Dennis to give April 7 lecture at Gold Hill Hotel

Dennis Cassinelli book-signingDennis Cassinelli, award-winning Nevada historian and author, will present a lecture at the Gold Hill Hotel on Thursday, April 7.

Topics of discussion will include Dayton’s petrified forest that was mentioned by Mark Twain in Chapter 26 of Roughing It. Samples of this petrified wood, including black pieces that Twain believed were coal, will be shown.

Another topic will be the discovery of the oldest petroglyphs (14,000 years) ever found in the Americas discovered at Winnemucca Lake. Dennis has created many pieces of petroglyph yard art which will be on display and offered for sale.

For this event, all of the books written by Dennis Cassinelli will be signed and offered for less than half price. These include Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians, Uncovering Archaeology, Legends of Spirit Cave and Chronicles of the Comstock.

Exterior of Gold Hill Hotel

The Gold Hill Hotel


What: Petroglyphs & The Dayton Petrified Forest

Where: Gold Hill Hotel, 1540 Main Street, Gold Hill, NV

When: Thursday, April 7. Lecture takes place from 7 – 9 p.m. (Restaurant and bar open at 4 p.m.)

Cost: $25 dinner and lecture; $10 lecture only

For more information, please visit the Gold Hill Hotel’s events page. Be sure to call early for room reservations.

I’ll be at Dayton Valley Days Sept. 19-20

Rock Art 5Come see me at the 2015 Dayton Valley Days celebration in historical downtown Dayton, Nevada.

I’ll have a booth, and I’ll be selling copies of my books, as well as my own handmade petroglyphs. The petroglyphs make terrific rock art for your yard, and they’re ideal conversation-starters.

My family and I attend Dayton Valley Days nearly every year, and it’ll be exciting to participate in this year’s event. I hope you can come out to meet me and the other vendors, and I look forward to seeing you there!

Dayton’s petrified forest

My Great Grandfather, Pietro Cassinelli, an Italian emigrant, arrived in Dayton, Nevada in the late 1880s after working his way across America as a cowboy. Within a few years, he and his cousin, Bert, acquired a ranch along the Carson River. There, he and his wife Theresa raised a family of 12 children, one of whom was my Grandfather, Pete.

Roughing It

When I was a boy working on Pete’s ranch in Sparks years later, he told me about a petrified forest with many logs of petrified wood he had seen near the ranch in Dayton where he had grown up and went to school in the early 1900s.

My invaluable research assistant and brother-in-law, Phil Hanna, who recently moved to Dayton with my lovely sister, Rae, recently turned me on to something that Mark Twain wrote in Chapter 26 of his classic book, Roughing It. It seems that when describing some of the mineral resources of the Silver State, Twain remarked “Lately evidences of bituminous coal have been detected. My theory has ever been that coal is a ligneous formation” (Ligneous meaning resembling wood).

Twain was skeptical about the idea of coal existing in Nevada until he spoke to a Captain Burch on the subject and was told that in the region of Dayton, Burch had seen petrified trees the length of two hundred feet. This established the fact that huge forests once existed in this remote area. This firmed up in Twain’s mind that coal may also actually exist in Nevada.

Now, let’s jump forward to modern times. My family and I enjoy hiking, rock hunting and exploring the many hiking trails around the region. Occasionally, we find a few pieces of petrified wood but nothing like the two hundred foot trees described in Mark Twain’s Roughing It.

We did find some long trenches obviously dug over 100 years ago that were surrounded by a few small pieces of petrified wood. This is an indication that the petrified forest described to me by my grandfather and written about by Mark Twain did actually exist. All the huge logs obviously have been taken away and we have no idea who took them or where they ever ended up.

Amazingly, some of the pieces we have found are black and have the appearance of coal, except they have the wood grain typical of petrified wood. Our theory has always been that the black petrified wood was caused by the trees being in some ancient forest fires or perhaps knocked down during a volcanic eruption millions of years ago and being covered with hot volcanic ash. This would have turned the wood black like charcoal and buried it until it became petrified.

This year, Dayton Valley Days will be celebrated in downtown Dayton on September 19th and 20th. I have signed up to have a booth at the celebration where I will have samples of the beautiful petrified wood and even the amazing black coal – like wood described by Mark Twain. We will have these items offered for sale in addition to a selection of rock art collectible petroglyph replicas that make interesting yard art that will last for centuries.

The Comstock’s first New Year’s Eve dance

Comstock New Year's Eve Dance

Gold was first discovered in 1849 by Abner Blackburn and several other placer miners at the mouth of Gold Canyon where it empties into the Carson River at Dayton. Shortly after the discovery, an influx of prospectors, miners and opportunists began working its way up Gold Canyon in pursuit of the elusive yellow dust. It would be another 10 years before silver would be identified as the most amazing mineral discovery of the century at the upper end of Gold Canyon.

Enterprising Spafford Hall saw an opportunity to make his fortune catering to the needs of the local miners and travelers passing through to the “real” gold fields in California. Hall constructed a substantial log store to become known as Hall’s Station. This was the first business established in what later would become known as Dayton, and Hall was the first permanent settler.

To provide entertainment to the miners, ranchers and employees at the station, Hall decided to throw Nevada’s first New Year’s Eve dance at the station on Dec. 31, l853. He invited a total of about 150 men from a radius of about 50 miles. Nine of the 12 women then living in this remote outpost of western Utah Territory showed up for the bash. I’m sure there was not a wallflower among them. They ranged in age from little girls to grandmothers. Miners, cowboys and ranchers waited their turn for a chance to dance with the ladies. They danced on the rough log floor to the music of a makeshift orchestra playing “Oh Suzanna,” Virginia reels and other popular ditties.

The affair lasted until the wee hours of the morning. When at last the party broke up and the revelers went out to get their horses for the long ride home, they found most of the horses were gone. It seemed that sometime during the fandango, a band of Washoe Indians drove off the horses to a place near the present site of Moundhouse. There, the Indians, who were fond of fresh horsemeat, were having their own New Year’s Eve party consisting of a horesmeat barbecue.

A search was begun by the hungover partygoers in an attempt to track down the missing animals. They set out on foot in the cold January air with headaches and a chill in their bones with a bitter contempt for the Washoe horse-nappers. It wasn’t until late the next afternoon that most of the horses were recovered. Two of the animals were never recovered and were considered eaten. Late New Year’s Day 1854, the participants of Nevada’s first recorded dance made their way home from the most memorable dance party they likely ever were to attend.

Later that year, Spafford Hall was severely injured in a hunting accident and sold the station to an employee, James McMartin. Major Ormsby bought the station sometime between 1854 and 1860. The title was still in his name when he was killed in the first battle of the Pyramid Lake Indian War. The site of Hall’s Station has been destroyed by the huge borrow pit at the mouth of Gold Canyon, which rivals in size to the pit at the upper end of the canyon at Gold Hill.

Perhaps someday, there may be a re-enactment of the events of the first dance ever recorded in what was to become Nevada. Because Hall’s Station no longer exists, it may be appropriate to hold the event at my office in Moundhouse. After all, some of the original festivities ended up in Moundhouse anyway. It seems to me that a community that holds events such as the World Championship Outhouse Races, the Camel Races, Bed Races, the Mountain Oyster Cookoff and other unusual events just might consider a celebration of Nevada’s first dance and even the horse barbecue that topped off the event.

Never mind — on second thought, I don’t think so.

The Night Before (a Comstock) Christmas

Comstock Christmas Bells

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the mines,
The men heard the whistles that signaled the time.

From the bowels of the earth, they were pulled to the top,
Up out of the shaft, then they came to a stop.

From the Chollar and Yellowjacket they came,
From the Savage and Belcher, and some with no name.

With lanterns in hand and dirt on their faces,
They started their hike to their favorite places.

The frozen snow sang as they walked or they rode,
Up the hill to the bars of the old Comstock Lode.

They went to the Delta or the Boston for action,
Others to the Bucket of Blood for their satisfaction.

Saloons and bars were their gathering places,
When drinking and gambling and hoping for aces.

Some men ordered whiskey, some ordered wine,
Cold beer was a favorite — soon all men felt fine.

The big shots showed up and bought a few rounds,
While girls of the evening came out on the town.

At midnight, the whistle of the Lyon heard clear,
Across the Divide announced Christmas was here.

The bells of Saint Mary and Saint Paul’s soon did ring,
Calling the faithful to worship their King.

The miners raised their glasses to toast and to cheer,
And to remember the fellows who no longer were there.

In the east, the clouds parted to reveal a star bright,
The men went out to see in the cold, winter night.

And when they returned, they raised up a cheer,
“Merry Christmas to all, and a Happy New Year!”

Great Grandmother was a bootlegger

Like many Native Nevadans, I have attempted to collect interesting stories about my own ancestors and write them down before they are lost and forgotten forever. I have searched many old newspapers for snippets of stories that mentioned the “Cassinelli” name and some of the antics they performed.

Grandma Was A Bootlegger

In my book, Chronicles of the Comstock, I described how my ancestors started out as a farming and ranching family in Dayton in the late 1800s. They were engaged in supplying livestock, hay and produce to the Comstock and surrounding area.

My Great Grandfather, Pietro Cassinelli, arrived in Dayton about 1889 after working his way across the country from the east coast and working for a time as a cowboy on the old Chisholm Trail. He soon married Theresa Deluchi and acquired a ranch along the Carson River where the couple raised a family of 12 children. About 1910, the family left Dayton and a few of them started ranches in the Reno area. I grew up on a ranch on Glendale Road owned by Pietro and Theresa’s son, Pete.

I recently learned from Kim Henrick, Sharon Honig-Bear and Debbie Hinman that they had found an article in the Nevada State Journal about my great grandmother, Theresa Cassinelli, being arrested for bootlegging during the prohibition days. I was very surprised to learn that this had ever happened, since the old timers were always tight-lipped about things that had happened years ago and the more I learn about them, I can easily see why.

During the prohibition days, federal and City of Reno law enforcement officers, sometimes called prohis, conducted what they called “Dry Raids” to apprehend people possessing or selling alcoholic beverages. The following article appeared in the Nevada State Journal on March 30, 1931:

Reno Dry Raids Net Local Woman

Another raid and one arrest were added yesterday to the list of six raids and seven arrests made Saturday night in Reno by the local prohibition force, when a residence at 345 West Third Street was entered about 2:30 o’clock and Theresa Cassinelli was taken into custody.

The woman had about 100 gallons of wine in her possession, local officers said. The wine was hauled away and stored in the government vaults in the basement of the city hall. Mrs. Cassinelli will be taken before the United States Commissioner, Anne Warren for arraignment sometime this week, it was stated.

When I was a kid, I remember Pete Cassinelli telling me that the family took a Motel A flatbed truck down to Napa California every fall to bring back a load of grapes for making wine. No one ever did tell me that his mother was arrested for being in possession of 100 gallons of bootleg wine. I have since learned that The Italian families were the leading suppliers of illegal liquor in the Reno area during prohibition. Since wine was an integral part of their culture, many Italian citizens were arrested for making the vino. In 1921, a Reno newspaper reporter commented that the grand jury indictment list “looked like an Italian telephone book.”

I remember being told that Theresa Cassinelli had been hit by lightning when visiting at the Glendale Road ranch as she stood by a well that was located near the corner of Glendale Road and what is now 21st Street in Sparks. Perhaps this was her punishment for some of her escapades during the prohibition days.

Comstock-era artifacts not always what they seem

A few readers of my column have asked me to re-tell the story of some Comstock-era artifacts I found in 1999 at the former United States Mint in Carson City. The old mint building is now the home of the Nevada State Museum. In 1999 the Nevada State Public Works Department contracted with Cassinelli Landscaping and Construction to abandon a portion of Carolyn Street and construct a park and other improvements on the property adjacent to the museum.

I was appointed the project superintendent and was onsite all during construction of the project. Having worked on many other projects in Carson and Virginia City, I was not at all surprised when we began to uncover remnants of the old days in the form of horseshoes, bricks, bottles and some rusty tools and parts of machinery that had been used when the mint was in operation.

The specifications for working on state projects require that any artifacts found during construction to be turned over to the state if they are of archaeological importance. My crew was not aware of these requirements and inadvertently threw some of the bottles and rusty metal parts in their truck. It was not long before employees of the museum came out and asked us to return the artifacts, which my crew had thought was nothing more than trash.

With a renewed awareness of the requirements, the crew was more diligent when they reported to me that they had uncovered what they thought was “a bunch of old rusty bearings.” When I went over to see what they had uncovered with the backhoe, I immediately recognized them as some of the original coin dies from the Carson City Mint. Coin dies are the metal stamps that are mounted in the coin press to strike the coins in the mint. A silver or gold disc is sandwiched between the dies in the minting process to stamp the heads and tails images on the coins.

After careful contemplation of the consequences, I notified the curator of exhibits at the museum, Doug Southerland, of what I had discovered. These coin dies were in denominations of dimes, quarters, half dollar, silver dollar, trade dollar, five dollar gold, ten dollar gold and twenty dollar gold. Doug told me I could keep a few of them since I had reported the discovery to the museum staff. The archaeologists were called out to investigate the discovery and in the process, we helped them to recover over 900 of the valuable artifacts. Prior to that time, the museum had just two or three of them on display.

Most of the dies were very rusty and pitted. The archaeologists found some that had not been in contact with the soil and were not very corroded. Some had nearly complete images including dates and the CC mint marks were visible on them. All the dies had either a slash or an X cut across the face to prevent them from ever being used to strike coins again. Even so, the museum staff mounted some of them in the coin press and struck a few coins to be used as tokens. This practice was halted forever when one of the old iron dies cracked under the extreme pressure of the coin press.

The coin-die discovery was considered one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made at the old mint building. Museum employees began making a daily ritual of coming out at the end of each day to see what other discoveries had been made. Within a few days, maintenance worker, Mark Falconer, came out and discovered a silver bar about 14” long partially buried in the soil being excavated for an underground conduit. The bar had markings stamped on it that read “U.S. Mint Carson City, Nevada 1876.” There were some other markings that the staff at the museum could not decipher, so they called in a team of experts to help break the code and to find out more about the mysterious silver bar.

Experts from the Nevada Historical Society, the Historic Preservation Office, The Smithsonian Institution and the United States Mint in San Francisco attempted to read the message stamped in small letters on one corner of the silver bar. An archaeological consultant was contacted to determine if any other significant artifacts were buried on the property. A small sample of the silver bar was drilled out to send to the University of Nevada Bureau of Mines for an assay to determine the purity of the silver. State Public Works was notified so they could shut the project down until the studies could be completed. I was told that National Geographic wanted to do an article about the treasures being uncovered.

The message on the bar went something like this: “9991-1 NOITCURTSNOC ILLENISSAC, FFATS MSN OT.” After hundreds of man hours of highly paid public employees trying to decipher the secret message, It was finally Cindy Southerland who decided to read the message backwards. When she wrote it down, it read “TO NSM STAFF, CASSINELLI CONSTRUCTION, 1-1999.” When my little prank was discovered, I was called in and handed a written letter of reprimand scolding me for the hoax and the embarrassment to all the “experts” who had worked so diligently to break the code.

The “silver” bar turned out to be a bar of lead I had lying around the shop. I had used some letter stamping dies for the secret message to make it look like a bar of silver bullion and planted it in the excavation area for someone to find. Privately, some of the museum staff told me this was the funniest thing that ever happened at the museum.

A dictionary of Comstock mining terms

As I write my articles each week for the Comstock Chronicle in Virginia City, Nev., I often wonder if tourists to the area and sometimes even local residents know the meaning of some of the terminology we use to describe things related to mining and the Comstock.

With this article, I have compiled a short list of a few words used locally with definitions for those who may be unfamiliar with them.

Amalgamation: The process of using mercury to collect fine particles of gold or silver from pulverized ore. These precious metals dissolve in the silvery liquid, while rock does not. The mixture is later heated and the mercury evaporates off leaving the gold or silver.

Arrastra: A crude drag-stone mill for pulverizing ores containing gold or silver.

Bonanza: The discovery of an exceptionally rich vein of gold or silver.

Borrasca: An unproductive mine or claim; the opposite of bonanza.

Claim: A parcel of land that a person has staked out and legally recorded title for mining purposes.

Claim Jumping: Stealing someone else’s mining property – often after it has been staked out but not yet recorded.

Colors: The particles of gold gleaming in a placer miner’s pan after washing. Sometimes called “values.”

Cornish pumps: Large steam powered pumps used to remove water from the deep Comstock mines.

Crevicing: Removing gold from cracks and fissures of rocks, often in a stream bed, by prying it out with a knife.

Cross-cut: A mine tunnel running across an ore vein, used for ventilation, access and communication between work areas.

Drift: A mine tunnel following the direction or “drift” of a vein; opposite of a cross-cut.

Gallows Frame: A wooden or steel scaffold at the top of a mine shaft carrying the hoisting rope and machinery. Also called “the works.”

Gangue: Worthless minerals mixed in with valuable ore.

Giant Powder: This is what miners called dynamite.

Gumbo: A wet, sticky clay that is a nuisance to mining operations

Hard rock: Ore that could be removed only by blasting, as opposed to being worked with hand tools.

High grading: The theft of the more valuable high-grade nuggets and pieces of ore by mine workers.

Lode: A clearly defined deposit of rich ore. The principal vein in a region is called the “mother lode.”

Muck: The debris left after blasting hard rock. Miners shoveling this ore-bearing material were called muckers.

Placer: A deposit of sand, dirt or clay usually in a stream bed that contains fine particles or nuggets of gold or silver. These particles are washed out of the soil with a pan, sluice or other separating device.

Pyrite: Fool’s gold; a mineral of iron or silicon and oxygen that has color similar to gold.

Quartz: A crystalline mineral often white or semi-transparent in which gold and silver veins are sometimes found.

Salting a mine: The act of planting rich ore samples in an unprofitable mine to attract unwary buyers.

Shaft: A deep vertical or inclined excavation: usually the main entrance of a mine where hoisting works provide access to tunnels below.

Sluice: A wooden trough or box used for washing placer gold. These were sometimes called “long toms.” Ore was shoveled in and a steady stream of water washed away the lighter material while heaver metals settled into cleats known as riffles. Sometimes these were made to rock back and forth to speed up the action and these were known as rockers.

Sourdough: An experienced prospector; usually one who had the foresight to save a wad of fermenting dough to use for making bread.

Square sets: A method of timbering large underground excavations and tunnels to prevent cave-ins. The method used cubical frames of timbers to fill any shape of underground excavation. It was developed by Philip Deidesheimer for the Comstock Mines in the 1860s.

Stamp mill: A steam or water powered device used to pulverize ores into a fine powder by the use of heavy iron stamps rising and falling with the action of a cam. Capacity of mills was determined by the number of stamps they contained.

Toplander: A mine worker who worked above ground.

V-Flume: A device used to transport logs down from the Sierra Nevada forests to be cut into lumber. It consisted of two large planks nailed together in a V shape and supported on trestles or on the ground. A small stream of water floated the logs down the flume to the sawmill below.

Windlass: A horizontal drum with a cable or rope used as a hoist in a mine. Sometimes called a whim.

Widow-maker: A compressed air-drill, used to bore holes for dynamite in hard rock. Prolonged inhalation of the fine dust created by early models caused a deadly lung disease called silicosis.

Winze: A passageway usually connecting two tunnels at different levels.

Dayton’s Rock Point Mill

Rock Point Mill_1

Once the amazing discovery of silver bearing ore had been made on the Comstock Lode, the miners were faced with the problem of how to get the many tons of rich ore processed to recover the valuable silver and gold. Several arrastras were built to crush the material in a circular pit using a heavy revolving stone wheel. This primitive method proved too inefficient for the large volume of material being taken from the Virginia City and Gold Hill mines. Several small scale stamp mills sprang up but there was not enough water in the intermittent springs to operate them on a continuous basis.

The earliest prospectors and miners on the Comstock knew that there were mills in California, so they sent horse or mule drawn wagon loads of ore across the Sierras to be processed. This was at great expense but the ores were so rich, the investment paid off. As the volume of material being removed from the mines increased, it became evident that large scale local mills must be built to handle the demand. The problem was, there was not yet a water system in the Virginia City area that could supply the volume of water required to operate a mill of the size needed.

Rock Point Mill_2

A large number of small stamp mills sprang up along Gold Canyon, Six mile Canyon and around Virginia City and Dayton. These were relatively low production operations and usually processed not much more than one ton of ore per day.

The nearest place where there was sufficient water to operate a large quartz mill was along the Carson Rock Point Mill_3River. The placer miners who had been working along Gold Canyon for several years had constructed a ditch near Dayton to bring water from the carson River to the lower end of Gold Canyon. This same source of water was destined to be the source of water for a thriving new milling operation.

In 1861, the first large scale quartz mill in the region was constructed at Rock Point in the town of Dayton. Water from the Douglas Ditch was diverted to serve the Rock Point Mill and the ore from the Comstock mines could then be hauled down Gold Canyon for processing rather than the expensive journey over the mountains to California. The mill was also used to process much of the ore from the mines at Como and other nearby areas.

The original Rock Point Mill was owned by Hugh and J.R. Logan, James Holmes and John Black. The main building was ninety by one hundred feet with forty-two stamps and could reduce fifty tons of rock per day. It was powered by a waterwheel of one hundred horsepower. During its many years of operation, the mill was remodeled, refurbished and rebuilt several times. For those of you who have never witnessed the operation of a stamp mill, the one thing that everyone who has seen one in operation comments on is the noise the machinery makes as it crushes the ore to a fine powder under the clattering steel stamps.

The mill ran until 1882 when it burned down and was quickly rebuilt. The mill then began receiving ore from the Comstock on the new Carson and Colorado Railroad. It burned again in 1909 and was rebuilt in 1910 as the Nevada Reduction and Power Co. At that time, a new aerial tramway was constructed that carried ore to the mill site from Silver City and Gold Hill.

The 1910 reincarnation of the Rock Point mill was updated with steel and concrete construction. Due to decreased demand for milling in the early 1920s, the mill was dismantled and the machinery was taken to Silver City. Today, the site of the Rock Point Mill is a part of the Dayton State Park. There are extensive ruins that visitors are encouraged to visit and explore on a self-guided tour over well marked trails. It is located on the west side of U.S. Highway 50 across from the park. There is a concrete lined tunnel under Highway 50 for access between the park and the mill site.

The ruins that remain today are massive concrete foundations where the stamping machinery was mounted, stone walls and masonry built by Italian stonemasons, a massive concrete water tower and remnants of roadbeds and water storage areas. The ruins are located in and around a large grove of old cottonwood trees and although the area was used for years as the Dayton town dump, there is no trace of this unless you know where to look. There are two interesting rooms or rock tunnels carved into a hillside that were probably used for storage of explosives or flasks of mercury. These are safe to enter since they are carved in solid rock with no danger of cave-in.

After construction of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad through the Carson River Canyon between Moundhouse and Empire City in 1869, there were many more large mills constructed in that area. With the reincarnation of the V & T to Carson City, visitors can view the sites of these mills from the train as it passes through this extremely scenic canyon.

Related: The Remains of the Rock Point Mill 

Dayton’s Odeon Hall and Saloon

Dayton, Nevada is the oldest town in the Comstock Historic District. The largest and most prominent building still standing in Old Town Dayton is the two-story brick structure known as the Odeon Hall. In my search to find who this old building was named for, I found it was simply named Odeon as a shortened version of “Melodeon.”

The Odeon Hall is a local treasure in historical downtown Dayton, Nevada.

The Odeon Hall is a local treasure in historical downtown Dayton, Nevada.

This was probably due to the building being used for entertainment purposes including theatrical performances, musical presentations and community dances.

The original building to occupy this site at 65 Pike Street was a community building built by the Odd Fellows Lodge in 1863. It had a full basement and there was a saloon on the left side of the ground floor with a hardware store on the right side. Upstairs there was a meeting hall and offices for the lodge. The building has been destroyed by fire at least twice and rebuilt on the same site. The 6,500-square-foot brick structure seen today dates back to about 1870.

Historical marker placed outside of the Odeon Hall.

Historical marker placed outside of the Odeon Hall.

There is a historic marker placed by the Julia Bullette Chapter of E Clampus Vitus on the front of the Odeon. It proclaims that President Ulysses S. Grant spoke from the upstairs balcony during his visit to the Comstock in 1870. This is just one of the mythical stories about Nevada that is simply not true. In fact, President Grant and his entourage hurried through Dayton on his way to meet with Adolph Sutro at the Sutro Mansion and to take a tour of the famous tunnel Sutro had built. Though President Grant did not visit the Odeon, it is generally accepted that Mark Twain and Adolph Sutro regularly patronized the Odeon Saloon.

In the 1940s, my father, Raymond Cassinelli, had a dance band and his group regularly played for dances at the Odeon Hall in the upstairs ballroom. This room was also used for wedding receptions and school dances. It is still used occasionally for plays and melodramas. Dad told me that Deputy Sheriff Chester Barton came to all the dances to keep the crowd in line and to bounce out any trouble makers. Barton always carried a carbine with a banana clip just to command respect. Dad also liked to tell the story about a dance job he played one time in Stockton, California. The only people in the dance hall with any clothes on were the members of his band.

In 1961, Dayton and the Odeon Hall became a hot spot of activity when the cast and crew of the movie The Misfits came to town. Scenes of The Misfits featuring Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Clark Gable were actually filmed inside the Odeon Hall. The Misfits was the last movie for each of these three actors. In 1982, Clint Eastwood made an appearance at the Odeon during the filming of Honkytonk Man.

In 1984, Max and Mia Kuerzi bought the Odeon Hall and opened up Mia’s Swiss Restaurant and Saloon on the ground floor. For over twenty years, they served fine Swiss and German cuisine and entertained customers with Mia’s yodeling and Max’s opinions on world affairs. In 2007, it was leased out to become Chuck’s Old West Grill. This lasted but two years and the place is now being offered for sale.

Years ago, before my mom and dad passed away, I took them to dinner at Mia’s Restaurant. This was the first time they had been in the Odeon Hall for over 50 years. As was her custom, Mia yodeled for us during dinner. She then took us on a tour of the old dance hall upstairs where Dad had played for dances so many years ago. This was a special treat for them.

Perhaps someone will come along with an appreciation for Comstock History and sufficient energy and resources to revive the Odeon Hall to its former glory.

Someday — when the depression is over.

Hoard of gold coins found in Lovelock

There are countless stories about lost or buried treasure with gold, silver and other valuable items in Nevada history. Most of these are legends that may or may not have any basis in fact. The following story is one of the rare cases where a real treasure was found when there was no previous knowledge that it even existed.

During my highway-construction inspecting days, I spent several seasons working in Lovelock, Nevada. This northern Nevada ranching community marked the beginning of the dreaded Forty Mile Desert for the emigrants headed to California in 1849. It became a watering and fueling center for the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. In more modern times, when I worked there, the Interstate 80 Freeway was being constructed along the south side of town.

There was once a Chinatown in Lovelock where the local Chinese lived and operated small businesses such as restaurants, gaming houses and laundries. Many of these people had come to the area years before to work on the railroads and mining. By 1975, when the Interstate 80 freeway was being built along the south side of town, many of the original Chinese population of the area had either moved away or been relocated. It was the dream of many of the Orientals to work long and hard enough to earn money to eventually return to their homeland.

Freeway construction took out a large area of town south of Amherst Avenue. This was the area where the local Chinatown was located. If you are traveling east on I-80 and exit at Main Street by McDonalds, you will find Amherst Avenue and a small, narrow community park between the freeway ramp and Amherst. This is where the old Chinese houses and businesses were torn down to be replaced by the park.

Before demolition of the houses, the Nevada Department of Transportation conducted an archaeological study of the old buildings. When the archaeologists searched the three buildings being studied, they found an amazing cache of gold, silver, tokens and oriental coins. Since the property had been purchased by the State of Nevada for the construction project, the collection became the property of the Nevada State Museum.

Eugene Hattori, curator of anthropology at the Nevada State Museum, has provided me with a copy of the study done by the archaeologists of this 1975 discovery. Hattori was the archaeologist who excavated the 900 Carson City coin dies I discovered at the old mint building in 1999. He occasionally has a showing of the Lovelock collection, one of which I attended.

The collection consists of 211 American, Chinese, Annamese and Japanese coins and 4 American trade tokens. Most of the coins were found in three different structures, with all of the gold coins being found in one house. The house had a cellar, common in homes of that era. When the archaeologist searched the cellar, he discovered a jar hidden under the floor. The jar contained 112 American gold pieces that was likely the savings of someone who passed away, never revealing his secret.

The gold coins ranged in age from 1874 to 1910. This indicates the owner may have died about 1910. There were 21 five dollar gold pieces, 11 ten dollar gold pieces and 80 twenty dollar gold pieces. The face value of the gold coins was $1,865.00. In today’s market, the collection could be worth in excess of $200,000.

Most of the gold coins were minted in San Francisco. A few were minted in Philadelphia and there was one 1892 five dollar gold piece that was minted in Carson City. The largest number of the coins show dates between 1897 and 1910.

Nearly 90 Chinese and other oriental coins found in the other two structures on the site indicated they may have been businesses catering to the Orientals, such as gaming establishments. There were many Chinese “cash” coins with square holes, that were often used as gaming tokens. Many of the Chinese cash coins are very old and can be dated from 1662 to 1908.

There were about 50 United States pennies, nickels, dimes and one 1889-O silver dollar found on the site. There was one trade token from San Francisco, one from the Owl Bar in Lovelock, one from the Crystal Saloon in Sparks and one from the Commercial Hotel in Elko.

Why no one ever told me about Uncle Bert

I suppose every family has an Uncle Bert hidden away in the dark recesses of family ancestry. I never realized our family had an Uncle Bert until my recent research into our family tree revealed he even existed. Certainly, none of the old family members I grew up with ever mentioned his name or even hinted that such a person existed. At first, I could not understand why no one had ever talked about anyone named Bert Cassinelli. I would have thought that the brother of my Great Grandfather, Pietro Cassinelli, would have been mentioned at some time or another during my lifetime.

I know from newspaper accounts that Pietro suspected Bert and cousin Vitoria of setting his house, haystack and barn on fire in February 1896, but this was never proven to be true. The case was taken all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court. The final award was for the plaintiff, Vitoria, in the amount of $305. This hardly was worth the time and effort — not to mention the bad blood — it stirred up within the family.

I do remember several times asking the older family members about the old days when the family started out in Dayton in the late 1800s. For some reason unknown to me at the time, they were reluctant to talk to me at all about the old family or the things that happened back in those days more than 100 years ago. I since have dug up enough information to form some opinions on why no one was willing to talk to me about the early days in Dayton.

Bert (or Bartholomeo) Cassinelli was born in Tuscany, Italy, in 1870. At age 18, he moved to the United States. Bert and his brother, Pietro (my great grandfather), along with two cousins, eventually found their way to Dayton during the waning days of the Comstock boom. They worked on a ranch of which Pietro was able to secure ownership. The family grew hay, garlic, onions, potatoes, livestock and vegetable crops, which they sold in Virginia City and other mining towns around the region. The following are some interesting newspaper accounts of things Bert did during the time he spent in Dayton:

“ARRESTED FOR FIGHTING: B. Cassinelli, of this place, got into a fight in Carson, with a Swiss, and pulled his gun to shoot. The Authorities in Carson tried to arrest him but he got away from them and came to Dayton where he was arrested Wednesday by the deputy Sheriff of Ormsby county, and taken back to Carson (Lyon County Times, Oct. 8, 1893).”

“AN ITALIAN INSTANCE: Bert Cassinelli and his cousin had a row with his brother and his wife last Thursday morning at the Fish Ranch across the river, and gave the man and woman a severe drubbing. Cassinelli, the abused party, had his brother and cousin arrested a few hours after and lodged in jail. They were taken to Silver City yesterday morning for trial before Justice Walker, Justice Hawkins of this place, being absent from town. The men were discharged at the hearing, the testimony showing that Bert Cassinelli asked for some money coming to him, and Pietro, his brother, then attacked him, and he only took his own part (Lyon County Times, Nov. 25, 1893).”

“FALL FIGHTS: Bert Cassinelli and A. Scanavino had a row last Thursday evening. Scanavino got hit on the head with a chair but afterwards got Cassinelli down and was putting a fine finish on him when he was interrupted by outside parties. No arrests (Lyon County Times, Jan. 1, 1898).”

“THE CORPSE DISAPPEARED: Thursday morning Butch Baglin found what he supposed was a corpse in the stable back of the butcher shop. A pair of feet were sticking out from between two piles of baled hay and Butch could not arouse the individual they belonged to. He therefore summoned the Coroner, Sheriff and a crowd to go to the stable, but upon arrival there the corpse was gone. It was discovered afterwards that Bert Cassinelli had only been taking a morning snooze (Lyon County Times, Dec. 16, 1899).”

“A CONSIDERABLY CHEWED THUMB: About six weeks ago Otto Schroeder, a saloon keeper, and Bert Cassinelli got into a fight at Dayton, during which the latter got the former’s finger and thumb in his mouth and chewed them considerably before Schroeder could get away. Schroeder did not pay much attention to the injured members at the time and dressed them himself; but in a few days his injured hand caused him much pain. He came to this city and Friday, Dr. Pickard amputated the thumb. The trouble was caused by Cassinelli calling upon his wife, from whom he was divorced a short time ago, and who went to live in a house owned by Schroeder. The latter ordered Cassinelli from the premises and a fight ensued. (Daily Independent, Jan. 16, 1902. Originally reported in the Virginia City Enterprise).”

The moral of the story is this: If you shake your family tree hard enough, some rotten apples are sure to fall out. Despite a few rascals, our family has endured and is proud to have so many members who contributed to the settlement of the Wild West. Times were tough in those days. It took tough men and women to cope with the conditions of the time.

And who knows — someday I may be the rotten apple who falls from the tree.

Relocating a Nevada cemetery

I’ve written several articles for the Comstock Chronicle about the deplorable conditions that plagued the Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services Cemetery for many years. These are contained in the last chapter of my latest book, Chronicles of the Comstock. Formerly known as The Nevada State Asylum, the State Mental Hospital had its own cemetery during the period from 1882 to 1949. When first used, the cemetery was neat and orderly. Trees and shrubs were planted and the graves were placed in numbered rows as in any well-kept cemetery.

Many of the patients of the hospital who died and were interred in this cemetery were former residents of the Comstock. Had these people not become mentally ill, they would have been buried in Virginia City, Gold Hill or Dayton. There were many causes of mental illness for the early Comstock people, including alcoholism and working conditions in the mines and mills where high temperatures, bad air and mercury poisoning were common ailments. As it were, the patients often passed away after many years of confinement in the institution and had in many cases been forgotten by their families.

As time passed, the cemetery, located along 21st Street in Sparks at the end of Hymer Avenue, became neglected and unmaintained. Patients, or “inmates,” of the hospital were employed to bury those who died. Markers placed in the early years disappeared and when new graves were dug, previous burials were sometimes uncovered. As a small child, I lived nearby on Hymer Avenue and witnessed the excavation of a deep ditch across the cemetery for an irrigation pipe and saw many of the graves torn apart as the equipment dug through the cemetery.

Finally, in 1946, the state decided to start burying the deceased people in a different section of ground about 200 yards to the west of the original cemetery. This small cemetery was used from 1946 through 1949. It was in 1949 that the State of Nevada decided to discontinue burying their deceased patients on the hospital grounds.

Now, let’s jump ahead 61 years to more recent times. During the 2009 legislative session, a bill was introduced and passed to provide funding to protect and preserve the long neglected historic cemetery. Plans for improvement included reclaiming a children’s park on the north end that had been built by the City of Sparks. This actually sat on part of the old cemetery. An enclosing fence and granite obelisk marker were designed to memorialize the 800 people known to have been buried there.

This obelisk memorial now stands in remembrance of past patients of the Nevada State Asylum who were buried disrespectfully.

This obelisk memorial now stands in remembrance of past patients of the Nevada State Asylum who were buried disrespectfully.

The State Public Works Board contacted me to see if Cassinelli Construction Co. would be interested in removing the graves from the small cemetery and relocating them to the historic cemetery near 21st Street. The state has plans for constructing another building where the 1946 – 1949 graves were located. John Cassinelli, owner of the company, submitted a bid and was awarded the contract to exhume up to 30 graves from the small cemetery and reinter them in the memorial park area being constructed adjacent to the historic cemetery.

I was appointed superintendent for the project. My crew and I proceeded to exhume the graves. A ground-penetrating radar technician had marked about 30 possible grave locations along a fence line at the small cemetery adjacent to the Townsend Building at the hospital. About 13 of those marked corresponded with copper plate grave markers set in concrete blocks that had names and dates on them. We used the same backhoe we had used when we uncovered over 900 coin dies at the Carson City Mint in 1999.

As we excavated each grave, we used the backhoe until we reached the first sign of wooden casket material. We then carefully hand dug and screened the material from the excavation much like an archaeological dig. All the caskets had long ago collapsed and the wood was nothing more than rotted fragments with a few rusted nails. The human remains were fairly intact with most of the major bones being salvaged and carefully screened from the sandy soil. Each day we worked, Walton’s Funeral Home came out and transported the remains back to their facility in Sparks. They placed the remains and any other grave goods in new caskets.

Archaeologist Kim Hopkinson examined each set of remains in an effort to confirm identity, sex and ethnicity. The remains were so fragmented, this effort was not very productive. It appeared the copper markers that had been placed on the graves were not accurately placed. Some markers had no grave by them and some others did not match the remains that were found at that location. We also found the ground penetrating radar technique of locating graves was very unreliable for this particular project. The technician was called back to run a new set of GPR readings and over 30 of these possible locations proved to have no remains associated with them.

In all, 19 graves were removed from the small cemetery and brought over to the new location at the area where the memorial marker will be placed. In addition, four other sets of remains accidentally dug up during a construction project on 21st Street were brought over for burial. Each casket was placed in a vault and reinterred in the new section. One set of remains of an American Indian woman was returned to the local Indian tribe for burial at their tribal cemetery in Yerington.


The Historic Cemetery Memorial Marker

Horrible Childhood Memories

Further Reading:

Friends of Northern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services Cemetery 

Comstock barbed wire

antique barbed wire

Comstock barbed wire still exists in several areas around Northern Nevada.

A compulsion to collect things is a well-known human trait. For centuries, people have collected practically anything that interests them. This could be obvious things such as stamps and coins, or it could be the hundreds of varieties of beer cans, arrowheads, antique bottles or samples of antique barbed wire.

I must admit that at different times in my own ancient history, I have dabbled in collections of all those things mentioned above. Having grown up on a ranch and worked on several others, I found that there were many varieties of interesting barbed wire to be found along the miles of old fence surrounding the fields and pastures. I also learned there were collectors who had a passion for seeing how many different varieties they could assemble into a collection.

Many books have been written about the subject and each variety was given a name. One of the earliest patented varieties was the “Kelly Diamond Point” which was patented in 1868 by Michael Kelly. It had a distinctive diamond shaped point and one of the twisted wires passed through a small hole in each diamond point. Rules for collectors were established and these included the obligation to repair any standing fence where a sample was removed. Sample size was set at 18” and over 1,000 different varieties of American-made barbed wire have been identified.

My own collection covered an entire wall of my house and included over 500 different types. It was during my barbed wire collecting phase that I learned there was one variety of barbed wire that was manufactured in Virginia City, Nevada using materials taken from the Comstock mines.

Each of the hoisting works of every Comstock mine used massive flat wire cable straps to raise and lower the heavy elevators deep into the earth. After months of lifting tons of ore, timbers, men and equipment, the flat strap cable became dangerously worn. No longer safe to use for its intended purpose, the cable had to be scrapped and replaced.

Enterprising Chinese laborers soon found there was a market for the worn-out flat cable from the Comstock mines. Miles of the cable was laid out flat on the ground and split apart by the Chinese into several strands complete with barbs that were formed where the strands were cut apart with chisels.

Wagonloads of this heavy barbed wire were sold to farmers and ranchers in the Truckee meadows, Dayton and the Carson Valley. Fencing of the various farms and ranches became necessary about the same time the Comstock Mines were being developed.

The Comstock has always been known for its superlatives and Comstock barbed wire continued this tradition. Comstock barbed wire is easily the largest and heaviest barbed wire ever made and it had the longest barbs of any barbed wire. It is also perhaps the rarest of barbed wire types. This is because it was hand crafted from local materials and was used exclusively on the farms and ranches surrounding the Comstock region.

Surprisingly, examples of Comstock mine cable barbed wire can still be seen on several fences along the back roads of Carson Valley today. I recently photographed a section of this wire on a fence near Genoa. Several other sections of the wire are still in place, but are not easily recognized since many of the barbs have fallen out. Please try to look for the distinctive Comstock barbed wire during your next visit to Carson Valley. It is truly a relic of the old Comstock days and worthy of preserving.

And, most importantly: Cameras only, please — no wire cutters.

Early history and newspaper accounts of the Fremont Cannon

There have been several early historical and newspaper accounts that have mentioned the Fremont Cannon. When these are set out in a logical order, they seem to confirm my contention that the cannon barrel being displayed by the Nevada State Museum is indeed the Fremont Cannon. This has been the topic of debate among historians for many years.

Relatively recently, the iron wheel rims and original carriage hardware have been discovered and identified as having been from the Fremont Cannon. Since these components could have been used only with a M1835 Cyrus Alger mountain howitzer, it is now even more likely that the M1835 Cyrus Alger mountain howitzer possessed by the museum is the Fremont Cannon. The iron parts were found in Deep Creek Canyon, just east of the West Walker River where Fremont’s records showed the howitzer was abandoned in 1844. No bronze cannon barrel was found where the iron parts were discovered, so it can be assumed it was picked up by someone else.

A newspaper in San Andreas, California reported on November 25, 1859 that a local man had returned from Carson Valley with a report that two miners enroute from the Walker River to Genoa had discovered a small United States howitzer just before crossing the spur of mountain that forms the southwestern boundary of Carson Valley. Its presence in that secluded quarter can be accounted for upon the presumption that it is the gun mentioned in Lieutenant Fremont’s narrative as having been abandoned by him in that neighborhood.

Big Bonanza author, Dan De Quille, claimed to have been with two prospectors when they found the cannon barrel, but it was unclear if they recovered it.

According to the Second Biennial Report of the Nevada Historical Society of 1911, old settlers on the Walker River reported the cannon was found and taken by an emigrant party. They later had to abandon the heavy cannon along with some of their own wagons in order to make the crossing of the Sierras.

The Daily Alta California published at San Francisco, California, July 6, 186l reported an article from the Virginia City Enterprise: A man named Sheldon brought a brass howitzer, which he found on the east fork of Walker’s river to Carson City one day last week, and offered to sell it for $200. Failing to find a purchaser there he brought it up to Gold Hill. Some of the citizens, (of Virginia City) hearing of its arrival, went down there with purchase money and nipped it before Gold Hill folks were aware of it.

The Woodland Democrat of Woodland California, reported an article in 1864 on the use of the cannon after it arrived in Virginia City: A twelve pound cannon was discovered in an unfrequented locality near Walker’s river by a party of men and it was ascertained that it was a gun abandoned by John C. Fremont on one of his famous pathfinding expeditions when he ascended Walker’s river into California to find a way across the Sierra Nevadas. It was brought to Virginia City and has ever since been in the possession of Young American Engine Company No. 2, who have furnished it with a new gun carriage at a considerable expense. It was used only on rare occasions as firing salutes at daybreak on the Fourth of July, celebrating Federal victories, etc. The Provost Guard took it in charge yesterday and it is now in their quarters at the lower end of Union Street.

There are reports that General John C. Fremont visited Virginia City in 1875 and was told that the cannon he had abandoned in 1844 was in that City. It is said he then saw the cannon and said it was the one he had abandoned in Deep Creek Canyon. I have not yet been able to confirm this or determine if this was just another of Dan De Quille’s “whoppers.”

Sometime in the 1860s or 1870s, Captain Augustus W. Pray took possession of the cannon and took it with him to Glenbrook on the east shore of Lake Tahoe. He removed the carriage wheels that had been installed by the Young American Engine Company, and mounted the cannon on a large wooden block with short wheels. A photograph of this cannon taken on July 4, 1896 confirms this barrel is the same barrel now in possession of the Nevada State Museum.

At Glenbrook, the cannon was used to commemorate special events such as Fourth of July Celebrations and the launching of the steamer, SS Tahoe. The cannon was eventually taken by steamer to Tahoe City where it ended up being stored away until it was taken by William Bliss, who donated it to the Nevada State Museum. The museum, in cooperation with the Deschutes County Museum in Bend Oregon, are producing a program called “Finding Fremont: Pathfinder in the Great Basin.” The cannon will be on display for Nevada’s Sesquicentennial celebration.

Still plenty of room at John C. Fremont Symposium, July 25-26

There’s still room to sign up for the John C. Fremont Symposium, July 25-26. My team and I will be cooking a delicious Dutch-oven lunch of smoked chicken breasts, buffalo chili, salad, roasted vegetables, cornbread and fruit cobbler. This should an amazing and educational event, and definitely lots of fun.

Signup information is below, as well as links to media stories with further details. Be sure to help spread the word!

Call Deborah Stevenson, Curator of Education, at 775-687-4810, ext. 237.

Learn more

To register, click here

Additional details on The Nevada Appeal website

Additional details on This Is Reno

Symposium Agenda

John Charles Fremont, The Pathfinder

One of my favorite characters in Nevada history is John C. Fremont, leader of the first and most significant exploratory expeditions through the Great Basin. He and his party were the first non-Indians to lay eyes upon such wonders as Pyramid Lake, Lake Tahoe and the fertile valleys that we now know as Nevada. It will take more than one article to tell about Fremont and the many things he has done. The series will conclude with the amazing story of the discovery of the elusive cannon abandoned by Fremont during his 1844 crossing of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

John Charles Fremont (January 21, 1813 – July 13, 1890) was an American Military officer, explorer and the first candidate of the anti-slavery Republican Party for President of the United States. In 1841, Fremont married Jessie Benton, daughter of Missouri Senator, Thomas Benton, champion of the expansionist movement. The expansionists believed that the entire North American continent, including Mexico and Canada, should belong to the citizens of the United States.

Having considerable political clout, Benton pushed Congress to perform national surveys of the Oregon Trail, Oregon Territory, the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This cause became known as Manifest Destiny. Through his power and influence, Benton was able to obtain for his son-in-law, John C. Fremont, the position of leading each exploratory expedition.

In his early years, Fremont attended the College of Charleston from 1829 to 1831. He was appointed a mathematics teacher aboard a navy vessel and became a lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Fremont led many surveying expeditions throughout the western territories in the 1830s. He first met frontiersman Kit Carson on a Missouri River steamboat in St Louis during the summer of 1842. Fremont was preparing to lead his first expedition and was looking for a guide to take him to South Pass. Carson offered his services and guided Fremont along with 25 men on a successful five-month journey.

From 1842 to 1846, Fremont and Kit Carson led expedition parties on the Oregon Trail and into the unexplored regions of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where Fremont was the first American to see Lake Tahoe and to map what we now know as the Great Basin. It was during these expeditions he searched for the legendary Buenaventura River, believed to cross through the Sierras to the Pacific Ocean. After finding there was no river crossing the Sierras, Fremont determined that the Great Basin had no outlet or river flowing to the sea and that the region was indeed a Great Basin.

As you may have noticed, there are many place names throughout the western states that have the name of Fremont. He is remembered by having cities, counties, schools and mountains named after him. In addition, he gave many geographic places the names we know today. He named the Carson River after his guide Kit Carson. Later Nevada’s Capital was named Carson City. When Fremont saw the 600’ high rock formation at Pyramid Lake, it reminded him of the Egyptian Pyramids, so he called the place Pyramid Lake.

Fremont was a prolific report writer who accurately described the areas he explored and published the reports to guide future travelers. His writings from one of his expeditions inspired the Mormons to consider Utah for their permanent settlement. Fremont’s “Report and Map,” published by Congress led to the publication of Joseph Ware’s Emigrant’s Guide to California. This became the travelers’ guide for the forty-niners through time of the California Gold Rush.

After Fremont’s remarkable explorations of the American West, he attempted to advance his military career and to dabble in politics. As it turned out, he was much better at being an explorer and pathfinder than he was at either military or political pursuits.

During the Mexican-American War, Fremont led the California battalion to capture the cities of Santa Barbara, San Francisco and parts of Los Angeles. He signed the Treaty of Cahuenga, which ended the war in California. After the war, he received the military governorship of California, but when he later refused to give up the seat, he was court marshaled and resigned from the military in 1848. He then served as a senator from California from 1850 to 1851, and ran unsuccessfully for president of the United States as the first Republican Candidate in 1856.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Fremont a major general on May 15, 1861. After Fremont made an attempt to bring Missouri into the Union Cause, Lincoln feared his actions would push Missouri to join the Confederacy. Lincoln reassigned Fremont to Virginia where he made a failed attempt to defeat Stonewall Jackson’s army at the battle of Cross Keys. Fremont was relieved of his command as a result of his own request, and never again received a command.

After the Civil War, Fremont served as the territorial governor of Arizona from 1878 to 1887.

Pony Express Stations, Part 14: Smith Creek Station

This will be the last in my series of articles about the Pony Express stations in western Nevada. When Pony Bob Haslam made the longest ride in Pony Express history, he rode the route from Friday’s Station at Lake Tahoe to Smith Creek Station almost halfway across the state of Nevada. My articles have described many of the conditions and dangers of operating a horse mounted mail service through rough Indian territory during a time when little protection was available.

It is appropriate to end the series with this article since most of the activity that involved the Comstock region occurred at the stations in the western half of Nevada. The ruins of the Smith Creek Pony Express Station are located on the present day Smith Creek Ranch about fourteen miles north of State Highway 2 on the east side of the Desatoya Mountains. There is one adobe building with a willow thatch roof and a second building with one section of adobe and another section of rock also with a thatch roof. The first building has been identified as the location of the corral. The adobe section of the second building is the original Pony Express Station house.

At least two shootings were reported to have occurred at Smith Creek Station. The Virginia City Territorial Enterprise reported one case in August, 1860 when H. Trumbo, station keeper at Smith Creek got into a difficulty with Montgomery Maze, one of the pony riders. Apparently Trumbo snapped a pistol at Maze several times. The next day, the fracas resumed when Maze shot Trumble with a rifle. The ball entered above the hip and inflicted a dangerous wound. Maze was taken to Carson City for treatment and brought with him a certificate signed by witnesses who stated that Trumbo had provoked the attack.

In 1860, William Carr started a quarrel with Bernard Chessy at Smith Creek Station. During the altercation, William Carr murdered Chessy and was brought to trial in Carson City. He was found guilty by Judge John Cradelbaugh and became the first person legally hanged in Nevada. A Pony Express rider named Bart Riles was killed at Smith Creek Station in an unfortunate riding accident on October 14, 1860.

Located in Lander County, Nevada, Smith Creek Station was the first Pony Express stop in Shoshone country, being at the dividing line between Shoshone lands and Paiute territory. The stations west of Smith Creek were in Paiute country and were more routinely raided by the Paiutes during the 1860 battles that followed the Pyramid Lake Indian War. The station was named for Captain Smith, when Simpson’s survey party located the site on May 30, 1859.

When Sir Richard Burton visited the station on October 14,1860, he reported the station was situated in a deep hollow. It had an unusually neat station house with furnishings including the bunks made of osier (willows) taken from the neighboring creek. There was a stone corral and a haystack. He mentioned the presence of Indians at the station but none of them were allowed to enter the station house.

After the Pony Express and the Overland Stage lines no longer existed, Smith Creek became a successful ranching operation which is still active today. The Maestretti family, owners of the ranch have preserved the old Pony Express station buildings. The adobe section of a half-adobe, half-rock building is part of the original Pony Express Station. Other old willow-and thatched-roof buildings also remain intact.


Pony Express Stations, Part 13: Middlegate and Cold Springs

The site location for Middlegate Station is unknown. There are several possible locations along US Hwy. 50 near the modern Middlegate bar and restaurant that could have been the site of the original Pony Express station. Last summer when I was working on a highway project in Hawthorne, a group of us drove up to Middlegate for a party hosted by another construction crew. A great time was had by all but there was no trace of any Pony Express station.

The next station east of Middlegate is Cold Springs Station, located 65 miles west of Austin along US Hwy. 50. It was built in March of 1860 by Superintendent Bolivar Roberts, J.G. Kelly and others. Jim McNaughton was a station keeper until he later became a rider. J.G. Kelly was the assistant station keeper for a while.

The original station was built of large native rocks and mud with walls four to six feet high and up to three feet thick. It had four large rooms including a storage area, barn, corral and living quarters. In the winter, residents took advantage of heat from the animals stabled in the barn to keep warm. The only other heat was one small fireplace.

On Pony Bob Haslam’s famous longest ride in Pony Express history, he stopped at Cold Springs to change horses, then went on east to Smith Creek Station. After sleeping for nine hours, he returned to Cold Springs and found it had been attacked by Indians. The station keeper had been killed and all the horses had been stolen. Pony Bob then watered his horse and headed to Sand Springs.

The morning after Cold Springs Station was attacked, Indians attacked Smith Creek Station. The whites defended the station for four days when about 50 volunteers from Cold Springs Station came to their rescue. They reported they had just buried the remains of their station keeper, John Williams whose body had nearly been consumed by wolves.

C.H. Ruffin, a Pony Express employee reported on May 31, 1860:

“I have just returned from Cold Springs – was driven out by Indians, who attacked us night before last. The men at Dry Creek Station have been killed, and it is thought the Roberts Creek Station has been destroyed. The Express turned back after hearing the news from Dry Creek. Eight animals were stolen from Cold Springs on Monday.”

Bartholomew Riley was a member of the 19th regiment of the U.S. Infantry who volunteered to participate in the first battle of the Pyramid Lake Indian War. He had recently received an honorable discharge from Company C when he heard about the Indian attacks at Williams Station and he decided to join in the battle led by Major Ormsby. During the battle, Riley fought with extreme bravery and gallantry, killing several of the dusky enemy attackers at the side of the ill fated Major Ormsby.

Having been one of the few survivors of the first Pyramid Lake battle, Riley assumed duties as a Pony Express rider when on May 15th, 1860, the scheduled rider at Buckland’s Station refused to take his turn on the next eastbound run. Riley, fresh from the battlefield and tired as he was, stepped forth and volunteered to ride the next change, a distance of 85 miles. He did so in excellent time.

On the following day, Riley rested at Cold Springs Station when he was accidently shot by a friend with a rifle. He was taken immediately to Carson City for treatment but tragically, he died there of his wound.

Today, the ruins of Cold Springs Station still resemble a substantial fortress alongside the old trail. Living quarters and corral are easily recognized as well as windows, gun holes, and a fireplace. A rivulet of good cold water from the surrounding hills still flows near the site as it did when the ponies and riders refreshed themselves an this incredibly historic site.

Pony Express Stations, Part 12: Sand Springs Station

For thousands of years, much of western Nevada was submerged under the waters of ancient Lake Lahontan. About 4,000 years ago, climate change caused the waters to recede and the area around what is now Fallon, Nevada became a dry desert playa. Prevailing winds from the west blew millions of tons of sand from this playa into a 500-foot high pile of sand now known as Sand Mountain. In modern times, Sand Mountain became an attraction to dune buggy enthusiasts and it became a popular recreation destination.

When the stations for the Pony Express were constructed in 1860, the owners selected a place about 20 miles east of present Fallon and just south of Sand Mountain to construct Sand Springs Station. This site is now easily reached from U.S. Highway 50 east of Fallon.

After the station was abandoned when the Pony Express ceased operation in 1861, the stone corrals and station house soon became buried under the ever shifting sands of the Great American Desert. In 1976, the BLM and archaeologists from the University of Nevada located the buried ruins and excavated them. The stone walls of the buildings were stabilized and interpretive signs were placed along a hiking trail to identify the elements for visitors to the site. Since the ruins were buried for over 100 years, they are very well preserved.

To get an idea what the conditions were like at Pony Express stations when they were actually being used, we can refer to eyewitness accounts written by people who saw them in 1860. The riders, station masters and workers led lonely and often dangerous lives during this time. Living conditions were usually extremely bad and boredom was constantly with them. Sir Richard Burton, British scholar and explorer, traveled by stage across the route of the Pony Express and commented on the stations he visited. When he visited Sand Springs Station on October 17, 1860, he described it in his diary this way:

“The water near this vile hole was thick and stale with sulphury salts; it blistered even the hands. The station house was no unfit object in such a scene, roofless and chairless, filthy and squalid, with a smoky fire in one corner, and a table in the center of an impure floor, the walls open to every wind and the interior full of dust.”

When Pony Express employees were hired, they were required to swear that they would drink no intoxicating liquors. Whoever made this ridiculous rule obviously had no concept of the living conditions the employees of these stations would face. When the archaeologists from the University of Nevada excavated Sand Springs Station in 1976, the most common artifacts they uncovered were hundreds of fragments of liquor bottles. Solemn oaths were hard to keep when faced with isolation, boredom, loneliness and the constant threat of Indian attacks.

Sand Springs Station is one of the best preserved and easily reached of all Pony Express stations. The fact that it was buried under sand for over 100 years until it was re-discovered, protected it from the vandalism that destroyed or damaged many others. Here you can even see the smoky fireplace in the corner described by Sir Richard Burton in 1860.

As with any of the stations, please do not remove anything, climb on or disturb any of the ruins. These are fragile resources that should be treated with respect. One distraction you may notice if you visit the site is the noise from the many dune buggies that come to climb the dunes at nearby Sand Mountain. Despite this inconvenience, Sand Springs Station is worth a visit.

Pony Express Stations, Part 11: Carson Sink Station

Carson Sink is a playa, or large alkali flat area, in the northeastern portion of the Carson Desert south of Fallon. This was formerly the terminus of the Carson River where the waters of the river simply sank into ground and evaporated. Thousands of years ago, this area was several hundred feet under the waters of ancient Lake Lahontan. The Carson Sink Pony Express station was situated between Hooten Wells to the west and Sand Springs toward the east. The site can be reached off U.S. 95 about 14 miles south of Fallon, then about 1/2 mile west of the highway.

The station was built in March of 1860 by Bolivar Roberts, J.G. Kelly and others. They knew the region was inhabited by hostile Indians, so they built the station as a fort for protection. Since there were no logs or rocks available, they used mud from the shore of the marsh to make adobe bricks. To get the mud to the right consistency to mold the blocks, they tamped the material with their bare feet for a week or more. They reported the mud was impregnated with alkali and carbonate of soda and it burned their feet until they were swollen and resembled hams.

“Pony” Bob Haslam made the longest ride in Pony Express history from Friday’s Station at Lake Tahoe to Smith Creek Station in the Nevada desert and back again. The reason he had to make such a long ride was the unwillingness or absence of other riders to take their turn due to Indian attacks at the start of the Pyramid Lake Indian War. On his return trip during this ride, he passed through Carson Sink Station and made these comments:

“When I arrived at the Sink of the Carson, I had found the station men badly frightened, for they had seen some fifty warriors decked out in their war paint and reconnoitering. There were fifteen white men here, well armed and ready for a fight. The station was built of adobe, and was large enough for the men and ten or fifteen horses, with a fine spring of water within a few feet of it.”

Today very little remains of this once busy station. Faint remains are barely visible of two adobe walls that have melted back into the alkali desert. In 1960, Walt Mulchay found ruins of four or five buildings beside the corral. He reported all of them faced north with three in a small flat just north of some sand dunes and two partially in the dunes.

Although the station site is less than one mile west of U.S. 95, it is difficult to reach with a vehicle other than a four wheel drive and there is a gate that must be opened and closed. There are two Pony Express markers at the site but do not expect to see any ruins. The road is badly rutted and can be muddy in wet weather. It is hardly worth the effort going there, since there is not much of interest left to see.

Pony Express Stations, Part 10: Williams Station

Williams Station is the next Nevada Pony Express station to be encountered when traveling east from Hooten Wells and Desert Station. Originally located along the Carson River, the ruins of the station have been inundated by the waters of Lahontan Reservoir since Lahontan Dam was created in 1911. There are reports that during the drought of 1992, the ruins became visible again due to the low water level. In the early days, it was sometimes referred to as Honey Lake Station.

The Station keeper was James O. Sullivan and the station was owned by J.O. Williams. On May 7, 1860, a few Paiute Indians raided Williams Pony Express Station in retaliation for men from the station accused of kidnapping and assaulting two Paiute girls. Four or five men were killed in the raid when the station was burned with the men inside.

When news of the massacre of the men at Williams Station reached the Comstock, a militia of 105 men was assembled with volunteers under the leadership of Major Ormsby. The quickly formed militia marched to Williams Station where they buried the remains of the mutilated dead men and continued their march to Pyramid Lake to take revenge for the massacre.

On May 12, 1860, the mostly inexperienced militiamen met up with a much larger force of an estimated 500 Indians in the Truckee River gorge near Pyramid Lake. Quickly out maneuvered, the white volunteers were soon surrounded and seventy-six of them were killed while trying to escape. Most of the twenty-nine survivors who did manage to get away were wounded.

When news arrived at the Comstock about the beating sustained by militia in the first battle, Captain John C. Hayes of the Texas Rangers organized a group of 500 Volunteers which became known as the “Washoe Regiment.”

Meanwhile, Captain Joseph Stewart from Fort Alcatraz in San Francisco headed toward the scene with U.S. Army Regular soldiers. Rather than wait for Stewart’s regulars, Captain Hayes marched his volunteers to the location of the initial Indian attack at Williams Station. Hayes encountered an estimated 150 Paiute warriors at the station where a brief skirmish ensued. Two soldiers and six Paiutes were killed and the surviving warriors retreated toward Pyramid Lake. They were pursued by the Hayes volunteers and Stewart’s regulars. This time the Indians were defeated in the Second Battle of Pyramid Lake.

The burning of Williams Station and the massacre of those working there was the catalyst that started the Pyramid Lake Indian War. Williams Station was destroyed and the Pony Riders had to make use of other stations on their runs. This series of events was devastating to the Pony Express. For the next few weeks, seven other stations were razed, 16 employees were killed and 150 horses were stolen or driven off. The owners of the Pony Express operation suffered thousands of dollars in damages from loss of revenue due to mail deliveries being disrupted. Damaged and destroyed stations had to be replaced at a great cost to the owners.

It was not until the establishment of Fort Churchill in the summer of 1861 that conditions along the route were considered to be safe. By that time, the construction of the trans-continental telegraph line was nearing completion. This was the final blow that spelled the end of an era when mail carried by pony riders was the fastest way to send news across the nation.

Dayton’s Historic Cemetery

Downtown Dayton is located along the Carson River where Gold Canyon empties into the river on the rare occasions when water actually flows down the canyon. This is the location where in 1849, gold nuggets were first found by prospectors who tried their luck at gold panning while resting along the California Trail on their way to the California gold fields. Later, many of these same miners returned to the area when they found the streets of California were not paved with gold.

Just west of downtown Dayton, near the community water storage tank, lies the historic Dayton Cemetery. It is very near where Spafford Hall’s Station and trading post were once located. Hall’s Station was the first business establishment in the community which has arguably been called Nevada’s oldest settlement. At Dayton, the Old California Trail turned west from the Carson River and headed toward Carson City. The trail passed just north of the Dayton Cemetery which became the final resting place for several of the early emigrants who had died along the trail. The same trail was used by the Pony Express between April 1860 and November 1861.

Between 1850 and 1859, Dayton became very active as several hundred prospectors including many Chinese panned for gold along Gold Canyon and up through Johntown and the Silver City area. During this time, whenever someone died along this route, they likely were buried in the Dayton Cemetery. The Chinese population was so prevalent for a time that the community of Dayton was known as Chinatown.

Several prominent Nevada citizens have been buried in the Dayton Cemetery. Many of the earliest graves that had wooden grave markers can no longer be identified, since the markers have rotted away or were taken by vandals. There are several graves marked “Unknown” in the older western half of the cemetery. Maintenance personnel have told me that these graves were uncovered in recent times when seemingly unoccupied plots were dug into in order to make new burials. When bones were encountered, the graves were re-buried and marked “Unknown.” The policy is now to not attempt to bury people in the old section except in existing family plots. The newer section on the east half of the property is still being used for new burials. I have recently purchased one of these for my own family plot.

Perhaps the most notorious person buried in the Dayton Cemetery is James Finney, also known as “Old Virginny.” The story of Finney is a matter of Comstock folklore. The story that Virginia City Nevada was named for him after he christened the ground where he had broken a bottle of whiskey “Virginia Town” has become an accepted fact.

Finney, a native of Virginia, died in Dayton (Chinatown) at the age of 44 after being bucked off a mustang horse and landing on his head. Other Comstock miners revered him so much they voted at a community meeting to name Virginia City after him. What little is known about him indicates that he was a hard drinking but skillful miner who located the first quartz claims on the Comstock Lode at Gold Hill and at the Ophir Diggings in 1859. Virginia City and the entire Virginia Mountain Range carry his name. Citizens of Dayton buried him along the Carson River near where he had died. Later, several years after the new cemetery was established in 1851, his remains were re-interred in the present cemetery along with several other persons who had been interred in an area where commercial development was taking place.

Other prominent Nevadans buried at the Dayton Cemetery include Judge Clark J. Guild and members of his family and Governor Charles H. Russell and members of his family. Many of the graves in the cemetery have Italian names due to the large number of Italian ranchers who settled along the Carson River and the many Italian brick masons who found work in the region during the Comstock boom.

The views from the Dayton Cemetery are scenic. To the northwest, the peak of Virginia City’s Mount Davidson can be seen. Also visible along the road to the cemetery is the California Trail and Pony Express route ascending a steep slope toward a trail marker at the top of the hill. To the northeast the Flowery Range, the lower reaches of Gold Canyon and the quarry where Hall’s Station was located can be seen. Off in the distance, you can see the huge yellow band of material that was removed from the Sutro Tunnel when it was being constructed. Directly East is a panoramic view of the entire town of Dayton and beyond. Toward the southeast is the mountain peak marking the location of the ghost town of Como. The Carson River lined with Fremont Cottonwoods marks the corridor where over 25 farms and ranches operated by Italian farmers became known as the breadbasket of the Comstock.

Few other places in the State of Nevada are surrounded by as much history as the Dayton Cemetery.

Pony Express Stations, Part 9: Hooten Wells/Desert Station

The next original Pony Express station east of Buckland’s Station was Hooten Wells and nearby Desert Station. When the Pony Express riders left Buckland’s, they rode south over the wooden toll bridge Buckland had constructed across the Carson River for about two miles before turning east toward the next station. About twelve miles east was Hooten Wells station and nearby was Desert Station which became the station for the Pony Express after Hooten Wells Station was abandoned. Since the structures were so close together, they can be considered one and the same station. Hooten Well is about 1.5 miles northeast of Desert Station. The site is on the Rafter D Ranch.

Rock ruins of Hooten Wells / Desert Station including the strong house and parts of a round stone corral can still be seen at the site which had a good source of water. This was a popular stopping place for travelers, miners and teamsters in the 1860s. The station was not used by the Pony Express after August, 1861 when the route was moved to the Northern Route.

After some of the previous articles I have written about the various Western Nevada Pony Express stations, I had requests to provide more information about the location of the stations. I must confess I have not personally visited all of them but I am familiar enough with the locations to provide general directions that visitors should be able to follow. Some of them are in very remote areas that require 4-wheel drive vehicles. When they are on private property, please respect property owners’ rights. Always respect the fragile nature of these historic sites and do not deface or remove any of the ruins or artifacts.

In 1994, the Nevada State Park Service acquired 3,200 acres along the Carson River, east of Fort Churchill and Buckland’s Station. This corridor, which runs along the south side of the river, connects Fort Churchill with Lahontan State Recreation Area. It has become known as Carson River Ranches. The original Pony Express route went through this corridor and the route can be followed today by a dirt road to the ruins of Hooten Wells Station and Desert Station.

After crossing the bridge south of Buckland’s, turn left on the dirt road that follows the route the Pony Express riders took in 1860. The entire corridor is now a part of Fort Churchill State Park and can be taken to the ruins of Hooten Wells Station and Desert Station. They are on private property 12 miles east of U.S. 95 Alternate. There is a primitive campground and habitat for diverse plants and wildlife. The route is popular with campers, hikers, birdwatchers, canoeists, hunters and equestrians.

Pony Express Stations, Part 8: The Northern Route (Stillwater Dogleg)

Beyond Fort Churchill and Buckland’s Station through the area now known as Churchill County, the history of the Pony Express Stations becomes a confusing mess. Captain James H. Simpson blazed a trail across central Nevada that roughly follows U.S. Highway 50 across Nevada and Utah in 1859 and 1860. This became known as the Simpson Route or the Central Nevada Route.

This Central Route reduced the distance across Nevada compared to the Humboldt River Trail by 280 miles. As Simpson staked out the trail, the U.S. Army improved the trail and cleaned out the springs for stagecoaches and wagons. This immediately became the preferred route for stagecoach travel and overland mail service. In the spring of 1860, the Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, parent company of the Pony Express, decided upon the Simpson Route for the Pony Express.

They sent out wagon trains with building materials and supplies to construct the needed relay stations along the entire route between St. Joseph and Sacramento. Work crews located and built the stations along the route spaced at distances that would allow changing horses every 10-12 miles depending on the terrain with “home” stations every 75 to 100 miles apart so the riders could rest. There were an estimated 119 to 153 stations constructed along the route with stations being added or subtracted several times during the lifetime of the operation.

According to the National Park Service, today most of the original trail is gone. Along many segments, the trail’s actual route and exact length are matters of conjecture. Modern off road travel, highway construction, and private working ranches have obliterated much of the route and some of the stations.

We do know that the Pony Express ran through what is now Churchill County Nevada during its brief existence of just 18 months between April 1860 and October, 1861. The original stations constructed by C.O.C. & P.P. Express were used from April 3, 1860 until May 12, 1860 when the Pyramid Lake Indian battles started. These stations followed what has become known as the Southern Route through Churchill County. For the next few months, the pony runs were disrupted by sporadic Indian attacks. Some of the stations were burned or damaged and a safer route was selected further north until hostilities subsided.

The original stations of the Southern Route included Buckland’s Station, Desert/Hooten Wells Station, possibly Williams Station, Carson Sink Station and Sand Springs Station. The trail for these stations went 2 miles south of Buckland’s across the bridge over the Carson River, then 12 miles east to Hooten Wells and on to the others. Ruins of some of these stations still exist and we will describe them in future articles. The important thing to remember about these stations is that they were not used during the full 18 months of the existence of the Pony Express.

When a safer route was selected due to the Indian hostilities along the Southern Route, the newer Northern Route was established and used during the final seven to eight months of the Pony Express. The Butterfield Overland Mail Company took over this section of the route and the pony riders simply started using this safer route. Several stations were established but there are no ruins still in existence nor can the route of the trail be determined with any accuracy. It crossed the Carson Sink and became known as the Stillwater Dogleg.

Historians are not in complete agreement about how many stations were used on this Northern Route or exactly where most of them were located. Record keeping during this time was sporadic and incomplete due to the Indian threat, the intense activity developing the Comstock mines and a rush to get the trans-continental telegraph lines completed.

Fortunately, stagecoach routes and the Carson branch of the Old California trail passed through this area. It was a relatively simple matter to construct adobe or willow structures to serve as stations for the waning days of Pony Express service. At Millers/Reed’s Station, the route passed Susan’s Bluff, then turned north along a branch of the California Trail toward what is now U.S. Highway 50. The route then turned east toward Ragtown.

The following is a list of the names of stations believed to have been used on the Northern route or the Stillwater Dogleg: Desert Wells Station, Ragtown Station, Nevada Station, Bisby’s Station, Old River Station, Stillwater Station, Mountain Well Station, and Fairview Station. By the time the Pony Express was entering its final few weeks of operation, the telegraph lines had been completed to some of the stations and often news from the eastern states reached Nevada and California before the pony riders arrived with their mochilas full of mail.