Friday Field Trip: Carson City

A many of you know, much of Us, Now and Then takes place in Carson City, Nevada between the 1950s to the present. Because I didn’t move there until 1977, I turned to longtime residents Martha Keating and Mary Alice Murdock to get a sense of what it was like to grow up there. I appreciate their spending a few hours over coffee to get a feel for those early times. Then I neglected to mention them in the book’s acknowledgments. I hereby apologize for my oversight.

But even Martha and Mary Alice weren’t here in the VERY early days of Carson City and Eagle Valley.

The Washoe People

The Washoe people have inhabited Eagle Valley and surrounding areas for about 6,000 years. Washoe people are the only Great Basin tribe whose language is not Numic, so they are believed to have inhabited the region longer than other nearby tribes.

While the Washoe people may have made contact with Spanish explorers in the early 19th century, they did have sustained contact with European culture until the 1848 California Gold Rush. The Washoe’s resistance to incursions on their lands proved unsuccessful. The last armed conflict was the Potato War of 1857, when starving Washoes were killed for gathering potatoes from a European-American farm near Honey Lake in California.

Why were they starving? No pine nuts. You see, Virginia City‘s demand for lumber and charcoal decimated the piñon pine groves. Pine nuts provided much of the food needed to survive the winter. During the rest of the year, they could live on roots, seeds, berries, game, and fish from Lake Tahoe and surrounding streams. But when white-owned commercial fishing came to the area it destroyed yet another critical resource. The cumulative changes drove most Washoe to depend on jobs on white-owned farms and in cities.

Early Years


John C. Frémont and his party explored Eagle Valley in January 1843. Fremont named the river flowing through the valley Carson River in honor of Kit Carson, the scout he had hired for his expedition.

By 1851 the Eagle Station Ranch along the Carson River was a trading post and stopover for travelers on the California Trails Carson Branch which ran through Eagle Valley. Both the valley and trading post were named for a bald eagle killed by an early settler.

What began as a stopover for California-bound emigrants, soon developed into a city with the Comstock Lode, a silver strike in the mountains to the northeast. As the area was part of the Utah Territory, it was governed from Salt Lake City, where the territorial government was headquartered. Early settlers weren’t crazy about being controlled by Mormon-influenced officials and wanted to create a Nevada territory. A group of influential settlers, headed by Abraham Curry, considered a founding father of Carson City, sought a site for a capital city for the envisioned territory.

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In 1858, Abraham Curry bought Eagle Station and the settlement was thereafter renamed Carson City. Curry also decided Carson City would someday serve as the capital city and left a 10-acre plot in the center of town for a capitol building.

After gold and silver were discovered in 1859 on the nearby Comstock Lode, Carson City’s population grew. Curry built the Warm Springs Hotel a mile to the east of the city center. When territorial governor James W. Nye traveled to Nevada, he chose Carson City as the territorial capital. Curry loaned the Warm Springs Hotel to the territorial Legislature as a meeting hall. Later, the hotel was selected as the territorial prison with Curry serving as its first warden.

When Nevada became a state in 1864 during the American Civil War, Carson City was confirmed as Nevada’s permanent capital. As to why Nevada was admitted to the Union, click to read this great article by local revered historian and myth buster, Guy Rocha.

Booms and busts

Carson City became a thriving commercial center. The Virginia and Truckee Railroad was built between Virginia City and Carson City. A log flume brought lumber from the Sierra Nevada to sawmills in Carson City. The current capitol building was constructed from 1870 to 1871. The Carson City Mint operated between the years 1870 and 1893. It struck gold and silver coins. Today the building houses the Nevada State Museum.

Carson city 13
Carson City Mint, now the Nevada State Museum

During that time many people came from China, mostly to work on the railroad. However, some of them owned businesses and taught school. By 1880, Chinese people represented over 20% of Carson City’s four thousand residents.

However, Carson City’s population and transportation traffic decreased when the Central Pacific Railroad built a line through Donner Pass, too far to the north to benefit Carson City. The city’s population dropped to just over 1,500 people by 1930. Carson City resigned itself to small city status, advertising itself as “America’s smallest capital.” The city slowly grew after World War II and by 1960 it had reached its 1880 boom-time population. Today the population is about 56,000.

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