Thursday, July 02, 2020

Goldfield's Famed Fight for the Ages

Marker commemorating Gans-Nelson fight in Goldfield
The longest prizefight in Nevada history was a 42-round marathon between middleweight boxers, Joe “The Old Master” Gans and Oscar “Battling” Nelson, who was also known as “The Durable Dane,” in the mining town of Goldfield on September 3, 1906.
The fight came about when a canny local saloon owner and entrepreneur, George Lewis “Tex” Rickard, decided that booming Goldfield, which had become the largest city in Nevada, should host a championship prizefight to help cement its status as a promising, growing metropolis and, not coincidentally, persuade any out-of-towners with the means to invest in Goldfield.
Working with a couple of other, less reputable promotors, George Graham Rice and Larry Sullivan, Rickard formed the Goldfield Athletic Club for the purpose of attracting a big-time fight.
Rickard proved to be up to the task, raising sufficient funds for a purse ($33,500) and overseeing the construction of an 8,000-seat arena for the fight on a site that today is a litter-strewn lot off U.S. 95 in the center of Goldfield.
The fight had an additional element that made it of interest in many quarters—Gans, the world middleweight champion, was black while Nelson was white.
According to historian Richard O. Davies, author of “The Main Event: Boxing in Nevada from the Mining Camps to the Las Vegas Strip,” Gans, unlike black heavyweight boxers who could not get fights with white boxers, did not apparently face the same institutional racism because “the symbolism of masculine supremacy was not in play as with the heavyweights.”
That did not, however, keep him from having to accept a smaller purse for the fight than his white opponent. Nelson was guaranteed $22,500 while Gans would receive $11,000.
Additionally, while the amiable Gans was generally viewed favorably and was the betting favorite, that didn’t prevent a local newspaper, “The Goldfield News,” from noting that white boxing fans were in the uncomfortable position of “wishing to see a Negro defeat a white man.”
The 31-year-old Gans had fought a large number of opponents during his career, earning the nickname, “The Old Master,” because of his experience and technical knowledge of the sport. He was polite and affable, which was in stark contrast to Nelson, who was a bit obnoxious.
Seven years younger than Gans, Nelson was known as more of a brawler. He had a reputation for illegal head butts and low blows, and was pushy and rude in the days leading up to the fight.
An interesting wrinkle to the fight was that it was to be a “fight to the finish,” although should it go 45 three-minute rounds, the referee would stop it and declare a winner.
On the day of the fight, the two boxers climbed into the ring before a full crowd of 8,000. Like the 1897 Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight in Carson City, the bout was being filmed for later viewing.
In the early rounds, Gans put on a boxing clinic, landing numerous jabs and deftly escaping Nelson’s punches. But an hour into the fight, he began to tire and his punches began to display less power.
Meanwhile the seemingly indefatigable Nelson continued to tie up Gans and avoid any semblance of a knockout punch. He also repeatedly head-butted Gans and landed a few punches that the crowd saw as being below the belt.
In the 33rd round, Gans broke a bone in his right hand after landing a punch to the challenger’s legendary thick skull. According to observers, he hid the injury by pretending to have hurt an ankle.
As the fight continued into the 40th round, both men were exhausted, sunburned, bruised, and bloodied. In round 42, Gans managed to land a powerful left hook, which Nelson seemed to shake off. In retaliation, Nelson swung low and landed a punch to Gans’ groin, which knocked the champion to the canvas, in clear agony.
The crowd screamed at Nelson’s illegal punch and after a moment, the referee declared Gans the winner by disqualification. Davies noted that many post fight analysts believed Gans’ left hook in the 42nd round had convinced Nelson he couldn’t win fairly, so, in desperation, he unleashed the low blow.
The fight did what it sought to do. The town received a big economic boost during the fight weekend and, at least for a little while, Goldfield was on the map.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Famous Firsts Established at Carson City's Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight

Nevada has had a long relationship with legal prizefighting, which can be traced to the heavyweight bout between two men, James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and Robert “Ruby Robert” Fitzsimmons in Carson City in 1897.
That first legal bout was the result of a number of serendipitous factors that all came together to make it happen. When talk of a prizefight began to pick up momentum in 1895-96, the biggest problem was that boxing was illegal in the U.S.
At the same time, the state of Nevada was experiencing a crushing economic depression. The mining and ranching industries were collapsing and the state needed a new source of potential revenue.
Against that backdrop, Nevada approved legal “glove contests” in January 1897 and almost immediately promotor Dan Stuart, who had pushed for passage of the law, announced plans for a heavyweight bout in Carson City on March 17, 1897—St. Patrick’s Day.
The fight represented a number of “firsts.” It was Nevada’s first legal prizefight. It was also the first prizefight ever recorded on film for later viewing in movie theaters. It was also the first prizefight using the then-new Queensberry rules requiring boxers to wear five-ounce padded gloves and for rounds to be held to three minutes, separated by a minute of rest.
Once he had the go-ahead for his bout, Stuart erected a 17,000-seat wooden amphitheater on the corner of Musser and Pratt streets in Carson City. At the time, the city had a population of less than 3,000.
While Nevada had decided to legalize prizefighting, the sport was still vilified throughout most of the country. Newspapers began referring to the action as “Nevada’s Disgrace” and religious leaders condemned the state for its loose morals, which also included toleration of casino-style gambling and brothels.
As for the fighters, Corbett set up a training camp at Shaw’s Springs (now known as the Carson Hot Springs, while Fitzsimmons trained at a place called Cook’s Ranch, located about three miles from town.
Stuart hoped that the popular Corbett, born in San Francisco, would draw a good number of his Bay Area supporters to the fight. Fitzsimmons, who hailed from New Zealand, was less well-known but had a far more extensive fight record. Goosing expectations was the fact that Corbett and Fitzsimmons genuinely did not like each other.
On the day of the fight, it became clear that the arena was far bigger than the paid crowd of some four to six thousand who paid to watch the bout.
Despite its less-than-anticipated size, the crowd was enthusiastic, according to newspaper accounts of the fight, with most supporting Corbett, the former title-holder.
The reports indicate that Corbett appeared to be the victor in the early rounds, using his technical skills to mark Fitzsimmons face with several cuts. In the sixth round, Corbett landed an uppercut to Fitzsimmons’ jaw followed by right hand to his nose, which caused him to stagger.
Fitzsimmons, however, managed to remain standing through the rest of the round and a tiring Corbett failed to follow up in the next round.
The two traded blows during the next seven rounds, with the fatigued Corbett having little power behind his punches, and Fitzsimmons waiting for the right opportunity to strike. It came in the 14th round, when Corbett raised his gloves to protect his face, after being hit on the neck, and Fitzsimmons followed with a strong punch to Corbett’s body, just under his heart.
Known as the “solar plexus punch,” the blow caused Corbett to crumple into the ropes and let out a loud moan. Fitzsimmons landed a second punch to Corbett’s stomach and the former champ fell to his knees.
According to historian Richard O. Davies, in his excellent book, “The Main Event: Boxing in Nevada from the Mining Camps to the Las Vegas Strip,” Corbett was so immobilized, he could barely breathe, that he couldn’t rise to his feet and the referee counted him out.
While Corbett’s supporters were disappointed about the outcome, the event, despite the smaller crowd, signaled that legal boxing had a future in the Silver State.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Reno's Nearly-Forgotten Hillside Cemetery

Tucked into a residential neighborhood of apartment complexes and fraternity houses near the University of Nevada, Reno campus is a patch of land that looks very much out of place.
The roughly five-acre site, which overlooks downtown Reno, is known as the Hillside Cemetery and it is Reno’s oldest final resting grounds, having been first used in the late 1860s (and formally established as a private cemetery in 1875).
According to news accounts, the first person to be buried on the site was Menerva Morton, who died in 1868.
Among the others interred at Hillside include a number of pioneer Reno figures including George Peckham (Peckham Lane is named after him) and George Williams Cassidy, a former journalist and U.S. Congressman from Nevada (1881-1885).
From 1879 to about 1959, Hillside remained a more-or-less active concern that was originally owned by the Wiltshire Sanders and later by his heirs. Apparently, lots in the cemetery were sold to the individual families while ownership of the overall site remained with Sanders.
Records indicate there were a total of 190 lots, which could host as many as 18 individuals on each lot. More than 1,400 people are believed to have been buried in the cemetery.
In about 1905, Wiltshire Sanders turned over ownership of the cemetery to his wife, Margaret Sanders, who, according to court records, continued to sell lot deeds until 1920, when the city passed an ordinance prohibiting such sales. After that date, only members of the families already owning lots could continue to inter their deceased at the cemetery.
In the 1930s, the Sanders family moved away from Reno and the cemetery was abandoned (except for any maintenance efforts performed by the families of those buried there).
By the 1960s, the cemetery was officially an eyesore, used as a dumping ground for trash and old automobiles. Grave markers were broken or stolen and part of the site was used a parking lot by fraternity members living nearby.
In the 1970s, the property began to attract attention from local developers, who purchased the Sanders’ family interests, who wanted to relocate the bodies in order to build apartments, fraternities, or dormitories on the site.
In 1978, the property was donated to UNR, which sought to get the site approved for student housing but abandoned the effort due to public outcry.
In 1985, the university sold the site to Sierra Memorial Services, which, also wanted to use the land for other purposes. In 2001, it persuaded the Nevada Legislature to approve legislation allowing it to relocate the bodies since the cemetery had no financial mechanism for being a viable enterprise.
Since then, Hillside Cemetery has been in a kind of limbo with preservation advocates and descendants of those buried there successfully beating back efforts to disinter the bodies so the site can be repurposed for other uses.
In 2016, the Hillside Cemetery Preservation Foundation was created to restore, preserve and protect the site. The group has a website explaining its goals (http://hcpfoundation,
Today, visitors can still wander around the fenced cemetery site, which is open (for now) only to family members due to past vandalism problems.
Despite the decades of neglect and vandalism, several impressive headstones and markers remain. They illustrate the significance of the cemetery to Reno’s history, reminders that this was once the city’s most prominent burial grounds where many of the community’s most important figures were laid to rest.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Fishing and Recreation Found at Wild Horse Reservoir

During the 1930s, the famed Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), a Depression-era government work program embarked on a staggering number of public works projects in the state of Nevada. One of the more impressive was Wild Horse Dam in northern Elko County.
The dam was built in 1937 and behind its concrete walls formed Wild Horse Reservoir, a massive pond of water that covered what was once known as Owyhee Meadows. The name, Wild Horse, derived from the large number of wild horses that roamed the area at the time.
Beginning in 1869, Owyhee Meadows was a stop on the Elko-Idaho Toll Road, according to Nevada historian Shawn Hall.
As an aside, the CCC reportedly completed some 59 projects across the state of Nevada, which was the largest recipient of CCC assistance. According to historians, the CCC employed nearly 31,000 men during the 1930s in Nevada, largely benefiting from having so much land owned by the federal government (some 85 percent) and as a result of having two long-serving, influential U.S. Senators (Key Pittman and Patrick McCarran) at the time.
Wild Horse Dam stands 87-feet high and has a width of 458 feet. The reservoir is fed by the Owyhee River, a tributary of the Snake River that flows through northern Nevada, southwestern Idaho, and southeastern Oregon. The river stretches some 280 miles from north of Elko to the Snake River at a point near Nyssa, Oregon.
The water stored behind the dam, which was reconstructed and enlarged in 1969, is used for agriculture on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation (the dam was built under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs). When completely filled, the water surface area of Wild Horse is 2,830 acres and contains some 73,500 acre-feet of water.
In addition to its irrigation uses, Wild Horse, which is open throughout the year, is a state recreation area that serves as a popular fishing site (rainbow and German brown trout, small mouth bass, yellow perch, and catfish can be found).
In the winter, Wild Horse is one of the coldest spots in the state, which makes it ideal for ice-fishing and ice-skating.
About 32 miles north of the reservoir is the community of Owyhee, heart of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. The name, Owyhee, was bestowed on the area in 1819 by three Hawaiian trappers working for the Hudson Bay Company. Originally intended to be the phonetic spelling of “Hawaii,” the pronunciation was corrupted by later white settlers.
The Duck Valley Reservation is home to both Shoshone and Northern Paiute people, who were relocated there in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In 1863, the Shoshone or Newe people signed the Ruby Valley Treaty of Peace and Friendship, but the federal government did very little to live up to the terms of the agreement.
The tribe, however, persisted, attempting to establish Duck Valley as their new home. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes finally signed an order guaranteeing the land to the tribe but promises to provide needed goods and other assistance were unfilled (and diverted) due to corrupt Indian agents.
The situation slightly improved in the early 1880s, when a new agent arrived, and the town of Owyhee became more established. A school was built in 1881 and later in the decade Northern Paiutes were added to the reservation. A post office opened in Owyhee in 1899 and telephone service began in 1904.
Disputes with local ranchers over water rights became an ongoing issue during the next decades, with the situation only resolved when the Wild Horse Reservoir was built in 1937.
Today, Owyhee is a largely agricultural community with a population of about 1,000 people.
The Wild Horse State Recreation Area offers a campground with 34 sites that each include a table, shade, fire pit and a camping pad. While there are no hook-ups, the campground has restrooms and showers year-round and there are centrally-located water faucets and a dump station in the summer.
Those looking to spend a day at the reservoir will find a picnic area with tables and grills as well as a boat ramp next to the day use beach.
For more information go to: http://parks.nv/gov/parks/wild-horse.

Monday, January 06, 2020

The Forty Mile Desert Offered the Greatest Challenges for Emigrant Trail Travelers

“Expect to find the worst desert you ever saw and then find it worse than you expected.”—John Wood, 1850 Diary

From the late 1840s to the late 1860s, travelers on the Emigrant Trail through Nevada, also known as the Central Overland Trail, endured a months-long journey through often inhospitable terrain in their quest to reach California.
By all accounts, the worst part of the trip was the stretch of barren, alkali wasteland located west of today’s community of Lovelock, which was known as the Forty Mile Desert.
The seemingly endless desert trek began just past the Humboldt Sink, where the Humboldt River flowed into a dry lakebed. At this point emigrants had two choices; continue west across the desert to reach the Truckee River or head southwest, across the desert until they encountered the Carson River (around the location of the area that is now known as Ragtown).
Regardless of the route, in between were forty miles of salt flats with little grass—and very little water.
In dozens of accounts of the time, travelers wrote extensively of the challenges. They wrote of blistering heat during the day, animals—and people—dying of thirst, and of often having to discard nearly every possession along the way.
To minimize the difficulties, most waited until early evening to depart and continued through the night in order to avoid the daytime heat. And, because the trip took several days, they would attempt to rest and sleep during the heat of the day.
Compounding the situation was the fact that most travelers had to wait until late spring and early summer to begin their trek from Missouri to California to take advantage of warmer and better traveling weather, so they typically arrived at the desert in August or September.
Additionally, they had just completed more than 300 miles of following the winding Humboldt River across Nevada, which offered poor water and, as the wagon trains increased, fewer places with good grasslands for animals.
By the time that most of the travelers and their surviving animals reached the desert, both were stressed out and in poor physical condition.
In his diary, emigrant John Wood captured the mood of many travelers when he wrote: “All are preparing and dreading to cross, by the worst desert we have met yet. They, perhaps, would not mind it, and neither would I, if we had plenty to eat; but here are hundreds already lamenting their anticipated death, and suffering on the burning plain.”
Even famed writer Mark Twain, who crossed the desert in 1861 via stagecoach, noted: “It was a dreary pull and a long and thirsty one, for we had no water. From one extremity of this desert to the other, the road was white with the bones of oxen and horses. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that we could have walked the forty miles and set our feet on a bone at every step!”
According to an historical marker located at the edge of the Forty Mile Desert (at the Interstate 80 Rest Area at its intersection with U.S.Highway 95), a survey in 1850 indicated that even that early in its usage the routes had resulted in 1,061 dead mules, almost 5,000 horses, 3,750 cattle, and 953 graves.
One of the best ways to view the Forty Mile Desert is by traveling on U.S. 95, after it branches south from Interstate 80 (about 17 miles west of Lovelock). Directly to the west of the highway are the sandy, alkali flats that once challenged so many travelers.
If you pull off on one of the handful of dirt roads that lead into the desert and park, you can (once the road traffic disperses) hear the whistling wind across the flats and imagine what it must have been like to have to trudge across this forsaken landscape, dreaming of a better life at the end of your journey.
A good place to learn more about the Forty Mile Desert is the Churchill County Museum and Archives ( in Fallon, which has a nice display of artifacts that have been found in the desert.
Additionally, a good book with information about the desert is Harold Curran’s “Fearful Crossing,” available at many local bookstores or online.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Learn the Story of Isaac Roop and Susanville at the Lassen Historical Museum

Just about everything you could ever want to know about Susanville, California, and Lassen County, can be found in the Lassen Historical Museum in Susanville.
Interestingly, you’ll also learn about the remarkable connections that Susanville has to early Nevada.
The museum is located at 115 North Weatherlow Street, about one block north of Main Street. Susanville itself is located 86 miles northwest of Reno via U.S. 395.
Susanville traces its name and its roots to one man, Isaac Roop. In June 1854, Roop erected a one-story log house from which he sold goods to emigrants traveling through the area on the Nobles Emigrant Trail, which had been established a few years earlier.
Known as the Roop House or Roop’s Fort (as well as Fort Defiance), the crude building sold staples as well as tobacco and whiskey. In 1856, the structure was the site of the signing of a document forming the State of Nataqua (allegedly a Native American word for “woman” or “wife”), with frontiersman Peter Lassen named President and Roop as secretary.
Apparently, that portion of what today is Lassen County and Washoe County (in California and Nevada) was not clearly defined when the boundary between California and the Utah Territory (of which Nevada was then part of) was drawn so residents believed they could create their own territory or state to avoid being taxed by either.
In 1859, the short-lived Nataqua territory became of the effort to create a Nevada Territory and Roop was named the first Provisional Territorial Governor of Nevada (with all believing the Susanville area and Honey Lake were in what was designated as Roop County, Nevada Territory).
This confusion regarding where the boundary between California and the new Nevada Territory persisted until February 1863, when Plumas County, California officials decided to resolve the matter by issuing warrants for the arrest of Roop and other local citizens.
Known as the Sagebrush War, the conflict—which only lasted a day and a half—began when the Plumas County Sheriff and 40 men arrived in Susanville to enforce the county’s authority over the region. After a day of unsuccessful negotiation, apparently the two sides began shooting at each other.
The skirmish continued for about four hours with the Susanville/Honey Lake continguent holed up in Roop’s House while the Plumas County group clustered in a barn that was about 500-feet away. During the back-and-forth volleys, either two or three participants were injured but there were no casualties.
Finally, a truce was called and the warring parties (if you call them that) agreed to cease hostilities and let the governments of California and the Nevada Territory resolve the matter. A year later, a survey showed the area was indeed inside California’s borders and in response the California legislature established Lassen County, with Susanville named the county seat.
Despite not being able to serve as Nevada’s provisional governor, Roop played an important role in the community. Generally considered the town’s founder, the name, Susanville, is derived from Roop’s daughter’s name. The settlement was originally named Rooptown but was changed by Roop to Susanville in 1857.
As for Roop’s background, he was born in Maryland in 1822 and headed to Shasta County, California in 1850, after his wife died. After establishing a successful farming and trading business, he lost nearly everything in a fire. In 1853, he moved to the Honey Lake area to rebuild his fortune with a trading post.
He served as District Attorney of Lassen County from 1864 until his death in 1869.
The Lassen Historical Museum, which encompasses the original Roop’s Fort, offers a number of displays that spotlight regional history. In addition to arrowhead collections and Native American art, it features diplays of antique weapons, equipment, furniture, and bottles, as well as an extensive historic photograph collection.
A visit to the fort is worthwhile just to get a sense of the rough and challenging conditions under which the community’s founder once lived and worked.
The museum is open year-round, call for hours at 530-257-3292.