutter first attempted to keep the discovery a secret. But the news spread and, just has he feared, Sutter soon became locked into a struggle with homesteaders and claim-jumpers for control of his lands.

By 1849, Sutter's empire had unraveled. He was forced to sell the fort to pay his debts. In 1865, he and his wife (she had finally joined him in California in 1850) moved to Washington D.C. He would spend the rest of his life unsuccessfully trying to gain compensation from the U.S. Government for the loss of his property. He died in 1880.

In addition to providing background on Sutter, a guided tour of the fort takes you through the structure’s many rooms and chambers, most of which have been renovated in recent years.

Sutter's Fort State Historic Park is a three and a half hour drive from Fallon via U.S. Highway 50, then west on Interstate 80 to the N Street exit. Follow the signs to 2701 L Street in downtown Sacramento.

The fort is open daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for children 6-17 and free for children 5 and under. For more information call 916-445-4422.